Together again at last, Master Mateo at the Prado

December 4th, 2016

In 814 A.D., a hermit named Pelagius saw a single star of great brilliance and a shower of stars around it over the Libredón forest near Iria Flavia (modern-day Padrón), seat of the main bishopric in Galicia. Pelagius, other brother hermits and some shepherds approached the site and heard a choir of heavenly hosts singing. Bishop Theodomirus in Iria was told of this portent. He had the underbrush cleared to reveal an arch over an altar with a sarcophagus at its feet. Either from divine revelation or from a papyrus found in the sarcophagus, Theodomirus realized this was the tomb of St. James, son of Zebedee, brother of John and one of the Twelve Apostles. According to local legend, James, who was decapitated by Herod Agrippa in Jerusalem, had preached in what is now Spain and after his death his body was miraculously transported in a rudderless boat from Jaffa to Iria Flavia and thence inland for burial.

When the miraculous find was reported to King Alfonso II of Asturias and Galicia, he ordered a chapel built on the site, a modest structure of stone and mud. He added a baptistery, another church and a small monastery and built a defensive wall around the small settlement called Compostela (ostensibly a corruption of the Latin “campus stellae” or field of stars in reference to the miracle Pelagius had witnessed). The legend of St. James’ burial in Spain had spread widely in the 8th century, a cultural rallying cry against the Umayyad conquest of the Iberian peninsula, so the discovery of his relics made a huge splash. It was considered a divine sign that Iberia would be Christian again, that retaking it was a holy crusade. Alfonso notified Pope Leo III and Charlemagne of the find, and they spread the world all over Christendom. Pope Leo had lost Corsica and Sardinia to Muslim raiders from Al-Andalus in 809-810, so he was very much on board with the St. James messaging.

Soon the pilgrims were flocking in thousands to Santiago de Compostela, first from the peninsula and then from all over Europe. The Way of Saint James became the most important pilgrim destination after Rome and Jerusalem. Alfonso II’s humble chapel was replaced in 899 by a stone basilica ordered by King Alfonso III. Built in the Asturian style with three naves and a rectangular head, this church was razed to the ground a century later by Al-Mansur, defacto ruler of Al-Andalus when the Caliph Hisham was but a boy, although he made a point not to damage the holy tomb of St. James.

In 1075, Alfonso VI, King of Castile and Leon, began constructing a new church. This one was to be a grand Romanesque cathedral that could accommodate the huge numbers of pilgrims following the Way of St. James without disrupting the quotidian services of the church. The new church would have a round head for traffic flow, a gallery above the aisles for crowd management and side doors to allow pilgrims access to the crypt underneath the altar without having the stomp through the nave during regular worship.

Construction stopped and started over the next century and in 1168, Master Mateo, an architect and sculptor of French origin, was engaged by King Ferdinand II of León to create a new main façade worthy of one of the holiest sites in Christendom. The old façade was demolished and in its place rose a massive two-story portico with three arches matching the three naves. Wide piers supported the arches and Mateo decorated them with an incredibly rich density of high relief sculptures. Around the base were fantastical animals. The middle of the piers featured pilasters with sculptures of the apostles and prophets. The sculptures at the top of the piers are symbols from the Old Testament and Book of Revelation. St. James gets central placement on the mullion of the central column, and at its foot facing in towards the altar instead of out at the pilgrims is Master Mateo himself, holding a sign identifying himself as the Architectus.

The overall theme was the salvation granted by God after the Final Judgment. Each of the three entrance arches represent different aspects of the theme. The left entrance focused on the Old Testament prophets, the right on punishments of the damned, the center of Christ the savior.
In the central tympanum Christ displays his wounds surrounded by the four Evangelists and their symbols. Angels carry the instruments of the passion — the cross, crown of thorns, nails and spear — while above them are a great throng of the blessed.

The 3D carving and individual detail of the more than 200 figures were great innovations in Romanesque art, and Master Mateo worked on his magnum opus, known as the Portico of Glory, until 1211. He and his workshop also created a sculpted stone choir which was replaced by a wooden one in the 17th century.

In the 16th century, the western façade of the Portico of Glory were taken down and the figures removed. Some were installed in other locations in the cathedral. Others went to museums or private collections. Because people are crazy, some of these precious sculptures were even treated like trash, used as fill in various construction projects at the cathedral. Thankfully the crazy abated and in the 18th century the Portico of Glory was encased by a new Baroque façade for its own protection. Exposure to the elements for 500 years had damaged the sculptures. They still managed to retain some of their polychrome painted elements, although most of the surviving color is from later restorations rather than the original.

Work at the cathedral over the years has unearthed some of those discarded Master Mateo works. Now the Museo Nacional del Prado is exhibiting 14 sculptures from the Portico of Glory and the dismantled choir, some of them together again for the first time 500 years.

The present exhibition includes fourteen works, opening with the document in which Ferdinand II grants a lifetime pension to [Master] Mateo, a text that constitutes the first reference to his activities at the cathedral.

Horses from the Retinue of the Three Kings – reused as infill material for the Obradoiro staircase and recovered in 1978 still with traces of its original polychromy – and Saint Matthew came from the retro-choir and exterior façades, respectively, of the granite choir constructed by Mateo and his workshop around the year 1200.

The other works on display are from the lost west façade, including the sculptures of David and Solomon which, following the dismantling of that façade, were reinstalled on the parapet of the Obradoiro loggia where they remained until they were recently restored on site prior to their inclusion in this exhibition; and the Statue-column of a male figure with a cartouche, a damaged figure that was rediscovered this October inside the cathedral’s bell tower where it had been used as infill material and is now being presented to the public for the first time. Also on display are other architectural elements that were part of the façade such as the large Rose window which crowned the central doorway and was reconstructed from fragments found in 1961; and two Keystones with the punishment of Lust, possibly from the arch on the south side, which had the same iconographic theme as the corresponding arch of the Portico of Glory, devoted to the Last Judgment.

A custom app created for the exhibit will allow visitors to virtually tour the Portico of Glory and the stone choir as Master Mateo designed them. The exhibition opened on November 28th and will run through March 26th, 2017.

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Stolen Dachau “Arbeit Macht Frei” gate found in Norway

December 3rd, 2016

The wrought iron gate with the slogan “Arbeit macht frei” stolen from the entrance to the Dachau Concentration Camp on the night of November 1-2, 2014, has been found in Norway. After receiving an anonymous tip, police found the gate in a parking lot near a shooting range in Ytre Arna outside Bergen. It was hidden under a tarp with assorted trash and has apparently been outside in the elements for some time. One anonymous witness told a newspaper that he had seen the gate in a trench in Ytre Arna several months ago.

The police could not confirm the length of time the gate had spent outside. Their forensic examination of the door yielded no clues to the identities of the thieves, no DNA, no magical trace evidence to send through an exotic piece of equipment. The Bergen police are continuing to investigate, as is the Bavarian police.

Police in the southern German state of Bavaria, where Dachau is located, confirmed the gate had been found.

“From the picture transmitted, police believe it is highly likely that this is the iron gate that was stolen from Dachau,” it said in a statement.

Bergen authorities will return the gate “as soon as possible.” As the investigation is ongoing, the evidence of the crime is subject to judicial review before it can leave the country. It’s likely the judgement will be in favor of immediate restoration given the historical significance of the object.

Dachau Concentration Camp Memorial Site staff is heaving a sigh of collective relief.

The President of the Comité International de Dachau, General Jean-Michel Thomas, took note of this news with great satisfaction, stating, “Even though we still do not know what was behind this outrage, I offer thanks in the name of the survivors’ association for the discovery of this crime and the international concern that was shown following its perpetration.”

Dr. Gabriele Hammermann, Director of Dachau Concentration Camp Memorial Site, was also very relieved and offered thanks to the police in Norway and Germany for their meticulous investigations. “Dachau Concentration Camp Memorial Site, along with the survivors and their relatives, is delighted that the background to this act is now being cleared up and that this particularly symbolic relict of the concentration camp will once again be returned to the memorial following a judicial review. Of course, it will be presented to the public again once the restoration work is completed. A decision will be made together with the Stiftung Bayerische Gedenkstätten (Bavarian Memorial Foundation) regarding the placement of the gate, whether at its former location or as part of the permanent exhibition.”

The Director of the Bavarian Memorial Foundation, Karl Freller, was overjoyed at this news, and responded by saying, “It is a great relief to me that this piece of original evidence of the Nazis’ cynicism and contempt for humankind has been recovered. I congratulate the security authorities on their transnational success.”

Not quite original, actually. The original iron gate was made by Communist political prisoner Karl Röder in 1936 by order of the SS. It was removed after the war and a historically accurate replica created from photos of the original was installed when the Memorial Site was created in 1965. After the theft in 2014, another replica was made and put in place so it would be for solemnities marking the anniversary of the camp’s liberation by the U.S. Seventh Army’s 45th Infantry Division on April 29th, 1945.

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Trash-bound 17th century map restored at National Library of Scotland

December 2nd, 2016

Conservators at the National Library of Scotland have rescued a rare 17th century wall map from the verge of destruction. Ages ago, the map was balled up and stuck in the chimney of a house in Aberdeenshire to block drafts. It was discovered when the home was renovated and someone had the foresight to save what looked like a lumpy bundle of dirty rags from the trash and donate it to the National Library.

When it arrived at the Library’s Collections Care department, it was stuffed in a plastic bag carried inside a Whyte & Mackay Scotch whisky box. Book and paper conservators carefully removed it from the bag. Its dire condition was immediately evident. It was balled up, caked with dirt and had been extensively gnawed upon by vermin and insects. Even the smallest movement would cause fragments of the brittle paper to shower down from the backing. Conservators had to unfurl it painfully slowly to keep the damage to a minimum. Even so, dirt and paper fragments flaked off and the paper was found to be severely distorted with deep creases.

Once opened, experts recognized the map as a late 17th century map of the world produced by the Dutch cartographer, engraver and publisher Gerald Valck. The map is colossal in size at 7-by-5 feet and there are only two other copies known to exist in the world. Large pieces of it had crumbled away and were irretrievably lost. Because of the map’s rarity, the conservation team worked painstakingly to preserve what was left of it.

The backing was quickly identified as the main cause of the damage. It was common in the 17th century for great wall maps to be affixed to a canvas backing for display for the delight of visitors. Dutch mapmakers were particularly prominent in the period, and large-scale maps of this time appear as elegant backdrops in the paintings of multiple Dutch Golden Age artists, including Johannes Vermeer in The Art of Painting (1666-68), now in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna. The map that hangs in Vermeer’s painting, the Seventeen Provinces of the Netherland published by Claes Janszoon Visscher in 1636, is similar in style, dimensions and age to the one found in the Scottish chimney.

There was a steep price to pay for this mounting, because canvas and paper do not respond to environmental conditions in the same way or at the same rate. The canvas of the Chimney Map was far sturdier than the paper, causing it to warp and shrink and crack. Conservators had to remove the backing for the permanent well-being of the map, but first they had to stabilize what was left of the paper map.

The map was originally printed in eight separate sections and adhered to a linen backing. It was already splitting along the joins between the sections and the decision was taken to separate the sections to make the map easier to work with. These were each placed in a humidifying chamber as the gentle introduction of moisture made it easier to flatten out the map.

Removing the backing without further damaging the paper proved to be one of the most difficult tasks. This involved using a thick cellulose solution to fix light weight Japanese paper to the front of the map in two layers. This secured the paper map while the backing was peeled off using hand tools.

The final stage of cleaning involved suspending the map sections individually in water in a heated sink at 40°C for 40 minutes with the water being gently agitated to clean dirt from the surface. On removal they were placed in blotters to remove any excess water.

In total, the restoration took 150 work hours over a period of six months.

This silent video shows paper conservator Claire Thomson at work on the Chimney Map from extrication from the whisky box to microscopic examination of fragments to the water baths to a glorious final before-and-after comparison.

This one discusses the conservation challenges with Thomson and explores the history of the map.

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Queen Nefertari’s legs likely identified

December 1st, 2016

A pair of dismembered mummy legs found in Queen Nefertari’s tomb (QV66) in the Valley of the Queens likely belonged to the queen herself, new research indicates.

Nefertari was the second and favorite Great Royal Wife of Pharaoh Ramesses II (r. 1279-1213 B.C.). Ramesses the Great so loved Nefertari that he built a temple to her next to his at Abu Simbel. Her colossal figures are the same size as his, a symbol of the immense respect and status he granted her. His love for her is literally painted on the walls of her tomb. Poetry he wrote praising and mourning her (“My love is unique — no one can rival her, for she is the most beautiful woman alive. Just by passing, she has stolen away my heart.”) shares space with scenes from the Book of the Dead, Nefertari in he daily life and the afterlife.

Queen Nefertari’s tomb was discovered in 1904 by preeminent Italian Egyptologist Ernesto Schiaparelli. (If that name rings a bell, it’s because he was a member of an illustrious family of brilliant people including his cousin astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli who first observed the channels on Mars, and Giovanni’s niece Elsa Schiaparelli, the dazzlingly innovative fashion designer who invented much of what we take for granted in the industry today.) One of the largest tombs in the Valley of the Queens, its elaborately painted walls survive in beautiful condition earning it the moniker of the Sistine Chapel of Ancient Egypt, but the contents of the tomb had been looted and trashed in antiquity. All that was left inside were some small objects (broken pottery, 34 wood shabtis, coffer lids, a faience pommel knob bearing King Ay’s throne name “Kheper-Kheperu-Ra”), fragment of her pink granite sarcophagus, broken furniture, a pair of very fine sandals woven from vegetal fiber and two mummified human legs broken in pieces.

The remains are in three parts: one long leg piece composed of a patella and part of a femur and tibia, a medium piece composed of part of a tibia, and a short piece of a femur. Because Schiaparelli was the director of the Museo Egizio in Turin from 1894 until his death in 1928, the finds he’d made over 20 years of excavations in Egypt were added to the museum’s collection, among them the contents of QV66, including the mummy legs. Today the Museo Egizio houses more than 300,000 objects making it the second largest Egyptian museum in the world. The Egyptian Museum in Cairo is number one, of course.

Because they were found in Nefertari’s tomb, which is thoroughly identified as such from inscriptions on the walls and surviving artifacts, the legs were believed to be the remains of the queen, but they’ve never been scientifically studied until now. A multidisciplinary team subjected the legs to radiocarbon dating, X-rays, osteological analysis, DNA testing, anthropological comparison, chemical analysis and historical research.

Anthropometric reconstruction and assessment of the size of the knees revealed they belonged to a woman whose stature ranged between 165 cm (5 foot 5 inches) and 168 cm (5 foot 6 inches).

The body height was also independently estimated by professor Maciej Henneberg at the University of Adelaide, Australia, who obtained the same results — a stature of about 165 cm.

“Data about women from the New Kingdom and 3rd Intermediate Period show she was probably taller than 84 percent of the women of her time,” Rühli said.

Analysis of the materials used for embalming showed they were consistent with Ramesside mummification traditions, while X-rays of the left knee pointed to possible traces of arteriosclerosis, suggesting the legs belonged to an elderly person.

“The accumulated evidence could point to an individual between 40 and 60 years old,” Rühli and colleagues wrote.

That matches the Egyptological research into Nefertari’s age and approximate time of death around the 25th year of her husband’s long, long reign. The size of the sandals found in the tomb also match the stature and dimensions of the legs. Their quality suggests royal use as well.

Unfortunately, no useable DNA could be extracted — the samples were too contaminated — so there will be no genetic information forthcoming. Radiocarbon dating results indicated the remains were around two centuries older than Queen Nefertari going by the current chronology.

“A discrepancy between radiocarbon dating and Egyptian chronology models has long been debated. Indeed, some question on the chronological model of the New Kingdom may now arise,” Habicht said.

“For the future, we strongly suggest radiocarbon dating of other royal and non-royal remains of the Ramesside era, in order to validate or disprove the chronology,” he added.

You can read the full study published in the journal PLOS ONE.

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Temple to wind god found under Mexico City supermarket

November 30th, 2016

Archaeologists have discovered a 14th century temple to the wind god under a supermarket in the Tlatelolco neighborhood of Mexico City. The supermarket was demolished in 2014, and archaeologists from the National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH) excavated the site. That first excavation dug down three meters (just under 10 feet), revealing the top of a circular platform, pottery fragments and 20 burials of adults, children and animals.

The second excavation season began in March of 2016. It unearthed the full platform 11 meters (36 feet) in diameter and 1.2 meters (four feet) high. It’s more than 650 years old, but the original stucco still covers most of it. At the eastern entrance of the temple, a cist burial and another seven human burials were discovered. In total, archaeologists found eight complete skeletons (six infants, two adult women and one adult man) and the incomplete remains of seven individuals identified from disarticulated skulls, femurs and other long bones.

In the cist burial archaeologists found the skeletal remains of a newborn infant, bird bones, a mound of obsidian shards and arrowheads, agave thorns, copal resin and green stone. Other artifacts found at the site include incense burners, ceramic figures of monkeys and duck beaks. These figures are associated with the god Ehecatl-Quetzalcoatl, creator of precious rain-bringing wind after long droughts.

The shape of the temple also supports a link to the wind god. It is circular on the north, south and west sides. The entrance on the east side has a rectangular conversion which matches in design and orientation a temple dedicated to Ehecatl-Quetzalcoatl that was discovered at the entrance of the archaeological site of Tlatelolco. Also, the fronts of temples dedicated to Ehecatl-Quetzalcoatl always face east.

There is evidence the temple was built in the three phases. The first dates to the years right after the founding of the city in 1337 and is characterized by inclined walls, the only ones of their kind among the archaeological remains of the area. The second stage of construction went on between 1376 and 1417. The bulk of the platform as it stands today was built during the second phase. The third phase (around 1427) is compacted earth around the building. It’s possible this is not a 15th century feature, but rather was caused by the construction of the supermarket in the mid-20th century.

The two seasons of excavations discovered around 43,000 artifacts, 1000 of which were recovered and fully documented. They are currently being studied. Even as a shopping center goes up behind it, the temple will be preserved and covered with protective glass so visitors to the archaeological site of Tlatelolco can view the platform without damaging it.

Tlatelolco was an independent city-state before the Spanish conquest. It was a regional center of commerce with a major market. Its larger neighbor Tenochtitlan was the political and administrative center and depended on Tlatelolco market. Both cities were built on an island in Lake Texcoco, Tlatelolco on the northern part of the island, Tenochtitlan on the south. Tensions and rivalries between the two cities exploded into war several times in the 14th and 15th centuries, until in 1473 Tenochtitlan conquered Tlatelolco. When conquistador Hernán Cortés and his indigenous allies besieged Tenochtitlan from May to August of 1521, the starving and diseased survivors moved to Tlatelolco where they made their last stand against the Spanish conquest.

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Freaking huge gold torc found in Cambridgeshire

November 29th, 2016

The British Museum just released its annual Treasure and Portable Antiquities Scheme report which announces archaeological findings made by members of the public in the preceding year. Among the whopping 82,272 finds reported in 2015 was a gold torc so huge it defies comprehension. Discovered by a metal detectorist on freshly ploughed farmland in East Cambridgeshire in September of last year, it is a four-flange spiral twisted bar torc dating to around 1300-1100 B.C., the Middle Bronze Age. Not counting the trumpet-shaped terminals at each end, the twisted bar is an exceptional 126.5cm (4’2″) long. The terminals are 108 and 107mm long, so just over four inches each, bringing the total length to more than 4’10″. At 732 grams (1.6 pounds) in weight, it is one of the heaviest bar torcs ever found in Britain and Ireland.

The find site is within 50 miles of Must Farm, the extraordinary bronze age village in the shadow of a chip factory on the edge of Peterborough.

“There was a lot going on in bronze age East Anglia,” said Neil Wilkin, the curator of bronze age Europe at the British Museum, “but it’s been a while since we’ve had anything as hefty as this.”

The torc is of the highest quality in materials and manufacture. It’s made of 86-87% gold and 12-13% silver (the remainder is copper), so 20-21 carat gold by modern standards. The four flanges are between 3.3 and 5mm long and are twisted counter-clockwise so expertly that the gap between them is consistently between 2.25 and 2.5mm for the entire length of the bar. Circular collars are fitted seamlessly between the bar and each terminal. How exactly they were mounted archaeologists haven’t been able to figure out yet, possibly by use of a solder with a different melting point than the gold of the bar and terminals, but tests have found no variation in the gold composition down the entire length of the torc, so if solder was used, it must have been incredibly subtle.

Torcs are usually thought of as jewelry worn around the neck, but unless there was an exceedingly wealthy and stylish Triceratops roaming around Bronze Age Cambridgeshire, this one cannot have been. It couldn’t have even been worn around someone’s waist. Because flange twisted torcs have never been found in burials, archaeologists don’t have any evidence to go on to determine how these giant torcs were worn. Suggestions include that it was worn as a sash, around the body from shoulder to hip, or possibly around the belly of a very pregnant woman as a protective talisman. It may even have adorned sacrificial sheep or goats.

The finder, who has chosen to remain anonymous, did not record the torc as he or she first found it so all experts have to go on is the finder’s vague description of it as “loosely bundled.” It was coiled but someone, and no one is naming names, opened it up into a single large loop and crossed the terminals before the discovery was reported to the Finds Liaison Officer.

The torc was reported to Helen Fowler at a finds meeting at Peterborough Museum, who said she was “gobsmacked” when it came out of the finder’s briefcase. The last torc she had handled was bracelet sized, but this one was far too big to fit on her weighing scales and she had to borrow a box from the museum to take it back to her office.

In addition to making it unwieldy, hard to weigh and materially altering a malleable, delicate archaeological treasure for no conceivable reason, the uncoiling damaged the flanges. In two places — about one third and two thirds along the length of the bar — the flanges are now distorted. In one of the spots, the edges of five twists have been scraped through the outer layer, exposing fresh gold. British Museum experts hope they’ll be able to figure out the original position of the torc at burial by examining the distorted places.

The torc has yet to be valued — a similar but smaller large-scale bar torc discovered in a bog in Northern Ireland in 2009 was valued at £150,000 — but whatever the final assessment, the Ely Museum hopes to acquire it.

Because your friendly neighborhood history blogger would never be so cruel as to report on a freaking huge gold torc without freaking huge pictures of said gold torc, your browser should probably stretch and do some light warm-ups before you click on these:


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Rare Viking coins found in Belfast

November 28th, 2016

A metal detectorist has discovered two 11th century Viking silver coins near Newcastle in Co Down, Northern Ireland. Brian Morton was scanning a field last May when he found the silver pennies half an inch apart under four inches of mud. He didn’t know he’d found an extremely rare historical treasure. That was formally confirmed last week when a coroner’s inquest in Belfast declared the coins official treasure trove.

Made of 93% silver, the coins are of a rare type known as Hiberno-Manx coins. The rulers of Mann in the first half of the 11th century were Vikings from Scandinavia and from Dublin. Olaf Sigtryggsson, King of Mann in the early 1030s, was the son of Sigtrygg Silkbeard, King of Dublin, and his wife Sláine, daughter of Irish king and national hero Brian Boru. Viking Dublin had its own mint and issued coins which copied English designs. The Hiberno-Manx coins were very rough versions of the Dublin designs.

Despite the political and familial connections between Mann and Dublin and the numismatic mimicry, more than 90% of all known Hiberno-Manx coins have been found on the Isle of Man, which strongly suggests they circulated exclusively as currency on the island itself. The rest were found in Scandinavia. The two discovered by Brian Morton are the first to have been found in Ireland. (There are some in Irish private collections, but they were unearthed elsewhere or their find sites cannot be authenticated.)

How the coins made their way to the Co Down hinterland remains uncertain, but one possibility is that they were taken during a Viking raid on a nearby monastery at Maghera, the court was told. The discovery may also reflect more peaceful trading or strategic links between the Isle of Man and south-east Ulster.

Robert Heslip, a former curator of coins at the Ulster Museum, said they were probably dropped by someone passing rather than deliberately hidden.

He explained: “I would think that it is more likely to be a loss given that they were separated. Also, two is an odd number. You generally find one or a hoard of these coins.” [...]

Dr Greer Ramsey, of National Museums Northern Ireland, said: “We take coinage totally for granted but, prior to the Viking period in Ireland, there wasn’t coinage, and silver was the main form of currency. … The significance is that these coins are really the first that we can say were found in Ireland. It is a measure of contact – that people from the Isle of Man were travelling over.”

Next up for the coins is a valuation by independent experts at the British Museum. They’ll determine the fair market value which will be ponied up by whichever museum wants the coin as a finder’s fee to be split between Morton and the landowner. Local museums are given the opportunity to secure the treasure first, and given the oversized historical significance of these small pennies, I have little doubt the National Museums Northern Ireland, likely the Ulster Museum, will snap them up.

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Ancient Mixtec skull a forgery

November 27th, 2016

An ancient turquoise-encrusted skull acquired by the National Museum of Ethnology in Leiden, the Netherlands, back in 1963 has been discovered to be a forgery. It was believed to be a very rare skull made by the Mixtec people of Postclassic Mexico (1200-1600 A.D.) who were renown for their craftsmanship in metal and precious stones. They made skulls and masks inlaid with turquoise, pyrite, gold and obsidian. Only about 20 Mixtec skulls decorated with precious stones are known to exist, but they are all of questionable origin. Their find sites and finders are unknown.

The National Museum of Ethnology bought theirs for the equivalent of about $20,000. Considered one of the greatest masterpieces of the genre, it is inlaid with small turquoise, shell and mother-of-pearl tiles all over the face, in circles around the eye sockets and larger rectangular tiles in the shape of a snake winding across the forehead. It was thought to date to around the 15th century.

Research into its origins took a new turn in 2010 when conservator Martin Berger heard from a colleague in Marseille that a private collector had recently donated a similar skull with the caveat that he suspected it might be a forgery. Between 2012 and 2016, Berger took the skull to Paris and back to Leiden where he and his colleagues subjected it to extensive testing. Radiocarbon dating and stable isotope analysis of tooth enamel samples found that the skull’s geographic origin and age indicated it was authentic Mixtec. The turquoise was authentic archaeological stone as well.

There was but one element left to test: the glue. The Mixtec made adhesives out of pine resin and orchids. Analysis of the glue used to affix the mosaic tiles to the skull discovered that it was a 20th century product commonly used in art restoration. That means someone in the 20th century took a genuine Mixtec skull and stuck genuine Mixtec mosaic tiles on it in a plausibly Mixtec style. So it’s a counterfeit made on an authentic foundation.

Conservators believe they know who might have done the job. There was a Mexican dentist working in the 1940s and 50s who was known to dabble in recreations of Mesoamerican artwork. In the mid-century period, Mexico’s archaeological sites were extensively looted and it would have been difficult to scare up a genuine skull and a bunch of genuine tiles. Apparently this dentist’s work appeared in more than one museum. He’s a suspect in this case because there is evidence that some of the teeth on the skull have been tampered with, and that was obviously in his professional wheelwell.

The National Museum of Ethnology is keeping the skull on display.

Asked whether he was disappointed by the revelation, Berger told the newspaper: “No.”

“In actual fact it’s given us a bizarre story and that’s exactly what museums want to do, to tell stories. It remains as one of our masterpieces — except, we’ve changed the information on the sign board.”

In any case, said Berger, the skull is only a “partial forgery”.

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3,800-year-old Canaanite “Thinker” figurine found in Israel

November 26th, 2016

An excavation in Yehud, Israel, prior to construction of new housing has unearthed a unique ancient pottery jug topped with a figurine in a reflective posture reminiscent of Rodin’s “The Thinker.” The clay vessel was discovered on the last day of the dig by a team of professional archaeologists from the Israel Antiquities Authority and very fortunate high school students in an archaeology-themed matriculation stream. It was one of several artifacts and remains — daggers, arrowheads, an axe head, sheep bones and the bones of another animal, probably a donkey — found with the jug. Archaeologists believe at least some of these were funerary offerings for a prominent individual, and an extraordinarily rich array of grave goods at that.

The pot-bellied jug with a spigot on one side of the neck is of a shape and style common to the Middle Bronze Age period about 3,800 years ago, but the figurine attached to the neck is one of a kind. Nothing like it has been found before. The figurine appears to have been added after the basic vessel was complete. Archaeologists aren’t sure if the same potter who made the jug also created the figurine. It’s possible a second artisan created it, using the neck of the jug as the torso of the figure and then adding the arms, leg and face.

The figure sits on top of the jug, his knees bent and left arm crossing both knees. His right arm is bent, elbow behind the other arm on his knee, his hand holding his chin as if he is deep in thought. The degree of detail is exceptional and very unusual for pottery of the period.

The students who got to see this charming figure excavated are thrilled.

“Suddenly I saw many archaeologists and important people arriving who were examining and admiring something that was uncovered in the ground” recalls Ronnie Krisher, a pupil in the Land of Israel and Archaeology stream in the Roeh religious girls high school in Ramat Gan. “They immediately called all of us to look at the amazing statuette and explained to us that this is an extremely rare discovery and one that is not encountered every day. It is exciting to be part of an excavation whose artifacts will be displayed in the museum”.

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Was a 14th c. queen the first to survive a caesarean?

November 25th, 2016

Caesarean sections have the reputation of being named after Julius Caesar because he was delivered surgically from his mother Aurelia. That is a myth that grew from a misunderstanding of the ancient sources in the 10th century. Pliny states in Natural History (Book VII, Chapter 7) that the dictator’s branch of the Julius family acquired the cognomen of Caesar because the first to bear the name was excised from his mother’s womb (from the Latin “caedo,” meaning “to cut”). In other words, the Caesars were named after the section, not the other way around, and Julius just inherited the moniker. Anyway Aurelia lived for many years after her son’s birth, and c-sections were only performed on dead or dying women because an abdominal incision was considered impossible to survive at that time.

It was impossible for a very long time after Caesar, as a matter of fact. Without anesthesia, the pain from abdominal surgery would cause massive traumatic shock. If that didn’t kill you on the spot, the blood loss would. If by some miracle the mother managed to survive the immediate dangers, infection would surely finish the job. It wasn’t until the second half of the 19th century that the advances in surgical procedure — Listerism to combat infection, anesthetics like ether, nitrous oxide and chloroform to keep shock at bay — made caesarean sections a consistently survivable option for emergency delivery.

There are a few reports of women managing to survive c-sections from before modern surgery. The earliest dates to 1500 and was first included as a case history almost a century later in a 1581 obstetrics monograph, L’hysterotomotokie ou enfantement césarien, by Parisian physician Francois Rousset who named the procedure after Caesar. The mother was the wife of a swine-gelder named Jacob Nufer from Turgau, Switzerland. After days of labour and with both his wife and baby in mortal danger, Nufer appealed to the town council to let him try to operate on his wife since none of the local surgeons were willing to take the risk. Assisted by a midwife and a cutter of bladder stones, Nufer cut into his wife and delivered a living child abdominally. Mrs. Nufer not only survived, but went on to have four more children. There are some records backing up the story, but there is no specific reference to the uterus being cut, so some scholars believe it was a laparotomy for sudden, acute abdominal pain rather than a caesarean.

Now obstetrician and medical historian Dr. Antonin Parizek of Charles University believes he may have found an earlier case: Beatrice of Bourbon, wife of the King of Bohemia John of Luxembourg who gave birth to their son in Prague in 1337. Beatrice was very young when she married the widowed king, just 14 years old, and it was not the happiest of matches. She had no interest in learning Czech of even German and was really only able to communicate with Blanche of Valois, the wife of her stepson (and future Holy Roman Emperor) Charles. King John spent all of two months at his court in Prague with his new bride in 1336, which was long enough to impregnate her. On February 25, 1337, Wenceslaus was born.

The only contemporary records of his birth that have survived are two letters from Beatrice announcing the birth in Latin. They do not mention a c-section. In fact, she goes out of her way to say that her son was born “salva incolumitate nostri corporis,” an unusual phrasing which directly translates to “without breaching our body.” The health of the mother is almost never mentioned in comparable announcements from 14th century from members of the Luxembourg and Bourbon dynasties. The focus is on the child. It’s odd that she even went there. Parizek believes her insistence that her body was intact was a response to rumors of surgical intervention in a difficult birth. Beatrice had to yet to be crowned Queen of Bohemia, and there was a strong association of the bodies of rulers, chosen by God, as physical manifestations of their souls and as symbols of the church. A large slice across the gut through which the king’s son had had to be fished out did not fit the mold of sacred and inviolate royal bodies.

It’s later sources that declare outright that Wenceslaus was born by c-section. The earliest is an early 15th century Flemish rhyming chronicle, Brabantsche Yeesten, by an anonymous author. There are verses in the chronicle that state that the boy was “taken from his mother’s body” and her wound healed. The author is amazed by this, because he had only ever heard of such an operation being performed on Julius Caesar. In 1549, Richard de Wassebourg, archdeacon of the Verdun Cathedral, reported the event in his book Antiquitez de la Gaule Belgique. At Wenceslaus birth, he said, “his mother Beatrice was opened up without dying.” Another reference is found in Mars Moravicus, written by Thomas Pesina of Čechorod, Vicar General and the Chapter Dean St. Vitus Cathedral in Prague, in 1677. Pesina states: “John had a son named Wenceslaus, taken from the queen Beatrice of Bourbon, or rather from the maternal womb, without endangering the mother, rarely such a lucky example of recovery [or healthy fertility].”

If Beatrice really did survive a caesarean in 1337, it was a perfect storm of very good luck for her and the future Duke of Luxembourg, her son.

Prague was a center of education, but also of the medical care of the royal family. In light of the health of John of Bohemia [-- he suffered from ophthalmia and was basically blind by the time he married Beatrice --] a number of the most educated physicians of the time were present around the king. It can be presumed that they had the skills for the procedure, that is, cutting out a fetus from a dead or dying pregnant woman. Considering what we know, it can be rejected a priori that it was a case of deliberately saving the mother. In fact, the abdominal removal of the child from an apparently dead mother could partly explain the event described.

If that is indeed what happened, then with likelihood bordering on certainty Beatrice of Bourbon was considered to be dead when the procedure occurred. One explanation could be seizures as a complication of eclampsia. The cut would have had to be made immediately after the onset of such a state. The pain from the operation may have been the reason for a change in consciousness or awakening, and the stress reaction of the mother could also hypothetically explain why she did not bleed to death.

Suturing of wounds, especially of the abdominal wall, was a completely unknown procedure at that time. And that later complications did not arise from the non-sterile environment the operation was performed in push this hypothesis to the edge of reality. On the other hand, there is written evidence that using similar methods, with no anesthesia, surgical hemostasis or antiseptic conditions, the first experiments removing children through the abdomen after labor lasting several days were performed in the 17th to 19th centuries, and almost always in a home setting. It was very rare, but some women survived these operations.

Beatrice never had another child, which is another tick in the caesarean column, but she ended up outliving her first husband, who died in a famous charge against the English at the Battle of Crécy in 1346, by almost 40 years. Blind and 50 years old but still keen to fight, John tied his horse to his knights’ and rode fearlessly against the enemy. His was the only charge to break through the English lines, and the English killed them all. Beatrice also outlived all of her stepsons and even her son Wenceslaus, albeit only by 16 days.

You can read the whole fascinating paper published in the journal Ceska Gynekologie in English here. It touches on the history of c-sections, surgery, sutures, anesthetics and antiseptics, as well as on the specific case of Beatrice of Bourbon.

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