Fancy chariot and horse burial found in central China

November 22nd, 2017


Archaeologists have found four ancient chariots and the remains of nearly 100 horses buried in a tomb in Xinzheng City, Henan province, central China. The chariots date to the Spring and Autumn Period (770-476 B.C.) and one of them in particular is an exceptional example of a luxurious vehicle with all the bells and whistles of the era. It’s huge, 2.56 meters (about 8’5″) long and 1.66 meters (about 5’5″) wide, and was elegantly appointed with bronze and bone decorations. The chariot has set a new record as the largest ancient horse-drawn vehicle discovered in Xinzheng City, which is saying something because more than 3,000 tombs have been unearthed in the area, including chariot and horse burials.

Scientists believe the tomb may have belonged to a noble family of the Zheng state (806–375 BC), which was a vassal kingdom that governed this part of central China during the Zhou dynasty (1100–221 BC). […]

The leader of the dig, Ma Juncai, told Xinhua that no written records have so far been uncovered at the site, making it unclear who the burial pit belonged to, but archaeologists think it likely to have been the funeral site for a Zheng lord.

The site was first excavated in 2001. Two pits were revealed by the dig back then, but work was interrupted for 16 years until archaeologists were finally able to return to the location and pick up where they left off in February 2017. Over the nine months they’ve been excavating, archaeologists have unearthed the skeletal remains of more than 90 horses in addition to the four chariots. Pit 3 is the largest of the three tombs, and boy did they need the space. Dig leader and Henan Province Institute of Cultural Relics and Archeology archaeologist Ma Juncai estimates there are at least 100 horses buried here, but there could well be more. She believes there are more chariots yet to be unearthed as well.

A number of bronze artifacts have also been discovered in Pit 3. Archaeologists hope a thorough study of the bronze pieces will shed new light on the technological prowess and manufacturing methods of the period. They also hope the bronze artifacts might reveal more information about who was buried in the tomb, their social status and fill in some blanks about Zheng-era funerary practices.

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John Quincy Adams would have slain on Instagram

November 21st, 2017

In a long, eventful life filled with accomplishments, John Quincy Adams often gets the credit for the one thing he didn’t do: being the first President of the United States to be photographed. That record goes to William Henry Harrison, poor sod, who had his picture taken around the time of his inauguration in 1841. Thirty-one days later, he was dead of a fever. (Legend has it he delivered his interminably long inaugural address without a coat thereby “catching cold” which developed into pneumonia and killed him. Now we know that the weather cannot infect you with disease — pathogenic microorganisms do that job — but it makes a good story so it has lingered as the dominant account of how the shortest presidential term of office came to such an abrupt end.) Adams was the second resident of the White House to photographed, albeit many years after his first and only term as President. It was in 1842 and only reprints and copies of that image and the Harrison portrait are known to survive today. The originals are lost.

That’s why there was so much excitement earlier this year when the news broke that an original daguerreotype of Adams taken by photographer Philip Haas at his studio in Washington, D.C. in 1843 emerged from the obscurity of attic clutter to the bright lights of Sotheby’s. It was the earliest known surviving original photographic portrait of a US president. Bidding was not surprisingly fierce and there was much rejoicing in the history nerddom when the National Portrait Gallery announced a few days after the auction that they had placed the victorious bid.

You wouldn’t know from how rare these original plates are, but as it turns out John Quincy Adams was a bit of a camera whore (said in reverent awe, Mr. President’s ghost, not disrespect). Louis Daguerre presented his new technology to the public in 1839, so when Adams sat for his first portrait in 1842, the process was still in its infancy. In March of 1843, he had another portrait taken, his first by Philip Haas. Then he went back Haas’ shop a week later to have the portrait redone because none of the ones from the first session came out right. His diary entries on those dates reveal his fascination with the “camera obscura” device and how it worked.

Getting his picture taken by top society photographers became a regular thing for John Quincy. In September of 1842, six months before he first visited Philip Haas, he sat for photographer John Plumbe at his Boston gallery, then again at Plumbe’s studio in D.C. three more times all in 1846. The second of these four sessions took place on February 14th, 1846. The former President noted in his diary that he went to “Plumbe’s Daguerreotype office” where they took two shots of him: “a full face and a profile, both quite successful.”

The reference in Adams’ diary was the only evidence of the existence of the “quite successful” profile picture by John Plumbe. If it was published, printed, reproduced or in another way disseminated we don’t know about it.

How is there a profile image of President John Quincy Adams published right here in this humble blog then, you boldly but fairly query? It’s not a print, reprint or a copy, though. (Okay it’s a digital copy. You know what I mean.) It’s the original plate shot and developed by Plumbe. It just randomly turned up recently at a Paris antiques market, was spotted by someone with a good eye, got conserved, appraised and authenticated by top experts and it’s all over but the spending.

It’s a quarter plate Daguerreotype in a burgundy-glazed leather case lined with purple silk and velvet. The brass matt is stamped “Plumbe” and cover of the case is embossed with a basket of flowers design that case was one of Plumbe’s signature motifs. The compartment that holds the plate has a paper liner that reads “Manufactured at the Plumbe National Daguerrian Depot, New York.” And the portrait itself is undeniably John Quincy Adams’ mutton-chopped mien in noble profile.

The 1846 Plumbe daguerreotype of John Quincy Adams will be offered at Heritage Auctions’ Americana sale on December 2nd with a pre-sale estimate of $50,000. HA has a strong web component; you can bid early online and the bids are already up to $25,000. Given the results of the last auction where a John Quincy Adams portrait went far and beyond all pre-sale expectations, $50,000 could be surpassed within minutes.

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Biography of Chinese inquisitor found in 13th c. tomb

November 20th, 2017

Rear wall of the coffin chamber in née Wu's tomb. Photo courtesy Chinese Cultural Relics.Archaeologists have discovered a double tomb of a lord and lady of the southern Song Dynasty (1127–1279) in China’s southeastern Zhejiang province. The tombs were unearthed at a contruction site in Qingyuan County in 2014 but the findings have only now been published in English in the journal Chinese Cultural Relics, a translation of the Chinese-language archaeology journal Wenwu (Cultural Relics) which first published the discovery in 2015.

The two tombs date to the early 13th century and we are fortunate enough to know the identities of both the people buried within. One of the two tombs, Lord Hu Hong’s, had been broken into by looters in the distant past and so had been stripped of its valuables and grave goods. Only a smattering of porcelain with a decorative elephant motif survived the artifact raid. Thankfully the grave robbers weren’t interested in the kinds of things that most enthrall archaeologists today because they lack the showy obviousness and saleability of “treasure”, so they left behind a stele with a long biographical inscription detailing Lord Hu Hong’s many accomplishments. Perhaps they didn’t want to piss off the deities by going against the expressed wishes of the deceased whose life history, according to the inscription, “has been inscribed on this stone to be treasured here, in the hope it will last as long as heaven and earth!”

Jar with elephant knob found in Hu Hong's tomb. Photo courtesy Chinese Cultural Relics.The other tomb held the remains of Lord Hu’s wife née Wu. She too had an extensive bio carved in stone but the inscription is too worn and damaged to be readable at the moment. The good news is the looters missed her tomb, so it still contains some of the luxurious objects — gold earrings, gold and silver hairpins, gold combs, and a crystal disc that looks streamlined and elegant like something you’d see in a high-end jewelry shop today. Like her husband, she too was interred with a porcelain vessel decorated with an elephant motif. Archaeologists found a large quantity of mercury residue inside née Wu’s tomb, likely an attempt to preserve her body that failed spectacularly.

Hu Hong bore the title “Grand Master for Thorough Counsel,” a position he filled ably for the southern Song emperors.

He and née Wu lived at a time when China was divided between two dynasties, with Hu Hong serving the southern Song dynasty that controlled southern China, according to the researchers who described the findings. […]

Gold and silver tokens found in née Wu's tomb. The gold piece was also legal tender issued by the emperor. Photo courtesy Chinese Cultural Relics.Apparently, he showed “outstanding talent” as a child in school and, in 1163, passed a competitive series of government exams to get a junior position in the government according to the inscription found in Hu Hong’s tomb. He then rose gradually through the ranks. His career got a boost in 1179, when he agreed to serve on the southern Song dynasty’s northern borders. In 1193, the government recognized him as “best county magistrate of the year,” the inscription says.

As the “investigating censor,” Hu Hong prosecuted the “treacherous and the heretical” in 1195, the inscription says. He was made a military commissioner in 1200 and was charged with defeating a group of rebels. “At the time, the Yao tribes were rebellious, and he stamped the rebels out,” the inscription says. Today, the Yao live in China and Southeast Asia.

In his final years, Hu Hong was growing critical of his own government, and retired not long after 1200. “He knew that he was beyond his prime and insisted on retiring. Had he kept being outspoken, he would have been pushed out,” the inscription says.

“Although worried about current affairs and concerned with the moral decline of the time, and though he could not easily let go, he no longer had the energy to fight and serve,” the inscription says. He died in 1203, and his wife died in 1206. Their tombs were built side by side. Hu Hong and née Wu had two sons, three daughters and two granddaughters, the inscription says.

I like how the inscription just lays out the politics of the situation: he quit before they could fire him. At least he got to enjoy his three short years of life after retirement.

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Guernica as large as life in gigapixels

November 19th, 2017

Guernica, Pablo Picasso’s monumental greyscale painting on the horrors of the Germano-Italian bombing of the eponymous Basque city during the Spanish Civil War, is a hard picture to get. For one thing, it’s so huge (26 feet wide, 11 feet tall) that fitting it in a single shot without skewing the perspective is a challenge. For another, there are serious condition issues because it was moved around so much over the decades before its final repatriation to Spain where it is now part of the permanent collection of Madrid’s Reina Sofia museum. A lot of flash photography and multiple shoots from all angles is contraindicated for its conservation.

I’ve encountered very few photos that can even begin to do this massive masterpiece justice. The best ones are all period taken by the surrealist Dora Maar in 1937 while Picasso painted Guernica in a frenzy of activity over less than a month. Eighty years later, her pictures were still the only ones worth looking at if you wanted to learn anything at all about the painting and the artist’s process.

That’s all changed, seemingly overnight to we civilians, but in truth it’s the culmination of years of work on the part of the conservators and researchers at the Reina Sofia. The museum has launched a new interactive website dedicated to the great canvas called Rethinking Guernica which features at its core a gigapixel image of the whole painting. Finally its giganticness is matched in pixels and viewers can get microscopically close to the tiniest speck of paint. Close enough to see brush hairs stuck in the impasto.

Hundreds died in an aerial attack on civilians that shocked the world and set a precedent repeated often by German and allied forces in World War II.

Picasso, then living in France, was commissioned by the struggling Spanish Republican government to produce a work depicting the bombing for the 1937 World Fair in Paris.

That commission and hundreds of other documents concerning “Guernica” are now available online for the first time.

They tell the story of a hugely well-traveled work, with stops in Scandinavia, Britain and the United States, where it spent decades on loan at New York’s Museum of Modern Art.

There are papers relating to its trip to Venezuela in 1948 that was cut short due to a coup d’etat, and a frantic telegram sent by MoMA collections director Alfred H. Barr Jr. informing the artist that his works were safe after a fire tore through the museum in 1958.

The gigapixel Guernica can be viewed in more ways than the glorious extreme closeup the high resolution makes possible. By clicking on thumbnails at the bottom of the main screen, you can switch from the visible spectrum view to ultraviolet, infrared and X-ray imaging. You can thank Pablito the robot for that, by the way. He kicked off the Guernica Project in 2011 by scanning every centimeter of the canvas with every imaging technique in the book. It took him a year to complete so detailed a job, working only at night so as not to disturb museum visitors.

The guided tour that the site directs you to when you first load it doesn’t explain a great deal that you couldn’t figure out on your own if you’re even remotely Internet-literate. The icons going down the right side of the screen, for example, are fairly self-explanatory. The square at the top means click for full screen; the + and – underneath mean zoom in and out; the ? opens up the guided tour again if you regret closing it. There are two site-specific icons on the list, however, and they are awesome. The horizontal arrow icon allows you to view the painting in two different imaging technologies side by side, which is extremely cool, while the zig-zag constellation icon pulls up an enormous density of information about the changes to the painting over time, both deliberate ones like Picasso’s deviations from his original prepatory drawings and circumstantial ones like holes, fissures and craquelure in the paint.

Lastly, whenever you click on the image it pulls up tons of content about the history, context, conservation record, damage, repairs, etc. The Reina Sofia conservators have done an exceptional job sharing the results of their years of study of the painting, from cutting-edge technological analysis to archival research. There are all kinds of side-avenues to pursue — biographies of people involved in the history of Guernica, primary documents like letters to and from Picasso about the painting, essays on the meaning of the work, on the Spanish Pavilion at the 1937 Paris World’s Fair where it was first exhibited, just to name a few.

“Guernica is a source of never-ending artistic material and it’s a privilege to be with as an art historian,” says Rosario Peiro, head of collections at Madrid’s Reina Sofia modern art museum. […]

“Putting all of this together allows you to rethink the history of the painting,” Peiro told AFP.

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19th c. Dutch farmers: A Croc, a Croc, my dairy farm for a Croc!

November 18th, 2017

Archaeologists have discovered evidence in the bones 19th century Dutch farmers that the traditional wooden clogs that are now ubiquitous on key chains and souvenir stands but were once ubiquitous on human feet caused permanent osteological damage. An international team of osteoarchaeologists from Leiden University and Western University (Ontario, Canada) discovered the tell-tale bones in 2011 during an excavation of a historic church cemetery in the village of Middenbeemster, Netherlands, that was being relocated.

Beemster was a rural farming community, a dairy farming community, mainly, and the team was hoping to gather previously unrecorded data about the diet, health, common injuries, illnesses and general health of country folk in the 19th century Netherlands using osteobiographical and paleopathological analysis as well as stable isotope analysis (to find out what they ate) and mass spectrometry. There’s a significant body of work that’s already been done on the inhabitants of Dutch cities, but the rural areas have been little studied so this was a unique and important opportunity.

They were able to analyze 500 skeletons, most them very well-preserved, of adult women, men and children. Out of those remains, 130 complete feet were found. Bio-archaeologist and Western University Anthropology professor Andrea Waters-Rist examined the feet bones and found a consistent pattern among them: they presented a rare type of bone lesion called osteochondritis dissecans (OD) which looks like a chip or divot has been chiseled out of the bone. She didn’t even have to use a microscope to see them. The missing chunks at the joints were clearly visible to the naked eye.

In the wider population, OD is found in less than one percent of individuals and the lesions affect various bones, very rarely those in the foot. A whopping 13% of the good folks from the Middenbeemster cemetery, on the other hand, had it and they only had it in their feet. Part of the cause was likely the hard physical labor involved in traditional farming, both inside the home and outside of it, but a lot of people fed their families with backbreaking work and they didn’t have craters in their feet bones. Researchers concluded that it was likely a combination of heavy labour and repetetive stress on certain areas of the feet cause by the iconic “klompen” (which are still worn today, btw, particularly in rural areas).

For farmers, the clogs would have been very useful shoes, as they were affordable, kept their feet dry and, if stuffed with straw, quite warm. As such, they would have been worn for most uses. As the clogs have a stiff sole, they could have amplified the stresses associated with farm work and travelling by foot.

That combination of hard work, while wearing klompen, day-in and day-out, caused the bone chip to form, Water-Rist explained.

“The sole is very hard and inflexible, which constrains the entire foot and we think because the footwear wasn’t good at absorbing any kind of shock, it was transferring into the foot and into the foot bones. It’s not very common in the foot. They were doing something different that we haven’t seen before,” she said.

Since these farmers lived in a time before industrialization, manual labour was more taxing on their body. Oftentimes the klompen was used as a tool for kicking down fences or pushing in a shovel – all tasks later made easier by machinery.

The results of the study of the klompen-related OD lesions have been published in the International Journal of Paleopathology but it’s behind a paywall so you’ll need a subscription or an institutional connection or to pay $31.50 to read it.

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Tutankhamun’s neglected gold gets its day

November 17th, 2017

When Howard Carter discovered the tomb of Pharaoh Tutankhamun in 1922, there was such an immense wealth piled inside the small space that his team focused on the large ticket item and packed the rest up. Even finely embossed gold artifacts weren’t important enough to get attention compared to Tutankhamun’s death mask, especially since they were found in pieces before being stashed in the wooden box. They photographed the contents but that was it; they were left uncleaned, unexamined and otherwise undocumented. One of those wooden boxes has been in the stores of the Egyptian Museum Cairo ever since, still uncleaned and unexamined, for decades until 2013 when a collaboration between the Egyptian Museum and Tübingen University archaeologists set out to remedy this 90-year-old oversight. Four years later, the long-awaited goal has been achieved.

The team found the objects in Carter’s original wood crate and began to document and research each piece. They were restored and drawings made of their shape and decorations. The work was painstakingly detailed (hence the four years). In addition to the restoration, documentation and research, the team also faced jigsawing together of the gold fragments. Conservators Christian Eckmann and Katja Broschat were able to place many of the fragments together, ultimately producing about 100 complete or close to complete gold applications that they think were once fittings mounted on bows cases, quivers and horse bridles. One recomposed in their original configurations, the applications could be studied from an art historical perspective. Images embossed on the gold were studied in detail by team member Julia Bertsch, doctoral candidate in archaeology at Tübingen, who was able to identify Egyptian motifs from Middle Eastern ones.

Among these are images of fighting animals and goats at the tree of life that are foreign to Egyptian art and must have come to Egypt from the Levant. “Presumably these motifs, which were once developed in Mesopotamia, made their way to the Mediterranean region and Egypt via Syria,” explains Peter Pfälzner. “This again shows the great role that ancient Syria played in the dissemination of culture during the Bronze Age.”

Interestingly, he adds, similar embossed gold applications with thematically comparable images were found in a tomb in the Syrian Royal city of Qatna. There, the team of archaeologists from Tübingen led by Pfälzner, discovered a pristine king’s grave in 2002. It dates back to the time of around 1340 B.C., so it is just a bit older than Tutankhamun’s tomb in Egypt. The archaeologist says, “This remarkable aspect provided the impetus for our project on the Egyptian finds.” Now,” says Pfälzner, “we need to solve the riddle of how the foreign motifs on the embossed gold applications came to be adopted in Egypt.” The professor says that here, chemical analyses have been illuminating. “The results showed that the embossed gold applications with Egyptian motifs and the others with foreign motifs were made of gold of differing compositions,” he says. “That does not necessarily mean the pieces were imported. It may be that various local workshops were responsible for producing objects in various styles — and that one used Near Eastern models.”

On Wednesday the gold embossed fittings went on public display for the first time in almost a century in an exhibition at the Egyptian Museum. When this temporary show closes, the artifacts will find a permanent home at the new Grand Egyptian Museum near the pyramids of Giza.

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Cranach painting in Royal Collection authenticated by pigeon tendon

November 16th, 2017

Pigeon tendons have confirmed that Queen Victoria was right and a slew of subsequent Royal Collection curators were wrong: a painting she acquired is an authentic work by Lucas Cranach the Elder. Victoria bought it in 1840 as a Christmas present for her husband Prince Albert who was an avid collector of his countryman’s work and ultimately added a dozen paintings by the master himself or his workshop to the Royal Collection.

Portrait of a Lady and her Son (ca. 1510–40) is a double portrait of an Electress of the Holy Roman Empire and her apple-cheeked son wearing exquisite finery and holding hands. She and Albert did not question its attribution as a genuine Cranach, but by the early 20th century Royal Collection Trust experts reluctantly acknowledged that it was not by Cranach or even by his workshop. Instead, they believed it was painted by Franz Wolfgang Rohrich (1787–1834), who was an extremely successful Cranach forger. He cranked out more than 40 copies of the Electress holding her son’s hand and sold them to deep-pocketed collectors all over Europe. It took decades for people to cotton on to Rohrich’s fraudulent imitation game, and many of his pseudo-Cranachs are still in Europeans private and public collections.

Royal Collection Trust’s reasoning was that the style, principally the tender physical and emotional connection between mother and son, was not something seen in Cranach’s oeuvre. His figures are remote and stylized. Holding Mommy’s hand is not in Lucas Cranach the Elder’s wheelhouse. Also, while the Rohrich versions were everywhere, there was no painting that could be definitively identified as a Cranach original modified by the forger.

The issue returned to the fore recently when the Royal Collection Trust agreed to loan the portrait to an exhibition in Dusseldorf that took place earlier this year. RCT conservators and curators worked with Cologne’s University of Applied Sciences to study the painting in depth with technology that wasn’t invented when the early 20th century curators made the deattribution decision.

In collaboration with TH Köln (the University of Applied Sciences, Cologne), Royal Collection Trust’s conservators and curators examined the work ahead of its loan to the major exhibition Cranach der Alterer: Meister Marke Moderne at the Museum Kunstpalast, Düsseldorf in spring 2017. Infrared reflectography was used to look beneath the paint surface, revealing preliminary underdrawing typical of Cranach’s work. Analysis of the pigments, metal leaf and the application of paint provided further evidence that the portrait was a work of the 16th century.

Finally an x-ray of the painting revealed that a fibrous material had been used in the preparation of the panel. Analysis of similar fibres on other works by Cranach has identified them as tendons, and in one instance DNA analysis had shown them to be pigeon tendons. Sixteenth-century glue recipes often included pigeon tendons to strengthen the mixture and counteract the natural warping and splitting of the wood.

The evidence was reviewed by Professor Dr Gunnar Heydenreich of TH Köln, an expert on Lucas Cranach the Elder, who confirmed that the painting was an original work by the master from which it appears all later versions derive.

The Royal Collection Trust conservators are ecstatic at the reattribution of the portrait to Cranach and have wasted no time in giving it a prominent position on public display. It has been installed at eye-level in the King’s Dressing Room at Windsor Castle where it will keep company with its brethren by Cranach and his workshop, including Apollo and Diana (ca. 1526), Lucretia (1530), and The Judgement of Paris (ca. 1530–35).

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12th c. silver and gold hoard found at Cluny Abbey

November 15th, 2017

A hoard of hidden medieval treasure, a fortune in gold and silver coins, was an unexpectedly discovered during an excavation at the site of the famed medieval Abbey of Cluny in Saône-et-Loire, eastern France. The team, which includes nine students doing field work as part of the University Lumière Lyon 2’s archaeology masters program, unearthed the hoard in mid-September while looking for the remains of an infirmary believed to have been located there in the Middle Ages.

The medieval loot included 2,200 deniers (or pieces of silver) mostly issued by Cluny Abbey itself as well as 21 gold dinar coins, originally from the Middle East which were stored in a canvas bag.

The bounty also included a gold signet ring marked with the word “Avete” — a “word of greeting in a religious context” — as well as a folded 24-gram gold leaf and gold coin.

“The overall value of this treasure for the time is estimated between three and eight horses, the equivalent of cars nowadays, but in terms of the running of the abbey it’s not that much, amounting to about six days of supply of bread and wine,” said specialist Vincent Borrel.

In terms of archaeological and historical value, this treasure is off the charts. It is the first 12th century Cluniac treasure discovered in its original context during an archaeological excavation. It’s also the largest number of silver deniers discovered in one place and the only single hoard ever found to include Arabic coins, silver deniers and a signet ring. The intaglio stone is ancient Roman and engraved with the profile of a deity. (Religious context or no religious context, ancient engravings were prestige items and often used as signet rings by the medieval elite.)

Also of note is the survival of fragments of the original bag the hoard was stashed in. Fragments of it are still attached to some of the coins. There is also a surviving piece of tanned animal hide which was tied around the bundle of 21 gold dinars minted between 1121 and 1131 in Spain and Morocco during the reign of Almoravid sultan Ali Ben Youssef (1106-1143).

Practically from the time of its founding by by Duke William I of Aquitaine in 910 A.D., the Benedictine monastery of Cluny was one of the great monastic centers of Western Europe. They followed a strict interpretation of the Rule of Saint Benedict that within decades had catapulted Cluny to the top of the ranks, making the abbey the undoubted leader in European monasticism. The city of Cluny grew into a city thanks largely to the Abbey and the trade, employment and pilgrim moneys it brought to town. By the second half of the 10th century, the Abbey of Cluny was already well-established as the top monastery in the country and it retained its prominence into the 12th century.

Its influence began to wane when newer, more austere orders stole Benedictine thunder and the idea of remote rule by a single abbot, distant from the satellite houses and largely unaccountable, lost its appeal. In the 16th century the Abbey of Cluny was sacked by Hugenots and never really recovered. Come the French Revolution, the monastic order was dissolved and under Napoleon the abbey itself was demolished and used as a quarry. Today only one of its eight grand towers still stands, which is why archaeologists continue to excavate it today, 90 years after the first archaeological explorations of the site began.

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Earliest evidence of winemaking found in Georgia

November 14th, 2017

Archaeologists excavating the remains of a Neolithic village in the South Caucasus about 20 miles south of Tblisi, Georgia, have discovered the earliest evidence of winemaking in the world. An internation team from the University of Toronto and the Georgian National Museum have been exploring two Early Ceramic Neolithic (6000-4500 B.C.) sites, Gadachrili Gora and Shulaveris Gora, and sent fragment of ceramic jars unearthed at the sites to specialists at the University of Pennsylvania for residue analysis. Using the latest and greatest technology available, a combination of Fourier-transform infrared spectrometry (FT-IR), gas chromatography-mass spectrometry (GC-MS), and liquid chromatography linear ion trap/orbitrap mass spectrometry (LC-MS-MS), and radiocarbon dating, researchers were able to confirm the presence of wine dating to 6,000–5,800 B.C. in the pots. That’s 600-1,000 years older than the previous contender, wine residue found in the Zagros Mountains of Iran.

The South Caucasus area was an epicenter of the transition from nomadic lifestyles to permanent settlements after the end of the last Ice Age. Now fixed in one place, people were able to grow their own food, planting grains and cereals like einkorn wheat and barely that are trendy again today as heritage foods. They also branched out from those staples, growing fruits, root vegetables, herbs, nuts both tree and legume. Among the fruits they cultivated was the wild Eurasian grape, domesticated during this period in Neolithic settlements and so successfully that it would become the progenitor of all 10,000 or so grape cultivars that produce 99% of the wine in the world today.

Finding ways to convert their crops into mind-altering substances was a natural next step, as was devising vessels in which to store, ferment and serve the harvest products. The firing of shaped clay to make pottery was invented during this period, the early 7th millenium B.C., for this very purpose. The huge jars found at Gadachrili and Shulaveris (or, more accurately, the fragments thereof) are examples of some of the earliest pottery ever made. Archaeologists believe they were used for all of the above purposes — storage of the grapes, fermentation into wine, aging into drinkable wine, and the moment everyone was doubtless waiting for, serving the wine.

Their footprints and walls visible above-ground today, the mudbrick roundhouses of Gadachrili Gora and its next-door neighboor Shulaveris Gora were certainly inhabited by grape-loving people. Pollen and other traces of the prehistoric vines have been found in copious quantities. A large pot from this period discovered at a nearby site is decorated with grape clusters. Intact ceramic pots have not been found at the two sites that are the focus of the study. Pottery production was in its infancy. There was no large scale industry yet, and because these settlements were in continuous use for thousands of years, the pottery that has been found in excavations is fragmentary and scattered.

The team sought out the best examples of sherds from the 2012–13 and 2014–2016 dig seasons, pieces from the base have the most potential to contain residue accumulated over years of use. The final tally was six sherds from the bodies and 13 from the bases of 19 large jars. The pot fragments and samples of the soil in which they were found (to identify/rule out environmental or bacteriological contaminants) made their way to the University of Pennsylvania.

The researchers say the combined archaeological, chemical, botanical, climatic and radiocarbon data provided by the analysis demonstrate that the Eurasian grapevine Vitis vinifera was abundant around the sites. It grew under ideal environmental conditions in early Neolithic times, similar to premium wine-producing regions in Italy and southern France today.

“Our research suggests that one of the primary adaptations of the Neolithic way of life as it spread to Caucasia was viniculture,” says [Stephen Batiuk, senior research associate in the department of Near and Middle Eastern civilizations and the Archaeology Centre at the University of Toronto]. “The domestication of the grape apparently led eventually led to the emergence of a wine culture in the region.”

Batiuk describes an ancient society in which the drinking and offering of wine penetrates and permeates nearly every aspect of life from medical practice to special celebrations, from birth to death, to everyday meals at which toasting is common.

“As a medicine, social lubricant, mind-altering substance, and highly valued commodity, wine became the focus of religious cults, pharmacopeias, cuisines, economics, and society throughout the ancient Near East,” he said.

The results have been published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences and can be read online free of charge here.

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Temple with oldest mural in Peru engulfed in flame

November 13th, 2017

The remains of a 4,500-year-old temple in Peru’s pre-Incan Ventarrón archaeological complex was devastated by fire on November 12th. As estimated 95% of the temple complex has suffered heavy damage as high winds fanned the flames faster than the archaeologists on site and the firefighters could contain them. One of the walls of the temple was decorated with a gripping mural of a dear being caught in a net. At about 4,000 years old, it’s the oldest known mural in Peru and the oldest in the Americas that has been absolutely dated and archaeologically excavated. It has been severely damaged by the smoke and heat. Whether there’s any hope of repair or recovery is uncertain at this time. While most of the fire is out now, we won’t know more until it has been entirely extinguished and archaeologists have the chance to examine the devastation.

Huaca Ventarrón was discovered in the Lambayeque region of northern Peru in 2007. Radiocarbon dating of the mud brick structure and artifacts revealed that the large complex was built in three phases, each named after the decorative motifs in the artwork — the “Temple of fish and opossum,” “Red-White Temple or Deer Hunting,” and “Green Temple” — over the course of the thousand years between 2,600 and 1,600 B.C. This is very early in the Mesoamerican timeline, a period now known as the Initial Formative or Preclassic Era, and the murals and objects discovered there feature iconographic and architectural approaches that have not been found anywhere else.

Since the site was opened to visitors in 2014, the monumental architecture, a matrix for later cultures who inhabited the coastal desert region of northern Peru, and the murals have made Ventarrón an important stop on archaeological tours of the Lambayeque region. More than 15,000 people, the overwhelming majority of them Peruvian nationals, have visited the site, often in conjunction with a trip to see the famed Lords of Sipan Moche tombs and museum nearby.

Indeed it was the director of the Royal Tombs of Sipan Museum Walter Alva, who in 2007 led the excavation that discovered the Ventarrón temple complex, tasked with announcing the horrifying news.

“I have received the lamentable and tragic news of a fire that has destroyed the archaeological monument of Ventarron,” museum head Walter Alva said in a statement. […]

The fire devastated the ancient mural as well as pottery vessels and records of the Ventarron Archaeological Comoplex in Pomalca, in the Lambayeque region, television images showed.

Workers from the Pomalca agribusiness company triggered the blaze when they ignited a sugarcane field.

“We are losing an exceptional monument unique to its generation,” said Alva, who discovered the site in 2007. “I hope there is an investigation and responsibility established.”

“I can only express my outrage and sadness for this irreparable loss.”

The temple’s central staircase leads up to an altar that archaeologists believe was used to make offerings to the gods and to worship fire. Never disrespect the local gods, people. If history teaches us anything it’s that they’ll get back at you with as painful an irony they can devise.

The Culture Ministry in Lima is investigating the fire and will file charges based on cultural patrimony protections should they find there was any negligence or failure to adhere to all statutes regarding potentially dangerous activities near historically significant sites. I can’t say I’m holding my breath on this one.

If you can stomach it, here is video of the fire ripping through the temple complex. It was shot by archaeologist Ignacio Alva Meneses.

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