The first Neolithic boats in the Mediterranean

New radiocarbon analysis of five dugout canoes found on the bed of Lake Bracciano 20 miles northwest of Rome have revealed the vessels are between 7,500 and 7,000 years old, the period when the first farmers migrated from the Near East throughout the Mediterranean, establishing communities in central Italy. The results, published in the journal PLOS ONE, identify the vessels as the oldest Neolithic canoes in Europe.

They were discovered at the submerged site of La Marmotta, a Neolithic lakeshore village rich in archaeological remains including 3,400 piles supporting the dwellings, walls, roofs, floors and hearths. Found at a depth of about 26 feet under 10 feet of sediment, the anaerobic conditions protected the copious organic remains from decay and boring critters. The remains of domestic livestock (mostly sheep and goats, a few cattle and pigs), two canine species and a large number of wild animals attest to the community’s herding, hunting and fishing practices. Botanical remains were plentiful too, a variety of cereals, legumes and fruits, both cultivated and foraged. A wide variety of wood, basketry and textile utensils were unearthed, including spindles, bows, sickles and adzes.

The five canoes were unearthed in a series of excavations between 1992 and 2006. Each canoe was associated with one of the dwellings. The boats are exceptional for their large size — the largest is 36 feet long — and for the advanced techniques used in their construction. Canoe 1, for example, has four transversal reinforcements carved in a trapezoidal shape that would have strengthened the hull and improved the handling of the boat. It also has three T-shaped mounts on its starboard side pierced with 2, 3 and 4 holes. They were placed at regular distances and were likely used to fasten ropes, perhaps to a sail or a stabilizer or maybe even a second boat to create a catamaran.

These canoes at La Marmotta, and the occupation of many islands in the eastern and central Mediterranean during the Mesolithic and particularly the early Neolithic periods, are irrefutable proof of the ability of those societies to travel across the water. This is enormously significant, because all the canoes found at European Mesolithic and Neolithic sites are associated with lakes and therefore with sailing in those waters.

In the case of La Marmotta, the size of the lake (it is now 9.3km across, but must have been smaller in the Neolithic as the shore was 300m from its current position) barely justifies the large size of a canoe nearly 11m long. It is therefore possible that they were used to cover the 38km from Lake Bracciano to the Mediterranean Sea along the River Arrone. In this way, the canoes were used both in the lake and on the sea.

The significant nautical skills needed to build and operate the boats sheds new light not just on Neolithic seafaring, but also on how these communities were structured.

There must have been people who knew how to choose the best trees, how to cut the trunk and hollow it by burning out its middle, and how to stabilise the dugout with transversal reinforcements on its base, or perhaps by the use of side poles or even parallel canoes in the form of a catamaran. To achieve this they made a series of amazingly modern artefacts, such as the T-shaped objects with two, three or four holes. These canoes and nautical technology are undoubtedly reminiscent of much more recent navigation systems. This shows that many of the major advances in sailing must have been made in the early Neolithic.

This technical complexity must be linked to social organisation in which some specialists were dedicated to particular tasks. The canoes can only be understood in a context of collective labour overseen by a craftsman who was in charge of the whole process: from cutting down the tree to launching the canoe in the lake or in the sea. These communities would therefore be well-structured in the organisation of labour, since collaboration would have been necessary to build the houses, make the canoes, procure raw materials from their sources several hundred kilometres away and put in practice certain agricultural tasks.

1777 eye-witness sketch of camp followers donated to Museum of the American Revolution

A previously unknown and unpublished sketch depicting soldiers and camp followers marching through Philadelphia in 1777, has been donated to the Museum of the American Revolution. The soldiers were troops from the North Carolina Brigade, and this pen-and-ink drawing is the first depiction of them known. It is the second known eye-witness drawing of camp followers.

The sketch captures the North Carolina Brigade going through Philly on August 25, 1777, on their way to join the Continental Army before the Battle of Brandywine (September 11, 1777). Two soldiers walk in front of a large open wagon. The wagon driver is on horseback between them and an officer on horseback takes up the rear. The wagon carries two women, one holding a baby.

The inclusion of female camp followers – who shared life on campaign with enlisted husbands and fathers and supported the troops by sewing, doing laundry, and selling food – exemplifies a direct defiance of known regulations at the time about how women following the army could use wagons. Earlier in August, before the march depicted in the sketch took place, Washington himself brought up issues of women and children slowing down his troops, calling them “a clog upon every movement.”

The reverse of the page has sketches of five men in dynamic action, three of them captured drawing their swords from different angles, two throwing punches.

The scene was identified by an inscription written underneath it: “an exact representation of a waggon belonging to the north carolina brigade of continental troops which passed thro Philadelphia august done by …” Unfortunately, the name of the artist was lost in an old attempt to repair the paper. Museum curator Matthew Skic analyzed the handwriting and compared the style of the drawing to other works from the period, ultimately identifying the artist as Pierre Eugène du Simitiére, a portrait painter, naturalist and coin collector born in Geneva, Switzerland, in 1737 who became a naturalized citizen of New York in 1769. He moved to Philadelphia in 1774.

It’s more than fitting that this unique view of history penned by du Simitiére should join the collection of the Museum of the American Revolution. He was a dedicated collector. He founded the first museum of natural history in the United States from his private collection of specimens and his coin collection was the first to be sold in America. He assiduously documented the Revolution as it happened, before it was even a revolution, in fact. He collected ephemera (pamphlets, broadsides, communications, newspaper stories) of democratic uprisings in America going back to the 17th century. He attempted to publish his massive history of the American Revolution, but his appeal to Congress for financial report failed. His art put food on the table, and even then he was deeply involved in the newly-independent country. He was a consultant for the committees who designed the Great Seal of the United States, and he added the Eye of Providence to the pyramid.

“We were thrilled to piece together the many illuminating and significant parts of this sketch’s history through our unparalleled scholarship here at the Museum of the American Revolution,” said Dr. R. Scott Stephenson, President and CEO of the Museum. “As we round out our celebration of Women’s History Month, we revel in the discovery of this new depiction of female camp followers as highlighting the lesser-known stories and critical roles of women throughout the American Revolution are at the heart of the Museum’s offerings.”

Hallaton Roman cavalry parade helmet recreated

Two replicas of the gilded silver Roman cavalry helmet found at Hallaton have been created, one by silversmith Rajesh Gogna using computer aided-design and 3D printing, the other by archaeologist Francesco Galluccio using traditional tools Roman smiths would have used. They are now both on display, one at the Hallaton Museum, the other at the Harborough Museum in Market Harborough alongside the original helmet.

An important Iron Age British shrine was discovered outside the village of Hallaton in Leicestershire in 2000. Dating to around the time of the Roman invasion of Britain in 43 A.D., it was a ritual enclosure of great significance to the local Corieltavi tribe who held feasts there and made offerings of animals and valuables. In 2001, excavations unearthed more than 5,500 British and Roman coins, jewelry and animal bones as well as a helmet which would have been worn by a Roman cavalry officer.

The helmet was in thousands of pieces when it was found embedded in thick mud. Archaeologists weren’t even sure what it was until they excavated the soil block in a conservation laboratory and uncovered the larger fragments, including a cheekpiece adorned with a relief of an emperor trampling a barbarian under the hooves of his horse while a winged Victory holds a laurel wreath over his head. Conservators worked for ten years to excavate the fragments from the soil block. In 2011, the conservation team revealed they’d found seven cheekpieces (obviously not all from a single helmet) and a helmet bowl.

The fragments were painstakingly conserved and pieced back together and today the helmet is 80% complete with some gaps filled to give it structural support. It was made of an iron sheet covered with a thin sheet of gilded silver. The decorative designs — a laurel wreath encircling the bowl, a scrolling foliate pattern on the neckguard, swags and the high-relief bust of woman flanked by lions and rams on the browguard — were made with the repousse technique, ie, hammered into the surface from the back. The raised decorations were gilded and would have stood out against the silver background. Only a handful of silver Roman cavalry helmets are known, and so early an example in a freshly-conquered part of the empire is a unique find.

Two thousand years buried in mud corroded and damaged its once-shiny surface. It looks sort of lumpy and brown today and the details of the decoration are hard to make out with the naked eye. In order to create the replicas, museum curators, art historians, illustrators and conservators worked together to re-examine the helmet, photographing it under bright light looking for shapes and motifs that were then cross-referenced with other art pieces from the mid-1st century. The archaeological illustrator used the annotated pictures and 3D scans as a guide to recreating the areas where the decoration was missing. The process revealed a previously-undetected pair of griffins holding an amphora between them on the rear of the helmet bowl.

Rajesh Gogna transformed the archaeological drawing into a 3D model and then 3D printed it in resin. He used modern techniques of copper electroforming, silver-plating and gilding to recreate the helmet, adding hand-crafted elements (brass fastening loops, rivets, hinge pins). Thanks to the 3D printing, he was able to create an identical second copy. Meanwhile, Rome-based archaeologist and replica maker Francesco Galluccio went old school, utilizing his expertise in recreating Roman armor to manufacture a replica with traditional tools the original maker of the helmet would have recognized.

The original helmet is now being exhibited in a new case, with both cheekpieces reattached. The other five cheekpieces found at the Hallaton ritual site are on display with it.

Only surviving full Māori green parrot feather cloak goes on display in Perth

The kahu kākāpō, after conservation ©2022 Trustees of the British Museum, ©2022 Culture Perth and Kinross.The only surviving complete example of a Māori kahu kākāpō, a traditional cloak made of the feathers of the critically endangered green, ground-dwelling kākāpō parrot, has been restored and put on display for the grand opening of the new Perth Museum in Perth, Scotland.

The kākāpō, charmingly nicknamed the moss chicken, is the world’s only flightless parrot and was once common on the three main islands of New Zealand. Its population began to decline with the arrival of Polynesian settlers. The humans hunted them for their meat and feathers and the rats the humans brought with them devastated their eggs and chicks. The arrival of Europeans drove them to the brink of extinction. Attempts to maintain populations of the birds in nature preserves began in the late 19th century, but were thwarted by introduced predators like stoats and feral cats. Finally in the 1980s the Kākāpō Recovery plan was developed, establishing populations on islands cleared of predators. Breeding and feeding programs have helped bring a small population of around 270 back, and just last year the first kākāpō were reintroduced to the mainland.

The cloak was collected by David Ramsay, a native of Perth who sailed to Australia as a ship’s surgeon in 1823 and stayed there. He gave the kahu kākāpō and the rest of his collection to the Perth Literary and Antiquarian Society in 1842. The cloak is believed to have been made in the early 1800s, after contact with Europeans, and was well-preserved overall, but the feathers and plant fibers it is made of are so inherently fragile that any handling at all can cause damage and loss.

Today the kahu is in the permanent collection of the Perth Museum and Art Gallery (PMAG). PMAG turned to the British Museum’s Organic Artefact Conservation studio for expert assistance in treating the delicate materials and brought in a Māori curatorial advisor from the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa to ensure the taonga (meaning “treasure”) was treated in keeping with Māori cultural practices.

Once arrived at the British Museum, the cloak was examined to determine the areas of greatest concern. The feather shafts and the dried, unprocessed stands of New Zealand flax (pōkinikini) required urgent stabilization.

The feathers of the kākāpō had been woven into the ground weave of the cloak by their very fine, thin shafts. Over time, some of the feathers had become bent, partially split at their shafts, or completely detached from the weave. To support them, a strong but lightweight mulberry paper was used, after being toned and cut to match the colour and very narrow lengths of each damaged shaft, which were often less than 2mm wide. Each piece was then carefully secured along individual shafts with a conservation grade adhesive and left to dry under gentle pressure.

The treatment of the pōkinikini required similarly delicate care. The black, dyed sections along the pōkinikini lengths were likely coloured with an iron-tannin dye, which over time had eaten away at the fibres, making the dyed areas exceedingly weak.

To support these areas, narrow strips of lightweight mulberry paper were toned to match the pokinikini’s alternating dyed and undyed stripes. The paper strips were then applied as discreet bridges, linking sections of damaged pōkinikini to ensure no areas were lost. For other types of damage, toned mulberry paper was pulped into fibres, and then carefully inserted into the centre of the cylindrical pōkinikini strand to bring together and support the split fibres. Overall, the treatment for these fragile elements required more than 100 hours of sustained focus and manual dexterity, along with very fine-tipped forceps and strong magnification!

To investigate how this cloak was worn, the team made a mock-up of a stand to drape it on. They realized the wear pattern in the feathers on the left and top edges suggests the cloak was worn with an opening on the right. The holds where the laces were threaded through were barely stretched at all, indicating the cloak was worn rarely. The museum then made a custom mount so it can be displayed safely.

The new Perth Museum, located in the former Perth City Hall, officially opened its doors Saturday, March 30th, with the kahu kākāpō one of the key displays.

The portrait that ensnared a king restored

The iconic portrait of Anne of Cleves, fourth wife of Henry VIII, that enchanted the king into marrying her, has been cleaned and conserved by Louvre experts for the first time since it was painted, restoring its original colors and glow. The portrait, painted by Henry’s court painter Hans Holbein the Younger, is much lighter now that the yellowed varnish layer is gone. The formerly murky teal background is a bright blue; the gold and jewels of her gown and headdress visible in great detail. Her skin, once sallow, is a dewy pink again.

In 1538, Henry sent his court painter Holbein to Düren to capture Anne of Cleves’ likeness so Henry could see her before deciding whether to marry her. For ease of transportation, it was painted on vellum that was later glued to wood instead of painting directly onto wood panel. Holbein was usually known for the verisimilitude of his portraits, but he had to thread a bit of a diplomatic needle with this commission. He couldn’t flatter Anne too much or Henry would be deceived in his future wife’s features, but the officials of Cleves would vet it before it was sent to England, so too much realism wouldn’t do either.

Holbein depicts Anne dressed in an opulent red silk gown with gold and pearl trim, her round, cherubic face looking placidly at the viewer through lidded eyes. Her features are petite and symmetrical and her expressionless face evocative of the highly stylized archaic smile of a kouros statue. The Anne in the portrait appealed to Henry well enough, and as an alliance to the powerful, rich Protestant Duchy of Cleves even more so. It would give isolated England a whole new friend group among the central and northern European Lutheran countries. The marriage moved forward.

The woman herself, however, repulsed him. Rather than a petite, delicate cypher, she was tall and broad. When he saw her in person for the first time, he felt the portrait had deceived him. Her did not find her physically attractive, nor did she attract him with her personality. She spoke no English, played no instruments and was generally a listless companion for a social butterfly like Henry. To preserve England’s relationship with the Protestant rulers of Europe, Henry VIII negotiated a very generous divorce agreement and six months after their marriage, Anne of Cleves graduated from fourth wife to “sister of the King,” and left the throne laden with riches and properties. She was friends with Henry for the rest of his life, and lived a long one herself, spending her fortune on sumptuous clothes, fine dining, gambling and hunting.