What were these decorated fired earth balls for?

April 8th, 2020

The Poverty Point hunter-gatherer culture of Louisiana is renowned for having built mounds with concentric rows of curved earthwork ridges. It was built between 1700 and 1100 B.C. and is the largest Native American construction known from that period. The 400-acre mound site in Epps, Louisiana, 260 miles northwest of New Orleans, is today a state park and UNESCO World Heritage Site.

An enormous quantity of archaeological artifacts have been found at Poverty Point. Among the most numerous are PPOs, ie, Poverty Point Objects, which may sound like a rather all-encompassing term, but refers to specific things: baked balls of earth less than two inches in diameter. Millions of them have been discovered at Poverty Point, mostly grouped together in hearths and cooking pits along the artificial earthenwork ridges where the PP people lived. Standard PPOs were this culture’s version of cooking rocks. Their territory had no stone to speak of, so they dug up the loess soil, formed it into lumps and fired them creating a man-made version.

Six different shapes have been identified, and while there are some anomalous examples that don’t fit any of the shape templates, the overwhelming majority of the balls were formed in these six designs. It’s not clear why they were made that way or what function these distinct forms may have performed. We do know that they were traded, exchanged or transported over significant distances because PPOs have been found in Florida, the Midwest and the South. Some of the fired earth balls found at Poverty Point came from those locations as well, as analysis of the soil origin confirms. Archaeologists now hypothesize that Poverty Point may have been a pilgrimage site, that visitors took cooking balls on the pilgrim road with them, leaving some behind, and took some PPO originals home with them as souvenirs of their pilgrimage.

But what about those exceptions, the balls that eschew the standard PPO shapes of their millions of siblings? Archaeologists call them Decorated PPOs. They are made of baked earth, but they do not appear to have been used for cooking. They were not found in clusters on hearth sites. They are elaborately decorated with cups, circles, swirls, bands. Some are flat, cubical or rectangular.

The forms are generally pretty abstract, so the meaning of the shapes is unknown. Even so, patterns have emerged because some of the forms are repeated. This might suggest that the same artist created multiple Decorated Objects, or several people were attracted to the same theme, whatever that meaning might be.

And while, it’s clear that this culture had some abstract thought behind the creation of many Decorated Objects, others follow a very naturalistic design as you would suspect from a hunter-gatherer culture! You’ll see a number of recognizable things depicted here, like a spider web, a lotus pod, the sun, or even the potential form of an owl with two big eyes carefully indented by ancient fingertips.

It’s also important to know that these sorts of Decorated PPOs traveled just like some of the standard varieties. Among these, are some objects seen here that you might think look like dice. These are made from white, kaolinitic clay-rich soils from along the Tennessee River Valley. These are at least one decorated variety we are sure were imported. Some of the mottled grey balls, which are often called mulberry forms, are likely made from soils found along the Gulf Coast.

So Poverty Point World Heritage Site’s Facebook page opens the question to the public: what were these decorated PPOs used for if not cooking? Were they art? Gamepieces? Perhaps there’s a link to the pilgrimage idea, that the balls grew more abstract and highly decorative as the tradition of taking home standard PPOs became widespread and pilgrims sought out more diverse forms. It’s the Native American version of Scotland’s mysterious Neolithic balls.

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Landslide reveals medieval cave shrine

April 7th, 2020

A landslide has revealed the remains of a medieval cave shrine near Guildford, Surrey. The shallow sandstone cave was discovered by rail workers repairing train lines after the landslide sheered off the embankment above last December.

NetworkRail called in archaeological contractors to investigate the find. The team had to abseil to reach the cave and inspect its decoration. The central decoration is a deeply carved niche in the shape of a pointed Gothic arch dotted with cup cut-outs. Next to it is a cross atop Calvary. They found carvings of another seven or eight Gothic niches on the wall (they’re heavily worn and can be hard to distinguish) and initials and other markings on the ceiling of the cave. The remains of what are believed to be two fire-pits were discovered on the floor and a black substance on the ceiling may be soot, either from the fires or from lamps.

A spokesperson from Archaeology South East, said: “The cave contained what appear to be shrines or decorative niches, together with carved initials and other markings. The old name for St Catherine’s Hill is Drakehull ‘The Hill of the Dragon’, so this has obviously been a site of ritual significance long before the construction of the church on the top of the hill in the late 13th century.

“Work is underway to analyse soot and charcoal found inside the cave, which will hopefully tell us more about how and when it was used.”

What is left of the cavern today is relatively small, with ceiling heights ranging from one to just over two feet, but it was much larger in its medieval heyday. Construction of the railway cut through the hill in the 1840s, leaving only this section of the cave intact.

Mark Killick, Network Rail Wessex route director, said: “This is an unexpected and fascinating discovery that helps to visualise and understand the rich history of the area.

“A full and detailed record of the cave has been made and every effort will be made to preserve elements where possible during the regrading of the delicate and vulnerable sandstone cutting.”

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Goddess found painted inside and outside mummy’s coffin

April 6th, 2020

Conservators at Scotland’s Perth Museum and Gallery have discovered two painted images of a goddess in the coffin of an Egyptian mummy. The figure of goddess Amentet is painted on the interior and exterior of the coffin base (which I have just learned is called a “trough”).

The mummy is of a woman named Ta-Kr-Hb, likely a priestess or princess,  who lived around 760-525 B.C. in Thebes. Damaged by grave robbers breaking into the coffin looking for valuables and from centuries of flash floods, Ta-Kr-Hb and her coffin are in poor condition. The museum embarked on a public conservation project to save the mummy (on hold now).

In March, for the first time in more than a century the mummy of Ta-Kr-Hb was removed from the coffin. Amentet’s presence underneath her came as a surprise. It was also the first time they raised the coffin to get a look at the underside so Amentet’s presence there was another surprise. The one inside the trough is the best preserved of the two.

It shows Imentet in profile, looking right and wearing her typical red dress. Her arms are slightly outstretched and she is standing on a platform, indicating the depiction is of a holy statue or processional figure. Usually, the platform is supported by a pole or column and one of these can be seen on the underside of the coffin trough.

The platform and supporting pole are very clear, as is the torso in its red dress, with ribbons draping her arms, but unfortunately, the feet, legs, and head are missing in the painting.

The mummy and wooden coffin of Ta-Kr-Hb was donated to Perth Museum in 1936 by the Alloa Society of Natural Science and Archaeology. It was donated to the Society by William Bailey who had previously acquired from the Egyptian Museum in Cairo. Little is known about its discovery. Conservators hope to fill in some of the many blanks in Ta-Kr-Hb ‘s history by studied her remains and the coffin.

The museum has raised funds for a comprehensive conservation project to stabilize the mummy and delicate wood coffee in time for them to be exhibited again when the new museum opens in Perth City Hall in 2022. The body has been rewrapped and is now stable. They still need to raise another £7,395  for which they’ve launched a crowdfunding campaign. Donate here.

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Rare Viking ring found in Dutch cornfield acquired by museum

April 5th, 2020

A rare silver Viking ring was acquired by the Rijksmuseum van Oudheden (RMO) in Leiden just before it had to close its doors last month. A metal detectorist found it in a cornfield near Hoogwoud in the province of Noord Holland on Christmas Day 2019. It was bought quickly from the finder for an undisclosed sum and is now part of the national collection.

With a diameter of 25mm, a tiny hair under an inch, and weighing eight grams, the ring is quite large. It was made by twisting two silver wires, one thicker, one fine filigree thread made with tiny balls, together. The braided style was in use by Viking goldsmiths from the 9th through the 11th century A.D. This ring dates to the 10th century.

Danish Viking began raiding The Netherlands in the 9th century, occupying the Dutch coast briefly but they didn’t settle permanently as they did in Ireland or York. They established temporary quarters where they camped out in the winter between raids and sea journeys in what is today the province of Noord Holland. A Viking silver hoard from the 9th century discovered in Westerklief, less than 20 miles north of Hoogwoud, is now in the collection RMO. There’s a braided silver bracelet in the hoard made using the same technique as the newly acquired ring.

The size of ring could mean it was made for a sausage-fingered Viking, but RMO curator Annemarieke Willemsen believes it was actually worn as a pendant. The twisted strands flatten and thin out at the top where it dangled from a chain or tie. The wasn’t happenstance; the ring appears to have been deliberately designed to be a pendant and the wear pattern confirms that it was hung from the thin part.

It looks like a miniature version of the neck torcs that were worn by Viking elite of the time. They too were often made with twisted wires that are thin on one side and then gradually thicken as the braid is woven. Pendants of miniature objects — chairs, axes, swords — were popular in the Viking era.

Objects from the 10th and 11th centuries are rare in the Netherlands. The acquisition of this piece will add significantly to the national collection. The museum is planning to display the ring in a future exhibition.

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London Stone restored to visibility

April 4th, 2020

The London Stone, so aptly described by author Iain Sinclair as “an object that everyone agrees is significant, even if no one quite knows why,” finally has the place in the wan London sun it so richly deserves. After a legendary history going back to the founding of the city by Brutus, a grandson of Aeneas of Troy who medieval chroniclers basically invented as the namesake of Britain and its first king, and a documented history going back to the 12th century when it was already a famous city landmark, London Stone suffered from centuries of obscurity. It was struck by swords and hundreds of “badd and deceitful” spectacles, cracked apart by the Great Fire of 1666, moved around the street three times, bombed in the Blitz, and moved again to a dent in the wall of a bank/sporting goods store/book store so obscure you couldn’t even see it walking by. 

London Stone was removed from its sad niche of neglect in May 2016 while a new office building was constructed on the site. For more than two years, the stone took up residence at the Museum of London where it was conserved, studied and displayed. In October of 2018, London Stone returned to 111 Cannon Street, but it was no longer hidden behind a grating that made it basically invisible from the street and a random, shin-level non-entity inside the store. 

To this day, the exact origin of this 53cm-by-43cm-by-30cm piece of rock, known as London Stone, remains a mystery. Studies undertaken in the 1960s revealed it was likely Clipsham limestone, probably extracted from the band of Jurassic-era rock that runs from Dorset in England’s south-west to Lincolnshire in the north-east. In 2016, results from tests conducted by the Museum of London Archaeology suggest London Stone could be from the Cotswolds, 160km west of London.

The new enclosure is very similar in design to the shrine in which it was installed when it was first moved out of the middle of the street to the wall of St. Swithin’s church in 1742. The stone is behind a glass window, not covered up, and even has its name inscribed into the wall above it. It’s still quite dark and could conceivably be ignore by busy passersby, but that’s because the front of it has absorbed centuries of coal smoke, Great Fire soot and assorted city grime.

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Maine shipwreck identified as Colonial sloop

April 3rd, 2020

An unknown ship whose skeletal remains have haunted a beach in York, Maine for 70 years may have been identified as a Colonial-era schooner. First emerging from the sands after a brutal nor’easter in 1958, the shipwreck appears every few years when exposed by storms. Its most recent appearance was after the 2018 bomb cyclone.

The 51-foot keel, the broken ribs and a few planks are all that remain of the ship, making identification difficult and very little is known about the ship. When it was first exposed, locals thought it might be a pinky schooner, a small fishing boat with a pinched bow that was in common use on the New England coast from the early 18th century well into the early 20th.

Experts thought its dates might be narrowed down to the late Colonial through early post-Colonial period, ca. 1750 to 1850. Now a researcher thinks he’s identified far more precisely it as the Defiance, a 60-foot sloop, (a single-masted sailing vessel) built in Massachusetts in 1754. It was recorded as having washed to shore in York during a storm in 1769.

Funded by the Maine Historical Commission, researcher Stefan Claesson embarked on the first scholarly study of the wreck. To narrow down its age, Claesson sent samples of the wood from the wreck to the Cornell University Tree-Ring Laboratory which was able to compare the dendrochronology of the timbers to the New England tree-ring index. The trees the wreck samples were taken from had been felled in 1753.

He then scoured archives to find ships that washed ashore in York around that time. The likeliest candidate was the sloop Defiance, whose history also matched the dendrochronological evidence.

Records from the 18th century show that Defiance was sailing out of Salem, Massachusetts for Portland, Maine, according to Claesson.

The ship was carrying a cargo of flour, pork and English goods along with a four-man crew. But the ship encountered a fierce storm.

“They took anchor, but in heavy seas the crew was forced to cut the anchor cables, and they were pushed ashore onto York Beach,” Claesson said. “The ship was a total loss, but the crew survived.”

Claesson’s discovery is significant because it’s one a very few examples of a pre-Revolutionary War ship built in New England, he said. But also because it can reveal the increase and impact of storm events and sea level rise.

“Shipwrecks like this can also be thought of as living organisms, or environmental warehouses, that store and can reveal information about regional climate variations through study of tree rings. In this initial study, we now have tree-ring data for multiple species from the early 1600s to the 1750s,” Claesson said.

The wreck site is owned by the town of York, but it has not been treated with much reverence, I’m afraid. Whenever it has appeared, beachcombers have walked on its planks, clambered over its ribs, taken photos and much worse, taken pieces of wood as “souvenirs.” As a significant historical find, the wreck could qualify for the National Registry of Historic Places and further studies could reveal much more about the skeleton ship if it is properly protected from human predators. The elements are foe enough.

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Watch stopped at moment of Pulaski shipwreck goes under the hammer

April 2nd, 2020

A watch recovered from the wreck of the steamboat Pulaski marking the precise time of its sinking is going up for auction. The ship sank off the coast of North Carolina the night of June 14th, 1838, when its starboard boiler exploded, taking 128 souls down with it. Only sixty or so survived.

The wreck was discovered under 100 feet of water in January 2018 and conclusively identified as the Pulaski that May from artifacts stamped with its name. The passenger list read like a who’s who of southeastern society and the artifacts recovered in the exploration of the wreck reflected their wealth. The estimated value of property lost in the wreck was $150,000 in 1838. That was a huge amount, and because wealthy people traveled with a lot of cash in those days before paper money, a good amount of it was in coin, perhaps as many as 100,00 gold and silver coins.

Over several dives in 2018 and 2019, Blue Water Ventures International and project partner Endurance Exploration Group recovered hundreds of coins from what used to be passengers’ steamer trunks along the wreck trail. The wooden trunks rotted away in the salt water, leaving behind the metal bands, fittings, locks and the contents. Divers found stacks of coins standing up as if still inside the trunks. By February 2019, they’d recovered 502 gold and silver coins, including some of the oldest US coins ever salvaged from a wreck. The oldest coin overall is a British gold guinea from the 1750s.

That first set of coins was sold to a dealer for an undisclosed sum with the goal of recouping the expenses of the 2018 season. Now four gold pocket watches recovered from the wreck are going up for auction, including one particularly notable survival: a British-made 18-carat gold watch whose hands are set at 11:05, five minutes after the boiler explosion that tore the steamship apart.

S.T. Tobias & Co. 18kt Gold Open-face Watch, Liverpool, wonderfully chased and engine-turned case retaining much of its detail, with what was originally a silvered or multicolored roman numeral dial that still shows the engraved floral center, and gilt hand set marking 11:05, minutes following the explosion, swing-out key-wind, key-set movement marked “S.T. Tobias & Co./Liverpool,” with dust cover, interior case back markings “5725” below the 18 mark and partial retailer’s hallmark depicting an eagle, dia. 48 mm, 94g.

The Liverpool watch marking a major historical event to the literal minute is going under the hammer at Skinner’s Clocks, Watches & Scientific Instruments sale. It and the other three gold watches recovered from the Pulaski are all estimated to sell in the $12,000-15,000 range. Online bidding opens Monday.

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Van Gogh painting stolen on his birthday

April 1st, 2020

A painting by Vincent van Gogh was stolen from the Singer Laren museum just outside Amsterdam on what would have been the artist’s 167th birthday. At around 3:15AM on Monday, March 30th, thieves smashed through the glass door, stole Van Gogh’s Parsonage Garden at Nuenen in Spring and made a quick getaway. The burglar alarm was triggered, but the perpetrators were gone before police arrived at the scene.

“I feel incredibly angry and now I’m starting to feel sadder too,” Jan Rudolph de Lorm, director of the Singer Laren Museum, told Reuters in an interview.

He appealed to those who had taken the painting to treat it with care “so that sooner or later it can be shown to the public unharmed”.

Van Gogh painted this piece in 1884 when he was living with his family at the vicarage in Nuenen where his father was pastor. This was a formative early period in his artistic life. It was Nuenen’s peasants and weavers who were the subjects of his seminal The Potato Eaters. He drew and painted the vicarage and its grounds a number of times, capturing it in different seasons. At 9.8″ x 22.4″, it is uncommonly wide.

De Lorm described the painting, which depicts a woman in a garden with red-flowered bushes and with a church in the background, as “an image of silence, of reflection and of tranquility, which undoubtedly offered him comfort and inspiration”.

“Through him, it gave us and our audience the same emotion,” de Lorm added.

The oil on paper on panel work was part of the museum’s Mirror of the Soul. Toorop to Mondrian exhibition focusing on works displaying the inner life of Dutch artists at the turn of the century. It’s a collaboration with the Rijksmuseum and was inspired by a book on the topic written by the Rijksmuseum’s senior curator of paintings. It features more than 70 paintings, drawings and watercolors from artists world-famous and relatively little known. It was fully insured, of course, and the insurers had inspected the museum’s security measures before the exhibition began.

There are works from the Singer Laren’s collection in the show, but the stolen Van Gogh was not among them. It was on loan from the Groninger Museum, a modern and contemporary art museum with an ecclectic permanent collection that contains exactly one Van Gogh. The painting has been in its collection since 1962 and its loss is incalculable, far beyond monetary value which is easily in the millions.

The theft is being investigated by local police and by Interpol.

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Roman silver left behind by Vandals found in Poland

March 31st, 2020

A massive hoard of 1,753 Roman silver coins left behind by Vandals fleeing the invading Goths has been found in southeastern Poland. The coins were discovered last year by farmer Mariusz Dyl while he searched for antlers in a field outside Cichobórz, a village 8 miles south of Hrubieszów near the border with Ukraine. They were scattered over a large area. Dyl collected what he could and then reported the find to archaeologists at the Hrubieszów Museum.

Aided by Mr. Dyl, a team of archaeologists excavated the area and unearthed another 137 denarii up to 100 meters away from what they believed to be the original burial spot. That’s where the finder discovered the largest grouping of coins. Eight silver-plated bronze rivets were found amidst the coins there, likely the surviving remains of a wood or leather container they were buried in.

The coins are silver denarii from the 1st and 2nd centuries AD, the reigns of the emperors Nerva (r. September 18, 69 A.D. – January 27, 98 A.D.) and Septimius Severus (193-211 A.D.), indicating the hoard was buried in the late 2nd or early 3rd century. They weigh more than 12 pounds (5.5 kilos) in total, making it by far the largest Roman treasure found in the Lublin province and one of the largest ever found in Poland.

When those coins were in circulation, the Hrubieszów area was inhabited by Vandals, eastern Germanic peoples who in the late 1st century allied with Rome against opposing Germanic tribes. Cassius Dio, who like Tacitus called them Lugii, wrote in Roman History that Domitian sent them 100 horses in support of their fight against the Suebi, the first recorded appearance of Roman troops in what is now Poland. In the second half of the 2nd century, they fought with other Germanic tribes against the Roman Empire in the Marcomannic Wars, but in the last two decades of the century, pressure from the Goths moving south drove the Vandals west.

Archaeological material discovered in the Lublin region attest to what a dangerous time it was. There are a large number of Vandal cemeteries with warrior burials where the deceased was interred with ritually destroyed weapons.

Andrzej Kozłowski from the Archaeology Institute at the Maria Curie-Skłodowska University in Lublin believes that the buried treasure represents the last stand of the Vandals in the Lublin region.

“The situation was so bad for the Vandals retreating, or rather the fleeing from the Goths that they hid everything that was most precious,” he said.

“It seems that this is where the Vandals lost the means to continue fighting!” he added.

The archaeologist underlined how important the find is for understanding the downfall of the Vandals in the region.

“They had to get rid of huge financial resources that were necessary to wage war with the Goths, and therefore they ended up helpless. The hidden coins remained under Hrubieszów.

“They couldn’t come back for them and could not recruit soldiers. That is why the Goths peacefully spread to the whole south-east and occupied Ukraine,” he said.

A Roman legionary at that time earned about 300 silver denarii a year, so the hoard constituted a vast sum for anyone even in the most expensive urban centers, geometrically more so for Germanic tribesmen at the outskirts of the empire.

The hoard will now be conserved and examined by experts at the University of Warsaw. With so many coins to go through, the process is expected to take at least a year. The Hrubieszów Museum wants to put them on display, but given all our current givens, the hoard will be an online exhibition before visitors have the opportunity to see them in person.

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It’s 10 o’clock in Lausanne and all is not well

March 30th, 2020

For 615 years, Lausanne’s designated night watchman has called out the hour from the bell tower of Lausanne’s cathedral and assured the townspeople that all is well. From his watchtower atop the 153 stone steps of the cathedral belfry, he emerges every hour from 10PM to 2AM, cups his hands around his mouth and cries the hour to each cardinal direction: “This is the watchman! The bell has rung [whatever the hour is]!”

The tradition was established after a fire devastated the city in 1405. During the fire itself, the bells were rung continuously as calls to action. People rallied to put out the fire under their peals of encouragement. The night watchman was appointed to look over the city from the height of the bell tower and keep an eye out for any signs of smoke or fire, shouting the hour to check in and connect with a network of watchmen on the ground who could rapidly rouse the city in case of need.

The job continued unchanged until 1960 when  the city trimmed the hours of the watchman to the current four from the original full night coverage of 9PM to dawn. The hourly ringing of the bells had been automated a decade earlier, fire alarms and sirens had been installed on buildings in 1907 fire emergencies were handled by professionals, and everyone had clocks and watches of their own to figure out the time.

The local press expressed concern that this change sounded the death knell, as it were, of the longstanding tradition and residents rallied to defend their beloved watch, showering the city government with letters demanding the night watchman remain on duty in perpetuity. Today the tradition continues undeterred, a proud holdover of the Middle Ages, a landmark symbol of the city’s history and community spirit. Lausanne is now one of only seven cities in Europe that have a night watchman on duty 365 days a year.

Since 2002, the watchman has been Renato Häusler. For nigh on two decades he has embraced his role for its connection to the city’s past, its significance as intangible cultural heritage and for the unique opportunity it affords him to experience the city at night from on high. Now that another peril is abroad in the land, the night watchman’s vigil has taken on new meaning. He shouts the hour and then he peals Clémence, the bell designated to sound in an emergency, swinging the clapper by hand. Three strikes followed by six strikes and again warn the people of danger.

The Cathedral of Notre Dame of Lausanne was built in the 13th century, but the oldest of the bells, Lombarde, dates to 1493. Clémence is the next in seniority, cast in 1518. With a diameter of 174 cm (5’8.5″) and weighing four tons, she is the second largest of the cathedral’s bells after the bourdon Marie-Madeleine. She rings a C note.

(The article erroneously states Clémence is made of steel. Like most of her kind, she’s made of bell metal, a high-tin bronze alloy that is more rigid and sonorous than regular bronze. The clapper is soft steel.)

The canton of Vaud of which Lausanne is the capital has the highest coronavirus rates in Switzerland. There is no stay at home order in place yet, but public gatherings of more than five people have been banned and the thriving night life that the watchman once watched over has gone silent, lending him fresh insight into what his predecessors experienced.

“Since these restrictive measures urging people to stay at home, it has completely changed,” said Hausler.

“It is quiet all week, even from 8:00pm, and when I get here, there is hardly any activity around the cathedral or even in the city so it brings a tranquility that I have never experienced before.

“There is a real calm which resembles what it would have been like in the past, before there was all this traffic noise.

“There is perhaps just one last thing that would bring us right back to how things were in the Middle Ages: turning out the lights.”

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