Blue tartar identifies medieval woman illuminator

January 16th, 2019

A team of researchers led by the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History and the University of York have discovered lapis lazuli embedded in the dental tartar of a medieval woman. The presence of this extremely expensive pigment in her teeth indicates that the woman was a manuscript illustrator of the highest caliber.

She was buried around 1100 A.D. in the cemetery of a small monastery in Dalheim, western Germany. The woman’s monastery is in ruins today with only a few architectural remains still surviving. The date of its founding is unknown (it might have been as early as the 10th century) with the earliest written records dating to 1244. It was destroyed by fire in the 14th century, but until then it was home to a small community of just over a dozen religious women.

The skeletal remains of the woman were analyzed as part of a project to study dental calculus that forms on the teeth during life and calcifies. Stable isotope analysis of hardened plaque specimens can identify what people ate. Or ingested, as must have been the case of the woman with blue pigment particles embedded in her plaque.

She was between 45 and 60 years old at the time of her death. There is no sign of an explicit cause of death on her skeleton — no evidence of illness, injury, infection or repetitive motion or stress. Only one unusual feature stood out: the blue stain on her teeth. Spectographic analysis revealed that the blue came from lapis lazuli.

“We examined many scenarios for how this mineral could have become embedded in the calculus on this woman’s teeth,” explains [University of York researcher Anita] Radini. “Based on the distribution of the pigment in her mouth, we concluded that the most likely scenario was that she was herself painting with the pigment and licking the end of the brush while painting,” states co-first author Monica Tromp of the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History.

The use of ultramarine pigment made from lapis lazuli was reserved, along with gold and silver, for the most luxurious manuscripts. “Only scribes and painters of exceptional skill would have been entrusted with its use,” says Alison Beach of Ohio State University, a historian on the project.

The unexpected discovery of such a valuable pigment so early and in the mouth of an 11th century woman in rural Germany is unprecedented. While Germany is known to have been an active center of book production during this period, identifying the contributions of women has been particularly difficult. As a sign of humility, many medieval scribes and painters did not sign their work, a practice that especially applied to women. The low visibility of women’s labor in manuscript production has led many modern scholars to assume that women played little part in it.

The findings of this study not only challenge long-held beliefs in the field, they also uncover an individual life history. The woman’s remains were originally a relatively unremarkable find from a relatively unremarkable place, or so it seemed. But by using these techniques, the researchers were able to uncover a truly remarkable life history. […]

“Here we have direct evidence of a woman, not just painting, but painting with a very rare and expensive pigment, and at a very out-of-the way place,” explains Christina Warinner of the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History, senior author on the paper. “This woman’s story could have remained hidden forever without the use of these techniques. It makes me wonder how many other artists we might find in medieval cemeteries – if we only look.”

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When a cabinet and an automaton love each other very much…

January 15th, 2019

Automata are awesome. Elaborately inlaid cabinets with a million compartments are awesome. When the two come together, the results is a technicolor explosion of awesome.

We have the genius of German cabinet-makers Abraham Roentgen and his son David to thank for this mindboggling combination. In the late 18th century, the Roentgen workshop produced the most expensive, elaborate and highly-prized pieces of furniture in Europe. They were the cabinets of kings, literally. One Roentgen secretary could easily run you the cost of large estate.

The Berlin Secretary Cabinet was their greatest masterpiece and is believed to have been the most expensive piece of furniture made in 18th century Europe. It is huge for a writing desk, topped with a chiming clock and festooned with marquetry panels, secret doors, drawers, counterweight systems and mechanisms that give it life-like complexity. It wasn’t commissioned. The Roentgen’s made it on speculation for King Frederick William II of Prussia. Not being insane, he snapped it up and it was delivered to his court in 1779.

This cabinet is part of the permanent collect of the Kunstgewerbemuseum, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin. In 2012 it moved for the first time since 1779 when it was loaned to the Metropolitan Museum of Art for an exhibition dedicated to the Roentgens’ furniture. The Met put together this video to show off this marvel of carpentry and mechanics.

Funfact of history: one of Ambraham and David’s descendants, physicist Wilhelm Röntgen, invented the X-ray machine.

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Ancient boundary war in 3 cuneiform pieces

January 14th, 2019

A prehistoric axe hoard, a Renaissance teratoma, a long-lost giant dirk, and now Dr. Irving Finkel in full self-deprecating-cuneiform-genius charm mode? I think this week’s news is making up nicely for my having been sidelined by injury.

There’s a new display on right now at the British Museum dedicated to the world’s oldest recorded example of a protracted boundary dispute. As with most “oldest recorded examples” of historical events, business transactions and shopping lists, this was written in cuneiform script more than 4,000 years ago. Three artifacts tell the tale of a border conflict in Mesopotamia, now southern Iraq, featuring the neighboring city states of Lagash and Umma. Both of them claimed a strip called “Edge of the Plain,” and both of them of course claimed the gods were on their side in the conflict.

The earliest artifact to give specifics on this fight is the Lagash Border Pillar, a white stone pillar inscribed by order of King Enmetena of Lagash in 2400 B.C. to mark the boundary line of his territorial claim. When it was installed in the desert, the stone would have reflected the light in brilliant white, catching the eye of any passersby. It is believed to be the earliest written description of a border dispute and is also the first recorded use of the term “no man’s land.”

The pillar has been in the collection of the British Museum for 150 years, but in all that time the inscription has never been fully deciphered. It was dusted off just for the new show and Dr. Irving Finkel, incomparable cuneiform scholar, gamesman and raccounteur, deciphered the text. It is a full account of the border war between Lagash and Umma. The carver used the script to prop of his side and put down the enemy’s by using cuneiform symbol for “god” in the name of Lagash’s protector deity, Ningirsu, while the name of Umma’s god is written in such sloppy script it’s barely legible. That is shade, cuneiform-style.

“You have in one breath the use of writing in a magical way to enhance the power of one deity and then nullify the power of the other. This is unique in cuneiform. It’s the most exciting thing you can imagine,” Finkel tells Pickford at The Financial Times.

Finkel believes the pillar was artificially aged by a scribe to improve Lagash’s historical claim to Gu’edina. It appears the scribe also used an archaic form of cuneiform to make the pillar seem older, which made the modern interpretation effort difficult.

The Ur Plaque, also on display, is slightly older (ca. 2500 B.C.) but it’s not as direct a reference. It shows sacrificial offerings made at border shrines under the keen supervision of the Moon God, the type of rituals Lagash and Umma performed to enlist their deities’ support in boundary conflicts.

The third object in the trifecta is the Umma Mace-Head made for King Gishakidu of Umma, Enmetena’s counterpart and nemesis.

In a bit of serendipity, the curators realised during research for the show that an object they had long assumed was a vase had actually been displayed upside down. They now understand that it is actually the head of a fired-clay mace, or heavy club, made for King Gishakidu of Umma. After comparing the object with a similar one at Yale University, “we realised how daft we’d been”, says Irving Finkel, a co-curator of the show. Now displayed right-side up, the mace head is topped by a painted representation of a net that was used to immobilise enemies for execution.

No Man’s Land is sponsored by the Asahi Shimbun and access to the display is free. It runs through Sunday, February 3rd, but if you’re in London, haul ass to the British Museum for your lunch break because Irving Finkel will be doing a gallery talk introducing the display at 1:15. No need to book a reservation. Just drop in and one of the world’s foremost experts in cuneiform will give you a little tour of a pillar, plaque and non-vase, no big deal.

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Giant Bronze Age dirk emerges from private penumbra

January 13th, 2019

One of my all-time favorite finds is the ceremonial dirk 27 inches long discovered in a field in East Rudham, Norfolk, and used as a doorstop for 13 years until it was identified as an incredible rare Bronze Age artifact and bought by the Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery in 2014. Seeing that dirk in person is high on my bucket list of nerd pilgrimages.

Called the Plougrescant-Ommerschans type after the locations where the first two were found, only five other examples of Middle Bronze Age oversize ceremonial dirks are known in the world. They have an abstract geometric decoration, dull edges and tips and no handles, which is how we know they were meant for ceremonial purposes. All of them are so similar in design and size they are believed to have been produced in the same workshop, very possibly by the same hand. When I was writing the story about the Norwich Castle Museum’s acquisition of the Rudham Dirk, I was able to include photographs of four of the five known examples, all of which are in museums.

The one exception was the Ommerschans Dirk (1500-1350 B.C.), the co-type find which was discovered in late 19th century in a field between Witharen and Ommerschans in Overijssel, east Netherlands. There were no photographs of it because it was found on the Junne estate, one of the largest private estates in the country, then owned by Eduard Lüps and he didn’t exactly broadcast the find far and wide. The details of the discovery are hazy. All we know is that sometime between 1894 and 1900, the Lüps’ forester found the dirk deposited on a birch platform together with a number of artifacts including a Sicilian bronze razor, two metal chisels, a stone chisel, a stone tablet and a whetstone. The forester nailed them all to a wooden board and that’s how they were kept for years.

The news of the discovery gradually spread and in 1927 Jan Hendrik Holwerda, archaeologist and director of the Rijksmuseum van Oudheden (the National Museum of Antiquities) in Leiden examined the dirk. Holwerda was deeply impressed by the artifact, which is saying a lot because he was dubious about the very existence of a Bronze Age. He attempted to buy the dirk and the other objects discovered with it, but Lüps’ price was so astronomical the museum couldn’t afford it. Holwerda had to be satisfied with a single picture and a cast of the dagger.

In the 1930s the Lüps family moved to Bavaria and took the dirk with them. To all intents and purposes, it disappeared. It wasn’t loaned or seen in public. In the 1970s, director of the Rijksmuseum van Oudheden Louwe Kooijmans, an expert in Netherlands prehistory, tried again to acquire the Ommerschans Dirk to no avail. In 2015, the museum’s prehistory curator Luc Amkreutz tried to get the dirk on loan for a great sword exhibition that would have brought all six of the Plougrescant-Ommerschans type blades together for the first time. The family refused. They were apparently concerned that the dirk would be confiscated by the government once in the Netherlands, on what grounds is unclear as the title was clean. The Netherlands’ Culture Minister Jet Bussemaker even wrote a letter assuring them that there was no danger the artifact would be confiscated, but at the last moment the family decided against the loan. The exhibition went on with the 1927 plaster cast in place of the real deal.

Then, at long last, a ray of light: the Lüps descendants were ready to sell the dirk to the museum. The museum made an offer based on the sale price of the Rudham Dirk (£40,970 in 2014) and the Jutphaas Dirk which they had acquired in 2005. They were never told their offer was too low or given a counter price. Instead the owners just put it up for auction at Christie’s London in July 2017 along with the surviving artifacts discovered with it.

That turned out to be a wise choice from a financial perspective at least, because it shattered the previous prices and blew through even Christie’s pre-sale estimate of £80,000-120,000 to sell for £485,000 ($623,000). It was the Rijksmuseum van Oudheden who made the winning bid, 90 years after it first tried to secure the dirk for the nation. It now owns two of the six, and the two that are in the best condition to boot.

The museum’s glorious long-fought win makes a tiny one possible for your faithful blogger. For four years plus it has niggled at me that I almost, ALMOST, got pictures of all of the Plougrescant-Ommerschans dirks except for one of the two in the name. That blemish on my record for photo acquisition is heretofore healed.

Ommerschans Dirk, Middle Bronze Age, ca. 1500-1350 B.C. Photo courtesy the Rijksmuseum van Oudheden.

The dirk is now on display in a special exhibition at the Kröller-Müller Museum in Otterlo. For the Love of Art brings together 80 extraordinary pieces of art and archaeology acquired by forty Dutch museums in the last ten years. The Ommerschans Dirk is the oldest object of the 80.

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Teratoma time!

January 12th, 2019

I can’t believe it’s been almost four years since my last ovarian teratoma story. Just goes to show how rarely they survive in an archaeological context. Well, if there’s a better way to usher in a new year than with a centuries-old calcified mass of tissue and teeth, I don’t know of it.

Today’s teratoma was discovered in the cemetery of the Church and Convent of Carmo in Lisbon, Portugal, a private burial ground for the religious of the order and its (largely middle class) patrons. It was in use from the 15th century until the 1755 Lisbon earthquake shut it down for good. The cemetery was only recently excavated by Lisbon Archaeological Centre archaeologists in advance of an urban renewal project. During its second dig season in March of 2011, the LAC team encountered skeletal remains with a large calcified mass in the pelvic area. Only the lower half of the body could be recovered at that time. The rest was unearthed in February of 2014, making it possible for all the remains of the individual to be studied.

Osteological examination confirmed the individual was a woman between 5″1 and 5″3′ in height who was more than 45 years old when she died. In her pelvic girdle was a calcified mass that was the same color and texture of her bones. It is small, 1.5″ in length and only a sliver more than that in diameter. Teeth were visible embedded in the inner surface of the base. Researchers cleaned the mass thoroughly and were able to observe irregular, erratic bone formation on the outer and inner surfaces and five malformed quasi-teeth. Four are molar-like, one canine-like. One of the molariform teeth is more malformed than the others, missing any semblance of a root. An X-ray of the teratoma found no further bone structures in the mass.

There’s no way of knowing with certainty whether the mass had an impact on her health or her cause of death. Teratomas are almost always benign and can easily go undiagnosed because they’re not really bothering anyone. Occasionally their shape, size and location can result in organ shifts, infections, anemia, but there is no evidence at all on the bones — no lesions or deformations.

While there is no osteological evidence of what did claim her life, she was buried under a thick layer of lime, unusual in that context. If the people who put her in the grave covered her with lime, it’s likely they thought she had died of an infectious disease.

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Europe’s largest hoard of Copper Ages axes found in Bulgaria

January 11th, 2019

A hoard of Copper Age axes and ax hammers discovered in Bulgaria is the largest ever found in Europe. The heavy copper tools were found accidentally during agricultural work near the village of Polkovnik Taslakovo in the northeastern region of Silistra in 2013. The 22 pieces — 18 flat axes and four axe hammers — were found together in one spot about three feet below the surface. The farmer, Erdoan Ismet Shaban, alerted the authorities and experts from the Ruse Regional Museum of History were dispatched to examine the hoard.

The tools are made of an alloy with a high copper content for a total weight of 25.6 pounds. They date to the late Chalcolithic, 4500-4200 B.C., a time when the site was on the periphery of the highly populated and metallurgically active settlements on the coast of the Black Sea. It’s likely that the tools in the hoard were cast in one of those places, in fact, and then traded and distributed west to central Bulgaria and other parts of the Balkan Peninsula. There are four settlement mounds near the find site, so it’s possible the hoard was connected to one of them, but there has been no archaeological field survey of the area to help determine whether there is a Chalcolithic layer that can be associated with the find.

“The discovered find is the largest [of its kind] in Europe so far. It is a testimony to the [development and sophistication] of the earliest metallurgy in human history,” the Ruse Regional Museum of History says.

“The axes bear hardly any traces that they were used which leads to the supposition that they were not meant for practical purposes but were an indicator of prestige, or were [were used as] means of exchange,” the Museum adds.

The axes and axe hammers are now on display at the Regional Museum of History in Silistra where they will be conserved and stored in proper conditions.

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Roman cemetery with unusual decapitations found

January 10th, 2019

Archaeologists have discovered a Roman cemetery with an unusual number of decapitation burials in Suffolk. The skeletal remains of 52 individuals, men, women and children, were unearthed. About 40 percent of the burials found — including two ten-year-old children — had been decapitated and their heads deliberately placed between their feet or at their sides.

The team was excavating the site of a new housing development in Great Whelnetham, near Bury St Edmunds, known to have been a Roman settlement of the 3rd century A.D. The area has fine, sandy soil, a very poor preservation medium for organic remains, so they expected to find maybe the shadows of burials, the subtle impressions left in the ground after all of the bodies had disintegrated centuries ago. When the first exploratory trench revealed two largely intact skeletons, archaeologists were intrigued and widened the excavation to cover two large squares.

The wide trenches were necessary because of that sandy soil. Usually cemetery finds can be excavated by focusing on the grave cuts which mark the spot of a burial better than any X can mark the spot of a fabulous pirate treasure. The grave cuts disappeared completely in this soil, so in order to excavate the entire cemetery, they had to dig up a lot of ground. The work paid off and dozens more skeletons in good condition were unearthed.

It’s extremely rare to find so many decapitation and otherwise non-standard burials in a Roman cemetery in Britain. Traditionally, the Romans buried their dead on their back, bodies intact and significant religious and personal items interred with them. Most Roman cemeteries contain a few unusual or deviant burials, often the result of executions or death from an illness that was considered dangerous to the living.

According to archaeologist Andy Peachey, 60% of the graves at the site, which dates to the 4th century, could be classified as ‘deviant’ – placed in a manner which does not conform to the most common Roman burial rite. […]

Mr Peachey, from excavation company Archaeological Solutions, said the remains did not indicate executions.

“This appears to be a careful funeral rite that may be associated with a particular group within the local population, possibly associated with a belief system (cult) or a practice that came with a group moved into the area,” he said.

“The incisions through the neck were post-mortem and were neatly placed just behind the jaw – an execution would cut lower through the neck and with violent force, and this is not present anywhere.”

Less than a handful of burial grounds with such a high proportion of deviant burials have been discovered in Britain. The two other Roman cemeteries found in Great Whelnetham have the normal small proportion of deviant burials. Given that 60% of the burials in this cemetery deviate from the norm, the deviant largely was the norm for this community.

Peachey speculates that it could have been a local cult, absorbed like so many were by the Romans, that venerated the head as the locus of the soul, perhaps, or reserved it special treatment for some other reason. The other possibility, that these were a sub-group of the population who moved to Britain and brought their funerary traditions with them, may be confirmed or denied by staple isotope analysis of their teeth. It can pinpoint where people lived as children.

If it does turn out that they came from some far-flung area of the Empire, that opens up the possibility that they were slaves, an imported agricultural labour force. Osteological analysis has found that they were, as a group, healthy, well-fed and well-doctored. A few children died young, but there were more adults in what we would consider middle age and older. They were well-built with muscular arms and upper body and had no signs of malnutrition. They even had bad teeth indicating they had easy access to sugars and carbohydrates, the downfall of dental hygiene since time immemorial, but all the abscesses, lesions and areas of lost/extracted teeth were well-healed.

The results of the analyses will take at least six months. The remains have been moved to a museum laboratory for further study. When the report is complete, it will be published and all remains and artifacts deposited in the Suffolk County Council archaeological archive.

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Almost Back

January 9th, 2019

Thank you all for your well-wishes and kind words yesterday. I think they were the virtual equivalent of a cortisone shot because I’m feeling better already. JINX JINX WINGED PHALLUS WARD OFF ALL EVIL EYES PLEASE AND THANK YOU

Assuming the fascinus does its job, I’ll be back with an on-topic post tomorrow.

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Programming Note

January 8th, 2019

Pardon the radio silence, but I have been waylaid by what I am choosing almost euphemistically to call an athletic injury. Okay, I did too deep a squat and it laid me flat.

Please hold until I can type again.

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Buff woman is earliest-known burial in lower Central America

January 7th, 2019

The remains of a woman discovered at the Angi shell-matrix site near Monkey Point on the Caribbean coast of Nicaragua are the oldest-known human remains in lower Central America.

The site was first excavated in the 1970s, but archaeological exploration of Nicaragua’s Caribbean coast in general was limited. That has begun to change in the past 10 years as a concerted effort has been made to survey and thoroughly document ancient sites. The Angi shell-matrix site was revisited in 2013 as part of this project with the aim of assessing its condition for conservation purposes. The excavation made it possible to fully document the statrigaphy of the midden and collect deposit samples, including ones that could be radiocarbon dated. The layers were made of shell (bivalve and snail), charcoal and sediment with a few fragments of ceramics found in the upper layers.

Seven and a half feet under the surface, archaeologists unearthed (unshelled?) the skeletal remains one adult buried in a shallow oval pit on its back with legs bent over the torso and arms at the sides of the body near the feet and pelvis. It was undisturbed, found in the position in which it was buried.

The body was placed over a layer of small fragments of basalt inside the pit. Underneath the basalt rocks was a base layer of charcoal-rich sediment. That was fortuitous material because not enough of the collagen in the bones had survived to make direct radiocarbon dating possible. Instead archaeologists were able to test samples of the sediment and thereby date the burial to 3900 B.C. That makes it the earliest archaeological feature ever recorded on the Caribbean coast of Nicaragua as well as the oldest human remains in the area.

With permission of the local indigenous communities, archaeologists removed the skeletal remains to the Historical Cultural Museum of the Caribbean Coast (BICU–CIDCA). Osteological analysis determined the individual was a woman between 25 and 40 years old at time of death. She was 4’11” and powerfully built.

Despite the woman’s small stature, she had “strongly developed musculature of the forearm — possibly from rowing or similar activities,” [study author Mirjana] Roksandic said. Even today, local people are adept rowers.

“While we were in the village of Bankukuk Taik, [study co-researcher] Harly Duncan introduced us to a Rama elder who rowed that very day for 4 hours to visit family,” Roksandic said. “She was 82 years old. Kids as young as 9 rowed around Rama islands in a dugout.”

Moreover, like other people who eat a fair amount of shellfish, the woman had extensive wear on her teeth, Roksandic said.

Given that few ancient human remains are found in tropical places, little is known about the indigenous cultures of lower Central America, Roksandic said. While ancient people who build shell mounds are often fishers, gatherers and horticulturalists, “without further study of the site, it will not be possible to ascertain who they were and why the burial was placed there and what is the significance of this particular individual,” Roksandic said.

There’s a tight deadline on additional study of the site. Canal construction and other development will have a profound impact on the Monkey Point’s archaeological sites.

The study, published in the journal Antiquity can be read in its entirety online here.

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