Archive for the ‘Ancient’ Category

Ode on the animation of a Grecian urn

Saturday, December 20th, 2014

I’m a devoted fan of the Greek vase animations made by Panoply. Computer animator Steve K. Simons and Greek warfare expert Dr. Sonya Nevin work together to develop moving parts from the static images on Greek pottery, much of it in the extensive collection of the University of Reading’s Ure Museum. They collaborate with ancient music experts to create soundtracks that wouldn’t sound out of place in one of the symposia depicted on the vases. It’s a full-spectrum historical immersion achieved through modern technology.

The project is focused on education and community outreach. Each animation provides additional resources for teachers to use the animations in class, and many of Panoply’s videos are storyboarded by local schoolchildren who get to enjoy an exceptional opportunity to learn about ancient art and history by studying a vase and then get to express their own creativity in the creation of the animated version of the scene. Sometimes they’re more serious treatments, sometimes lighthearted, but either way, the results are consistently wonderful. One of my favorites in the lighthearted category is this brilliant Dance Off storyboarded by the pupils of the Maiden Erlegh School and Kendrick School in Reading.

That 6th century B.C. Etruscan black figure oinochoe vase just GOT SERVED.

A more serious treatment is this animation of a combat sequence from 6th century B.C. lekanis vase made on the Greek island of Euboea.

The only thing I don’t like about it is that there isn’t more of it, which is why I was so excited to see Panoply’s latest effort, Hoplites! Greeks At War, a much longer and more detailed animation of the practice of ancient war from religious sacrifice to the thrust and parry of battle to the final victory.

I think it’s a masterpiece: the way the music and action are in perfect rhythm, how that blow creates the crack in the vase, integrating the condition of the vase into the scene, the addition of figures to form a little army instead of using the individual images alone. I feel like starting a petition demanding that all cheeseball reenactments of ancient history on television be replaced with Panoply animations.

Because I can’t resist them, I’m going to embed a couple of other favorites below, but you should go through all of the animations. They’re very short — Hoplites! is the exception length-wise, Dance Off the rule — so it won’t take you long to watch them.

Clash of the Dicers, created for a conference at the University College Dublin, features Achilles and Ajax playing a game during a lull in the Trojan War. It’s from a 6th century B.C. black figure amphora signed by potter Exekias now in the Vatican Museum. I love how the background glows like lava.

Medusa, storyboard by pupils from Addington School in Reading, was created pulling characters from three different vases: the gorgon is from a 6th century B.C. black figure kylix cup, her stoney victim from an Apulian 4th century B.C. red figure alabastron, and the warrior is from the Hoplites! lekanis.

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Racton Man: warrior chief, early bronze adopter

Monday, December 15th, 2014

The year was 1989. Milli Vanilli had three number one singles and a metal detectorist discovered a bronze dagger blade and a few rivets on Racton Park Farm, near Westbourne, outside Chichester, West Sussex. A subsequent excavation of the find site unearthed the complete skeleton of an adult and three full bronze rivets that had once studded the dagger’s organic hilt, now long since decayed. He had been buried in a crouched position holding the handsome dagger in his right hand. Although there was no evidence of a burial mound, the value of the artifact and the careful positioning of the body suggested this was a high status individual.

The style of the dagger placed it in the transitional period between the Copper Age and the Early Bronze Age, about 2,200 – 2,100 B.C., making it one of the earliest bronze artifacts ever found in Britain and one of only seven studded rivet daggers known (three others were found in Britain, three in Ireland). Even though the discovery was clearly important, there was no money to research the remains in further detail, so the bones and artifacts were put in storage in Chichester. James Kenny, today the Chichester District Council’s archaeologist, was then part of the original excavation team. He published the find in an annual report that he and his team printed and stapled by hand. This was not a periodical of wide circulation, to put it mildly, so the word never got out and the find sank into obscurity.

Kenny never forgot about the dagger burial. Two years ago he and Stuart Needham, an expert in Bronze Age metallurgy, were examining a field in Sussex where a small hoard had been found when Kenny mentioned the riveted dagger he had excavated 23 years earlier. Kenny told his colleague it was still the most exciting find of his career and Needham was instantly intrigued. There are so few dagger burials on the record he thought he knew all of them, but Racton Man hadn’t made any of the journals so the discovery had fallen through the cracks in the scholarship.

Kenny and Needham looked up the finds in the Novium Museum‘s archaeological stores and decided to seek out new funding to do a proper study. Their aim was to secure enough money to radiocarbon date the bones, do a stable isotope analysis of a tooth to discover where he grew up and a full osteological examination seeking evidence of illness or injury. The dagger would be analyzed to determine the metal content. They were able to get a £1,980 grant from the South Down National Park Authority’s Sustainable Communities Fund, a shocking pittance that was all they needed to get started. The rest of the funds were provided by the Chichester District Council.

The first step was cleaning the bones. They had been put in storage directly after the excavation, so the osteological specialist wasn’t able to see much through the dirt. Properly cleaned, the bones were analyzed by experts from England, Wales and Scotland. They were able to confirm that Racton Man was, in fact, a man (the length of his bones suggested he was male, but it wasn’t certain until the study), and one who went down fighting.

Isotope analysis undertaken on one of the Racton Man’s teeth by experts from Durham University shows that he could have been brought up in southern Britain – possibly somewhere to the west of Sussex. Radiocarbon dating of the remains was undertaken by the Scottish Universities Environmental Research Centre in Glasgow. The result suggests that he died sometime in the period 2300BC – 2150BC.

Analysis of his bones by the London Institute of Archaeology suggests that he was 6ft tall and that he displays signs of spinal degeneration, which is thought to be age related. They also found that he suffered from a chronic sinus infection, as well as an abscess and tooth decay. Evidence has also been found of a peri-mortem cut – at or near the time of death – to the right upper arm bone, close to the elbow. There is no sign that this had healed. This is consistent with the arm being raised, elbow bent above the head, to protect it from a blow or strike from a weapon. These indications of actual fighting suggest that Racton Man’s dagger was not just for display. His social position may have depended on him demonstrating his prowess in combat.

Although less certain, there is also evidence of a similar blow having struck the lower part of the right shoulder, under the armpit. A sharp force blow to this area of the body would have been consistent with a double strike – one to the head, blocked by the raised right arm, and a second deep into the armpit, presumably to sever the major blood vessels in this area.

The dagger was not solely for ceremonial use. It had been repeatedly sharpened. The radiocarbon results of the burial make the dagger the earliest absolute dated bronze artifact ever discovered in Britain. This was the very dawn of alloy metallurgy so the dagger would have been an incredibly rare and expensive object, literally one of the first in the country.

You can see Racton Man and his dagger at the Novium Museum, on display in the same crouched position in which he was buried.

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Egyptian glass beads found in Bronze Age Danish burials

Thursday, December 11th, 2014

An analysis of blue glass beads found in Bronze Age burials in Denmark has revealed they were made in Egypt and Mesopotamia. It was the color of the beads that first caught the eye of Moesgaard Museum archaeologist Jeanette Varberg. She was looking through stores of ancient artifacts to see if there were any objects that would suit an upcoming exhibition when in a cardboard box she came across three beads: one large turquoise colored bead, two smaller dark blue ones. Museum records noted that the beads had been found in a burial mound urn by a farmer named Christoffersen in 1892. Then she found another box with two more blue beads, these found in a Bronze Age tomb in 1962.

The blueness of them was puzzling. The Bronze Age Danish did not have the technology to make blue glass. This was a tribal, agricultural society of small settlements with no written language. When she asked her colleagues about the beads, they suggested they may have originated in Switzerland or the Mediterranean, but it was pure conjecture. The published literature (such that there was; there was no dedicated study of the blue beads), claimed that the beads were made of clay that had been colored blue using oxidized copper. Varberg knew that didn’t apply to her beads because they were translucent.

To solve the mystery, she contacted Bernard Gratuze, director of the Institut de Recherche sur les Archéomatériaux (IRAMAT) in Orléans, France, and an expert in glass. His first inclination was that the beads had been inaccurately dated, that they were simply younger than anyone thought. That could be the case for artifacts ploughed up by farmers without any archaeological context, but there were beads with firmer histories, like the ones discovered in Voerladegård, East Jutland, by the neck of a woman buried 2,200 years ago. Varberg took a small sample from one of the broken Voerladegård beads and sent it to Gratuze for analysis. The test found that the glass originated in Mesopotamia.

In cooperation with curator Flemming Kaul from the National Museum — National Museum was in possession of numerous blue glass beads which up to this point had been thought to be Italian — Varberg and Gratuze set about testing a significant sample of blue beads found at Bronze Age sites in Denmark. A review found a total of 293 blue glass beads found over 51 digs in Denmark and Schleswig-Holstein. The study analyzed 23 of those beads and found that two of them came from Egypt, the rest from Mesopotamia. (The first blue bead to catch Varberg’s eye turned out to be a fake. It was made in Venice in the 1800s. Sneaky farmer Christoffersen probably threw it in the mix to get a better price from the museum. He got 26 kroner for the lot.)

The analytic technology is incredibly precise. A laser pointed at the bead melts a microscopic hole in the surface and creates an air bubble. Plasma-spectrometry is used to analyze the chemical makeup of the air bubble. The results are then run through a database of bead findings all over southern Europe, North Africa and the Middle East to see if there are any comparable ones. The chemical fingerprint of an artifact is so precise it can be traced to a specific ancient workshop. The Mesopotamian beads were made from melted quartz sand and ash from Tigris river grass. One of the oldest came from Nippur, an ancient Sumerian city in what is today Iraq, The two Egyptian beads were made from desert cobalt in Amarna, the same workshop where Tutankhamun’s famous death mask was made around the same time (ca 1,330 B.C.) as the burial in Denmark.

It’s the first Egyptian cobalt glass found outside of the Mediterranean, and given the dates, that little bead traveled far north in a relatively short time. That suggests active trade between Bronze Age Denmark and New Kingdom Eygpt. Most of the burials where the blue glass beads were found also included amber beads. It seems likely that the rich trade in Nordic amber, well established even in the Bronze Age, is connected to the presence of Egyptian and Mesopotamian beads in Nordic graves. Amber was making its way down south while blue glass made its way up north.

It seems almost obvious when you think about it, but the blue glass beads have been long neglected as a subject of study and got caught up in some issues of archaeological nationalism. Varberg found that Sophus Müller, director of the National Museum, had proposed in 1882 that the blue beads were from Egypt, but nobody followed up. By the 1970s, some historians were keen to insist that Nordic Bronze Age culture developed independent of Mediterranean influence. One of them, Thea-Elisabeth Haevernick, concluded that the Bronze Age grave beads were colored clay, and her faulty assumption was then repeated in the literature by researchers citing her. That became the conventional wisdom even among people who had access to the beads themselves like museum curators, so the blue glass beads were labeled as local ceramic or Italian and stashed away in storage.

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Sarcophagus with mummy of teenage boy opened

Tuesday, December 9th, 2014

Conservators at Chicago’s Field Museum opened the sarcophagus of a 2,500-year-old Egyptian mummy on Friday. Excavated from the Akhmim cemetery on the east bank of the Nile about 130 miles north of Luxor in Upper Egypt, the mummy has been in the museum’s collection since 1925 when they got it from the Chicago Historical Society. Due to its fragility, the sarcophagus hadn’t been opened. It’s one of 30 complete mummies in the Field Museum collection (the oldest collection in the museum) so for decades there was no compelling reason to interfere with mummy #11517.

Now there is a compelling reason: a new exhibition, Mummies: Images of the Afterlife, which will take 20 of the mummies from the Field’s vaults on a traveling tour of select U.S. museums. In anticipation of the exhibition, researchers have been using the latest technology — CT scans, 3D imaging, stable isotope testing, DNA analysis — to find out all they can about the mummies, their history, burial rituals and current condition. To ensure they can safely travel, any urgent conservation issues need to be addressed.

CT scans done with a mobile medical scanner in 2011 revealed that mummy #11517 was a boy of about 14 years of age when he died. He was properly nourished, seemingly healthy with no injuries or disease that could be detected. An inscription on his coffin identifies the youth as Minirdis, son of Inaros, a priest of fertility god Min. As a stolist priest, Inaros was responsible for the ritual washing and dressing of Min’s statue. The position was hereditary, so if Minirdis had lived, he would have gotten the job after his father died.

Scans also revealed that the mummy and wrappings signficant condition problems. Both feet are detached from the legs. The beautiful gold-painted cartonnage mask has a large hole in the face. The shroud underneath the mask was pulled to one side, dragging the cartonnage chest piece under the mummy’s back making it dangerous to move. The shroud and linen wrappings are brittle. They’ve split open at the feet, exposing the toes. Conservators want to close the holes in the wrappings and face mask as much as possible. They also want to reattach the feet and stabilize the sarcophagus and mummy.

On Friday, the conservation team at the Field Museum lifted the coffin lid using custom-designed clamps as a cradle. Being careful not to damage the shifted cartonnage collar, they were able to raise the mummy out of the sarcophagus. The CT scans didn’t eliminate all surprises. Painted in gold on the inside bottom of the coffin was a drawing of the Goddess Nut nobody knew was there.

The exhibition debuts next year at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County. It takes a combined approach of high tech and traditional display. Accompanying the mummies are exhibited in century-old display cases, there are touch table interactive displays showing multi-layer segmented scans of the mummies that visitors can unwrap at their own pace, video projections, 3D printed casts of bones and figurines, and the hyperrealist sculpture reconstructions of Elisabeth Daynès. The tech isn’t glaring or obnoxious, though. The environment is kept deliberately quiet, in sound and sight, to ensure the space has a feeling of reverence for the dead rather than sensationalizing them.

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Six gold torcs found in Jersey Celtic coin hoard

Monday, December 8th, 2014

The massive hoard of Celtic coins that was raised in a single block from a field on the Channel Island of Jersey in 2012 is proving to be even more precious a treasure trove than was immediately obvious, and that’s saying a lot since the Le Catillon II treasure is the largest Celtic coin hoard ever discovered. The original estimate of the number of coins by volume was 30,000 to 50,000. As the Jersey Museum’s conservator Neil Mahrer has worked his way down the hoard, unsticking the corroded coin cluster, the estimated number has increased to 70,000.

Finders Richard Miles and Reg Mead first began to search for the hoard when a woman told them a story 30 years ago about a pot of silver coins found when her father uprooted a tree on their farm in Grouville parish. She didn’t know exactly where this fabled discovery had happened but she knew the general area and Miles and Mead secured permission from the current landowner to search the field with metal detectors during the brief window between harvest and planting. Over the decades they scanned the property with no success until in February of 2012 they found 60 Celtic coins. They dug a little deeper and encountered a large solid object. Mead grabbed a handful of the soil on top and found a few silver coins inside. Being extremely responsible and awesome people, they immediately filled in the hole and alerted Jersey Heritage to the find.

It’s because of their dogged determination spanning three decades and their respect for the archaeological context that the Le Catillon II hoard was archaeologically excavated from the site and is now being archaeologically excavated in an extremely cool glass-walled laboratory in public view at the Jersey Museum. Richard Miles and Reg Mead are part of the conservation team. They’ve been particularly helpful in coin identification, classification and cleaning, and of course they’re superstars to museum visitors.

The first gold peeked through the vertical face of the hoard in July of 2012. When the green corrosion from the silver and silver alloy coins was washed away, a thin sheet of flattened and twisted gold that had once been a torc was revealed. Later that month, conservators found another gold torc above and to the left of the first one. Only a couple of inches of it were visible at first, but the curve looked proper to the original curve around the neck and there was no evidence of twisting or flattening. This tendered the exciting prospect that there might be an intact gold torc amidst the layers of packed coins.

It has been two and a half years since the first glimpses of torc, and only now have conservators gotten down to the layers where they are nestled. It took close to two years to get all the permits and funding sorted. During that time, Mahrer and the conservation team removed 2,000 loose coins from the surface and cleaned them. This summer, they were finally able to start work on taking apart the coin block, laser scanning each coin in the mass and after its removal to ensure they have as detailed a record of the block and coins at every possible stage. The hoard is too big and dense for X-rays to give conservators an excavation road map, so they’re only discovering what’s in there as they go along.

In the beginning the finds were coins and organic material. To preserve the organic material (mainly peat and plant stalks), the team had to move very slowly during the unsticking process. They found that, as expected, most of the coins in the hoard were staters and quarter staters of the Coriosolitae tribe. Unexpectedly, they regularly encountered petit billons, a small denomination that is so rare a few tens of them were known before this hoard. They’re so rare that nobody knows what tribe made them or when. Other numismatic surprises are two coins from the Osismii tribe, the Coriosolitae’s western neighbors: one a five-sided stater that contains some gold, one is a solid gold quarter stater of the Bull Standard type.

In November, they reached the torc area. The solid gold torc was first revealed to have a join in the back, a hole through which a pin would be inserted to close the piece around the neck. Then they found another much larger torc.

At first it appeared to be a thick, tightly curved gold torc but when cleaned back a bit it was revealed as a pair of solid gold “wheels” at the end of a thick, curved, gold torc collar. The wheels are about 4cm accross and the collar part about 15mm thick. We’ve now cleaned back enough coins to see that the torc appears to be constructed from two semi circular parts which would have fitted together to be worn. We’ve think we’ve exposed about 90% of the first part with the wheels and about 50% of the second. We don’t know what the other ends of both are like yet. The sheer size of this piece is amazing in comparison to everything else we’ve seen yet and the torc surface appears to be in good condition and of a very pure gold.

And then they found even more:

In the same way that we found the large torc while clearing around another one, we have continued to find more new pieces as we cleared around it. We’ve found another of the sheet gold objects long visible on the hoard’s side. This new one seems very similar but is possibly in better condition. We have also partially uncovered two other smaller diameter possibly solid gold torc sections, one towards the rear of the hoard and another towards its centre. As such we just don’t know how far the rich area of jewellery extends throughout the hoard’s body, but it’s certainly further than we initially thought. What we are going to do over the next few months therefore is to extend the coin removal out from the torc area to a 5cm depth over the whole surface and see what we find.

That makes a total of six torcs — five gold, one gold-plated — found so far in an area the size of a shoebox. For more about the history of the coins, the hoard and its discovery, check out the Treasure Island page on the Jersey Heritage website. Keep your eye on Neil Mahrer’s Treasure Island Blog to follow the exciting developments as the conservation continues.

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Shackled remains found in Gallo-Roman necropolis

Saturday, December 6th, 2014

A team of archaeologists with France’s National Institute of Preventative Archaeological Research (INRAP) have unearthed shackled skeletons from a Gallo-Roman necropolis in Saintes, southwestern France. The property was slated for construction of a detached home and an archaeological survey of an adjacent plot last year found evidence of ancient funerary usage. From September to November of this year, the excavation discovered 100 graves dating to the 1st and 2nd centuries A.D.

These were very modest burials. Most of the graves contain double burials, two people buried head to toes in rectangular trenches. One grave was a multiple with five people, two of them adult women and two of them children. Only one of them included any grave goods: a small child buried with seven vases and a coin over each eye to pay the ferryman conveying him over the river into the underworld. The vases date to the second half of the 2nd century A.D. which makes this burial with a funerary practice entirely different from the others one of the later graves in the necropolis.

Perhaps the most intriguing discovery were the remains of five shackled individuals. Three of them are adult men, one is an adult of unknown gender and one is a child. Of the four adults, three had iron shackles hot riveted to their left ankles alone. The fourth had a shackle on the right ankle and a larger one, known as a “bondage collar” or “straitjacket,” around his neck. The child had a shackle on his or her left wrist that was more rudimentary than the ones the adults were made to wear into eternity. It’s flat and curved around the wrist where the ends are riveted together.

Individuals with shackles have been found before from this period in France, but this discovery is notable for having five of them. The adult shackled around the neck and ankle is also unusual. Researchers are hoping to find out more about these people’s lives and deaths by analyzing the human remains, artifacts and shackles. Ideally they’d like to discover the cause of death for all the interred, what kind of food they ate, what kind of work they did, whether they lived together in the same community. If they came from the same place, or at least lived in similar conditions, the bones and teeth will attest to that.

Saintes, known in antiquity as Mediolanum Santonum, was an important regional center in the Roman province of Aquitania. It was founded around 20 B.C. when the Roman roads connecting to Burdigala (modern-day Bordeaux) with its copious tin and lead trade to other towns in the region were expanded. Built at the western end of the Via Agrippa, the major artery that linked Lugdunum (Lyon) to the Atlantic coast, Saintes quickly became thoroughly Romanized with monumental public architecture and utilities.

The necropolis is 270 yards west of the great Roman amphitheater of Saintes. Large enough at its greatest extent to seat 12,000-18,000 people, the amphitheater is one of the largest and oldest in France today. Construction began during the reign of the emperor Tiberius (14-37 A.D.) and was finished around 41 A.D., under the reign of Claudius. As Roman amphitheaters generated significant death both in the construction phases and in their express purpose, it’s possible that the dead of the necropolis were somehow related to the amphitheater.

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Northernmost hacksilver hoard found in Aberdeenshire

Thursday, December 4th, 2014

Archaeologists from National Museums Scotland (NMS) and Aberdeen University’s Northern Picts Project have unearthed a hoard of Late Roman and Pictish silver fragments in a field in Aberdeenshire (the exact location of the hoard of more than 100 pieces is being kept secret to deter looters). It’s a hoard of hacksilver — bits of larger silver objects cut up for use as currency — made from coins, vessels, bracelets, brooches and more between the 4th and 6th century A.D. This is the northernmost hoard of Late Roman hacksilver ever discovered and the Pictish silver is unique.

As part of the Glenmorangie Research Project, an investigation into the history of early medieval Scotland funded by the Glenmorangie whisky company, National Museums Scotland experts will analyze, document and catalogue every silver fragment in the hoard. The project’s aim is to gain a better understanding of how silver went from a new, exotic Roman material to the most prestigious precious metal used to decorate high status objects in early medieval Scotland.

The discovery fits in to a sequence of silver use and re-use over several centuries that can now be studied alongside two other Scottish hacksilver hoards, the purely Late Roman silver from Traprain Law, East Lothian and the Pictish silver from Norrie’s Law, Fife.

These hoards contain a range of interesting material: earlier items from all over the Roman Empire, but also some unique objects and other later objects which have links to Ireland, the near continent and Anglo-Saxon England and give a snapshot of Scotland in Early Medieval Europe.

NMS researchers hope the comparison of the hoards will help illuminate the interactions between the late Romans and Picts. So far, the project’s investigations in northeastern Scotland have found that the area Picts were part of powerful early medieval kingdoms.

This phase of the project is expected to take three years, but you won’t have to wait that long to see some of the Aberdeenshire hoard in person. Select pieces from the hoard will go on display at the University of Aberdeen’s King’s Museum January 20th to May 31st, 2015.

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Iron Age tunic found in Norway glacier recreated

Tuesday, December 2nd, 2014

In 2011, archaeologists exploring the rapidly melting Lendbreen glacier in Norway’s Breheimen National Park discovered an intact woolen tunic dating to between 230 and 390 A.D. It is the oldest garment ever found in Norway, and it wasn’t new when for unknown reasons it was left on a glacier to freeze solid. There are several patches and the sleeves were sewn onto the tunic after the original manufacture. Although it could have been decades old, it was still entirely in wearable condition, and yet it was found bundled up and covered in horse manure. Archaeologists speculated that its 5’9″ wearer removed it believing himself to be hot, a common delusion caused by hypothermia, but it may also have been put to some other purpose rather than as clothing.

Its exceptional condition and the visible repairs afford researchers a unique chance to examine Iron Age wool, textile production and garment construction. To learn more about how the tunic was made, two museums — the University of Olso’s Museum of Cultural History and the Norwegian Mountain Museum in Lom — will create reproductions using traditional techniques. It’s going to be a highly detailed and complex process that enlists the labour of expert craftsmen.

First they have to source the proper wool. Ancient Norwegian sheep breeds had two kinds of wool: the long, stiff, water-resistant outer coat known as overhair, and the soft, fluffy inner layer known as underwool. The two layers were used to make different kinds of garments. The overhair was ideal for outerwear to protect from the elements, but the Lendbreen tunic was made almost entirely from underwool.

Wool from most modern sheep breeds is akin to the ancient underwool, but wild breeds still have the two layers. Researchers are therefore securing the wool of Norwegian wild sheep from a farmer at Hareid in northwestern Norway’s Sunnmøre region. Then traditional wool spinnery at Selbu Spinneri wll separate the overhair from the underwool by hand. They have no idea how long this painstaking work will take (my guess is a long damn time). Once the overhair has been plucked out, the spinners will spin some of the underwool on a hand spindle just as it would have been done in the Iron Age. (Spinning wheels were invented in the 18th century. EDIT: According to the linked release about the project, that is, but several erudite commenters below have corrected the contention. I suspect is a translation error and they were referring to mechanized spinning.) The project can’t afford to spin all the wool they need by hand, so some of it will be spun mechanically.

Because the tunic was woven in a diamond twill pattern, the Selbu Spinneri will sort the underwool into shades of grey so the darkest and lightest wool can be woven into this distinctive pattern. Once spun, the yard will be woven into the diamond twill textile on a vertical warp-weighted loom, an ancient machine that is simple, functional and slow.

Consisting of a simple upright frame with two horizontal beams, the loom is leant against a wall. The vertical warp threads hang freely from the upper beam. To keep the warp threads taut, stones or other heavy weights are hung from the bottom of bundles of warp threads. The weaving is done from the top of the loom downwards and every line of weft thread is beaten tightly in place with a sword beater.

The textiles will be woven by handweaver Lena Hammarlund from Gothenburg. Lena specializes in reconstructing prehistoric textiles.

Lena Hammarlund from Gothenburg, you are so cool.

After Ms. Hammarlund does her thing, the woven textile will be sewn into two tunics by traditional tailors from Heimen Husflid in Oslo. Once the tunics are completed, they will go on display, one at the Museum of Cultural History in Oslo, the other at the Lom museum. The latter is just six miles east of the Lendbreen glacier and has a large collection of artifacts recovered since the thaws began accelerating in 2006.

Marianne Vedeler, Associate Professor at the Museum of Cultural History at the University of Oslo, hopes the reconstruction won’t just give us a new understanding of the manufacture of ancient woollen clothing, but will also have an impact on Norwegian clothing design today.

“Clothes were not consumer items in the Iron Age. It was important to be able to re-use clothing, and in those days clothes lasted a long time. Today, we spend enormous resources on clothes. And modern clothes are not durable. If we can use local raw materials and create clothing of high quality, it will be good for us all. We are therefore hoping that designers will be inspired by this example of old, Norwegian design. If we can create modern textiles from a prehistoric design, we hope also to be able to give a boost to the Norwegian wool industry. Sadly, much of the wool from the old sheep breeds currently goes to waste.”

I’m picturing a Norwegian wild sheep overhair trench coat. I know I’d wear one.

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Help fund Sandby ringfort excavation

Saturday, November 29th, 2014

If we ever want to find out what happened at the Sandby Borg ringfort in the 5th century A.D. that left dead bodies to rot where they fell and treasure hidden for 1,600 years, we’re going to have to contribute funds. Sandby Borg was discovered on the island of Öland off the southeastern coast of Sweden in 2010 when the presence of looting pits alerted archaeologists to the site. A scan with metal detectors found five hoards each containing highly decorated gilded silver brooches, finger rings, silver bell pendants and glass beads with millefiori designs, buried in the corners of five houses in the central block of the fort.

The next year, archaeologists from the Kalmar County Museum in Sweden returned to excavate and found human skeletons of men killed by violence. In subsequent digs, more skeletons were discovered for a total of at least 10. This summer a potentially highly significant gold solidus was found in a posthole of House 40. In September of this year, for the first time the remains of a small child aged two to five years were found, an extremely important discovery since it suggests there were families in the fort, not just adults. The child was found in the same house as a middle aged man (50-60 years old) who was found lying prone in the fireplace. He was probably struck by a weapon and fell face-down into the fireplace where he came to a gruesome end.

So far less than 3% of the fort has been excavated. Each year archaeologists have only a few short days to dig test pits and every time they’ve uncovered tantalizing evidence of the horror that befell the residents of Sandby Borg in the 5th century. They don’t have the funding to thoroughly excavate any one part of the ringfort, however, which is not only frustrating for our insatiable historical curiosity, but also potentially dangerous since it leaves precious archaeological context and material culture in danger of interference.

Enter Kickstarter. The Kalmar County Museum Department of Archaeology has started a campaign to raise 400,000 kronor ($52,000), a modest goal that will allow them to zero in on one area and produce a book about their finds.

If we reach our goal with this Kickstarter campaign, we will be able to excavate the remaining 1/3 of the house known as House 40 and produce a richly illustrated book presenting the results in English and Swedish. This is the house where at least six people are lying dead on the floor. Two of them have already been recovered, but the remaining four or more are still there. One main objective of investigating the rest of the house is to recover the skeletons. Furthermore, this particular house has proven to contain numerous potential clues to what actually happened here, and why. The Roman gold coin mentioned above is one example; some exquisite details from weaponry are another. The funding will cover both costs for personnel during fieldwork and post-excavation work and analyses, but also for the production of the book.

You have to donate at the 1,000 kronor level ($134) to get the book. If you have deeper pockets (15,000 kr, or $2,012), you can secure a VIP tour of the site personally guided by lead archaeologist Dr. Helena Victor. If you’re Oprah rich, pledge 50,000 kr ($6,700) and you get to get in the trenches and dig! God that’s such a cool reward I can’t even stand it.

The Kickstarter has been open since November 27th and has already raised 68,155 kronor just from small donors. The deadline is December 31st. A donation would make a fine present for the history nerd on your list.

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23,000-year-old limestone Venus found in France

Friday, November 28th, 2014

Archaeologists excavating the Renancourt neighborhood of Amiens in northern France have unearthed a small artifact of large historical significance. It’s a limestone statuette of a female figure with exaggerated breasts and buttocks of a type known as a Paleolithic Venus. She’s 23,000 years old, an artifact of the late Gravettian culture found in France and eastern Europe, reaching all the way to western Siberia. About a hundred Gravettian Venuses have been found all over Europe, including 15 examples in southwest France, but this is the first one discovered in the north of France. The last one unearthed in an archeological context in France was found in Tursac, Dordogne, in 1959.

In July of this year, the team was excavating a deposit of eolian silt from the end of the last glacial period (40,000 to 10,000 years ago), expecting to find relatively common Paleolithic remains like flints and animal bones. On the second day of the dig, they found a pile of limestone fragments that didn’t seem like natural chips. That night, they were able to puzzle together the 20 fragments to form an almost complete female statuette about 11 centimeters (4.3 inches) tall. Only the right leg piece is missing. It was carved from a single piece of limestone and archaeologists believe it shattered from the cold.

Typical of the 244 Upper Paleolithic Venuses that have been found from different periods in Europe (the oldest being the 35,000-40,000-year-old Venus of Schelklingen which is also the oldest known human figurative art), the secondary sex characteristics are unmistakably prominent, while the head and extremities are barely present. The Venus of Renancourt has a simple rounded shape for a head and roughly engraved arms and legs.

In a space of only nine square meters, archaeologists recovered an abundance of Paleolithic remains along with the Venus, including flint projectile points used for hunting and large blades used as tools like knives and scrapers. Numerous animal bones attest to horse meat having been on the menu regularly. Chalk jewelry — rounds pierced with a hole — discovered at the site is very unusual and may be unique to this deposit. The remains indicate this was a hunter’s camp which radiocarbon dating found to be 23,000 years old, the last phase of the Gravettian period.

It’s not just the Venuses that are rare discoveries in the north of France; evidence of Upper Paleolithic Cro-Magnon presence is rare because at that time there were still glaciers reaching all the way down to the modern-day Netherlands. This discovery suggests there was a window of warmer temperatures that allowed the Cro-Magnon hunters to travel north over impressively long distances. The Gravettian areas in the southwest of France are 125-185 miles away. That’s a lot of ground to cover on foot during an ice age.

The Venus of Renancourt will be studied thoroughly for the next few months before going on display at Museum of Picardie in Amiens.

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