French student finds 560,000-year-old tooth

July 30th, 2015

A French art history student has discovered an adult human tooth around 560,000 years old in the Arago Cave in Tautavel, southern France. It is one of the oldest human fossils ever found in Europe (the oldest is a 600,000-year-old jawbone found in Germany in 1907), and the oldest human body part ever found in France by 100,000 years. Its significance is bolstered by the scarcity of human remains in Europe from this period. There’s something of a gap in the record between 500,000 and 800,000 years ago and very little new material has been found. This one tooth is therefore of outsized importance.

Volunteer excavator Valentin Loescher, 20, one of more than 30 young people from France and around the world participating in this season’s excavation, discovered the tooth the afternoon of Thursday, July 23rd, in a section of the cave liberally sprinkled with animal remains. The volunteer digging next to him, Camille Jacquey, 16, was on a break when he found it. When she returned, they showed the find to Amélie Vialet, the paleoanthropologist leading the excavation team, who identified it as an adult human incisor from a lower jaw. Its age was determined by stratigraphic analysis; the layer in which the tooth was found has been dated with a variety of methods to confirm its range, so researchers are satisfied that the tooth is at least 550,000 years old, and maybe as much as 580,000 years old.

Yves Coppens, professor of paleoanthropology and prehistory at the Collège de France, who was part of the 1970s team that discovered the remains of the famous early human ancestor known as Lucy in Ethiopia, told France Info radio: “A tooth can tell us a whole range of things. Its shape and wear and tear tells us about the eating habits of the person in question; the tissue reveals a lot of information. The DNA can give an idea as to who this person was.”

If there’s any tartar on the tooth, they might be able to do stable isotope analysis on it to determine the ancient person’s diet.

There have been volunteers excavating the Arago Cave yearly since 1964. Thousands of people have given their time and dedication to the site for the past 50 years and they’ve been exceptionally productive. More than 600,000 prehistoric objects and remains have been unearthed since excavations began, most famously 140 bones and bone fragments from a single 450,000-year-old Homo erectus known as Tautavel Man. In a blissful historical coincidence, one of the volunteers in the 1979 excavation that unearthed a piece of Tautavel Man’s skull was Camille Jacquey’s mother.

This season only began in May and the team has already made thousands of finds. Besides unearthing the tooth, the team has been able to determine what kind of pollen and vegetation were in the area, even the source of the flint knapped by the cave’s users (it’s a site about 20 miles away). They know the area was a treeless, arid steppe around the time the individual left the tooth in the cave, cold, snowy, windblown. Researchers hope the tooth may fill in some of the missing information about the people of who navigated this harsh landscape.

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Jamestown remains identified as four early leaders

July 29th, 2015

When the Virginia Company sent the first batch of 104 settlers to colonize the New World, they chose Jamestown Island, marshy and mosquito-ridden with virtually no farmland, bad hunting and no fresh water but secure from any potential attack by Spanish ships, as the site for their new colony. They built James Fort, a triangular wooden palisade, within two weeks and the first Jamestown settlement was established inside its perimeter. It was small, but soon contained at least a storehouse, several houses and one church, the first Protestant church in the New World.

Built in 1608, the church served the community for almost decade. Secretary of the colony William Strachey described it as “pretty chapel” 60 feet long and 24 feet wide with a cedar wood chancel. In 1614 Pocahontas married tobacco planter John Rolfe there. Within three years of that wedding, the church had fallen into disrepair and was abandoned when a new church was built nearby as the settlement expanded eastward from the original confines of Fort James. Over time the location of the first fort and its church was lost.

It was Strachey’s description that helped archaeologists identify the remains of the church when they were discovered during a 2010 excavation of the rediscovered Fort James site. The structural posts matched the dimensions documented by Strachey, as did the structure’s orientation in the middle of the fort. At the eastern end of the building, archaeologists found four graves. This space was the cedar chancel Strachey mentioned, the area in the front of the church with the altar which was reserved for the most important people during services. Only people of very high status were honored with burial under the chancel.

Since the archaeological site of Jamestown is open to visitors, the church remains were refilled for safety. Jamestown Rediscovery archaeologists, working with forensic anthropologists from the Smithsonian’s Museum of Natural History, returned in November of 2013 to fully excavate the graves in the hopes they might be able to identify the people buried there. The remains were under threat, as is the entire Jamestown site, by rising sea levels, and one of the skeletons had been significantly damaged by workers in 1938 (when the location of the fort was still unknown) unwittingly dug a trench through the chancel to install electric cable. The excavation revealed one body had been buried only in a shroud (the others had wooden coffins) and two of the people were buried with artifacts that could help identify them.

The team carefully unearthed and documented the graves, using a precision laser tool to record the positions of the graves, skeletons, coffin fragments and artifacts. Then the Smithsonian’s outstanding 3D Digitization Program Office did their magic, laser scanning the entire site, collecting millions of data points and high resolution photographs that would allow them to create an interactive 3D model of the burials. I won’t embed it because the last time I did it caused some loading problems, but here’s the 3D model of the chancel graves on the Smithsonian website.

The skeletal remains were then removed to the lab for analysis. Time and environment had not been kind to them — only 30% of each skeleton was recovered — but the bones could still speak through science. All four were men who were between their early 20s and their 40s when they died, and all four were found to have carbon and oxygen isotope values indicating they were raised in England. None of them show the tell-tale osteological signs of strenuous labor, but the teeth of two of them were in bad shape with numerous cavities and abscesses. That was a clue that those two men may have been in America longer than the other two and had thus been exposed to a potentially tooth-rotting sweet corn diet for a few more years. High levels of lead in the bones of two of the men suggested they were high-born since in the 17th century the wealthy and noble ingested more lead than the poor courtesy of lead-lined and pewter tableware.

The artifacts proved as challenging to study as they were revelatory. In the southernmost grave, archaeologists found a textile made of silk cloth, silver threads and silver spangles between the rib cage and left arm of the skeleton. A near-miraculous survival, the artifact was too fragile to be excavated and was removed in a soil block. X-rays found the hundreds of silver threads and spangles in the soil block. Micro CT 3D scanning revealed the object was a captain’s sash decorated with bullion fringe.

The two artifacts found in the other burial were placed in the grave outside the coffin. One was an iron fragment three inches long that turned out to be the finial below the tip of a ceremonial spear known as a leading staff. The other was a silver box placed on top of the coffin. The box was corroded shut, so the research team turned to X-ray and CT scanning in the attempt to see what might be inside. With help from increasingly higher resolution microCT scanners, gradually the silver box gave up its secrets. It’s a reliquary containing a lead ampulla, a vial used to hold holy water, oil or the blood of a saint, broken in two pieces and seven fragments of bone, also probably holy relics. Their final scans were so detailed they were able to 3D-print reproductions of the contents for examination.

Reliquaries are Catholic and like other Catholic devotional objects they were outlawed by Elizabeth I and her successor James I. This box may be evidence of a crypto-Catholic presence in the colony, which is also supported by other more modest finds made elsewhere in Jamestown like pilgrim’s tokens, crucifixes and rosary beads.

Thanks also to copious documentary research on likely candidates, the Jamestown Rediscovery team was able to identify the four men as:

  1. The Reverend Robert Hunt, the former vicar of Reculver, England, who arrived with the first settlers in 1607 and died aged around 40 between January and April of 1608.
  2. Captain Gabriel Archer, a bitter rival of Captain John Smith (he once called for his execution), who explored the interior along the James River valley. He died during the horrific “starving time” in the winter of 1609-1610 at the age of 35. The reliquary is his, and since his parents were Catholics, once fined for non-attendance of Anglican services, he could very well have been as well, only on the downlow.
  3. Sir Ferdinando Wainman, the earliest English knight known to have been buried in the New World, arrived in June of 1610 with his relative, the first governor of Virginia Thomas West, Lord De La Warr. He was appointed Jamestown’s master of the ordnance and cavalry, but he didn’t have a chance to serve for long as he died between July and August of 1610. He was 34.
  4. Captain William West, another relative of Lord De La Warr’s who arrived in June 1610 only to die within months. He was killed in battle against Powhatan warriors in the fall or winter of 1610. The glorious sash is his.

The two men with the high lead levels were Wainman and Archer.

The Historic Jamestowne website is excellent, packed with information on the history of the site and its ongoing archaeology. I strongly advise starting on the chancel burials page and clicking through the large icons which will lead to pages with other large icons beneath. In addition to detailed information on the four men, they have many videos related to this find, all short enough to binge on like popcorn one after the other.

This one about the church has footage of the 2011 excavation and shows how respectfully the site was refilled with mounds and crosses marking the four burials:

The 2013 excavation of the burials:

Overview of the discovery and identification of the skeletal remains:

Flythrough of a 3D rendering of the chancel burials:

Captain West’s fabulous silk and silver sash:

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Lost Guercino found by Sopranos actor on display in US

July 28th, 2015

A long-lost painting of Saint Sebastian by 17th century Baroque master Guercino that was found by actor Federico Castelluccio, aka mobster Furio Giunta on The Sopranos, is going on display in the United States for the first time. Its exhibition at the Princeton University Art Museum is only the second time the painting has been on display since its rediscovery. It made its world debut at an exhibition dedicated to depictions of Saint Sebastian at the Castello di Miradolo museum in Turin last October. Guercino’s work scored top billing over the likes of Titian and Rubens as the cover picture of the show.

Castelluccio, who in addition to his acting credits is also an accomplished realist painter in his own right and a collector of Renaissance and Baroque Italian paintings, found this masterpiece the way they’re found in art nerd fairy tales. He was driving through Frankfurt in 2010 when a window filled with paintings caught his eye. It was the Dobritz auction house, a small local shop crammed with works scheduled to be sold at an auction in two weeks. In a stack of paintings on the staircase to the second floor of the shop, Castelluccio saw the Guercino. It immediately leapt out at him as the work of the Baroque master, the fine chiaroscuro belying the auction house manager’s lackluster description of the piece as “an 18th-century Italian holy painting of Saint Sebastian.”

It was estimated to sell for between 1,000 and 1,500 Euros ($1,100 – 1,657), which obviously Castelluccio was more than glad to pay on the spot, but the manager insisted that he attend the auction and bid for it like anyone else. When the actor actually showed up, flying back to Frankfurt from his home in New York specifically to bid on that Saint Sebastian, the manager got an inkling that they might have something a little more interesting than some anonymous 18th century holy painting. Someone else apparently had a similar inkling, because Castelluccio wound up in a duel with a phone bidder that drove the final hammer price up to 49,000 Euros ($54,000). Castelluccio and his business partner put in the winning bid.

Then came the hard work. Castelluccio instinctively believed the painting was an authentic Guercino, not the work of his studio or a later reproduction, but one man’s good taste is not an accepted authentication standard. First the painting was cleaned, conserved and suitably framed. This painstaking process took years during which Castelluccio did assiduous research on the painting’s history. Art historians and leading Guercino experts David Stone of the University of Delaware and Nicholas Turner, the former curator of drawings at the J. Paul Getty Museum, were enlisted to thoroughly examine the work. They used X-rays, infrared reflectography and chemical pigment testing to determine the painting’s age and to compare its bones to those of known works by Guercino. They authenticated it as painted by Guercino’s hand around 1632-34.

There are only two other life-size, three-quarter view Saint Sebastians by Guercino known: a 1641 version now in the Moscow’s Pushkin Museum and one in the Museo de Arte de Ponce in Puerto Rico. The newly rediscovered one is the earliest of the three. While Castelluccio and his partner wound up spending about $140,000 total in acquiring, conserving, testing and researching the painting, if they were to sell it now it would certainly make millions. A King David by Guercino sold at Christie’s in London for close to $8 million (including buyer’s premium) and that was in 2010. The Christ and the Woman of Samaria bought privately by the Kimbell Art Museum that same year is thought to have gone for more than $10 million.

He and the co-owner may eventually sell the portrait, [Castelluccio] said, ideally to a prestigious institution.

A few of its previous owners have been identified, including the German countess Maria von Maltzan, a Resistance fighter during World War II who hid Jews and other escapees from the Nazis.

Once the painting was authenticated, art dealer Robert Simon, to whom Castelluccio had shown the work before it was cleaned, arranged for its loan to the Castello di Miradolo where Guercino’s Martyrdom of Saint Sebastian was seen in the public again after 350 years in obscurity. Castelluccio got it back after the exhibition closed in March and then Princeton reached out to him to see if he’d be amenable to a more local exhibition. He was and now the painting is on display at the Princeton University Art Museum as a special installation until January of 2016.

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Remains of soldiers in mass grave show toll of Napoleon’s Russian campaign

July 27th, 2015

In late 2001, workers doing construction on the site of a former Soviet Army barracks in a northern suburb of Vilnius discovered a mass grave which fragments of military uniforms identified as the final resting place for more than 3,000 soldiers and support staff of Napoleon’s Great Army who died during the horrific retreat from Russia in the winter of 1812. The grave was excavated in two stages in 2002 and the preliminary results of the study of the skeletons were published in February of 2004 (pdf). Thanks to two new studies on the skeletal remains, we now know more about the geographical origin and diet of some of the men and women who died in Napoleon’s disastrous Russian campaign.

First an infographic. I get emails all the time from people asking me to post their ostensibly history-related infographics and I decline because they tend to be marketing gimmicks that are very light on content. This one is different. Created in 1869 by French civil engineer Charles Joseph Minard, a pioneer of statistics relayed in graphic form, this chart plots the advance of the Great Army into Russia and its devastating retreat. The width of the line marks the size of the army at any given time. The beige line, obese with troops in the beginning, thins out to a quarter of its original size when the army reaches Moscow. The black line then shows the retreating army as it doubles back in the sadly vain attempt to make it out of the Russian winter alive. By the time the black line reaches where the beige line begins, it’s pencil-thin. The 422,000 invasion troops are reduced to 10,000 in retreat, starving, frozen, defeated on an unthinkable scale by a brutal Russian winter and overly extended supply lines.

The deceptively simple chart captures six variables: the size of the army (represented by the thickness of the line), the longitude and latitude of the army (represented by the position of the line), the direction of the army (represented by the two different colored lines), the location of the army on certain dates and, in a line chart underneath the main graphic, the temperature during the retreat. Many cartographers and graphics experts today consider it the greatest information graphic ever made. (Click here for a much larger version translated into English.

The immensity of the disaster that Minard’s graphic conveys so adroitly is exposed on a more human scale by the bones of the fallen. Buttons found in the two trenches of the mass grave identified soldiers and officers from around 30 regiments, most of them infantry, some cavalry, dragoon and foot artillery. There were uniform remains from Italian, Polish and Bavarian regiments as well as the Imperial Guard. There are female skeletons in the mass grave because since 1805 the French army had an official cadre of women working as cooks, laundresses, nurses and sellers of goods like tobacco and alcohol which accompanied the Grand Army in every campaign. Archaeologists were able to determine the sex of 29 female skeletons, but there were probably more women buried with the men as the remains of 1317 individuals were impossible to sex.

The two new studies by University of Central Florida researchers used stable isotope analysis to find out where some of Napoleon’s dead came from and what, if anything, they ate. In one of the studies (pdf), oxygen isotopes in the bones revealed that none of the dead tested were from Vilnius. Of the eight males and one female tested, five of the men were from central and western Europe, three from the Iberian peninsula. The woman was most likely from southern France.

The other study (pdf) took specimens from the bones of 73 men and three women for stable carbon and nitrogen isotope analysis. Carbon isotopes revealed that most of Napoleon’s troops ate wheat in their youth and a few, perhaps from Italy, were raised more on millet. More than a third of the specimens were found to have exceptionally high nitrogen isotope values. While that’s often an indication of a diet high in protein (Richard III, for instance, had a diet rich in game, meat and sea fish and the nitrogen values to prove it), it’s also a reaction to the exact opposite: protein deprivation dramatically raises nitrogen isotope values. Disease can spike nitrogen values as well.

Napoleon’s men were not in good health, even before their ill-fated stop in Vilnius. Research on the teeth of the soldiers in the mass grave showed rampant dental cavities and indications of stress during childhood, and over one-quarter of the dead had likely succumbed to epidemic typhus, a louse-borne disease. A febrile illness like typhus could cause increased loss of body water through urine, sweat, and diarrhea, which may also cause a rise in nitrogen isotopes. And, of course, historical accounts detail how troops fruitlessly scoured the countryside for food and how many of them ate their dead or dying horses.

Consumption of seafood is unlikely to be the cause of the high nitrogen since the frozen Vilnia River wasn’t producing and there were no salted stores to be had. Canning was still in its infancy as French brewer Nicolas Appert had only devised a method to seal food in glass jars in 1809. He did so specifically for the French army, incidentally, after Napoleon offered a 12,000 franc reward to anyone who could solve the military’s thorny supply problems. Glass doesn’t transport well and while a metal can system was invented by Peter Durand in 1810, Durand was British and his patented food preservation products went straight to the Royal Navy, not the Grand Armée.

The culprit is almost certainly prolonged nutritional stress.

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Five oversized Bronze Age axes found in Jutland Christmas tree farm

July 26th, 2015

Just before Easter of this year, Christmas tree farmer Esben Arildskov asked a metal detecting friend Bent Rasmussen to survey a field on his farm in the village of Boest near Nørre Snede in Jutland, Denmark. Bronze artifacts had been found on the field before, and Arildskov wanted to be sure any historic artifacts were recovered before he cleared the area for planting. That responsible choice proved prescient. Rasmussen’s metal detector alerted to a large metal find and when he dug down, he found two large bronze axe heads. He immediately stopped digging and notified experts at the Museum Midtjylland of the find.

The two axes Rasmussen unearthed are 30 and 26 centimeters (one foot and 10 inches) long. The larger one weighs almost a full kilo (980 grams, 2.16 pounds); the smaller weighs 650 grams (1.4 pounds). Bronze Age axes are usually half this size, so the museum’s archaeologists were excited by the find. They examined the site and realized there was more to be found underneath the surface. They had to wait until after Easter to get started so on April 7th the official excavation began. Archaeologists, museum curators, journalists, neighbors and interested observers made the dig something of a party, complete with coffee and homemade cake. They had good cause to celebrate when three more oversized axes were unearthed. The axe hoard was painstakingly buried, each axe placed deliberately on top of the others inside a pit that was padded with grass.

Radiocarbon dating found the axes were made between 1,800 and 1,500 B.C., a period bridging the end of the Stone Age and the beginning of the Bronze Age. This places them among the earliest bronze artifacts ever discovered in Denmark.

Bronze axes from this era are so rare only five of them have been found before in Denmark, Sweden and northern Germany. That means the Boest find has in one fell swoop doubled the number of these Bronze Age axes in the archaeological record of northern Europe. When you consider that
Bent Rasmussen and his brother, enlisted by Bent during excavations to cover more ground with their metal detectors, found another four smaller axes and a spear tip, it’s clear that this field in Boest was an important place during the early Bronze Age.

The would-be Christmas tree lot continued its archaeological hot streak when rows of large postholes were discovered. Four parallel rows of holes so large the posts they held would have been at least the height of a man. At first archaeologists thought they might be the remains of a dwelling or a fence, but as they kept excavating they kept finding more postholes. Ultimately they were able to follow an uninterrupted path of postholes for 109 meters before it disappeared into the forest. Now they’re thinking it may have been a processional route leading to burial mounds known to be on the property. This find is unique in Danish history, more akin to the pre-stone standing structures of Avebury and Stonehenge. Archaeologists hope to be able to excavate the entire processional in the near future, but first the funding has to be secured.

At the end of April, archaeologists unearthed another treasure across the post rows and slightly to the right of the axe hoard: two gold bracelets, one gold finger ring and two flint blades. The bangles weigh 21 grams (.74 ounces) apiece while the ring weighs a massive 16 grams (.56 oz). Modern wedding rings weigh a single gram, so this ring is exceptionally heavy. The gold deposit also dates to the transitional period between the Stone and Bronze Ages.

The axes are being conserved at the Museum Midtjylland after which they will be sent to the National Museum in Copenhagen for further analysis. Museum Midtjylland hopes the axes will be available for display this summer. Esben Arildskov has accepted that he won’t be planting Christmas trees on this land anytime soon, but he’s consoled by the fact that he’s the owner of a Bronze Age ceremonial center with huge axes and gold rings the weight of 16 regular rings buried hither and yon. He, his wife Birthe Rosvig and two daughters (aged five and eight) are thrilled to have found actual treasure in their back yard.

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Birmingham Qur’an folio one of world’s earliest

July 25th, 2015

A partial Qur’an manuscript in the University of Birmingham’s Cadbury Research Library has been radiocarbon dated to between 568 and 645 A.D., which makes it one of the earliest Qur’ans known to survive, perhaps even the earliest. The Prophet Muhammad lived around 570 to 632 A.D., so the sheep or goat who whose skin was used to make the parchment was his contemporary or died very soon after he did.

Muslim tradition holds that the Prophet received the revelations of the angel Gabriel in the last two decades of his life, transmitting them orally to his closest and most trusted companions who memorized them word for word. According to Sunni Islam, Abu Bakr, Muhammad’s father-in-law and after his death the first caliph of the Rashidun Caliphate, fearing that the people who memorized the scripture would die before they could pass it down, ordered the verses written down. That text was then used by the third caliph, Uthman Ibn Affan, as the basis for the definitive version of the Qur’an which was widely copied and distributed in 650 A.D., just 18 years after Muhammad died. (The Shi’ite tradition holds Uthman Ibn Affan solely responsible for collecting the revelations into a single written scripture.)

The manuscript consists of two folios with parts of Suras 18 through 20 written in a beautiful tilted Arabic script called Hijazi that is so clear it can be easily read by Arabic readers today. The pages have been in the library for decades, one of more than 3,000 of Middle Eastern manuscripts collected by Chaldean priest Alphonse Mingana in the 1920s at the behest of Edward Cadbury, chocolate magnate in a long line of chocolate magnates who, when they weren’t busy making delicious creme-filled confections, founded a consortium of colleges later absorbed by the University of Birmingham. The folios were mistakenly bound with the folios of another Qur’an written 200 years later in a very similar hand. There are no records of where Mingana acquired these particular leaves, but the parchment and script look like Qur’an fragments from the earliest mosque in Egypt (founded 642 A.D.) that are now in the Bibliothèque Nationale de France in Paris.

Dr. Alba Fedeli noticed the folios while doing research for her PhD. While the handwriting on those two pages at first glance seemed identical to that on the rest of the manuscript, she saw that the content stuck out, that it didn’t seem to fit with what came before and after. Fedeli pointed out the discrepancy to Susan Worrall, director of the library’s special collections, who decided to have them carbon dated by experts at the Oxford University Radiocarbon Accelerator Unit. They were shocked by the results.

Dr Muhammad Isa Waley, Lead Curator for Persian and Turkish Manuscripts at the British Library, said: “This is indeed an exciting discovery. We know now that these two folios, in a beautiful and surprisingly legible Hijazi hand, almost certainly date from the time of the first three Caliphs. [...]

“The Muslim community was not wealthy enough to stockpile animal skins for decades, and to produce a complete Mushaf, or copy, of the Holy Qur’an required a great many of them. The carbon dating evidence, then, indicates that Birmingham’s Cadbury Research Library is home to some precious survivors that – in view of the Suras included – would once have been at the centre of a Mushaf from that period. And it seems to leave open the possibility that the Uthmanic redaction took place earlier than had been thought – or even, conceivably, that these folios predate that process. In any case, this – along with the sheer beauty of the content and the surprisingly clear Hijazi script – is news to rejoice Muslim hearts.”

The folios will go on display at University of Birmingham’s Barber Institute of Fine Arts from October 2nd through October 25th.

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Floor of 4,000-year-old dwelling found in Ohio

July 24th, 2015

Archaeologists excavating the Burrell Orchard site in Sheffield, Ohio, have discovered the floor of a dwelling built 4,000 years ago.

“There’s nothing like this anywhere in Ohio. It’s very significant, a much more significant site than we previously thought,” [excavation director Dr. Brian] Redmond said. “These are house structures. This was like a village site.”

The builders lived in what archaeologists classify as the Late Archaic period in North America, so far back that they don’t have a tribal name.

“We have no idea what they called themselves or what language they spoke,” Redmond said. “The only reason we know anything about them is archaeology.”

The floor is about three inches thick and composed of yellow clay that was dug up elsewhere and carried to the site. Features were built into the floor, among them a basin, cooking pits, storage holes that held tools and food supplies like hickory nuts. Around the perimeter of the floor are post molds, spots of decayed organic material left in post holes that once held hickory saplings. Those saplings were tied together at the top and draped with mats of woven cattails to make a proto-wigwam.

This is remarkably solid construction for nomadic hunter-gatherers. They didn’t live here permanently, but rather visited the area to hunt and forage. It must have been an excellent spot for their purposes — productive, sheltered — because they stayed there for months before moving on only to return again over and over.

The Cleveland Museum of Natural History team under Dr. Redmond first explored the Burrell Orchard site in 2008 when they discovered multiple layers of middens — ancient refuse piles — under the surface. Flint flakes, broken weapons, fire-cracked rocks, butchered animal bones and the remains of many cooking pits were found in deposits as much as 1.6 feet deep. Shovel-test excavations pinpointed the perimeter of the buried midden deposit: it is more than an acre in surface area. So vast a trash collection indicates the site was used for centuries by dozens, possibly hundreds, of hunter-gatherer families as a food collecting and processing spot.

The 2008 excavation also revealed the first of post molds. Some of them appeared to be the remnants of simple structures like food drying racks, but others were found in groups of three or more, which suggests the posts were used to make a more elaborate structure. They found layers of yellow-brown clay as well. While similar clay layers at archaeological sites in Illinois and Kentucky were found to be the floors of Late Archaic homes, at first the team thought the yellow clay might just be the natural subsoil underlying the middens. Digging underneath the layer revealed prehistoric artifacts, however, so either the clay was backdirt dug up from nearby pits that sank into the natural subsoil, or it was deliberately placed there to act as a floor or working surface. Now we know it’s the latter.

In 2014, the Cleveland Museum of Natural History’s Archaeology in Action program began excavations at the Burrell Orchard site to follow up on the post molds and clay found in 2008. One of the excavation pits found the yellow clay layer with an arc of post molds following the edge of the clay that penetrate through the layer. When they returned this year, they scanned the field with Ground Penetrating Radar (GPR) and found a section that generated a very similar signal to the one caused by the 2014 floor discovery. The excavation turned up the same kinds of materials — flint flakes, fire-cracked rock, burned animal bones, burned soil, charcoal — found in the shallower layers of the 2014 find. Then the team struck gold: the yellow clay layer, this one less deep than the one from the year before. A core sample them revealed there was a second yellow clay layer at the same depth as the one found in 2014. It looks like the Late Archaic people using the site constructed a dwelling over the floor of an older one, which makes sense when you’re returning to the same spot for generations.

Dr. Redmond has blogged about the 2014 and 2105 excavations on the Cleveland Museum of Natural History’s website. I suggest reading the entries chronologically to follow the discoveries as they were made.

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1,000,000 minutes of historical news on YouTube

July 23rd, 2015

Remember when British Pathé uploaded their archives to YouTube last year and I was all “Smell ya later, guys. I’ma be watching newsreels for the next 48 hours straight.”? Well, those 85,000 historic films comprising 3,500 hours of footage were a modest little rabbit hole compared to this one. The Associated Press and its partner British Movietone are putting their entire archives on YouTube. That’s a grand total of more than 550,000 videos and 16,500 hours of footage filmed from 1895 until the present. The British Movietone channel will host the oldest pieces, footage from 1895 through 1986. The AP channel has plenty of historical news as well, but also focuses on current events with new film from its breaking news channel added daily.

They’re also bringing together the past and the present in a very clever way. In the wake of the publication of that video of the future Queen being taught how to do the Nazi salute in 1933 when she was seven years old, British Movietone put together a collection of videos showcasing pre-World War II attitudes to Nazism and Fascism in England. Even polar bears were being taught the Nazi salute in 1934.

In happier memories, English football fans won’t want to miss the glorious conclusion of the 1966 World Cup final between England and West Germany in color for the first time. (The whole match is available in black and white here for comparison.)

The 1906 San Francisco earthquake, filmed almost 110 years ago:

I remember this clip like it was yesterday:

The AP has been very slow to adapt to the brave new world of free online content. It wasn’t that long ago that they were issuing cease-and-desist letters to bloggers who quoted too much of an article. They’ve had their video archives available on their own website for some time, but only unembeddable, painfully low resolution previews. The good stuff had to be paid for, which left it the province of documentarians and big budget news outlets. It’s nice to see the AP finally catch on to the fact that they’ll get more licensing requests by opening up their archives to the place pretty much everyone goes to look for videos rather than by keeping them squirreled away on their website.

Alright guys, smell ya later. If you don’t hear from me in a month, send food and water. I won’t be needing soap BECAUSE I’M NEVER LEAVING THE HOUSE AGAIN.

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Captain’s Kidd treasure neither treasure nor Kidd’s

July 22nd, 2015

A UNESCO investigation into the claimed discovery of a massive silver ingot from the wreck of Captain Kidd’s ship Adventure Galley has found that the silver ingot isn’t silver and the wreck isn’t a ship. The so-called ingot is 95% lead and has no silver in it at all. It’s just a large hunk of ballast. As for the so-called wreck, it’s a pile of stones, probably rubble from a broken section of the port.

Days after the putative discovery was made in the shallow waters of the bay of the island of Sainte Marie off the east coast of Madagascar, UNESCO’s Scientific and Technical Advisory Body (STAB) sent an emergency mission to the island at the behest of the Ministry of Culture and Crafts of Madagascar. A team composed of seven divers, archaeologists, curators and photographers was to report on the general condition of the historic wrecks in the bay and to evaluate Clifford’s excavation project. They explored the site for four days, ultimately finding nothing that could be part of a ship, just stones. Team leader Dr. Michel L’Hour, a French underwater archaeologist who has explored 150 wrecks in his career and is in his ninth year as Director of the Department of Underwater Archaeological Research of France’s Ministry of Culture, thinks the stones may be all that’s left of a jetty or the base of a sea wall.

Determining that the bar wasn’t silver was a simple matter of testing it. Clifford admits that he never did have the metal tested before announcing to the world it was the biggest silver ingot ever found on a shipwreck. He claims he was going by the word of his collaborator John de Bry, a historian who has worked with Clifford for 15 years, but de Bry says he never got a chance to examine it or touch it, that he only saw the piece from a distance. “It looked like a silver bar except the markings were unusual.” Clifford persists in believing that it could still be silver despite UNESCO’s results.

John de Bry, who is not an archaeologist despite having been erroneously described as such in the media and by Clifford, was quoted at the time of the discovery saying that the underwater remains and the ingot were “irrefutable proof that this is indeed the treasure of the Adventure Gallery.” Yet, shortly thereafter he was cooperating with the UNESCO investigation very much against Clifford’s wishes, sharing the expedition’s research data which according to UNESCO Clifford refused in writing to provide.

Clifford has a history of UNESCO disputing his breathlessly announced finds. I didn’t post about this story at the time because it was just so blatantly crap, but last May Clifford claimed to have discovered the wreck of Christopher Columbus’ flagship the Santa Maria off the coast of Haiti. Five months later UNESCO announced their team had investigated the wreck and found bronze or copper fasteners which conclusively date the ship’s construction to the 17th or 18th century.

Now that they’ve poured cold water on his Captain Kidd fantasies too, Clifford insists UNESCO is out to get him. The organization is only trying to besmirch his discoveries because it’s opposed to all private archaeology, he says, and is “heavily anti-American and anti-British.” Sam Browne, producer of the documentary about the wreck for the History Channel, agrees that UNESCO is just hating on Clifford. Apparently without a shred of irony, Browne decries UNESCO’s “frankly shocking lack of transparency and impartiality throughout,” which is pretty rich coming from the people who emerged out of the sea with a hunk of lead, called a press conference to announce without proof or even a single decent picture of the site that they’d found Captain Kidd’s treasure and then refused to share their research data with UNESCO. He insists that their methods were scientifically rigorous, that they conducted “the most comprehensive geophysical study ever done” of Sainte Marie bay, that the UNESCO team wasn’t even looking in the right place.

Judging from the UNESCO report (pdf), it’s not Clifford’s private funding and Americanness that irks them, but rather his shameless mediawhoring and lack of adherence to the strictures of its Convention on the Protection of the Underwater Cultural Heritage.

The work of the film team and its lead‐explorer, undertaken in spring 2015, as well as prior work by the same explorer, was distinguished by a media‐led approach, which has not respected the regulations of the 2001 Convention, and which jeopardized the scientific understanding of the sites concerned and the preservation of the artefacts recovered.

UNESCO’s 2001 Convention on the Protection of the Underwater Cultural Heritage, ratified by Madagascar, requires, among other things, that any contact with the wrecks be led by a qualified underwater archaeologist. Clifford is not an archaeologist, nor is de Bry or the members of the film crew documenting the find. October Films, the production company shooting the documentary, said that “all the work was carried out by a team of experienced underwater explorers lead by a respected marine archaeologist,” the last apparently being a reference to Clifford who is not in fact an archaeologist.

It’ll be interesting to see if this documentary ever sees the light of the day. They should just edit in an addendum questioning ominously whether the UNESCO team might be aliens. The History Channel will eat that right up, no questions asked.

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Sharp flint dug cavity out of tooth 14,000 years ago

July 21st, 2015

Researchers have found the earliest known evidence of dentistry in the molar of a Palaeolithic man who lived between 13,820 and 14,160 years ago. The young man, who was around 25 years old at the time of death, had a cavity removed with a sharp flint, beating the dental work previously thought to be the oldest (a molar found in a Neolithic graveyard in Pakistan that was perforated by a bow drill) by 5,000 years.

The skeleton was found in the Ripari Villabruna rock shelter in the Dolomite mountains of northern Italy in 1988. The skeletal remains had been laid to rest in a shallow grave along with what were probably the hunter’s most prized possessions: a flint knife, a hammer stone, a flint blade and a piece of sharpened bone. Stones decorated with red ochre marked the burial mound. The bones were in usually good condition and a large cavity in his lower right third molar was noticed at the time, but the attempted treatment was not visible to the naked eye. It was only when researchers recently examined the molar with a scanning electron microscope (SEM) that they realized the cavity was signficantly larger than the decayed tissue and that there were striations and chips on the walls of the cavity even in the most inaccessible parts of the tooth.

The striations look like tiny versions of cut marks on bone. The research team experimented with sharpened wood, bone and flint points on the enamel of three molars and confirmed that the striations and enamel chipping on the cavity walls were made before death by pointed stone tool scratching and digging into the lesion. That means someone took a very small, very sharp tool, probably a flint, and dug out as much of the decay as they could. The striations go on in all different directions so the cavedentist really got down in there, changing angles and positions to clean out the rotted parts. The pain and difficulty of this procedure suggests that the dangers of tooth decay were known in the Late Upper Palaeolithic.

Evidence of Palaeolithic concern for dental hygiene has been found before. They were known to use toothpicks made of bone or wood to clean food particles stuck between their teeth, but this is the first evidence of treatment of tooth decay. It’s the first evidence of surgical intervention period.

The find represents the oldest archaeological example of an operative manual intervention on a pathological condition, according to researchers led by Stefano Benazzi, a paleoanthropologist at the University of Bologna.

“It predates any undisputed evidence of dental and cranial surgery, currently represented by dental drillings and cranial trephinations dating back to the Mesolithic-Neolithic period, about 9,000-7,000 years ago,” Benazzi said.

You can read the full study here (pdf).

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