Archive for the ‘Ancient’ Category

World’s only woolly rhino calf found in Siberia

Thursday, February 26th, 2015

Two hunters have discovered the exceptionally well preserved remains of a baby woolly rhinoceros in the Abyysky district of Siberia’s Sakha Republic. The Siberian permafrost is a rich source of pre-historic skeletal and fossil finds, but on rare occasions the deep freeze is found to have preserved the carcasses of fallen Pleistocene animals in such good condition that even soft tissues survive. While bison and mammoths have been found before (female mammoth, two baby mammoths, juvenile mammoth), this is only the second time a woolly rhinoceros has been found frozen rather than mummified or skeletonized, and it’s the first woolly rhinoceros calf that has ever been found in any condition beyond than the occasional bone.

The little fella was first spotted by hunters Alexander “Sasha” Banderov and Simeon Ivanov (the Siberian Times made a rather unfortunate error in translating Ivanov’s first name) when they were sailing on a stream flowing into the Semyulyakh River last summer. They saw some hair hanging from the top of a ravine on the right bank. At first they thought it was the remains of a reindeer, but they couldn’t confirm or deny because the carcass was far out of their reach. When they returned to the spot in September, the ice had thawed and the section of frozen earth containing the remains had thawed enough to break off and fall onto the river bank. Although a section of the carcass sticking out of the ice had been devoured by wild animals (there are visible teeth marks), the head was intact and its two horns immediately identified it as a rhinoceros.

Banderov and Ivanov retrieved the rhino and carried it home to their village where they placed it in a glacier to keep it frozen. Knowing that scientists would want to examine this remarkable find, they contacted Albert Protopopov, head of the Mammoth Fauna Department of the Academy of Sciences of the Republic of Sakha, Yakutia. It took almost six months to get the carcass 1,800 miles away to Yakutia due to the challenges inherent in transporting anything across vast distances in the Siberian winter.

On February 25th, the Academy held a press conference announcing the discovery, its arrival in Yakutia and its name: Sasha, after one of the hunters who found it. Protopopov emphasized what a unique opportunity they have to study a baby woolly rhinoceros. Before now they hadn’t even had the chance to examine a single tooth from a woolly rhino calf, never mind a complete skull and head with a surviving ear, eye, nostrils and mouth. There is also copious surviving wool and two legs with intact hooves. (The parts in the middle were eaten.)

Although it will take several months to get dating results, Sasha has to be at least 10,000 years old because that’s when the woolly rhinoceros became extinct. Scientists estimate the calf was about 18 months old at the time of death which was probably as a result of falling into a pit.

Mr. Protopopov explained: “Even to find a skull of a baby rhino is very lucky indeed. The possible explanation to it is that rhinos bred very slowly. Mothers protected baby rhinos really well, so that cases of successful attacks on them were extremely rare and the mortality rate was very low. Woolly rhinos are less studied than mammoths. We are hoping Sasha the rhino will give us a lot of answers to questions of how they grew and developed, what conditions they lived in, and which of the modern day animals is the closest to them.”

The team will focus first on extracting DNA from the carcass. Because the hunters were so brilliantly conscientious about keeping Sasha frozen, the odds of the scientists being able to extract testable DNA are better than usual. They hope they’ll be able to report on the first test results in a couple of weeks.

Share

Objects from 1,500-year-old settlement found in Poland

Sunday, February 22nd, 2015

Archaeologists excavating near the village of Skomack Wielki in northeastern Poland have unearthed numerous bronze, iron and pottery artifacts from a settlement dating to the 5th or 6th century A.D. Artifacts from this period in this area are rare, and most of the ones that have been found were discovered in cemeteries.

Among the most valuable finds are ornaments, brooches and buckles made of bronze, as well as toiletries (tongs) and knives. In one place, archaeologists discovered cluster of entirely preserved 7 ceramic vessels. They differ in size, finish (some carefully smoothed, some rugged), decoration in the form of plastic strips, ornaments made with fingers or engraved. “The whole deposit gives the impression of a specially selected set, although at this stage of research it is difficult to say what was the purpose of selection and of the pit, in which the vessels had been placed” – commented Dr. [Anna] Bitner-Wróblewska.

Although the population of the area in late antiquity and the early Middle Ages is generally associated with the Sudovian/Yotvingian tribe, archaeologists believe the community in this settlement was a West Baltic tribe called the Galindians who had established connections with peoples to the north, south, west and east of them going back as far as the 2nd century A.D. when Greco-Egyptian astronomer, mathematician, poet and geographer Claudius Ptolemy mentioned them in his Geographia. The range of the ancient tribe was whittled down to a central core in the wake of the upheavals of the late Imperial period. By the 6th/7th century Ptolemy’s Galindians survived as the Old Prussian clan of the Galindis. These artifacts, therefore, are from a significant transitional period in the history of the region.

The pottery vessels, still filled with soil, have been removed to the National Archeological Museum in Warsaw where the contents will be examined under laboratory conditions. The museum is a partner in the Polish-Norwegian Modern Archaeological Conservation Initiative “Archaeology of the Yatvings” which seeks to explore the mutli-period settlements of Baltic tribes (the Yatvings of the title) in the early medieval centers of Szurpiły and Skomack Wielki in Poland’s Warmińsko-Mazurskie region. This is the first archaeological initiative in Poland to prioritize non-invasive methods of investigation like aerial exploration and geophysical surveys to locate and identify archaeological remains and determine how well preserved they are.

The project began last year with non-invasive analysis of the sites followed by targeted excavations. It is scheduled to continue through 2016. The ultimate objective, in addition to learning more about the little-known settlement structures of ancient and early medieval Yatvings, is to develop a usable model of heritage protection coupled with archaeology that will give local communities a fuller understanding of their rich history and a preservation-based approach to cultural tourism.

Share

3,500-year-old Bronze Age hoard found in Poland

Wednesday, February 18th, 2015

A 3,500-year-old Bronze Age hoard containing the head of an ice axe, fragments of a spiral necklace and a bracelet with tapered ends, all made of bronze, was found last month in the village of Rzepedź in Bieszczady Mountains of southeastern Poland. The hoard was discovered by Łukasz Solon from the nearby town of Sanok who was visiting the old wooden church of St. Nicholas with his girlfriend. They were walking towards the north side of the village when Łukasz noticed a metal object sticking out of the ground. Its green patina contrasted against the brown grass reminded him of artifacts he had seen in the Historical Museum of Sanok, so instead of indulging a perfectly natural curiosity and digging it up, Łukasz left the object alone and alerted the museum experts when he got home.

Archaeologist Peter Kotowicz from the Historical Museum of Sanok and Marcin Glinianowicz from the Carpathian Archaeology department of Sanok’s Folk Architecture Museum went to the site the next day and recovered the exposed object. They recognized it as an ancient bronze ice axe and immediately applied for an emergency permit to conduct an archaeological survey of the spot. The day after that, permit in hand, they excavated the find site.

First they explored the area with a metal detector and found fragments of bronze spirals and a strong signal indicating that there was more to found deeper underground. They dug a small trench about two feet square and carefully raked into the soil, recovering multiple pieces of bronze spirals until, about a foot under the surface, they encountered potsherds that were the edges of a clay vessel about 10 inches in diameter. Much larger sections of bronze spirals lay within the vessel’s perimeter. Underneath those archaeologists found another 15 bronze spiral fragments and a bracelet with tapered end broken in two pieces. When they got to the bottom they discovered the earthenware vessel had been deliberately placed upside-down on a circular sandstone plate.

According to Kotowicz, the discovered objects were probably made south of the Carpathians. “The treasure is probably related to the communication route, which ran from the nearby Łupków Pass through the Osława and San valleys” – noted the archaeologist.

Bronze monuments from Rzepedź have been preliminarily dated to approx. 1500 years before Christ. “We do not yet know who and why had hidden the treasure so carefully. Axe and jewellery are most likely related to the Piliny culture, then existing south of the Carpathians” – noted Kotowicz.

The Piliny culture is one of the Urnfield cultures, named after their practice of cremating their dead, placing the remains in urns that would then be buried in cemeteries that in some cases have been found to contain thousands of urn burials. Archaeologists have found pottery vessels of different shapes and sizes, bronze pins, bracelets, rings, weapons and more in those Piliny cemeteries and in settlements and hoards. The bronze work is particularly exceptional, the product of a well-developed metallurgic trade courtesy of the Carpathian mountains’ plentiful supply of ore. The area was an important center of metallurgy from the Early Bronze Age on, introducing innovations in the making of alloys and other metallurgic techniques.

The bronze spiral fragments in the Rzepedź hoard are typical of jewelry that has been found at Piliny sites. They used that spiral configuration in all kinds of designs: arm rings, leg rings, wrist guards, finger rings, pendants.

In order to ascertain whether the hoard was a one-off buried in a remote location far from the madding crowd or part of a larger settlement, the find site will have to be more extensively explored. A survey or the wider area has already begun, a first step to a broader program of research under the aegis of the regional conservation office.

Share

Rare Roman cremation burial finds go on display

Tuesday, February 17th, 2015

Last October, John Steele was scanning a field in Whitchurch, north of Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire, at a Weekend Wanderers metal detecting group rally when he discovered some fragments of iron and copper alloy artifacts. There were also pieces of red Samian ware vessels, an indication that the site may have been an ancient burial. The group alerted Finds Liaison Officer Ros Tyrell. Buckinghamshire County Council archaeologist Eliza Alqassar realized this could be a significant discovery and commissioned Oxford Archaeology to excavate the find site.

The excavation was challenging. Soil conditions were difficult and the earth had been churned up by heavy farming machinery leaving some artifacts so crushed and dispersed that it was hard to figure out what they were. Oxford Archaeology spent three days excavating and documenting the site. They found iron nails and organic deposits indicating there had once been a wooden burial casket 3’7″ long and 2’4″ wide buried at the site. The wooden structure of the casket has decayed, but it contents survived: a bronze jug with a decorated handle, two Samian ware cups, two Samian ware dishes, a pottery flagon, two glass vessels, a bronze patera (a shallow libation bowl), an iron lamp or lamp holder, two unidentified lead objects and a cremation urn.

The cremation urn was in such bad condition that archaeologists lifted the entire soil block around it for excavation back at the Oxford Archaeology lab. Inside the urn were iron hobnails from a shoe, a red jasper intaglio engraved with the goddess Minerva and a smaller figure, possibly Mercury, holding up a wreath. The cremated bone fragments belonged to an adult, possibly female, buried in the 2nd century.

The wealth and rare combination of artifacts suggest she was someone of high status. Burials from this period containing objects in a variety of metals, glass and ceramics are very rare. There are only a handful of comparable rich cremation burials found to contain glass and bronze artifacts and lamps all unearthed in southeastern England (this burial in Wendover found in 2000 is comparable down to the original discovery by metal detectorists). The Whitchurch find is the westernmost of these burials. The iron lamp or lamp holder is also a rare find. The bronze jug handle, elaborately decorated at the base with a sacro-idyllic scene of figures worshipping at an altar that has no known parallels. It’s a unique piece of national importance, especially since it was properly excavated in a dated and documented context.

In the months since the discovery, three artifacts have been cleaned and conserved: the bronze jug handle, one of the Samian cups and the jasper intaglio. The three of them will be on display at the Buckinghamshire County Museum in Aylesbury for the next three months in a bid to raise interest and funds for thorough conservation of the rest of the metal artifacts. They need £3,000 to clean and stabilize the objects so they’re suitable for permanent display and for publication.

Share

Restored Berthouville Treasure at the Getty

Monday, February 9th, 2015


For the first time since it was discovered in 1830, the entire Berthouville Treasure, a group of exceptional Roman silver objects, has left France and is on display at the Getty Villa in Malibu. Ancient Luxury and the Roman Silver Treasure from Berthouville exhibits the complete 93-piece treasure — which includes a statue of Mercury, elaborately decorated silver pitchers and cups, a repoussé silver jug, plain silver beakers, a spoon collection and a number broken handles, rims and fittings — along with a selection of luxurious jewels, like the eight gold, emerald, pearl and amethyst necklaces of the Treasure of Naix, all on loan from the Département des Monnaies, Médailles et Antiques (the department of coins, medals and antiques) of the Bibliothèque Nationale de France.

On March 21st, 1830, farmer Prosper Taurin was working his field in Berthouville, near Bernay, Normandy, when his plowshare jammed against an ancient Roman tile. Once dislodged, the tile was found to be protecting a trove of 95 or so Roman silver and gold objects buried only eight inches beneath the soil. Weighing a total of 55 pounds, the stand-out pieces were two statuettes of the god Mercury and about 60 vessels.

Several of the vessels were incscribed with votive dedications to Mercury, including a group of nine ultra deluxe gilded silver vessels — a pair of wine pitchers with scenes from the Trojan War, a pair of drinking cups decorated with scenes of centaurs, a pair of drinking cups with masks, a silver and gold beaker with scenes from the story of Corinth and Isthmia, a large bowl with a central medallion of Omphale and Eros laying on Hercules’ Nemean lion skin and a ladle decorated with Mercury, a goat and a tree — made in the 1st century. These nine pieces all bear the inscription “MERCVRIO AVGVSTO Q DOMITIVS TVTVS EX VOTO,” or “To August Mercury from Quintus Domitius Tutus as vowed,” and are superlatively high quality silver and gold work from 1st century Italy.

Subsequent archaeological excavations of the site in 1861 and 1896 found two temples, a theater and hypocaust-heated rooms: a Gallo-Roman sanctuary built in at least two stages. One of the temples was dedicated to the important Romanized Gallic deity Mercury Canetonensis, the same god name-checked in the vessels’ votive inscriptions. The other was dedicated either to his mother Maia or his wife Rosmerta. The hoard was buried under the brick paving in the gallery of the sanctuary.

Archaeologists did not encounter evidence of a town or cemetery in the vicinity of the sanctuary, so it seems likely to have been a pilgrimage site. The objects date from the 1st to the late 2nd centuries A.D. and are therefore thought to have been buried in the late 2nd, early 3rd century. They could have been buried for their own preservation during turbulent times, but given the context they may have been cached for ritual purposes rather than under extremis.

Taurin put the treasure in the hands of a local nobleman who prevented archaeologists from examining it. An expert from the Louvre and one from the Cabinet des Médailles of the Bibliothèque Royale, today the Département des Monnaies, Médailles et Antiques of the Bibliothèque Nationale de France, were allowed access to the group to arrange a sale. The Cabinet acquired the treasure for 15,000 francs, a modest sum even then. At the library in Paris the objects were cleaned and the fragments that could be puzzled back together were. There the Berthouville Treasure remained (with some individual pieces taking occasional short trips elsewhere in France) for 180 years.

In December of 2010, the whole treasure was shipped to the Getty Villa for an extensive program of documentation, analysis, research, cleaning and conservation. Each of the 93 objects (plus four unrelated platters from late antiquity in the Cabinet collection) were photographed and X-rayed to assess their condition and for evidence of how they were manufactured. After a metallurgic study, conservators began to clean the surface of the vessels with simple damp cotton swabs. The grime and dust removal promptly revealed gilding and inscription details that had long been obscured. Further progress was made with mild cleansers and solvents like acetone and ethanol which were able to remove the thick tarnish layers, accretions and corrosion that the 19th century conservation had been unable to budge.

The restoration project took four years to complete and the beautiful results are now on display in California. The exhibition runs at the Getty Villa through August 17th, 2015, after which it returns to Paris whose citoyens will get a chance to see the treasure clean and shiny for the first time.

Here’s a nifty video from the Getty conservation team on how Roman silversmiths would have made the Cup of the Centaurs.

Share

St. Louis Society board resigns over artifact sales

Friday, February 6th, 2015

Last fall, the St. Louis Society (SLS) of the American Institute for Archaeology (AIA) caused a stir when it put the Treasure of Harageh up for auction at Bonhams, London. The collection of Twelfth Dynasty jewelry and vessels were unearthed by a British School of Archaeology team excavating in Middle Egypt during the 1913-14 season under the direction of William Matthew Flinders Petrie. As the St. Louis Society had contributed to the funding of the dig, in return they received an exceptional group of artifacts from the reign of Pharoah Senusret II (1897-1878 B.C.). The Society had tried to place the objects from Tomb 124 at Harageh in the Saint Louis Art Museum and in the Washington University museum, but were not successful, so most of the time the artifacts were kept in a safety deposit box. The steep costs and suboptimal conservation conditions of the storage and the desire to fund a community archaeology program ultimately spurred the St. Louis Society to sell the Treasure.

Most of it was saved at the last minute, taken out of the auction the day before thanks to a private sale to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. A Tenth-Eleventh Dynasty travertine head rest was bought at the Bonhams auction by an anonymous buyer for $44,000. Undeterred by the outcry, the SLS then offered two Mesoamerican artifacts — a Maya effigy vase (550-950 A.D.) from the Quirigua, Guatemala, and a Zapotec seated figural urn (550-950 A.D.) from Monte Albán, Mexico — they received as recompense for funding the fieldwork of American archaeologist and groundbreaking Maya scholar Sylvanus Morley in the 1910s. The effigy vase sold to a university museum for $21,250, the figural urn to an unknown private buyer for $3,750.

The AIA is opposed to the sales of antiquities, believing they should be curated for the public good, conserved by experts and made available for study, but its charter with the St. Louis Society only explicitly prohibits the sale of ancient artifacts of dubious, undocumented origin. The origin of these objects was clear and unblemished. Still, the AIA released a statement expressing its concern over the pending sale and promising an urgent investigation into the situation. The SLS board held there was nothing wrong with the sales, ethically or legally. Obviously the AIA disagreed on the ethics of auctioning off archaeological material, and pointed out that the board had acted unilaterally without consulting the SLS membership which was at the very least divided on the question.

On January 10th, the Council of the AIA held its annual meeting in New Orleans. They discussed the SLS sales and decided on a strong course of action: if the SLS board didn’t resign in its entirety by February 1st, the AIA would revoke the St. Louis Society’s charter. You can read SLS President Michael Fuller’s statement at the meeting here. I’m not prone to agree with cultural heritage organizations selling ancient artifacts to the highest bidder, but I think he made some excellent points, particularly about how the AIA needs an actual policy on the sale of documented artifacts and how the national society could have helped them place the artifacts in museums and prevented this mess from happening in the first place instead of reacting after the fact.

Three days after the AIA passed its resolution, the St. Louis Society held an extraordinary meeting attended by two thirds of the membership. After a vigorous debate, a narrow majority of the members voted to retain the board. On January 25th, the SLS board met again and decided to comply with the AIA resolution. All nine of the board members resigned effective Monday, January 26th. An interim board is in place until new elections are held at the next annual meeting. The AIA is satisfied and the St. Louis Society will remain a chapter in good standing.

Share

Remains of ancient mound in Ohio found during mall construction

Wednesday, February 4th, 2015

In 2008, a small mound on North Bridge Street in Chillicothe, Ohio, was bulldozed by commercial developers. There was no archaeological survey of the site, despite Ohio’s rich history of ancient Native American mounds, because sadly there are no laws even slowing people down from destroying ancient remains on private property. Whatever development plans were in the works in 2008 never came to fruition and the property lay fallow until this year.

A few weeks ago, Guernsey Crossing LLC began building a mall on the 13-acre site. This time people concerned about the late lamented mound reached out to archaeologist Dr. Jarrod Burks, president of the Heartland Earthworks Conservancy, who contacted the developers and struck up a deal: Burks and a team of volunteers would be given three weeks to excavate the site where the mound had once been. They started out with a magnetic survey of the site to identify the perimeter of the mound and the best areas to excavate.

After two weeks, they’ve found a cluster of burned bones that are most likely from a cremation, Burks said, and another set of unburned bones and teeth. In addition, after painstakingly and carefully feathering away the soil a few specks of dirt at a time, they’ve uncovered shards and pieces of prehistoric pottery and a great deal of burned wood that will be able to be dated by its carbonization.

Burks, whose paying job is with Ohio Valley Archaeology in Columbus, said the mound probably dates from between 200 B.C. to A.D. 200. Before flattening, it was about 2 1/2 feet high. The area is about 80 feet in diameter.

Archaeologists can’t tell if the burned bone fragments are human or animal, but the uncharred bone discovered next to the burned pieces are human, so it’s likely the burned ones are too. The pottery fragments are the source of the preliminary dating based on design and style.

Basically what’s left is a thin layer of the mound floor, still intact after bulldozing just below the surface. Floors may not sound glamorous, but they’re extremely important archaeologically speaking. These postholes are unusually large, one wide enough to hold a post six to eight inches in diameter. The hole seems to have been deliberately filled in after the post was removed, perhaps during the construction of the mound.

That they’ve been able to find postholes is highly significant because they impart a great deal of information about the construction of the site, and since so many of Ohio’s ancient mounds were destroyed long before archaeological practices paid much attention to, well, holes, this little ex-mound may teach us new things about the architecture of these structures.

The mound is going to be a mall parking lot soon, so the team has to clear out everything they find for further study. The Native American tribes would prefer that human remains not be disturbed, but unfortunately that’s not an option here. Burks is working with the developers to ensure the area isn’t entirely bereft of recognition of its ceremonial and historical importance.

While we’re on the subject of ancient Native American mounds in Chillicothe, things are going gangbusters at the Junction Group Hopewell Earthworks. After a frantic two-week period of fundraising last March, the earthworks, none of which are visible above ground but their foundations are still extant underground, were saved when heritage and ecological preservation non-profits including the Heartland Earthworks Conservancy and Arc of Appalachia rallied to raise funds to buy the archaeological and environmentally important parts of the Stark family farm. Almost 1,000 individual donations were raised in that fortnight of mad activity, enough to allow the coalition to buy 193 acres — earthworks, woodlands and a 1.25-miles stretch river corridor — at auction for $1.1 million.

Most of that purchase price, 75% of it, came from a matching Clean Ohio Fund grant which wasn’t actually granted yet when they bought the land. Arc of Appalachia noted at the time that “we raised roughly $375,000 through the generosity of over 900 donors, funds which we will use to leverage a Clean Ohio grant to pay the remaining balance of acquisition funds needed.” They seemed confident but I was concerned about whether the grant was a sure enough thing to consider the Junction Group Earthworks well and truly saved.

Well, I’m delighted to report that the Clean Ohio Fund matching grant came through and in July of last year, Arc of Appalachia Preserve System director Nancy Stranahan and Heartland Earthworks Conservancy director Bruce Lombardo officially closed on the property. They’re wasting no time on their goal of making the site a public park. The new Junction Earthworks Archaeological Park and Nature Preserve is slated to open this year, perhaps as early as this spring. There are tons of additional expenses involved in making it a proper park facility so donations are still very much open. Click here to donate to the Junction Earthworks Park Development Fund online.

Meanwhile, the same Jarrod Burks mentioned above, who happens to have done the first magnetic survey of the Junction Group site in 2005 which revealed that the foundations of the earthworks were was still left undergound, has returned to make a more detailed survey. The original scan covered about 15 acres and with a single hand-held magnetometer, produced relatively low density data. This scan is being done with a four-probe magnetometer on a rolling cart which will collect far higher density data over the same ground thereby identifying smaller features (cooking pits, burials, postholes) the first machine couldn’t detect, and will eventually cover the entire 89-acre field.

Dr. Burks began scanning in November and is still doing it whenever weather permits, which isn’t often this winter. They only had two weeks and three weekends to complete the project in 2005. Now that they own the land, they can afford to take their time. You can see Jarrod Burks at work with his neat four-magnetometer scanner in this aerial footage by drone photographer Tim Anderson. The enclosure ditches, which are not visible above ground, have been marked out by mowing the soybean stalks left after harvest.

Share

Ancient Siberian trepanation recreated

Friday, January 30th, 2015

A multi-disciplinary team of scientists at the Institute of Archaeology and Ethnography, part of the Russian Academy of Science’s Siberian branch, have recreated the ancient trepanation technique of the nomadic people who inhabited the Altai region of western Siberia between the 6th and early 2nd centuries B.C. A neurosurgeon, a radiologist, anthropologists and archaeologists examined three skulls with antemortem trepanation holes excavated from grave mounds in the Altai mountains and then attempted to perform comparable surgeries using a period-accurate tool on a modern cadaver’s skull.

Skull from Bikeh III, male 50-60 years old, 5th–4th centuries B.C.All three skulls were unearthed from humble graves. The grave goods and associated burial rites indicate the interred were of relatively low social status, which means at least some of the poorer Altai nomads had access to quite high level health care. The types of graves and funerary rituals are all different, suggesting the subjects came from diverse cultural groups. One of the skulls was excavated from mound three at the Bikeh III burial ground. It belonged to a male between 50 and 60 years old and dates to the 5th–4th centuries B.C. A second skull, excavated from a cyst grave in Kyzyl-Dzhar IV mound two, is that of a woman who died at around 30 years of age. The last is from an undercut, timber-frame grave in Kyzyl Dzhar V mound three and is the skull of a man aged 40-45. Both date to around the 4th-3rd centuries B.C.

Using multi-slice computer tomography scans, researchers first examined the skulls in minute detail to identify any damage or defect that led to the surgeries and to analyze the methods and tools used by the ancient surgeons.

TSkull from Kyzyl-Dzhar-V, 40-year-old man, 4th-3rd c. B.C.he skull of the 50-60 y.o. male showed no visible evidence of head trauma, but rather that he suffered from a congenital skull deformation — a flattening of part of the occipital bone caused by an improper closing of the lambdoid suture. This was not a dangerous or painful condition at this point in his life and there’s no sign of trauma or tumors, so it’s not obvious why surgical intervention was attempted. Whatever was ailing him, it didn’t leave tell-tale signs on the cranium. The skull of the woman bears evidence of severe trauma: fractures in the right temporal bone and at the base of the middle cranial fossa, possibly caused by a fall from a height. The skull of the 40-year-old man indicates he suffered significant head trauma causing damage to his left temporal and parietal bones. That injury resulted in a hematoma — bleeding in the brain that forms a clot — which would have inflicted a variety of painful symptoms including headaches, vomiting and difficulty moving his right limbs.

Both men had pieces of their left parietal bone removed. The older gentleman’s skull has a semi-oval hole that is 45 by 52 mm (1.8 by 2 inches) at the outer perimeter with an inner hole of 22 by 34 mm (.87 by 1.34 inches). The younger fellow’s skull has a round hole that is 63 mm by 64 mm (2.5 inches) on the outside, 40 mm by 41 mm (1.6 inches) on the inside. The young woman’s skull has an irregular round trepanation hole in the back of the parietal bones centered on the sagittal suture. It’s 39 mm by 36 mm (1.5 by 1.4 inches) on the outside, 23 mm by 16 mm (.9 by .6 inches) on the inside. The inner and outer measurements are a result of a two-stage process: first a larger surface layer of bone was cut out with a sharp tool leaving a thin layer of skull, then a hole was cut into the thinned out bone with short, frequent movements.

Skull from Kyzyk-Dzhar-IV, 30-year-old woman, 4th-3rd c.The men’s skulls both have extensive bone regrowth at the surgical sites, which means they survived and went on to live for years after the operation. The woman was not so lucky. She died either during surgery or right after it, and little wonder since her surgeon did an atrocious job. The surgeons who operated on the men cut holes that were just large enough to address the problem (remove the hematoma from the younger man; possibly remove parasites from the older one) and at a safe distance from the sagittal sinus, into which all the major veins from the top of the skull open. The woman’s trepanation hole is right above the superior sagittal sinus, so it’s a fair assumption that she died from massive bleeding.

The two successful surgeries were performed with distinct finesse by knowledgable surgeons. They may have developed this knowledge independently, perhaps developed from expertise in embalming, from the fast and thorough butchering of stock and game that a nomadic existence requires, or from making objects out of animal bone, a craft that was extensively practiced by the Altai nomads in the 5th century. There’s also a chance they may have had contact with western medical practices during war, trade or travel. Hippocrates wrote the treatise On Head Injuries in the 5th or early 4th century B.C. which specifically addressed the importance of avoiding the blood geyser areas of the brain when digging holes into the skull.

Knives (a-e) and saw (f) from Minusinsk MuseumSince even with today’s technology scraping or cutting or grinding bone leaves particles from the tool on the bone, the team tested the new bone growth on the two men who survived the operation for material that would identify which kind of tool was used. X-ray fluorescence and mass-spectrometric analyses discovered particles of copper and tin, which means the skulls were cut with a bronze instrument. The lack of arsenic further narrows it down to stannic bronze which at the time of the burials was being used in the Minusinsk Basin. The Martyanov Museum in Minusinsk has a large collection of stannic bronze tools — knives, saws, lancets, tweezers, probes — that archaeologists have posited had a surgical purpose. Unfortunately they were not excavated in context (looters sold them to the museum in the late 19th, early 20th century), so it’s hard to pinpoint a date of manufacture.

Experimental brass knifeNeurosurgeon Dr. Aleksei Krivoshapkin first tried to use one of the blades from the museum on a skull, but it was too soft and couldn’t get purchase on the bone. Archaeologist Andrei Borodovsky made an experimental knife out of a brass alloy of copper, tin and zinc. That addition of zinc made for a functional skull-cutting tool that the team could test on a cadaver skull.

Trepanation experiment on modern cadaver skullHere’s the most amazing part of this fascinating foray into ancient brain surgery: the operation took 28 minutes. Using a freaking brass knife and Altai cutting techniques, it took Dr. Krivoshapkin less than half an hour to make a two-inch hole in a skull. I was just reading the other day about how Cervantes’ father was a surgeon and it was seen as a low job, akin to a butcher, but look at the incredible skills that butcher heritage brought to the surgical table. I hope Cervantes Sr. was all “Yeah, that’s right. I’m an amazing butcher. You wish you could do with living tissue what I can do in 28 minutes. Haters to the left.”

 

Share

Tut’s beard glued back on like a bad craft project

Saturday, January 24th, 2015

Tutankhamun funerary mask before beard glue debacleThe AP reported on Thursday that the false beard on the gold funerary mask of Tutankhamun, probably the single most recognizable ancient artifact in the world, had come off and was reattached with a sloppy mess of irreversible epoxy glue. Cited in the article are three conservators at the Cairo Museum, all unnamed due to fear of reprisals, who had different stories about what happened to the beard — it was either knocked off when the mask was mishandled during cleaning of the display case or deliberately taken off because it was loose — but agreed that it was reattached hastily with epoxy.

By their accounts, museum officials ordered the beard reattached as quickly as possible because obviously it’s a massive tourist draw and they didn’t want it taken off display for any length of time. Epoxy dries almost instantly while a cautious conservation approach would use an adhesive that dries slowly over the course of at least 24 hours so adjustments could be made if necessary. It would also be reversible to allow future conservators to remove it if necessary without damage to the artifact.

“Unfortunately he used a very irreversible material — epoxy has a very high property for attaching and is used on metal or stone but I think it wasn’t suitable for an outstanding object like Tutankhamun’s golden mask,” one conservator said.

“The mask should have been taken to the conservation lab but they were in a rush to get it displayed quickly again and used this quick drying, irreversible material,” the conservator added.

The conservator said there is now a visible gap between the face and the beard. “Now you can see a layer of transparent yellow.”

There are also visible scratches. A conservator says he witnessed a colleague scrape dried epoxy from the mask with a spatula leaving scratches on the gold. Steel yourself for the picture.

Detail of epoxy layer used to reattach beard, image courtesy Al-Araby Al-Jadeed

The AP secured a photograph from a tourist named Jacqueline Rodriguez who was at the museum on August 12th, 2014, and took a picture of a museum worker holding the beard in place waiting for the glue to set.

Jacqueline Rodriguez's photograph of man gluing the beard on Tut's funerary mask on August 12th, 2014The director of the Egyptian Museum Mahmoud Halwagy denied that there had been an accident damaging the mask, but it was a very weak, CYA denial that “no damage had occurred to the mask since he took over leadership of the museum last October.” He did admit that the thick, gross layer of epoxy is “very visible” (making sure to note that it could have been applied before his arrival) and that he has a committee of experts working on a report.

Qatari news site Al-Araby Al-Jadeed has a different take on the disaster that it published on the same day as the AP’s story. I suspect they were the first to break the news because they have boots on the ground, so to speak. (Before the AP, that is. There were rumblings in the Egyptian press as early as November that conservators had sent a memo to the Antiquities Minister demanding “immediate investigations regarding the odd appearance of the mask after the restoration work it encountered in August.”) They sent reporters to the museum on a tip about the botched repair. Al-Araby reporters found the lighting in the room unusually dim but they were able to detect despite the penumbra that there was a thick line of glue visible and scratches on the left side of the mask. Their sources told them that the mask was damaged during cleaning in October, not August, and that the beard was reattached in the conservation lab, not in front of visitors.

Here’s the worst part:

Photograph of the funerary mask taken January 23, 2015, by AFP photographer Mohamed El-Shahed“After the expert restorer Abd al-Latif glued on the false beard it was obvious that it no longer appeared the same. The adhesive had spread to the sides of the mask and it was clear that there was further damage,” the witness said.

“A couple of weeks later the adhesive on the mask was noticed and a number of curators complained about what had been done.

“So the head of the conservation department removed the glass display case, with the approval of the museum director, and removed the epoxy resin from the sides by using a metal scalpel. This is what scratched the mask.”

The source says that after this, the museum director Mahmoud al-Halwagi ordered the lights in the mask room to be dimmed.

Halwagy denied to Al-Araby that the mask was ever damaged. He blames disgruntled employees angry over a department shakeup for making up stories. When Al-Araby pointed out they have a picture of the beard looking like it was glued on by kindergarteners, Egyptian antiquities department head Yusuf Khalifa said that could have been a picture of a replica, a deception perpetrated by biased sources.

Twitter abounds with satirical memes on the beard; this is a "Conservation Manual"Not surprisingly, the story exploded on social media. Most of the reactions are outrage at the shoddy work, but Al-Araby is seen by some as having a pro-Muslim Brotherhood bias, so neither its story nor the AP’s are considered reliable by pro-government Egyptians on Twitter and Facebook. Monica Hanna, an archaeologist with Egypt’s Heritage Task Force, went to see the mask in person and is mad as hell. Her Twitter account is very much worth following to keep abreast of the developments.

Hanna told the AFP that Egypt’s Heritage Task Force is going to file a complaint with the public prosecutor. There’s a law in Egypt against destruction, damage, defacement or alteration of antiquities. Anyone convicted of taking part in such activities will be sentenced to five to seven years in jail and fined between 3,000 ($400) and 50,000 ($6,700) Egyptian pounds.

Front view of glued-on beard, taken January 23, 2015, by AFP photographer Mohamed El-ShahedSo that’s where things stand as of now. The Antiquities Minister is apparently planning an urgent press conference to address the situation, although I’d be stunned if any actual information, as opposed to denials and justifications, came from it.

Finally, after reading/viewing a metric ton of news about this debacle, I am compelled to dedicate special opprobrium to CNN for this absurdity of a report. The laughter, fixed smiles, the omg-aren’t-word-stumbles-hilarious digression and the ridiculous and offensive comparison of a cultural patrimony calamity to a viral joke make me want to outspit a llama.

 

Share

Roman Silenus bed fitting found in Denmark

Friday, January 23rd, 2015

Bronze Silenus found on Falster, 1st c. A.D.A metal detectorist has discovered a bronze figure of Silenus on the island of Falster in southeastern Denmark. When she first unearthed the bust of a togate, bearded figure, the metal detectorist thought it was a modern piece because it was so finely crafted and in such good condition. It wasn’t until she showed it to experts at the National Museum of Denmark that it was properly identified as a Roman bronze from the 1st century A.D.

The figure is small at just 4.5 centimeters (1.8 inches) high and depicts Silenus, the tutor and boon companion of Bacchus. Silenus is portrayed as an old man, bald and bearded, with thick lips and a squashed nose. He is the wisest of the god’s followers and, appropriately, also the drunkest, so drunk that he is usually shown riding a mule or being supported by satyrs.

Pair of bronze fulcra, 1st c. A.D., British MuseumThe Romans often used Bacchic themes in their dining room decoration and this Silenus was originally part of a lectus, the couch or bed on which diners reclined. Lecti had s-shaped headrest supports called fulcra (plural for fulcrum) on both sides. Usually made of bronze, fulcra were richly decorated, inlaid with precious metals and/or ivory. Each end of the fulcrum culminated in a sculpted figure. Satyrs and sileni were popular for one end, while the other end was often topped with the head of a donkey or mule, a reference to Silenus’ preferred form of transportation. The British Museum has a beautiful pair of intact fulcra with satyrs and mules on the ends. You can see how the Falster Silenus’ turned position matches the satyrs’.

Originating in Greece, the lectus reached its peak of popularity in the early Roman Empire. No wealthy person’s triclinium (dining room) was complete without three lecti arranged in a U shape at right angles to each other. In fact, the “tri” in triclinium is a reference to the three lecti. The Walters Art Museum in Baltimore has a complete set of bronze lectus fittings from the late Republic, early Empire that they have put together with modern wood elements so you can see the architecture of the frame. In its day, it would have been topped with a mattress and sumptuous textiles and cushions.

Roman lectus, 1st c. B.C., Walters Art MuseumThese furnishings were expensive, highly prized pieces, so much so that they would sometimes be buried with their owners. That’s unlikely to have been the case with the Falster Silenus. It probably was separated from its bed long before it wound its way into the soil of Denmark. The Roman furniture fittings that have been discovered in Denmark thus far appear to have been individual objects rather than part of a larger piece, brought to the area as art works or war booty.

The number of Roman finds in the Danish islands south of Zealand may indicate an active trade network moving goods from southern Europe to Denmark, and there is some documentary support for contact during the early empire. In a passage from the Res Gestae Divi Augusti, an autobiographical summary written by Augustus during his lifetime for use on funerary inscriptions after his death, he dispatched ships to the peninsula of Jutland and established friendly relations with the locals.

My fleet sailed from the mouth of the Rhine eastward as far as the lands of the Cimbri to which, up to that time, no Roman had ever penetrated either by land or by sea, and the Cimbri and Charydes and Semnones and other peoples of the Germans of that same region through their envoys sought my friendship and that of the Roman people.

Fulcrum fittings weren’t a big part of that friendship, though. This is the first one that has ever been found in Denmark.

 

Share

Navigation

Search

Archives

March 2015
S M T W T F S
« Feb    
1234567
891011121314
15161718192021
22232425262728
293031  

Other

Add to Technorati Favorites

Syndication