Tomb of Cleopatra definitely not found

July 13th, 2020

A burial chamber containing two mummies that were originally covered in gold leaf has been unearthed at Taposiris Magna on the Mediterranean coast of Egypt. The tomb was sealed, but water penetration left the remains in poor condition and largely disintegrated the gold leaf. For them to have been buried in such rich outerwear, they must have been individuals of high rank. This is being promoted as a key clue to the location of the tomb of Cleopatra. Spoiler: yeah no.

The head of the excavation, Kathleen Martínez, is actually a lawyer. From her own reading in her time off from running her legal practice Dominican Republic, Martínez developed a theory that Cleopatra’s tomb was at Taposiris Magna and persuaded Zahi Hawass to let her look for it. When she first pitched the idea to him in 2005, she said to give her two months and she’d find the elusive tomb of Cleopatra. Fourteen years of excavations later, the only thing connected to Cleopatra that has been found are 200 gold coins bearing her profile.

Very little archaeological material directly related to Cleopatra has survived, most of it consisting of coins issued during her reign. The written sources have no information about the location of her tomb. Plutarch’s description of her mausoleum focuses on the riches it contained and the great drama of her and Mark Antony’s final days. He does say that Octavian allowed Cleopatra to be embalmed and entombed with Mark Antony in the royal tomb, but nothing about where it was.

Alexandria itself was hit hard by natural disasters. What was once the royal palace of Alexandria is under water now, as is much of the ancient city, and what didn’t sink was cannibalized for building materials. The dynastic tomb of the Ptolemies was built inside the palace precinct.

Located 20 miles west of Alexandria, Taposiris Magna was an important port town in Ptolemaic Egypt. A large limestone temple was constructed there by Ptolemy IV Philopator (r. 221-204 B.C.), who also built the dynastic tomb in Alexandria. It was dedicated to Osiris (hence “Taposiris”) and was believed to one of the spots where Osiris’ dismembered body parts were buried after his murder by his brother Set.

Martínez’ theory is that Cleopatra built a mausoleum for herself and Mark Antony in the temple precinct because she identified strongly with the goddess Isis, consort of Osiris, and would have wanted them buried together as incarnations of the deities. As for how she would have accomplished this without Octavian’s knowledge when he ordered her buried with Mark Antony in Alexandria, she arranged it with priests before her suicide. Once Octavian moved on, the priests moved both bodies to a secret tomb under the Taposiris Magna temple courtyard.

In a decade and a half of excavations, not only has the fabled tomb not turned up, but in all fairness, neither have any others. The chamber with the pair of mummies is the first tomb ever found inside the temple.

The mummies have been X-rayed, establishing that they are male and female. One suggestion is they were priests who played a key role in maintaining the pharaohs’ power. One bears an image of a scarab, symbolising rebirth, painted in gold leaf.

In conclusion, two priests were found buried at a temple that continues to show no evidence whatsoever of the presence of the tomb of Cleopatra.

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Rare element solves mystery of Roman clear glass

July 12th, 2020

The Edict of Diocletian, aka the Edict on Maximum Prices, was issued in 301 A.D. in a failed attempt to control the runaway inflation that plagued the empire after decades of currency debasement during the Crisis of the Third Century. It established maximum wages for labor and maximum prices for more than 1,200 products from kidney beans to timber to the famous purple dyed silk (150,000 denarii a pound for that bad boy, more than twice the price of gold). Today the edict survives in fragmentary inscriptions only, but enough of it is extant to serve as a uniquely rich source of information about Roman economics, trade goods and buying power.

Among the products on the list are different types of glass. Alexandrian clear glass is the most expensive at 24 denarii a pound, 30 for cups and vessels. Judaean clear glass cups and vessels cost 20 denarii a pound. Pliny noted in Natural History that “the highest value is set upon glass that is entirely colourless and transparent, as nearly as possible resembling crystal” and Alexandrian was the top of the line in clear glass.

Roman-era glass furnaces have been discovered in the Levant, producers of the Judaean glass. No such furnaces have been found in Egypt so archaeologists have long debated whether the so-called Alexandrian glass was really made there. Researchers have only been able to generally infer ancient glass is Egyptian because it doesn’t match the products from the Syro-Palestinian furnaces and from higher concentrations of titanium dioxide found in Egyptian sand. The first criterion is passive at best, and the second excludes high quality sand deliberately chosen for its low levels of iron oxides (and therefore titanium dioxide) that was available to Egyptian glassmakers during the Roman period.

That obstacle has now been surmounted with the help of the rare element hafnium. Researchers subjected Roman glass sherds to strontium, neodymium and hafnium isotope analyses. They found distinct hafnium isotope signatures in the glasses made with Egyptian sand and the ones from the Syro-Palestine coast.

“Hafnium isotopes have proved to be an important tracer for the origins of sedimentary deposits in geology, so I expected this isotope system to fingerprint the sands used in glassmaking”, states Gry Barfod. Professor at Aarhus University Charles Lesher, co-author of the publication, continues: “The fact that this expectation is borne out by the measurements is a testament of the intimate link between archaeology and geology.”

Hafnium isotopes have not previously been used by archaeologists to look at the trade in ancient man-made materials such as ceramics and glass. Co-author Professor Ian Freestone, University College London, comments, “These exciting results clearly show the potential of hafnium isotopes in elucidating the origins of early materials. I predict they will become an important part of the scientific toolkit used in our investigation of the ancient economy.”

The results of the study have been published in the journal Scientific Reports and can be read here.

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Earliest evidence of horsemanship found

July 11th, 2020

Two horses found in Bronze Age tomb in Kazakhstan are the earliest evidence of horsemanship on the archaeological record, 700 years earlier the previous oldest evidence of horseback riding. Evidence of horse breeding goes back to around 2000 B.C., but before this find, the oldest evidence of horse riding dated to around 900 B.C.

The horse burials were discovered in a tomb in the Novoil’inovskiy 2 Cemetery on the banks of the Tobol River in the Eurasian Steppes. The burial ground contains about 30 kurgan mounds dating to the Late Bronze Age — radiocarbon analysis dates the tomb complex to 1890–1774 B.C. —  when the area was occupied by the Petrovka, also known as the Andronovo, culture. In kurgan 5, archaeologists unearthed two graves, the first containing a heap of human bones and four articulated skeletons, the second a pair of articulated horse skeletons. They were identified as domestic horses, distinguishable from their wild cousins by their forehead width, slender limbs and the length of their phalanges and metacarpals. One of them was a stallion, one a mare. The male was about 20 years old when he died; the female about 18.

The horses had been carefully arranged in the grave, their left forelegs cut off and extended forward, the front right lefts bent to connect to the shoulders. Their hind legs extend backwards. These were not positions that could be achieved in nature. People had to cut through ligaments and joints and bind the limbs. Researchers believes this somewhat gruesome tableau was intended to depict a running team of horses.

The Bronze Age Andronovo peoples are known to have raised horses for meat, but the wear patterns on the teeth of both horses and cranium of the stallion are consistent with the wearing of a bridle with mouth and cheekpieces. Three cheekpieces made of bone were buried with them and use-wear analysis indicates they were used to bridle horses. Andronovo people also used horses to pull chariots, but the cheekpieces have never been found in chariot burials. These horses were ridden, not used for food or harnesses to vehicles.

This find indicates that horsemanship was already well-established in the steppe during the Bronze Age when these horses were buried as the tack was fully developed.

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Power X-ray to be turned on Rooswijk finds

July 10th, 2020

The Rooswijk was a Dutch East India Company (VOC) trade vessel that sank off the coast of Kent on January 10th, 1740, on its way to Batavia (modern-day Jakarta). The 135-foot three-masted ship set out on what would have been only its second voyage to the Dutch East Indies when it fell victim to the notoriously treacherous Goodwin Sands, nicknamed the Great Ship Swallower. None of the 237 crew members on board survived.

The wreck of the Rooswijk was discovered in 2000 by local diver Ken Welling. The remains are owned by the Dutch government, but as the shipwreck lies in British territorial waters, its management is up to the UK. In 2007 it was designation a legally protected wreck under the Protection of Wrecks Act which prohibits private parties from disturbing the site. Access to protected wrecks is strictly controlled by Historic England. A 2016 survey found the wreck was at high risk from forces both environmental — shifting sands, erosion, shipworm — and human — unauthorized sports diving — so the cultural heritage ministries of both countries developed a project called #Rooswijk1740 to excavate, manage and thoroughly study the site. This is the first Dutch East India wreck to be researched and explored scientifically in such depth.

Excavations began in 2017 with a focus on recording everything in the debris field and recovering select material for conservation in laboratory conditions, thorough documentation  and analysis. An enormous number of objects have been recovered, including the ship’s armaments (flintlock pistols, piles of lead shot, 23 of its 24 cannons, piles of cannon balls), coins (mostly Mexican reals, aka ‘pieces of eight’), silver ingots, personal items (nit comb, pewter vessels, a chest full of thimbles) and assorted cargo (chests of sabre blades, stone blocks, sheet copper).

There were other types of coins on board besides the pieces of eight, key evidence that the Rooswijk crew were doing brisk business in silver smuggling. These coins are ducatons, older Netherlands issue, not the internationally accepted currency of the pieces of eight that was the only officially sanctioned silver cash on board. The Rooswijk‘s silver ingots and reals would have been used to buy spices and porcelain in Jakarta, and to maintain its buying power the VOC strictly prohibited the transportation of any other silver on its ships. The wreckage proves that the crew and/or passengers paid that injunction no heed. They just hid their coins, stuffing them in shoes and belts. Some of the coins found on the dives were pierced with small holes used to sew them into the lining of clothes.

All objects recovered from the wreck are triaged and recorded at a warehouse in Ramsgate. They then move on to further conservation and documentation at a Historic England laboratory after which any objects salvaged from the Rooswijk are returned to its owner, The Netherlands.

Historic England ‘s research capabilities have just gotten a major upgrade courtesy of a £150,000 grant from the Wolfson Foundation. HE used the grant to install a state-of-the art high-resolution walk-in X-ray facility in Portsmouth that will allow researchers to scan large, thick concretions to identify artifacts trapped in the rock-hard mixtures of sand, rock, corrosion materials and ocean debris. Concretions can take years to remove and are so dense conventional X-rays often cannot may or not be removable in their entirety. The high-powered movable X-ray tube in the new facility penetrates fully through even the heaviest corrosion, so besides assuaging our curiosity with instant effect, the X-rays will be invaluable aids in conservation.

Because a large part of the goal of #Rooswijk1740 is sharing the discoveries and new-found knowledge with the broader pubic, they have really gone all-out on creating a rich store of digital content about the shipwreck. You can do a virtual tour with annotations of the entire shipwreck site here. Many recovered artifacts have been scanned and the 3D models uploaded to Sketchfab. It’s all gold, but I’m particularly enamored of a series of 3D models made at different stages in the excavation of a large concretion. There are models from 12 stages (1-6, 8-13) so far: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13. They also put together a two-part short film about the wreck and its excavation.

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1,000-year-old pet cat oldest on the Silk Road

July 9th, 2020

In the eternal battle between cat people and dog people, the latter definitely win as far as the archaeological record is concerned. Many dog burials have been found in archaeological contexts, but cats, be they domestic or wild, are very rare discoveries.

So when the 1,000-year-old remains of a domesticated cat were unearthed in Dzhankent, Kazakhstan, it was a surprising find, not just because of the overall infrequency of archaeological cat burials, but because there is no evidence of widespread cat ownership in Kazakhstan until the 19th century when the Kazakh steppe was conquered by and eventually absorbed into the Russian Empire. Throughout the Central Asian steppe, most feline remains consist of single bones scattered over a large area, their domestication status unclear. Steppe societies were largely pastoral and semi-nomadic, and cat domestication tends to go hand-in-hand with urbanization and agricultural settlement where stores of grain were in need of feline protection.

Located on the marshes of the northeastern coast of the Aral Sea, Dzhankent was founded in the 7th century and by late 9th, early 10th century had developed into a well-populated town overlooked by a citadel and defended by a perimeter wall. Its growth is linked with movement along the bristling caravan route network of the Silk Road.

The skeletal remains of the cat was found in the fill of an abandoned house at the intersection of the citadel and city walls. They were well-preserved with no weathering or evidence that the bones had been marked, cut, gnawed on or in any way altered post-mortem. The find site was a midden and contained large numbers of discarded animal and fish bones, but the cat’s bones were articulated so it seems it was buried in the trash pile, an “expedient burial” with no associated ritual. Radiocarbon analysis of the femur returned a date range of 775-940 A.D. making it the earliest domestic cat found on the Silk Road.

The cat was at least a year old at the time of death, and bone wear suggests it was older. Nuclear DNA extracted from the bones found that the cat was male and while its species could not be ascertain with certainty, its genome bears the highest affinity to the domestic cat (Felis catus). Isotope analysis found enriched nitrogen values indicative of a diet high in marine protein.

An examination of the tomcat’s skeleton revealed astonishing details about its life. First, the team took 3-D images and X-rays of its bones. “This cat suffered a number of fractures, but survived,” says [Martin Luther University Halle-Wittenberg’s Dr. Ashleigh] Haruda. Isotope analyses of bone samples also provided the team with information about the cat’s diet. Compared to the dogs found during the excavation and to other cats from that time period, this tomcat’s diet was very high in protein. “It must have been fed by humans, since the animal had lost almost all its teeth toward the end of its life.” […]

According to Haruda, it is remarkable that cats were already being kept as pets in this region around the eighth century AD: “The Oghuz were people who only kept animals when they were essential to their lives. Dogs, for example, can watch over the herd. They had no obvious use for cats back then,” explains the researcher. The fact that people at the time kept and cared for such “exotic” animals indicates a cultural change, which was thought to have occurred at a much later point in time in Central Asia. The region was thought to have been slow in making changes with respect to agriculture and animal husbandry.

The study has been published in the journal Scientific Reports and can be read here.

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Cerne Abbas Giant is a youngster

July 8th, 2020

Snail shells have revealed that the Cerne Abbas Giant, the figure of a naked man sporting a club and a 30-foot phallus cut into chalk hillside in Dorset, is medieval at the oldest.

Martin Papworth, senior archaeologist at the National Trust, and environmental archaeologist Mike Allen said two species of snail that appeared for the first time in Britain in the Roman period – thought to have been brought over from France as food – were not found at the site.

However, microscopic species, found for the first time in the medieval period during the 13th and 14th Centuries, have been discovered in the samples.

“They arrived here accidentally, probably in straw and hay used as packing for goods from the continent,” Mr Allen said.

These remarkably content-rich snail shells also revealed changes in vegetation growth on the Giant over time. At some point the grass was allowed to grow over the chalk outline, but he was back to full potency by the Victorian period.

Cerne Abbas first appears on the historical record in the 17th century. A note in a November 4th, 1694, churchwarden record from St. Mary’s Church records three shillings spent “for repairing ye Giant.” Antiquarian interest in the Giant really picked up steam in the 18th century. John Hutchins wrote in The History and Antiquities of the County of Dorset (1774) that the Giant was said to have been cut by order of Lord Holles, then the owner of the land, perhaps as an obscene parody of Oliver Cromwell. Local old people, Hutchins reported, “averred it was there beyond the memory of man.” F. J. Darton wrote in English Fabric – A study of Village Life (1935) that the Giant was the work of farmers who banded together to keep soldiers from looting their properties during the Civil War. They had no firearms and so used clubs against would-be raiders. They cut the Giant as a symbol of their strength and resistance.

Renown archaeologist Sir Flinders Petrie surveyed the Giant in 1926 and concluded that it dated to the Bronze Age. His sole evidence was the presence of a nearby Bronze Age settlement. General Pitt Rivers, the owner of the Giant before he donated it to the National Trust in 1919, believed it was a Roman-era cult figure of Hercules with his club. Eighteenth century antiquarian Dr. William Stukeley was certain the Giant represented the “famous and first Hercules, the Phoenician leader of the first colony to Britain when they came hither for Cornish tin.” Other theories place its origin in the pre-Roman Iron Age, a representation of a Celtic god or the Anglo-Saxon god Helith/Helis.

We should find out just how wrong they were in a few months. Soil samples were taken from the giant’s elbows and feet in March are to be analyzed using optically stimulated luminescence (OSL), a technique that can determine when the minerals in the soil were last exposed to sunlight. The soil testing was delayed by the pandemic and results are now expected in the autumn. If all goes well, the OSL results will narrow down the date to a reasonably tight range.

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Digital pilgrimage to Canterbury ca. 1408

July 7th, 2020

The medieval shrine of Saint Thomas Becket at Canterbury Cathedral has been recreated and the videos released 800 years to the day since his body was translated to the cathedral on July 7th, 1220. A  project three years in the making, researchers teamed up with digital modelling experts to create CGI models of the four main loci of pilgrimage in Canterbury Cathedral as they would have appeared to pilgrims in the early 15th century, a period for which there are numerous sources about the practices and operation of the shrine. What’s unusual about these video models is that the focus not just on the recreated the spaces, but also on how pilgrims of different classes interacted with the shrine, relics and cathedral.

Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury, was slain by four knights on December 29th, 1170, in the main hall of Canterbury Cathedral. Eyewitness Edward Grim wrote that the top of his skull was cut off and his brains scattered on the floor. The shock of this brutal assassination of a cleric on hallowed ground reverberated throughout Europe, and Becket was quickly considered a martyr. He was canonized a saint two years and two months after his death. In 1174, King Henry II, whose angry exclamation contra Becket had spurred the knights to commit this sacrilege, had to submit to a public act of penance at Becket’s tomb which had already become one of Christendom’s most important sites of pilgrimage.

He was buried under the floor of the eastern crypt covered by a stone slab. Two holes in the stone allowed pilgrims to kiss the tomb. The cult of Becket exploded and pilgrims visited the tomb in huge numbers over the next five decades. On the 50th anniversary of his death, July 7th 1220, Becket’s remains were translated to a new shrine in Trinity Chapel. The crown of his skull was kept in a gold reliquary in the Corona Chapel. The place of his martyrdom in the northwest transept and the original tomb were also sites of pilgrimage.

The shrine and Thomas Becket’s bones were destroyed by order of another Henry, eighth of his name, in 1538. Henry VIII went at Becket extra hard during the Dissolution of the Monasteries, even ordering the obliteration of his name, damnatio memoriae-style.

Using pre-Dissolution sources including first-hand accounts of pilgrims, archaeological materials (pilgrim badges, architectural features) and later scholarship, researchers recreated the physical sites and determined sums received at the four different stations and how well-trafficked they were. The Trinity Chapel shrine was the primary attraction, receiving by far the majority of the offerings. The Corona Chapel received the second highest sums (about 6-17%), the Martyrdom Chapel about 1-7% and the original tomb about .5-11%. The videos include people to convey how pilgrims made their offerings and moved around the sites.

Here is the digital reconstruction of Trinity Chapel, ca. 1408, viewed from the southwest.

Various pilgrim activities are taking place in the movie. A monk stands by the shrine and invites pilgrims to lay their offerings on the altar, including a merchant couple who present their child and give a candle in thanks for his deliverance from sickness, and a sea captain who gives a ring after surviving a storm. To the left of the screen, lower-status pilgrims have the miracle-stories in the windows explained to them by a clerk. Behind the shrine another monk points out the gems and precious objects to a higher-status merchant and his wife, encouraging them to add a gift of their own. In the niches around the marble tomb base other pilgrims pray to St Thomas on their knees.

This is the reconstruction of the Corona Chapel.

The Corona Chapel held a golden head reliquary, containing a piece of St Thomas’s skull that had been hacked off at his martyrdom. This reliquary had been remade in gold and studded with jewels in 1314. The popularity of pilgrim badges showing the head suggest it was a popular attraction within the Cathedral, but its small size and high value meant most pilgrims would only have been able to see it from afar.

The movie below shows the Countess of Kent, who has been invited by the Prior to a private ceremony. He removes the head reliquary from its display case, opens the top to reveal the relic inside, and offers it to the Countess to kiss. Her retinue of ladies-in-waiting look on, and pilgrims may have congregated outside the chapel to catch a glimpse of proceedings.

Third is the Martyrdom Chapel, site of Becket’s murder.

Here there was a small altar that had a reliquary containing the point of the sword which had cut into his head. The flagstones were said to bear the marks of his final footprints, and pilgrims came to kiss them.

The scene shows a mass on the morning of the Feast of the Martyrdom (29th December). On the eve of the feast a handful of hardy pilgrims were allowed to stay overnight in the Cathedral, swapping stories about Becket and eating and drinking around a fire. At dawn they went to the first of three Masses in the Martyrdom.

Last but not least is the original tomb where Thomas Becket’s body was kept for 50 years.

Even after the Translation, the now-empty tomb continued to be venerated as a site which had held the saint’s body – mostly likely by the long-term sick, who could stay without causing disruption to the activities in the cathedral.

A number of particularly ill or disabled pilgrims sit in long vigils around or at the empty tomb, while a clerk looks on to protect the valuables and aid those in need. To the left, a group of lower-class carers have formed a support group to discuss issues in caring for their sick relatives. As at the main shrine, a number of offerings in wax or crutches and other proofs of cure can be seen hanging around the tomb as proof of the saint’s power.

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Morse Museum acquires Louis Comfort Tiffany iron fireplace hood

July 6th, 2020

The Charles Hosmer Morse Museum of American Art in Winter Park, Florida, is home to the world’s most comprehensive collection of works by Louis Comfort Tiffany, encompassing everything from lamps, vases and jewelry to windows, the incredible Daffodil Terrace and even the entire chapel he created for the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago. Now to that great variety of masterpieces the museum has added a unique cast iron fireplace hood (pdf) that Tiffany so loved it lived in two houses with him.

Tiffany cast iron fireplace hood, ca. 1883. Photo courtesy of the Charles Hosmer Morse Museum of American Art, Winter Park, FL.

Louis Comfort Tiffany was a passionate collector of Chinese and Japanese art, and Asian motifs inspired many of his works (bat lamp 4eva!). His New York City home on 72nd Street and Madison, and later his Long Island country estate Laurelton Hall, were replete with Japanese and Chinese antiquities, rugs, furniture, ukiyo-e woodblock prints, pottery, statues, screens, musical instruments, jade cups, textiles, hairpins, beads, tea caddies, leather tobacco pouches, lacquer boxes, incense burners, weapons, multiple complete sets of samurai armor and much more, an impossibly wide assortment of objects large and small. Tiffany’s Asian collection crowded every nook, corner and surface of Laurelton Hall, not just the two dedicated rooms — the Chinese Room and the Japanese Room.

After the Meiji government of Japan abolished the samurai class in the 1870s, specifically outlawing the wearing of swords in 1876, Western auction houses made a brisk business of selling samurai armature. Louis Comfort Tiffany began collecting samurai sword guards (tsuba) in the 1880s. They flooded the market at that time, and Tiffany bought them literally by the barrel. In 1882 he acquired 2,500 in one fell swoop from his design firm partner Lockwood de Forest. They ranged in date from the late 18th to the early 19th centuries. Most of them were made of punched or pierced iron, some also decorated with mother-of-pearl and metal inlays in natural motifs (chrysanthemums, dragonflies). He was charmed by their fine workmanship, smooth curves, openwork textures and variety as each were individually made and no two sword guards were alike. He was known to carry one in his waistcoat pocket at all times.

With such a bounty of them, he incorporated tsuba in pieces of his own manufacture, including lampshades, frames of stained glass windows and suspension chains for hanging light fixtures. He embedded them into wine casks that he then mounted on the wall of the breakfast room. Around 1883, 14 years before he would open a foundry and metal shop to manufacture brass, bronze, copper and iron fittings for his glassworks in Corona, Queens, Louis Comfort Tiffany created a cast iron smoke hood in his Fourth Street workshops. It was 66 inches tall and 55 inches wide with tsuba embedded onto it so artfully their openwork looks like it is cut directly out of the hood itself. He mounted the smoke hood over the fireplace of the library in his 72nd Street home. More tsuba decorated the chimney breast, flanking walls and the fender. Pairs of them lined the vertical dividers between the five stained glass Magnolia panels of the bay window.

The hood remained in place until 1919, the year Louis retired from Tiffany Studios, when he dismantled it from his Manhattan home and reinstalled it in the smoking room of Laurelton Hall. The smoking room contained approximately 2,000 tsuba, not counting the ones he’d used to make custom pieces. The ones that weren’t soldered to lampshades and fireplace hoods he kept in wood cabinets.

Louis Comfort Tiffany had hoped that Laurelton Hall would become an enduring testament to his aesthetic vision long after he was gone, but the endowment he established to support Laurelton as a museum after his death in 1933 fell victim to financial reversals. The foundation was forced to sell the contents of the house at a Park-Bernet auction in 1946. The mansion with its 84 rooms, outbuildings, and 60 acres was sold and subdivided. Already much degraded, Laurelton Hall was all but destroyed by fire in 1957.

Hugh F. McKean, whom Louis Comfort Tiffany had invited to live at Laurelton as artist-in-residence in 1930, bought basically everything that survived the fire. Hugh’s wife Jeannette Genius McKean had founded the Morse Museum in 1942 in honor of her grandfather, machinery manufacturer and philanthropist Charles Hosmer Morse. When Laurelton Hall burned down, she and Hugh visited the ruins. She told him, “Let’s buy everything that is left and try to save it,” and that’s exactly what they did. The Morse Museum’s unparalleled Louis Comfort Tiffany collection is the result.

They did not salvage the iron hood from the smoking room, however. It was presumed destroyed. When it turned up in New York last year, the Morse Museum snapped it up with a quickness. The museum’s collection of objects, architectural features, furnishings and materials from Laurelton Hall, the largest in the world, is displayed in a dedicated 12,000-square-foot wing. The iron fireplace hood will join its brethren in the Laurelton Gallery on October 20th of this year.

Detail of fireplace hood. Photo courtesy of the Charles Hosmer Morse Museum of American Art, Winter Park, FL.

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Massive 10th c. wall points to first Polish capital

July 5th, 2020

Archaeologists have unearthed a large section of a 10th century defensive wall in Poznań, central Poland. Excavations in advance of construction of a new apartment building discovered the massive stone, sand and wood wall 23 feet below current ground level. At 130 feet wide and 40 feet high, it is the largest medieval defensive wall ever found in Poland.

Samples of oak wood from the wall were subjected to dendrochronological analysis and revealed the embankment was built in stages over three decades. The oldest wood came from a tree felled between 968 to 970. This is when construction of the ramparts began. The next oldest sample was felled a decade later in 980, the one after that in 986, the last in 1000.

Poznań was founded as a defensive fortress on an island between the Warta River and its tributary the Cybina. The stronghold was believed to have been built in the 8th or 9th century by the Polans, the Slavic tribe that gave the country its name, first settled in the Warta river basin in the 8th century. It is one of the oldest cities in Poland and was an important political, military and religious center at the dawn of the Polish state. Duke Mieszko I, the first Christian ruler of Poland, is believed to have been baptized in Poznań and the first Christian bishop of Poland took Poznań as his episcopal seat and the first cathedral in Poland was built there in the late 10th century.

The discovery of such a large the wall proves that the southern part of the castle complex was much larger than previously believed and that the town it defended was of major significance.

Given that only the more important settlements featured such ramparts and that Poznań’s defensive infrastructure consisted of three fortified rings joined together, suggests that the city could have been the country’s first capital, rather than the nearby city of Gniezno as previously thought.

Antoni Smoliński, the chief archaeologist working on site, said:

“Until now, we believed that Poznań was a settlement of secondary importance. However, given the discovery of the massive defences, this statement is highly questionable. The Early-Medieval city was, indeed, a strategic centre and the post-christening capital of Mieszko I’s Poland.”

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Paleoindian ocher mine found in underwater cave in Mexico

July 4th, 2020

Divers have discovered evidence of paleoindian ochre mining in a system of three underwater caves near Akumal on the coast of Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula. The caves of the peninsula were a source of minerals and pigments for the Maya, but the mining activity in this cave long predates them, beginning 12,000 years ago at the end of the last Ice Age and continuing for 2,000 more. That makes these cave networks the oldest known mine in the Americas.

The cave became submerged with the postglacial rise of sea levels about 8,000 years ago and the salt water in limestone caves helped preserved the archaeological evidence left by the ancient miners. Over the course of 100 dives since 2017, underwater archaeologists from the National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH) divers with the Research Center for the Aquifer System of Quintana Roo (CINDAQ) have explored more than four miles of tunnels and passages in three cave systems.

A recent survey of a half-mile section of passages known as La Mina revealed 155 stacks of stones, tools, charcoal remains of human-set fires on the floor, soot accumulation on the ceiling and most probative of all, pits and trenches carved out of the floor where trace mineral analysis found ocher residue. Stalactites and stalagmites were deliberately broken to allow people and materials to navigate the narrow passages. The flowstone floor was cracked and shattered to extract the ochre underneath it. Broken stalactite/stalagmites were used as hammerstones. Piles of mine spoil line the walls. These was a comprehensive mining program, all of it done in the dark areas of the cave. The closest natural light source was at minimum 650 feet away, more than 2,000 feet away at the furthest point.

“The cave’s landscape has been noticeably altered, which leads us to believe that prehistoric humans extracted tonnes of ocher from it, maybe having to light fire pits to illuminate the space,” points out Fred Devos.

Until now, no human skeletal remains have been found; however, rudimentary digging tools, signs —that would have been used in order not to get lost— and stacks of stones left behind by this primitive mining activity have been located. The abundance of ocher filled cavities has led experts to theorize about the rocks themselves being used as tools to excavate and break down the stone.

Iron-rich red ochre was used by humans for tens of thousands of years. The mineral pigment was used in rock art, funerary rituals, pottery decoration and personal adornment. In ancient America, ochre has been discovered in art, on human remains, in toolkits, on grinding stones, in tanned hides and much more. La Mina’s ochre was of particularly high quality, very pure in iron oxide and composed of particles so fine-grained that it was basically ready for use as a paint as soon as it was mined.

Skeletal remains have been discovered in other cenotes. The 12,000-year-old skeleton of a teenage girl dubbed Naia found in the cenote of Hoyo Negro near Tulum less than 20 miles southwest of Akumal is the oldest complete human skeleton in the Western Hemisphere. Naia was a contemporary of the miners who sought ochre in caves 15 miles away from her final resting place. The discovery that these cave systems were mined for thousands of years opens up the possibility that instead of falling victim to an accident — the going theory as regards paleoindian remains in cenotes — individuals like Naia may have been scouting caves for valuable ochre.

The research has been published in the journal ScienceAdvances and can be read here.

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