Puttin’ on the Rijks

December 9th, 2017

Rembrandt van Rijn (1606–1669), 'Portrait of Marten Soolmans', 1634. Purchased by the Kingdom of the Netherlands for the RijksmuseumWhy yes I am absurdly pleased with that title, thank you for asking. When the Rijksmuseum is putting on a show dedicated to full-length portraiture of moneyed art patrons from the Renaissance to the 20th century, certain puns become irresistible. The new exhibition, High Society will be centered around the museum’s most spectacular new babies, the portraits of wealthy merchant Marten Soolmans and his bride, heiress Oopjen Coppit painted by Rembrandt van Rijn in 1634. He was only 28 years old but already had made a name for himself as the top portraitist Rembrandt van Rijn (1606–1669), 'Portrait of Oopjen Coppit', 1634. Purchased by the Republic of France for the Musée du Louvreon the scene. He had known Soolmans since the latter’s desultory stab at law school in Leiden when he was 15, and as Oopjen Coppit was kind enough to bring an enormous pile of cash into the matrimonial home as a dowry, Marten booked the best to have himself and his wife immortalized top to bottom. These are the only full-length, life-sized portraits Rembrandt ever painted.

The pair is jointly owned by the Louvre and the Rijksmuseum who spent €80 million apiece to buy the portraits from Baron Eric de Rothschild. Because the portraits were already in France with the baron, the Louvre got first crack at displaying them in accordance with the intricacies of the shared acquisition deal. They went on display in Paris in March 2016 for three months, then moved on to Amsterdam where they had another brief three-month display next to the Night Watch before being taken off public view for much-needed conservation. The portraits had only been lightly cleaned and had “fake saliva” daubed on to bring back some of their original sheen before their debut at the Louvre.

That thorough restoration, undertaken by a joint team of experts from both national museums, is just about finished now and the wedding couple will be shown conserved, repaired, their finery back to its finest, for the first time at the new exhibition opening March 8th, 2018. It’s not the happy couple who will be peacocking it in this show. The Rijksmuseum took the opportunity to make Marten and Oopjen the fulcrum of a larger exploration of the evolution of the full-length portrait in art history, borrowing more than 35 masterpieces from private collections and museums in Paris, London, Florence, Vienna and California, among others. This is the first exhibition dedicated to this most magnificent of portrait formats.

Life-sized, standing, full-length portraiture had been the province of kings and powerful aristocrats in earlier times, and barely seen at all up north. The portraits of two proud exponents of the moneyed Dutch bourgeoisie illustrate the upwardly-mobile aspirations of the young Dutch Republic, then just 50 years old and focused on building wealth through trade and industry instead of bloodlines, currying monarchical favor and conquest. Marten and Oopjen were some of the earliest examples of the style being employed in Holland.

The earliest life-sized portraits of worthies standing around looking fabulously wealthy (or telegraphing their politics or promoting their families or celebrating their greatest beauties or their weddings, as in the case of Marten and Oopjen) that we know of were painted by Lucas Cranach the Elder in 1514. The subjects were Henry Paolo Veronese, Count Iseppo da Porto, c. 1552. Baltimore, Walters Art Museum and Florence, Galleria degli Uffizi, Contini Bonacossi Collectionthe Pious, Duke of Saxony, and his wife Catharina, Countess of Mecklenburg. Less than a decade later the Italians stepped up to the plate with the unnamed subject in Moretto da Brescia’s Portrait of a Man (1525). The earliest known couple depicted in a full-length portrait by an Italian artist are Count Iseppo da Porto and his wife Countess Livia Thiene by Paolo Veronese (ca. 1552).

From those beginnings, the format spread north and west during the 16th and 17th centuries. Great masters like Velázquez, Anthony van Dyck and Frans Hals went big during this period, as did Rembrandt with Marten and Oopjen. The exhibition keeps going, illustrating the shift in focus from people of noble rank to people with money to socialites and even (gasp!) artists in the early 20th century. One of the last portraits to be painted from the group on display is one of Edvard Munch by Walther Rathenau (1907).

The exhibition is a short one — giant rarities don’t get loaned very often or for long — and closes on June 3rd, 2018.

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Massive Venezuela petroglyphs mapped for the first time

December 8th, 2017

Large rock art panels discovered recently on islands in the Atures Rapids in the Amazonas region of western Venezuela have been thoroughly mapped and studied for the first time by researchers from University College London (UCL). The engraved images of animals, people and symbols were carved by local people up to 2,000 years ago. (Shortly after the Spanish arrived, Jesuit missionaries identified the Adoles as the inhabitants of this area, but we don’t know who was there before.) Thanks to the historically low level of the Orinoco River, more petroglyphs have been exposed. Researchers found eight groups of rock art on five islands. Some of these engravings, individual and as a group, are huge. One panel is festooned with 93 petroglyphs over an area of 3270 square feet. A horned snake from another panel is 100 feet long just on its own. These are some of the largest rock art panels ever found anywhere in the world.

It was a challenging task recording such large and spread-out petroglyphs carved into high rock faces in the middle of the Orinoco River. That’s why this study is unprecedented. Others have studied the artworks, but were not able to get anywhere near as close and as a detailed a view as the University College London archaeologist. The team employed robot aides in the form of drones to take aerial overhead pictures of the engraved surfaces that were out of puny human reach. Every petroglyph was documented in photographs and their dimensions and positioning measured using photogrammetry (a technology that derives precise spatial data from photographs by creating 3D renderings of the pictures). Researchers also studied the relationship between the Atures Rapids petroglyphs, their archaeological and cultural context and the links they suggest between the locals who carved them and other indigenous peoples of pre-Hispanic Latin America.

The paper’s author Dr Philip Riris (UCL Institute of Archaeology) said: “The Rapids are an ethnic, linguistic and cultural convergence zone. The motifs documented here display similarities to several other rock art sites in the locality, as well as in Brazil, Colombia, and much further afield. This is one of the first in-depth studies to show the extent and depth of cultural connections to other areas of northern South America in pre-Columbian and Colonial times.”

“While painted rock art is mainly associated with remote funerary sites, these engravings are embedded in the everyday – how people lived and travelled in the region, the importance of aquatic resources and the seasonal rhythmic rising and falling of the water. The size of some of the individual engravings is quite extraordinary.” […]

In one panel surveyed, a motif of a flautist surrounded by other human figures probably depicts part of an indigenous rite of renewal. Performances conceivably coincided with the seasonal emergence of the engravings from the river just before the onset of the wet season, when the islands are more accessible and the harvest would take place.

The research is part of the Cotúa Island-Orinoco Reflexive Archaeology Project, funded by the Leverhulme Trust.

Principal Investigator, Dr José Oliver (UCL Institute of Archaeology), said: “Our project focuses on the archaeology of Cotúa Island and its immediate vicinity of the Atures Rapids. Available archaeological evidence suggests that traders from diverse and distant regions interacted in this area over the course of two millennia before European colonization. The project’s aim is to better understand these interactions.”

“Mapping the rock engravings represents a major step towards an enhanced understanding of the role of the Orinoco River in mediating the formation of pre-Conquest social networks throughout northern South America.”

The UCL research team’s findings have been published in the journal Antiquity and can be read here. It’s openly available for now (be warned: that could change) and makes a fascinating read.

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Earliest known slave remains found in Delaware

December 7th, 2017

An archaeological excavation at the historic site of Avery’s Rest in Rehoboth Bay, Delaware, has unearthed the skeletal remains of some of Delaware’s earliest colonists. The inhumation burials of 11 individuals interred in the late 1600s include three of African descent, one of them a child. These are the earliest known remains of enslaved people ever discovered in Delaware.

Seven of the eight individuals of European descent were neatly buried in a single row. The three African Americans — two adult men and one child of about five years of age at time of death — were interred near the seven but in a separate section. Black and white were all buried in coffins, although only the nails have survived. The people of African descent were not related to each other and their mitochondrial DNA places their ancestral origins in west, central and east Africa. Most of their lives, if not all of them, were spent in the mid-Atlantic area of what is now the United States. Rehoboth Bay was wilderness then, and officially part of Pennsylvania and therefore a Dutch colony.

The hardship of their lives was writ large on their bones. One of the people of African descent, an adult male about 35 years of age, received a blow to the head so severe it chipped a piece of bone off his right eyebrow and fractured his face. Experts believe it wasn’t likely to be the strike that killed him, but it did happen at the time of his death and likely contributed to it. His spine showed signs of heavy labour and his front teeth have grooves from where he bit down hard on his clay pipe while doing all that heavy labour. All of the remains show signs of copious dental issues: cavities, abscesses, extractions. One petite 4’11” adult woman was missing all but six of her teeth.

Avery’s Rest is listed in the National Register of Historic Places because it was part of the vast 800-acre property of Captain John Avery who moved to Rehoboth Bay from Maryland in 1675 shortly after the colony changed hands from the Dutch to the British. A ship’s captain in Maryland, he grew his plantation into a major agricultural and livestock concern, planing corn, wheat and most of all, tobacco. There is evidence of a peach orchard on the property as well, some of the first peach trees imported to what would become the United States.

John Avery became a very wealthy and prominent community leader in Delaware, attaining the rank of captain in the militia and receiving an appointment as Justice of the Peace of Whorekill Court in 1678. He doesn’t seem to have endeared himself to many in the role; he was frequently reported for going into rages and showering his fellow justices with abusive language. He was said to have beaten one of them with a cane. They didn’t have long to put up with his irascibility. Avery died in 1682, leaving his plantation to his wife and three children. His will and estate inventories list 50 head of cattle, other assorted livestock, tools, furniture and two humans bound in chattel slavery valued at 3,000 pounds of tobacco apiece.

Despite its significant history as a very early plantation owned by a first-generation English colonist and its including on the National Register, in 2005 the site was acquired by real estate developers to build housing. The Archaeological Society of Delaware and the Delaware Division of Historical and Cultural Affairs asked the developers allow them to dig a trench or two on the off-chance there might be some archaeological material from the earliest days of European and African presence in Delaware and the developers magnanimously granted them permission to excavate the site in 2006 and 2007. Construction, and the attendant destruction of anything left unexcavated, went forward after that, but the teams continued to explore neighboring land.

The teams excavating the site were hoping to find the remains of the main house Captain Avery and his family lived in, but they never did. By 2007, they had found wells, one wooden well lining (preserved in the waterlogged environment), fence lines, clay pits, glass beads, numerous pipe bowls, Spanish coins, metal pieces from horse fittings, assorted pottery and a large number of animal bones, likely left behind during the process of butchering all that stock mentioned in the estate documents for trade, not for family consumption.

These were meaningful discoveries from a social historical perspective, providing researchers with a rare opportunity to explore the day-to-day operations of an early colonial plantation that was large and prosperous enough to anchor the trade and supply of the British residents of the New World colony. They weren’t the structures the archaeologists had been hoping for, however, so over the next few years they kept looking for them on adjoining properties.

In 2012, they found something else entirely: the first human remains. That triggered a legal requirement that next-of-kin be sought to grant state permission to excavate and study the remains. Three Avery descendants stepped up and granted said permission. By September of 2014, 11 bodies had been unearthed and the Smithsonian Institution’s experts were on the ground to recover the remains and move them to the Smithsonian laboratory for thorough analysis.

So thorough was it that the analysis has taken three years to complete. The age, gender, ethnic origin of the decedents are now known, with even more detail to come.

“Avery’s Rest provides a rare opportunity to learn about life in the 17th century, not only through the study of buried objects and structures, but also through analyses of well-preserved human skeletal remains,” said Dr. Owsley, who leads the Division of Physical Anthropology at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History. “The bone and burial evidence provides an intriguing, personal look into the life stories of men, women and children on the Delaware frontier, and adds to a growing body of biological data on the varied experiences of colonist and enslaved populations in the Chesapeake region.”

Bone and DNA analysis confirmed that three of the burials were people of African descent and eight were of European descent. Coupled with research from the historical record, Dr. Owsley further determined that the European burials may be the extended family of John Avery and his wife Sarah, including their daughters, sons-in-law and grandchildren. However, genetic markers alone are not sufficient to determine the exact identities of the remains. […]

The remains will stay in the custody of the Smithsonian, where they will assist ongoing work to trace the genetic and anthropological history of the early colonial settlers of the Chesapeake region. Delaware law strictly forbids the public display of human remains.

While the Smithsonian works the science, Delaware, the Archaeological Society and other historical organizations are launching a research project in the hopes of discovering the identities of the 11 people found buried at Avery’s Rest. Any information they uncover would become part of an exhibition, be it names, places, dates or facial reconstructions.

“Delaware’s history is rich, fascinating and deeply personal to many of us who call this state home,” said Secretary of State Jeff Bullock. “Discoveries like this help us add new sharpness to our picture of the past, and I’m deeply grateful to the passionate community of historians, scientists and archeologists who have helped bring these new revelations to light.”

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Puzzling runes found on whetstone in Oslo

December 6th, 2017

Archaeologists excavating in Oslo, Norway, have discovered a medieval whetstone inscribed with puzzling runes. The Norwegian Institute for Cultural Heritage Research (NIKU) was digging there as part of the Follo Line Project, an archaeological survey of the path of a new railway being built between Oslo and Ski. The railway culvert will run through Oslo’s old medieval center, hence the need for a careful archaeological exploration of the site.

In late October, the team unearthed a small but comparatively thick piece of slate from the smallest trench. The stratigraphy indicated it was medieval, dating between 1050 and 1500. The archaeologist who found it noticed with his keenly trained eye that one side of it was inscribed with some runes. This made the little slate a very large discovery because few runic inscriptions have been found in proper archaeological excavations. Later examination identified the slate as a fragment of a whetstone. Whetstones with runic inscriptions are even more unusual. One three other have been found before in Norway, one from the Viking period, two from the Middle Ages.

The runes weren’t quite legible on the freshly excavated slate, nor could they be read in photographs. It had to go to a laboratory and be viewed under a microscope to identify which runes were used and to begin to unravel the inscription. Experts have been struggling to solve the runic puzzle ever since.

Some of the runes are difficult to identify, but it seems that the runes æ, r, k, n, a appear on the whetstone. But it is not easy to tell what they mean.

NIKU’s rune experts have come up with several possible interpretations, ranging from a person’s name to word to words like “scared,” “ugly” and “pain.”

“This is probably an unsuccessful attempt to write a name or another rather trivial inscription, but we can see that this is hardly a trained rune carver,” says Karen Holmqvist, a Ph.D. fellow at NIKU and a specialist in runes.

The findings contribute to the perception that the art of runic writing was relatively widespread in medieval Norway. But many writers would probably find themselves in a borderland, where they knew about writing, but were not literate.

“It is perhaps not that strange that we find some strange spellings and some mirrored runes. Just think how you yourself wrote when you were learning to write,” says Holmqvist.

The medieval person behind this whetstone inscription probably belonged to this group. They knew about the runes, but probably mixed them up a bit.

That’s a kind way of putting it. According to a blog entry co-authored by Kristine Ødeby, archaeologist and field supervisor on the Follo Line excavations, and Karen Holmqvist, the runes can read in a multitude of ways, and this carver seems to have been inconsistent and confused. Runes are confusing enough as it is, with a lot of variables to account for in their interpretation. It’s hard to tell which way is up, for example (literally, not metaphorically). It’s also not certain whether they were written left to right or right to left. (Runes are flexible like that, and it wasn’t until later in the Middle Ages that left to right runic inscriptions became the norm.)

Ødeby and Holmqvist ask readers to comment with any suggestions and ideas for possible interpretations, so if you speak fluent rune (or even just read Norwegian so you don’t have to rely on terrible online translators like I do), chime in with your ideas about what our whetstone-carving friend might have been trying to say.

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3D animation of Sculptor’s Cave

December 5th, 2017

Sculptor’s Cave in Moray, Scotland, is an archaeological gem among archaeological gems. It is the main cave of several set in the craggy ocean-facing cliff that was used by local peoples for millennia. In the Bronze Age deposits of jewelry and ceramics were made there, and the abundance of human skeletal remains, many of children, from that era also found in the cave suggests it held some ritual funerary significance. The skull of one the children appears to have been defleshed post-mortem. Less sensational that the defleshed child but just as meaningful historically are the Pictish symbols carved on the walls of the entrances.

This unique location has been kept hidden from public view (from most people’s view, for that matter) for its own protection and for everyone else’s because it is only accessible at low tide. That’s going to change now, at least virtually.

A new project, funded by Historic Environment Scotland and carried out by Professor Ian Armit and Dr Lindsey Büster at the University of Bradford, has created a high-resolution animated model of the cave. Through laser scanning and structured light scanning, the details of the cave have been digitally preserved to allow for more in-depth exploration of the cave – and the Pictish symbols – no matter whether the tide is high.

“The Sculptor’s Cave is a fascinating location, known for decades for the richness of its archaeology and for the unusual Pictish carvings around its entrance,” said Professor Armit of Bradford’s School of Archaeological and Forensic Sciences. “This walk-through animation allows us to study the carvings in detail, and to present this inaccessible site to the public through online and museum displays. It also ensures that we can preserve the cave and the carvings digitally for future generations to study.”

Here is an animated flythrough of Sculptor’s Cave in the 3D model created using the scan data. This is just a glimpse of what’s to come. Next year the results of the study will be published by the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland. The animated model will be deployed at the Elgin Museum so that visitors will be able to see the cave and its carvings in detail.

In keeping with the mini-theme I seem to have accidentally developed over the past couple of days, Historic Environment Scotland has launched an even more ambitious digitization project that will see 50,000 items from its archives scanned, uploaded to the web and made freely available to all. The records include photographs taken by HES’ predecessor organizations, the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland and Historic Scotland. For more than a century (1908 to 2015) RCAHMS’ brief was documenting everything it could about Scotland’s history as seen in physical structures and the environment. There are a thousands of aerial photos shot from airplanes, pictures of buildings (and therefore street life) throughout the decades, among many other things. RCAHMS merged with Historic Scotland, steward of many of Scotland’s listed buildings, in 2015. As a result HES today has an enormous collection of photographs stored in their headquarters Edinburgh, but they’re only accessible to people who can get to John Sinclair House in person.

The digitization initiative will take those 50,000 photos out of their green archive boxes and into pixel space. Once the scanning is complete, the images will be uploaded to Canmore, HES’ online catalogue of its enormous collection of records (including a fine array of historic photographs like Misses Reid and Bonshaw looking fierce in their garden on July 10th, 1890) and catalogue entries of archaeological sites, survey data, architecture and tons more.

Jacobite Risings model by Brick to the Past on display.Not related to the theme but too awesome not to genuflect before is a new exhibition at Stirling Castle called The Jacobite Risings: The Fight for Britain’s Throne. It recreates key events and locations in the Jacobite rebellions in LEGO. That’s right, one million bricks and 2000 tiny soldiers were used to bring history to life for all LEGO-loving peoples, child and child-at-heart alike. Two of the scenes include miniature buildings whose real life versions are cared for by Historic Environment Scotland. One is the starkly white medieval tower house Corgarff Castle. The other Ruthven Barracks, a military fortification on a high promontory built after the 1715 Jacobite uprising by George II to keep the ever-restless Jacobites from re-rising. It didn’t work in the long-term and the barracks were taken by a frontal assault in 1746.

The Jacobite conflict writ in LEGO is currently opened to the public on Monday and runs through February 2nd, 2018. You can even make a day of it and visit Ruthven Barracks after you see mini-Ruthven at Stirling. Unfortunately the hat trick is not an option because Corgarff Castle is closed until the spring. (It is in the middle of nowhere anyway, so probably would have made it a multi-day LEGO inspired pilgrimage.)

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Google, British Museum digitize Maya collection

December 4th, 2017

The British Museum and the Google Arts & Culture have been collaborating on creating a complex, in depth digital virtual museum experience for years now. It’s been an exceptionally fruitful partnership from the outset, when the the new Google subsite dedicated to the British Museum’s physical structure, contents, permanent collection and exhibitions opened two years ago. Google Street View’s cameras crawled the entire space and put one of the world’s greatest encyclopedic museums online for everyone in the world with an Internet connection to explore in mind-blowing detail. The collection was rephotographed, this time in the massive resolution of gigapixel cameras, so objects could be viewed on computer screens in far greater dimensions than in person.

Their latest endeavour is dedicated to the preservation of endangered Mayan cultural knowledge and artifacts. It’s a fully functional guided tour, not just of the British Museum’s Maya collection, but of Mayan history and culture. If you go through the virtual exhibition in order, you’ll first encounter an introduction by writer Kanishk Tharoor who gives a summary of who the Maya were and are, a timeline of key events, what we know about their cities, architecture, engineering, language, art and science. That’s followed by a piece by historian Robert Bevan on what the collapse of Mayan cities can tell us about our own present. It’s highly relevant to the British Museum’s collection because since the Spanish burned almost all of the written manuscripts, in order to read Mayan history we have to rely on inscriptions carved in stone.

Atmospheric erosion has caused many in situ written carvings to become illegible, but a new collaboration between Google Arts & Culture and the British Museum is working to combat this gradual destruction. Using 19th century photographs and casts, combined with 21st century digital techniques, means fresh texts to decipher, and a deeper understanding of the ancient Maya.

The project’s source material is the work of the much-overlooked Victorian explorer Alfred Maudslay who traveled through Guatemala, Mexico and Honduras in the 1880s. He used the up-to-date photographic technique of dry plate photography and hauled tons of plaster of Paris with him to create moulds of some of the monuments he encountered, and paper to make impressions (‘squeezes’) of others. 400 of the resulting casts and 800 glass plate negatives are now in the British Museum, among the 100,000 American items held in its collection.

Now, all of these casts and squeezes are being 3D-scanned, allowing researchers to manipulate the images in a way that will assist in translating the Maya inscriptions. Alongside this, an immersive VR journey is being created that takes children, via objects in the museum, to see the ruins in the forests of the Maya region, complete with howler monkeys and soaring ceiba trees that, amongst the Maya, are thought to connect the underworld with the sky. The project is giving us a clearer picture of what happened to the ancient Maya.

Bevan’s article includes embeds of some of the newly digitized Mauslay photographs and 3D models of the moulds he took. You cannot download them, sad to say, but click on the embeds to see them in their fully zoomable fulgor. The next section is a multi-media slide show that explain Mayan writing, the conservation of Mauslay’s casts, the history of Guatemalan masks and the many challenges of preserving Mayan monuments using pictures and animated street view captures. It culminates in a YouTube video of curator Dr. Jago Cooper speaking about Maudslay’s work and how the British Museum can help Google to preserve Mayan history.

The next section is another slideshow, this one about the history of the museum’s Mayan collection which is of comparatively recent extraction. They didn’t really start collecting Maya artifacts until the mid-19th century. Maudslay’s casts didn’t join the party until the 1920s and the best known original artifacts only arrived in the 1930s when coffee planter Charles Fenton donated his important private collection to the museum. The two slideshows after this one focus on the explorer and his casts, followed by a huge photos and 3D models of the casts.

Because it’s Google we’re talking about, there are opportunities to take a virtual stroll through ancient Maya archaeological sites, explore their cities in 360-degree flexibility, even tools for teachers to design virtual trips through space and time for their classes. It’s an ambitious assemblage with a deep bench of content and media to devour. So what are you waiting for?

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Ancient orca geoglyph rediscovered in Peru

December 3rd, 2017

The arid desert coast of southern Peru is famed worldwide for its enormous geoglyphs, the abstract, geometric and zoomorphic shapes known as the Nazca lines after the ancient Peruvians who moved rocks to expose the topsoil creating a line-drawing effect when viewed by the aliens who used them as a landing pad. (Sorry about that. I haven’t watched the History channel in years and still the sarcasm flows out of me like honey. Really bitter, eye-rolly honey.) It seems the Nazca’s abilities may have antecedents, however, in another culture that preceded them, and a recently rediscovered geoglyph may hold the key to unlocking the early history of this magnificent art form.

In the 1960s, German archaeologists discovered a geoglyph of an orca in the Palpa Valley, an area neighboring Nazca in the same Ica region about 250 miles south of Lima. It was photographed at the time but not documented properly so its exact location was lost and nobody could find the enormous killer whale drawn into the side of a hill for 50 years. In 1997, a team of researchers from the German Archaeological Institute’s Commission for Archeology of Non-European Cultures (KAAK) started a project in cooperation with the Instituto Andino de Estudios Arqueológicos (INDEA) to study, map, document and restore all the great line drawings in Nazca and Palpa. There are thousands of geoglyphs in less than hospitable terrain, and when they haven’t been maintained or even seen in decades, they can be hard to track down.

Team leader Johny Isla Cuadrado, head of the Decentralized Office of Culture of the Ica region, saw the old picture of the orca geoglyph in an archaeological catalog published in the 1970s. The description was confused and not specific enough as to the size and find site for Isla to figure out where it might be. When he researched it further, he found the area’s residents had no idea where it was either. He used Google Earth to search for it but it the elements had not been kind and the design was difficult to discern. Well, impossible for any normal human. Archaeologists are special, though, and he was able to pick out clues to possible locations of the geoglyph here and there. Finally he found the long-lost orca the old fashioned way: he tromped the desert hills until he saw it with his own two eyes.

That was January of 2015. This spring, Isla returned with Ministry of Culture experts to clean and restore it so it would again be visible to the untrained human eye instead only satellites and archaeologists who know what to look for. Now their work is done and the geoglyph is back to its former splendor inhabiting the characteristic shape of early Peruvian killer whale iconography.

About 70 meters (230 feet) long, the orca is unusual in several ways. Its location on a rolling hillside distinguishes it from the Nazca lines which were all more practically placed on flat plateaus. Archaeologists believe this was one of the earliest stages of this type of artwork. It is found elsewhere among the Palpa geoglyphs, while very rarely at Nazca. It seems the successors of the tradition simplified the task by selecting more ideal surfaces. The hilly terrain also makes the older line drawings more susceptible to damage from erosion.

The creators of the orca drew it on the hillside in negative relief by removing a thin layer of stones to form the outline of the figure. This is similar to the technique used by the people of the Nazca culture to create geoglyphs from about 100 B.C. to A.D. 800.

But some contrasting parts of the rediscovered pattern, such as the eyes, were created out of piles of stones, the researchers said. This technique was used by people of the older Paracas culture, who occupied the region from around 800 B.C. to 200 B.C.

Soil tests have indicated that the orca geoglyph dates from around 200 B.C. The style of the pattern and its location on a hillside, rather than on a plain, suggest that it may be one of the oldest geoglyphs in the region, said one of Isla’s colleagues, Markus Reindel of the German Archaeological Institute, in an interview in a German newspaper.

The Paracas culture, you might recall, produced some of the most exquisite textiles and knits in the ancient world, some of which were used to wrap mummy bundles and survived in extraordinarily vibrant color thanks to the arid climate. They were also innovators in the creation of pottery.

Peru would like to make this remarkable early example of some of its most beloved cultural patrimony accessible to the public, but they can’t because terrible people are terrible and have basically stolen the land using some offensively stupid loophole that allows any grasping greedo to claim huge swaths of state-protected property as “uncultivated lands.” This is a major problem in Peru right now, land traffickers who snatch public land, even in a desert, even covered in priceless ancient art, enclose it and exploit it giving not a rat’s ass about the impact their construction/agriculture/whatever has on the patrimony it abuts.

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Hundreds of fossilized pterosaur eggs, some with embryos, found in China

December 2nd, 2017

Archaeologists have unearthed hundreds of fossilized pterosaur eggs in northwestern China. The number is unprecedented — 215 eggs — but even more significant from a paleontological perspective is the discovery of 16 unsquashed, still perfectly 3D embryos among them. Before this, only six other well-preserved pterosaur eggs had been found and none of them had 3D embryos inside. Frozen in time at various stages of development, the embryos have to potential to reveal a great deal we don’t know about the creatures, their lives and behaviors. The team saw what a treasure they had when they CT-scanned the eggs.

The discovery has kicked off debate about whether the creatures could fly as soon as they hatched. Some previous theories had posited that they could, but the paper suggests otherwise. The research team found that the animal’s hind leg bones were more developed than the wings at the time of hatching, and none of the embryos were found with teeth.

“Thus, newborns were likely to move around but were not able to fly, leading to the hypothesis that Hamipterus might have been less precocious than advocated for flying reptiles in general … and probably needed some parental care,” the paper reads.

A separate commentary in Science calls the study “remarkable” but cautions against drawing firm conclusions about how the animal moved immediately after hatching. That’s because it’s hard to pinpoint just how close to hatching the embryos actually were.

The discoveries weren’t made all at once. They are the result of a decade of excavations between 2006 and 2016 at a site in the Turpan-Hami Basin of the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region. Fossils of bones from hundreds of adult male and female pterosaurs (Hamipterus tianshanensis) and babies and young pterosaurs were found in the same location at the collection of eggs all 215 of which were excavated from a single sandstone block.

Pterosaur were toothed flying reptiles who lived on land near bodies of water and fed largely on fish. Their long beaks were filled with pointy teeth and they had a properly intimidating 13-foot wingspan. When they occupied the Turpan-Hami Basin site 120 million years ago in the Lower Cretaceous, there was a large lake which no longer exists. Because of the spectacular finds, scientists refer to the area as “Pterosaur Eden” although it definitely wasn’t one girl-one guy and the eggs appear to have been banished from terrestrial paradise by flash floods.

The sheer number of eggs found together, the researchers say, suggest they belonged to clutches from multiple female pterosaurs and indicate that the animals may have bred in colonies.

It’s worth noting that the massive discovery does not appear to include a nest. Jiang says the eggs had been moved from the place they were originally laid and may have been carried by water after a series of storms hit the animals’ nesting ground.

The findings have been published in the latest issue of the journal Science (requires subscription or payment to read).

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Third Roman temple unearthed in Silchester

December 1st, 2017

Archaeologists excavating near the village of Silchester in Hampshire have unearthed the remains of a Roman temple, the third discovered to date in the town.

Known in Roman times as Calleva Atrebatum after the Atrebates tribe who founded the town in the 1st century B.C., it was first an autonomous ally of Rome. It was an oppidum, a fortified settlement, which appears to have largely functioned as an independent city-state under a series of rulers. The first of these and the city founder was Commius, a Gallic chieftain who had aided Julius Caesar’s veni, vidi, vicing in Gaul before becoming switching sides to Vercingetorix and ultimately cutting a deal with Mark Anthony in which Antonius guaranteed Commius would never have to see a Roman again if he took his annoying crew across the Channel and stayed there for good. Coins have been found in Silchester with Commius’ name, so it seems he followed through and was indeed left alone.

A hundred years later times had changed. Now the Romans were interested. One Roman in particular. Specifically the biggest Roman kahuna of them all: the Emperor Nero. He bought Calleva, land, buildings, lock, stock and barrel, as his personal property. He seems to have taken the town as a kind of pet project, endowing it with major public buildings and converting the Atrebates settlement into a symbol of Roman industry, splendour and powder. Perhaps it was carrot, perhaps it was stick, probably a little of both, but he wanted his subjects way up at the perimeter of empire to feel his (and Rome’s) reach keenly. With imperial moneys flowing in for construction, the new city became a hive of proper Roman industry. Lots of new trades, lots of temples and other civic structures.

University of Reading archaeologists have been excavating in Silchester for years, always hoping to find a little Nero under the next shovel-full of soil. Two years ago they found a two-letter inscription and even that meagre material (albeit very cool because it was the second fragment of an inscription whose first fragment had been discovered in 1891) was enough to give them hope they might find Nero’s name somewhere. They didn’t that time, but this time they sure have.

The temple remains were found within the grounds of The Old Manor House in the Roman town at Silchester, along with rare bricks stamped with the name of the emperor, who ruled AD54-68.

Professor Michael Fulford CBE said: “The stamped bricks we’ve found were made just south from Silchester at a place called ‘Little London’.

“They were stamped to show the Emperor’s ownership of what was being built there, and are quite unique to Silchester.

“The stamping of Nero’s name on the bricks essentially acted like a batch marker.”

Four fragments of the bricks were found in a ritual pit within the temple site – the largest concentration ever found in the town – along with another three at the kiln site which made the tiles in Little London.

“These findings are a crucial piece of the jigsaw as we look to solve the mystery of Nero’s links to Silchester. This is something that has puzzled archaeologists for more than a century.

“Only a handful of Nero-stamped tiles have ever been found in the UK, so to unearth this many was very exciting.”

No references to specific deities have been found that would explain which temple this one, or which gods the other two temples were dedicated to. Fulford speculates that if there were only three temples total, they could each have been dedicated to the central triad of Jupiter, Juno and Minerva which was a common combination. There is no hard physical evidence either way.

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A portrait mummy and a particle accelerator walk into a bar…

November 30th, 2017

Okay so she didn’t walk, she was transported, and it wasn’t to a bar. It was to the Advanced Photon Source at Argonne National Laboratory where the first time ever, a mummy was scanned by a particle accelerator. The mummy was donated years ago to the Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary at Northwestern University by the Hibbard family, wealthy patrons who had funded archaeological digs in Egypt in the early 20th century and received the mummy as a gift (goes the story). They gave this mummy, the remains of a little girl just five years old at the time of her death in the late 1st century A.D., with a portrait of her over her face as if she were peering through the bandages wrapped around her body. It’s that portrait that captured researcher’s interest.

The encaustic-on-wood panel paintings preserved in pristine color and detail by the dry desert heat of Egypt are so personal, evocative and haunting that they’ve been a hot-ticket item for wide sale and distribution in the shady antiquities trade since the first ones were found in the 17th century. Today the mummy portraits number about 900, most of them unearthed from the Faiyum necropolis southwest of Cairo, as was the little girl whose remains were discovered in Hawara at the entrance to the Faiyum oasis. The Faiyum portraits are the largest assemblage of ancient panel paintings still in existence today.

Only 100 of them are still intact and attached to the mummies they depict so expertly. The Hibbard mummy is part of an elite cadre, therefore. And yet, nobody in the archaeological department or on the staff of Northwestern’s Block Museum of Art had any idea she existed. She just hung out at the Seminary for a century, uncommented upon, until museum curator Essi Rönkkö saw her in person. With the curatorial team already in the process of collecting mummy portraits for an upcoming exhibition Paint the Eyes Softer: Mummy Portraits from Roman Egypt (ie, Faiyum), Rönkkö took advantage of the unbelievably rare opportunity to add the girl’s mummy to the portraits going on display.

The child’s body is wrapped tightly in thick layers of linen wrappings, the outer layer of which cross each other in a painstaking geometric arrangement that secure and frame her painted visage. Painted with pigment and sealed with beeswax, the girl is shown with her hair is tied at the nape of her neck and wearing a red tunic with gold jewelry. Because of her secure bindings, there was no way for researchers to study her insides without causing damage, but now that they had a real matched pair, the bones still safely wrapped in their original bandages and the intact portrait above them, researchers wanted to examine both the human and her representation with the best technology at their disposal.

In August they took the mummy to Northwestern Memorial Hospital where she was given a CT scan. This provided the team with a 3D map of the mummy’s inside and confirmed she was about five years old when she died. On Monday they considerably upped the ante and took her to the Argonne National Laboratory in Evanston to see what the immense light power of X-ray scattering (the technology that revealed the contents of that medallion box from the French crypt so clearly I heard my own jaw drop when I first saw the video) could tell us about her.

“Intact portrait mummies are exceedingly rare, and to have one here on campus was revelatory for the class and exhibition,” said Marc Walton, a research professor of materials science and engineering at Northwestern’s McCormick School of Engineering. […]

“This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for our undergraduate students — and for me — to work at understanding the whole object that is this girl mummy,” Walton said. “Today’s powerful analytical tools allow us to nondestructively do the archaeology scientists couldn’t do 100 years ago.”

The synchrotron experiment at Argonne is a modern-day version of 19th-century England’s “mummy unwrapping” parties, Walton said. The Northwestern team collaborated with scientists at Argonne and used the extremely brilliant high-energy synchrotron X-rays produced by Argonne’s Advanced Photon Source to probe the materials and objects inside the mummy, while leaving the mummy and her wrappings intact.

“From a medical research perspective, I am interested in what we can learn about her bone tissue,” Stock said. “We also are investigating a scarab-shaped object, her teeth and what look like wires near the mummy’s head and feet.”[…]

At the Advanced Photon Source, Stock and his team shined the pencil-shaped X-ray beam (about twice the diameter of a human hair) on areas of high-density in the mummy that were identified by the CT scan. They now will use the X-ray diffraction patterns as “fingerprints” to identify each crystalline material. For example, is the black rounded object seen on the CT scan a gold object or a rock?

The findings from the synchrotron experiment, CT scan and other scientific analyses and studies of history conducted by the students will help researchers and historians better understand the context in which the Garrett mummy was excavated in 1911 as well as Roman-period mummification practices. Also, conservators will use the information to best preserve the mummy.

“We’re basically able to go back to an excavation that happened more than 100 years ago and reconstruct it with our contemporary analysis techniques,” Walton said. “All the information we find will help us enrich the entire historic context of this young girl mummy and the Roman period in Egypt.”

Paint the Eyes Softer: Mummy Portraits from Roman Egypt opens at the Block Museum of Art on January 13th and runs through April 22nd, 2018.

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