Walls of human bones found under Saint Bavo

February 17th, 2020

Walls made of human bones have been discovered in an excavation around Saint Bavo Cathedral in Ghent. Nine walls were found, all belonging to the same structure, consisting primarily of thigh and shin bones from adults. The gaps between the walls were filled with skulls, most of them in fragments.

Constructions made from human bones are well-known at such sites as the Paris catacombs, the Sedlec Ossuary in the Czech Republic and the Capuchin Crypt under Santa Maria della Concezione in Rome. This is the first organized bone structure ever discovered in Flanders. Exhumed bones have been found from medieval cemeteries, kept in small ossuaries often built against church walls, but they were simply stored there, not carefully selected bones stacked and arranged as sound building material.

Bones were regularly cleared from city cemeteries because space was at a premium. Due to beliefs of the resurrection of the flesh, the bones could not be discarded. At least not all of them. The long bones of the limbs and skulls were preserved while the small bones — adult vertebrae, ribs, phalanges, children’s remains etc — were frequently left behind by the clearing crew.

The Saint Bavo walls were built after one such clearing of the cathedral’s associated cemetery, either as a result of a renovation of the church or because the cemetery was full and space needed to be made. Written records of cemetery clearance are practically non-existent. Only two partial clearances are known, one in the first half of the 16th century, the other after 1784. Radiocarbon testing revealed that the bones date to the second half of the 15th century, and pottery found with the walls date to the 17th century or the first half of the 18th. Research is ongoing to attempt to confirm a cemetery clearing from that period.

Why the bones were made into walls remains a mystery, as is the overall purpose of the structure. Another oddity is there are no arm bones, only leg bones and the skull fill.

Saint Bavo will not become Flanders’ first osteoarchitectural tourist destination. The bones will be removed to make way for the construction of a new visitor’s center dedicated to the cathedral’s great masterpiece and international attraction, the Ghent Altarpiece, aka the Adoration of the Mystic Lamb by Jan Van Eyck.

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Unknown Cranach work found in Rylands Library

February 16th, 2020

A previously unknown work by the workshop of renowned Renaissance artist Lucas Cranach the Younger has been identified in the collection of the University of Manchester’s John Rylands Library. It is catalogued under the non-descript name of German MS 2. There was no information about it in the book itself. The title page dubbed the volume “Deutsches Stammbuch” (German Genealogies) and dated it 1565. The back cover had the initials P.T. stamped on it.

Dr. Ben Pope of the University of Tübingen realized it was not a genealogy, but rather an armorial, a collection of coats of arms of German noble families, and a splendid one at that at that. It contains more than 1,800 coats of arms from the aristocracy and nobility of the Holy Roman Empire hand-painted in brilliant color and fine detail. He was able to trace its origins to mid-16th century Saxony, right to the top of it, in fact. From correspondence in the state archives in Dresden, Pope learned that in 1565 August, Elector of Saxony, commissioned Lucas Cranach the Younger to make a faithful copy of a ca. 1500 armorial that had belonged to Lucas’ father Lucas Cranach the Elder.

Armorials were essential sources for artists needed to reproduce the arms of noble patrons in their commissions. The earlier armorial was used in the Cranach’s Wittenberg workshop as a reference. August wanted a complete, faithful copy of the armorial and any other coats of arms the Younger might be able to add to the collection. The Elector gave detailed instructions to Cranach, all of which have been followed in the manuscript, and the coat of arms of Saxony is particularly stunning.

As was typical of armorials from southern Germany, this one opens with coats of arms of historic figures, towns and churches representing the idealized virtues and socio-political structure of the Empire. The arms of imperial princely and noble families follow. The arms of private societies formed by lower nobles are also included, and this is rare as they have only been found in four armorials.

Despite its Saxon origin, the armorial has a particular connection to the imperial house of Habsburg. It includes an illustration of the Romreich, the imperial herald, the arms of Emperor Frederick III, those of his son Maximilian, and those of Maximilian’s second wife Bianca Maria Sforza.

Bianca Maria’s arms fill the first page of the Cranach copy, and there is good reason to think that she was at the heart of the original armorial too, as her arms are followed by those of thirty-nine princely ladies of the Empire. This unusual collection of women’s arms depicts individuals living in 1499/1500 and is thus both an integral part of the original material and a clear statement of Bianca Maria’s status as the highest ranking woman in the Empire. This section’s presentation in Rylands German 2 suggests that Bianca Maria is the head of a separate ‘province’, a parallel Empire of women.

Rylands German 2 thus offers insights into a sixteenth-century prince’s heraldic interests and artistic patronage; an artist’s use of heraldic materials in his workshop; the south German armorial tradition of the fifteenth century; and the heraldic and artistic programme of the Habsburg court in the reign of Maximilian. It depicts an Empire of regions dominated by certain princes: some of these regions can be understood as the ‘territory’ of the prince at their head, but others are regional communities connected through the princes to the imperial centre. At this centre we find, surprisingly, not Maximilian, but his often overlooked second wife, Bianca Maria Sforza. This gives cause to reappraise not only her queenship, but also the wider relationship between women and heraldry in the later Middle Ages.

Mark your calendars because starting February 18th, Dr. Pope’s article detailing all of his research into German MS 2 published in the Bulletin of the John Rylands Library will be available for free, but only until the February 24th. The manuscript will go on display for the first time in its existence next month. German MS 2 has been digitized so if you can’t make it to Manchester, you can up close and high-definition personal with every page of it online.

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Monumental Tiffany window to join Chagall’s at Chicago Art Institute

February 15th, 2020

The Art Institute of Chicago’s most popular draw, Marc Chagall’s America Windows, will soon have a worthy companion in a monumental stained glass window by Tiffany Studios. It was purchased from the Community Church in Providence, Rhode Island, in June 2018, when its 48 layered-glass panels were painstakingly removed and transported to Chicago where it has been undergoing restoration.

The window is 23 feet high and 16 feet wide, one of the largest windows ever made by Tiffany. It is attributed to Agnes F. Northrop, Tiffany’s premier master of landscape and floral designs. It depicts a landscape of waterfall, pool and forest with Mt. Chocorua, one of the White Mountains’ most frequently painted vistas, in the background. An inscription across the lower lancets reads: My help / cometh from / the Lord who / made heaven / and earth. On the bottom right is the signature: Tiffany Studios / New York 1917.

It was commissioned by Mary L. Hartwell as a memorial to her late husband  fire extinguishing sprinkler magnate Frederick W. Hartwell who had died in 1911. Frederick Hartwell was born in New Hampshire and had lived there until he was 11 when he moved in with his uncle in Providence. The window nods to Mr. Hartwell’s birth state in its depiction of the White Mountains scene.

Mr. Hartwell had been a devout congregant and a very generous financial supporter of the Central Baptist Church of Providence. Originally founded in 1807 as the Second Baptist Church of Providence, it had moved and changed names repeatedly over the years. In 1917 it moved again to a brand new building and Mary Hartwell commissioned what would become known as the “Hartwell Memorial Window (Light in Heaven and Earth),” in memory of Frederick.

If you’re wondering why any person or institution would tear such a precious and beautiful piece of their history from its very walls, the church’s current name says it all. The Community Church of Providence is a small multi-denominational congregation that is entirely dedicated to serving its community.

Museum officials did not reveal the purchase price but said that price alone was not what determined who would buy the work. Leaders of the Community Church, in deciding to sell it, wanted it to go to a museum and they wanted to know the museum’s plan for care and display of the window, said Oehler.

“I really credit the church with this foresight and thinking about their role as stewards for the window,” she said. “They have a very community focused mission, and they’re not a museum, and they’re not in the business of protecting works of art.”

In the news release announcing the acquisition, Pastor Evan Howard of the church said, “We are extremely pleased that this exceptional work of art has entered such a renowned collection.”

In picking AIC as “the ideal institution to care for and display the window,” Howard said the church hopes that it will be “experienced by a broad public audience that includes scholars, artists and visitors from around the world.”

They sure know their monumental stained glass, too, what with the five-year restoration of the Chagall windows.

Conservation is expected to be complete in the fall of this year. So far the window has been cleaned, one third of the panels removed for glass repair with more minor repairs performed on the panels in situ. The restored window will be installed at the top of the Grand Staircase by the Michigan Avenue entrance. It will be framed and backlit to stun and amaze all who enter there.

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All three iconic Armada Portraits on display together for the first time in 430 years

February 14th, 2020

The three surviving portraits of Queen Elizabeth I painted to celebrate the victory over the Spanish Armada in 1588 have gone on display together for the first time in their 430 years. The Armada portraits depict the Queen in victorious glory front and center flanked by two seascapes featuring episodes from the defeat of the Armada in the background. One portrait is in the Duke of Bedford’s collection at Woburn Abbey, a cropped version is in the National Portrait Gallery and one is in the Queen’s House at Royal Museums Greenwich. With both Woburn Abbey and the NPG currently undergoing refurbishment, their portraits have joined the third in Greenwich to give visitors the first opportunity in history to see the three Armada portraits together.

An artist or artists unknown made the portraits shortly after Spain’s failed invasion. At various points scholars have proposed that the original was painted by George Gower, Serjeant Painter to the Queen beginning in 1581, and copies made from that, or that the surviving portraits are derived from a miniature portrait of the queen by Elizabeth’s favorite limner (miniaturist) Nicholas Hilliard.

The three versions have several differences. Woburn Abbey and Greenwich are horizontal in orientation, the NPG’s vertical. The latter orientation was achieved by cutting the sides off the larger portrait, removing almost all of the seascapes, the edges of the queen’s enormous balloon sleeves and the symbols of her imperial glory: the globe she rests her delicate white hand on and the crown behind her. Details of her clothing and accessories differ. Woburn Abbey’s seascapes are older, almost certainly original to the painting when it was made in the late 16th century. The Greenwich portrait’s seascapes date to the 1700s, although they are painted in the style of the 1670s or 1680s. Scans of the panel found the original seascapes that match the Woburn Abbey ones underneath the later versions.

Acquired in 2016 by the National Maritime Museum from the family Sir Francis Drake after a national fundraising campaign raised £10 million ($13,225,500), the Queen’s House Armada portrait is believed to have been owned, perhaps even commissioned, by Sir Francis himself. It needed extensive conservation after centuries spent hanging over the fireplace in a drafty old mansion. Two coats of varnish had yellowed it and it was marred by paint retouching from 19th and 20th century restorations. The varnish layers were removed as were the retouchings. The two seascapes, discovered by analysis of the pigments to date to the early 18th century, were not altered because they are so inextricably connected to the iconography of the painting.

The Faces of a Queen exhibition opened on Thursday at the Queen’s House Art Gallery and runs through August 31st. Admission is free.

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Bronze Age amber sun disk found 10 years after excavation

February 13th, 2020

An excavation in Løgstrup, northwest of Viborg in Denmark in 2008 and 2009 unearthed a distinctive Late Bronze Age settlement site with the remains of farm houses, cooking pits and bronze casting pits. The site had been built and expanded in phases around 900-700 B.C., artifacts including bronze objects, amber, pottery and two urns believed to be cremation burials. The urns were recovered and taken to the Viborg Museum for later research.

In October 2019, a full decade after their discovery, the two urns were CT scanned. The scan found bone fragments in both urns, the remains of cremations archaeologists had expected to find. One of the urns contained something unexpected: a small object shaped like a small hockey puck. Researchers carefully excavated the urn and retrieved the hockey puck. It looked unremarkable at first, but once it was cleaned, archaeologists could see it was an extremely rare amber object from the Bronze Age known as a solar disk. This is the first documented discovery of a Bronze Age solar disk in Denmark.

The piece is small at 3 cm (1.2″) in diameter and .9 cm (.35″) thick, but it would have been highly valuable both for the expense of the amber material and because it was very finely crafted. When lit from behind, it glows fire red with concentric circles of cells that look like a dahlia. It had not been burned on the pyre with the teenager whose remains were in the urn, but been placed on top of his or her burned legs afterward.

Amber was a valuable commodity in the north during the Bronze Age. It was a symbol of the sun, a manifestation of the sun’s power and light, design motifs indicating a belief that just like the sun traveled across the sky during the day, it traveled through the underworld at night. The expensive amber disk may have been added to the burial as an indicator of societal position and/or as a religious expression, a prayer that the deceased’s spirit would travel to the afterlife in the protective embrace of the sun.

It’s also just uncannily beautiful. This is what it looks like under normal light.

This is what it looks like with a light shining behind it.

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Senet board from transition between Middle and New Kingdom identified

February 12th, 2020

The ancient board game of senet dates back at least to Egypt’s First Dynasty (ca. 3000 B.C.) and continued to be popular with people at all levels of society through the Greco-Roman Period. Boards — formal ones and impromptu versions in graffiti and painted or scratched onto ostraca (pottery fragments) — game pieces, surviving texts and depictions on tomb walls make it one of the best documented games in history.

Even so, there is still much we don’t know about senet and how it was played, and its extraordinary longevity makes it a unique example of how games evolve over time. A new study of a previously unpublished senet board in the Rosicrucian Egyptian Museum in San Jose, California, has found it to be an important transitional piece in the development of the game.

At its core, senet was a backgammon-like game in which two players vied to move their five pawns through the rows in a serpentine pattern to the last square. They used throw sticks to determine how to move the pawns. Depending how many of the sticks landed on the flat side, players moved different numbers of spaces. Pieces could pass each other, get knocked out, blocked, go backwards as well as forwards. The first player to get all the tokens off the board from square 30 won.

Four (five in some variations of the grid) of the squares had symbols on the squares marking those cells as having special functions. They were called houses and could trap a piece, send it back, give the player a second turn, etc. Those symbols went from game mechanisms to religious allegories in the New Kingdom. Depictions of the game on tomb walls, which in the Old Kingdom featured people playing against each other, now featured the deceased playing an invisible opponent. Texts from the period indicate the game connected the souls of the dead and the living, and that the houses represented obstacles and steps encountered by the soul on the way to the afterlife.

The Rosicrucian board is actually a table. Carved out of a single piece of cedar, it features a playing surface, a panel running along the rear length and two rectangular legs at each end crossing the full width of the board. It is the only senet table ever discovered. Although there are depictions of senet tables in Egyptian art, all other senet boards that have been found are boxes, slabs and graffiti.

The surface is worn, but the typical senet grid pattern — 30 squares in three rows of 10 — is incised into the tabletop.  Four of the squares, numbers 26, 27, 28 and 29, contain symbols written in hieroglyphic cursive: nfr (good), a sort of rustic version of the Ankh, mw (water) drawn as three parallel lines, three seated men and two seated men.

In their upright orientation, the hieroglyphs are positioned at the top left of the board, a variant most often found in the Middle Kingdom/Second Intermediate Period, instead of the bottom right. The seven senet boards that have been discovered with this orientation date to the 12th – 17th Dynasties, but they do not have the same symbols. The writing on the Rosicrucian senet is instead typical of the 18th Dynasty.

The comparative material discussed in the foregoing section suggests that the senet board in the Rosicrucian Museum demonstrates a transitional stage in the pattern of decoration between the Middle Kingdom/Second Intermediate Period and the middle of the Eighteenth Dynasty. The orientation of the board, with the marked squares at the top left, points to an early date. The latest board with the same orientation as the Rosicrucian senet is drawn in ink on the back of a schoolboy’s writing tablet (the ‘Carnarvon Tablet’), now in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo (JdE 41.790). It was found by Howard Carter in Asasif Tomb 9, and dates to the Seventeenth Dynasty. All other previously published senet boards dating later than this board—for which orientation can be determined—show the opposite configuration, with squares 26 to 29 at the lower right. […]

Considering the morphology of the Rosicrucian senet game, the date range during which people were making similar choices in the design of game boards extends from the Twelfth Dynasty (based on orientation) to the Nineteenth Dynasty (because it is a game box). The end points of this range can be narrowed down further based on the style of the markings in squares 26 to 29. Since the markings do not contain the superfluous ones seen in the Middle Kingdom boards, that period can be eliminated as a possible date. Furthermore, the progression of nfr, mw, three seated men, and two seated men only has parallels in the early Eighteenth Dynasty, specifically the reigns of Hatshepsut and Thutmose III.

This leaves a gap, however, between the last known example of a game with the top left orientation of squares 26 to 29 (Seventeenth Dynasty), and the appearance of this particular style of marking (Hatshepsut), of roughly 70 years. There are currently no senet boards that can be attributed to the period from the reign of Ahmose I to that of Thutmose II. Thus, the evolution of senet boards from the earlier games of the Middle Kingdom—with their simple decoration and top left placement of the marked squares—to that of the New Kingdom—with elaborated decoration and lower right placement of marked squares—is poorly understood. We know that at least during the Seventeenth Dynasty, game boxes and boards with the top left orientation coexisted, as evidenced by the game from the Tomb of Hornakht at Dra Abu el-Naga and the Carnarvon Tablet. There is, however, no evidence for the elaborated decoration seen on the Rosicrucian board during the Second Intermediate Period. These same two boards are the only ones marked from that period, and the Hornakht box only contains m in square 27, and the Carnarvon Tablet has nfr, X, three, two.

It would seem prudent to propose then, that the game box in the Rosicrucian Museum represents a transitional form between the top left oriented schoolboy’s tablet and the game box with nearly identical markings from the tomb of Hatshepsut. No other games can be securely dated to the intervening period either through archaeological context or by style alone, so this game is a likely candidate to fill that stylistic gap.

There is almost no information about the Rosicrucian board’s history. It entered the museum’s collection in 1947. The previous owner was Lord William-Tyssen Amherst, First Baron of Hackney, who acquired a large collection of antiquities in the late 19th century. Where it came from or where he got it is unknown, other than that he died in 1906 so he had to have purchased it before then. Without its original archaeological context, the only possible way to confirm its age is radiocarbon dating.

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Curator rediscovers lost pre-Negro Leagues team in Louisville

February 11th, 2020

The Louisville Slugger Museum & Factory acquired two photographs in June of 2018, thinking they were pictures of the Louisville White Sox, a short-lived team in the Negro Leagues that played a single season in 1931 before being replaced the next year by the Louisville Black Caps who would play even less than a full season before relocating and then folding altogether. The pictures, posed shots recreating gameplay, featured a player sliding into base being called safe by the umpire, and a baseman reaching out with his gloved hand with a player behind him. The scant documentation accompanying them marked them as pics of the 1931 White Sox.

Museum curator Bailey Mazik was researching the new acquisition when she spotted a contradiction: two of the players’ jerseys had the letters L and U on the front, not the W and S of the White Sox. She then noticed a factory looming in the background of the field. Its large sign identified it as the Sunny Brook Distillery Co., maker of Kentucky’s most famous native product, bourbon. Last but not least, her eagle eye spotted the faintest of inscriptions written on the back of one of the photos. It includes the date “February 1909.” By scanning the inscription and increasing black and white contrast, Mazik could make out one phrase of the inscription in addition to the date: “Charles is a sleep.” She hopes more of it can be made legible with greater scanning and imaging tools.

With team initials, the factory location and the date, Mazik was able to dig through old newspapers and identify the team. They were the Louisville Unions, a semi-professional team that played against other Louisville teams and ones from out of state for yet another single season. Unlike their Negro Leagues descendants in the 1930s, the Unions shone for their one season. In a July 12th article in the Louisville Courier-Journal, they were acknowledged as “the best colored team in the South,” with a record of 24 wins out of 27 games played.

They played on hallowed ground, as baseball history goes.

This successful team had its own playing field located at 28th Street and Broadway. In 1908 newspaper articles, this field is referred to as either “Unions’ Park” or “old League Park”; it is also known as Eclipse Park II. About 15 years earlier in 1893, this field was formed into a sort of complex for the Louisville Colonels team, where Honus Wagner hit his first professional home run in 1897. The 13-acre plot consisted of a full-size field for the Colonels to play on, a smaller field for amateur teams, bike paths, and picnic areas, and was enclosed by a wooden fence. This was in the residential neighborhood of Parkland and was intended to serve the community in a variety of ways. The Colonels played here for 6 years until an electrical storm caused a fire and rendered the field and stands unusable for the professional National League team after the 1899 season. This didn’t matter much anyway because in 1900 the Colonels ceased to exist when the National League downsized from twelve teams to eight, and cut Louisville from the league. Colonels’ owner Barney Dreyfuss took over the Pittsburgh club and relocated a number of Louisville’s best players to the Pittsburgh Pirates. In 1908, after repairs were made, the Unions team was based at this historically important lot.

That was a heady year for African-American baseball in Louisville. The city was replete with teams popular with blac In April 1908 Local leaders met with counterparts in St. Louis, Indianapolis, Cincinnati, Columbus, Cleveland and Nashville to discuss the creation of a formal league for black players. Even with financial backing secured the project was deemed “impracticable” and the proposed National Colored Baseball League never did come to fruition. Twelve years would pass before the Negro National League played its first game.

The photographs are now on display at the  Louisville Slugger Museum & Factory at The Louisville Unions Rediscovered exhibit which runs through September 7th of this year.

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New finds in Havering Hoard revealed

February 10th, 2020

The Havering Hoard, a cache of 453 bronze objects dating to 900 – 800 B.C. that was discovered in a 2018 archaeological survey in an east London quarry overlooking the Thames, is even more unusual that it seemed when the find was announced last year. Museum of London curators have been examining the objects closely before they go on display for the first time and have discovered additional rarities.

The collection of chisels, sickles, metal ingots, weapons and axe heads is the largest Bronze Age hoard ever discovered in London and the third largest ever found in the UK, and it includes two decorated terret rings — fittings from a horse-drawn cart that kept reins from getting tangled — that are unique for the UK. Terret rings have been found before in France, but not Britain. Conservators have now identified a bracelet that was imported, likely from northwest France, and copper ingots from the Alps.

Kate Sumnall, a curator of archaeology at the museum, said the unexpected finds suggested links to Europe that were nearly 3,000 years old.

“These objects give clues about how this wasn’t an isolated community but rather one that fitted into a much larger cultural group with connections along the Thames Valley and across the continent.”

The question of how and why this hoard was assembled and deposited remains unanswered.

There are four theories about why so many objects would have been deliberately broken and meticulously buried.

  • Was it a ritualistic offering to the gods?
  • Was it to do with it being the late bronze age and start of the iron age, so the objects were no longer so highly valued or wanted?
  • Could a powerful person have been trying to control the amount of bronze that was in circulation and being traded?
  • Or was the location a kind of bronze age storage site? The total weight of the objects is 45kg [99 lbs], so they could not have been easily carried around.

The hoard will be going on display for the first time in an exhibition at the Museum of London Docklands this spring. Havering Hoard: A Bronze Age Mystery opens April 3rd and runs through November 1st.

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Janet Stephens is back!

February 9th, 2020

It’s been more than a year and a half since Janet Stephens posted one of her epic historic hairstyling tutorials using period-accurate tools and it’s been three years since the last Roman hairstyle. Now she’s back with an intricate 9-strand braid worn by the Empress Herennia Etruscilla in the mid-3rd century A.D.

The 3rd century was a chaotic time for the Roman Empire. After the assassination of the last Severan emperor, Severus Alexander, in 235, the combination of internal political turmoil, civil wars, Germanic invasions, increasing expansion of the Persian Sassanid Empire, economic depression and plagues, nearly drove the empire to collapse. By 268, like the Gaul of Julius Caesar’s time, the empire itself was divided into three parts — the Gallic Roman Empire (Gaul, Britannia and Hispania), the  Palmyrene Empire (Syria, Egypt, Arabia, Asia Minor) and the Roman Empire (Italy). It would be reunited under in 270 by Aurelian, builder of the walls around Rome. The Crisis would come to its full end with the ascension of Diocletian in 284, 26 dead emperors after it began.

So when Herennia Etruscilla was getting her hair did by extremely nimble-fingered ornatrices, she was enjoying what would be a very brief window of time at the top. Her husband Decius was acclaimed as emperor in September 249 after he killed his predecessor Philip the Arab. His reign lasted less than two years, ending with his death in battle at the hands of the Goths in June 251. His and Herennia Etruscilla’s oldest son and co-emperor died with him. Their youngest son, 13-year-old Hostilian, succeeded to the throne, but only as co-emperor to the troops’ choice Trebonianus Gallus, and only for a few months before his death either from plague or at the hand of said Trebonianus Gallus.

During those few months of Hostilian’s rise to the purple, Herennia Etruscilla acted as regent. Almost nothing is known about her life, but thanks to the devaluation of currency and the constant cranking out of coinage, we have a surprisingly rich record of her portraiture. There are 13 different coins from aurei to sestertii that feature her profile with views of her elaborate hairstyling.

From one of those coin portraits, Janet selected a nine-strand braid arranged in a column style, meaning in a single thick plait up the back of the head. It requires a dexterity beyond my comprehension and hair of such length and thickness that it’s no wonder it took Janet a decade to get to this look. It is truly a masterful feat of patience and skill. My one regret is that she wasn’t able to include the stephane — a Hellenic style of diadem that comes to a point in the front — that Herennia Etruscilla Augusta wears in all of her coins.

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Date update: Methuselah gets six siblings

February 8th, 2020

It feels like just yesterday when I wrote about Methuselah, the date palm germinated from a 2,000-year-old seed recovered from Masada, but it was 12 years ago. This must be the longest stretch between an original story and an update yet. It is occasioned by a new study of six ancient date palm seeds that have been successfully germinated. Now Adam, Jonah, Uriel, Boaz, Judith and Hannah have joined their ancient brother in growing from seed to seedling.

The six well-preserved seeds were discovered in archaeological excavations of Masada (Adam), Qumran (Jonah, Uriel, Boaz, Judith) and Wadi Makukh (Hannah) from the 1960s through the 1990s. The ages of the seeds were determined by radiocarbon dating of the shell fragments collected from the roots when the plants were repotted. Methuselah, his Masada brother Adam and Hannah are the oldest, dating to between the 4th and 1st century B.C. Judith and Boaz are the middle kids, dating to the mid-2nd century B.C. to the mid-1st century A.D. Uriel and Jonah are the babies of the family dating to the 1st-2nd century A.D.

The team was able to use DNA analysis to discover the sex of the germinated seedlings and to map out the geographic origin of their genotypes.  (Methuselah is indeed a male plant, by the way. We didn’t know if there was a chance of getting an ancient date when it was first germinated, but now we do. He’s a pollen producer, not a fruiter.) Interestingly, the age of the seeds correlates with their genetic admixture. The oldest three have the most eastern genotypes. Judith and Boaz have equal western and eastern genotypes. Jonah and Uriel have the most western. The large size of the seeds is evidence that they were domesticated (wild seeds are much smaller) and the genetic analysis indicates extensive cross-breeding of females with foreign males to keep the stock vigorous and varied.

Date palms have been cultivated in the Jordan River Valley since the Neolithic and the wild date is widespread on the banks of the river and in the hills around the Dead Sea. Palm trees, leaves and dates appear often in the Hebrew scripture — waved in the Sukkot holiday, to celebrate military victories, used in temple rituals, decorating palaces and sacred buildings, even in place names — and their significance was transmitted to Christian tradition, viz Palm Sunday. Ancient writers from Herodotus to Hippocrates praised the Judean date for culinary and medicinal qualities. It was semi-dry and therefore easily stored long-term, unlike Egyptian or Cypriot varieties that rotted quickly. Theophrastus (c. 371- 287 B.C.) wrote in his botanical treatise Enquiry into Plants:

It likes a soil which contains salt; wherefore, where such soil is not available, the growers sprinkle salt about it; and this must not be done about the actual roots: one must keep the salt some way off and sprinkle about a gallon. To shew that it seeks such a soil they offer the following proof; wherever date-palms grow abundantly, the soil is salt, both in Babylon, they say, where the tree is indigenous, in Libya in Egypt and in Phoenicia; while in Coele-Syria [modern-day Israel], where are most palms, only in three districts, they say, where the soil is salt, are dates produced which can be stored; those that grow in other districts do not keep, but rot, though when fresh they are sweet and men use them at that stage.

The Judean date’s long storage properties made them ideal emergency rations. Josephus mentions them “heaps” of dates at the fortress of Masada. The date palm was so strongly associated with Judea that it was frequently depicted on ancient shekels and, after Titus’ sack of Jerusalem in 70 A.D., on Roman IUDAEA CAPTA coinage for more than twenty years. The date palm still features prominently on coins and medallions issued by the modern state of Israel.

The research team is hoping to pick up where ancient farmers left off and do some pollinating of their own once Judith and Hannah reach sexual maturity. If, fingers crossed, they’re able to produce Judean dates once again, of course we’ll have no way of knowing if they have the same taste and texture.

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