Archive for the ‘Medieval’ Category

Barrels of 700-year-old poop found in Denmark

Tuesday, April 1st, 2014

Archaeologists excavating I. Vilhelm Werners Square in Hans Christian Andersen’s hometown of Odense, Denmark, are delighted to have found barrels full of medieval excrement. Poop is a boon to modern archaeology because it can tell us more about the daily lives of past people than golden treasures, and this particular poop is very well preserved thanks to having been buried in an oxygen-poor environment.

The content of the barrels was immediately identifiable from the odor which was still pungent after 700 years in barrels under layers of the city. The first round of analysis found that 14th century Odensians were fans of raspberries, as well they should be. Scientists also found fragments of moss, leather and fabric all of which are thought to have been used as toilet paper. (Moss toilet paper? Would it have been, like, a clump attached to soil? How does it stay intact otherwise? Because if the structural integrity issue was dealt with, I imagine moss would make a pretty comfortable tp.)

Markings on the barrels indicate that they were not initially used as latrines. An anchor carved on one suggests it was used to transport or store herring, a major source of trade for medieval Odense. The barrels themselves are generally in good condition, which makes sense because you wouldn’t want to recycle a busted barrel for use as a cesspit. Containment is key to sewage management.

The poop barrels were unearthed last year. Continuing excavations on the site this year discovered even more barrels in an unusual configuration. Three barrels were stacked on top of each other and strapped together with strong wicker. At the base of the pit archaeologists found a mat of reeds and a pipe system made of recycled roof tiles. It seems this was a homemade water well, with the pipes used to draw water into the barrel well and the reed mat as a filter to keep sludge out of the water. On each side of the barrel stack are the remains of pillars, probably used to hold aloft a small roof to project the well water from bird poop or leaves or any other such contaminants.

The well is also from the 1300s and may have originally been in the courtyard of a home. It could also have been part of a beer brewing apparatus. Near the well archaeologists found a store of partially germinated barley, a key supply for beer making.

The Werners Square area is thought to be the oldest area in Odense, settled from at least the 11th century, and possibly as early as 988 when historical sources claim a bishopric was established there. The first recorded bishop, Reginbert, was sent to Odense by King Canute the Great in 1020 or 1022. The excavation, which began in 2013, hopes to reveal the earliest days of Odense going back to King Canute’s day. Preliminary studies found the remains of one of the oldest datable streets from around 1100.

The dig, which is the largest in the city’s history, is open to visitors every Tuesday and Thursday at 1:00 PM. The archaeologists’ workshop is also open to visitors on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays from noon to 3:00 PM. I wonder if there were visitors present when the fragrant poop barrels were discovered.


Decapitated Vikings were noob raiders, in bad shape

Thursday, March 6th, 2014

The remains of around 50 decapitated Vikings unearthed in 2009 during the construction of the Weymouth Relief Road in Dorset on the southern coast of England were not the elite fighting force sung about in the sagas. They weren’t even garden variety Viking raiders. Researchers have found no evidence of previous fighting injuries which means if they were in England to raid, they were novices at it.

The early forensic examination of the remains pointed to this being a Viking raiding party who met a grisly end at Anglo-Saxon hands. The skeletons were all male, seemingly in good physical condition. Stable isotope analysis of their teeth confirmed their Scandinavian origin. They all spent their early childhoods in the Arctic and sub-Arctic areas of Norway, Sweden, Finland, the Baltic States, Belarus and Russia. The bodies were on one side of the pit while the heads were stacked on the other side. Defensive wounds were found on hands and arms, but the fatal wounds were on the necks, skulls and shoulders. These were not clean decapitations. The heads were cut off in several sword blows from the front. There were no artifacts interred with them, not even any clothes, suggesting they were stripped before or after death.

Further osteological analysis found that the skeletons dated to 970-1025 A.D during the reign of Æthelred the Unready or Cnut the Great. Almost all of the men were between 18 and 25 years old. There were outliers, though: one youth in his early or mid teens, and one senior who was over 50 years old at the time of death. Several of the men had filed teeth, a Scandinavian practice of unknown symbolism that may have been an indicator of social status, specific occupation or a way to make the battle grimace scarier by filling in the dental grooves with paint.

It was the physical condition of many of the remains that exploded the early theory that they might have been the mighty mercenary Jomsvikings or imitators thereof. The remains testified to a number of chronic illnesses and injuries that would have been seriously debilitating. One man’s thigh bone has two deep holes in it from the chronic bone infection osteomyelitis. Louise Loe of Oxford Archaeology describes it deliciously grossly:

“The bone was twice the size of a normal thigh bone and had openings which would have oozed smelly pus during his life. The leg would have been swollen and painful. It must have posed a considerable disability to the individual, and consequently the rest of the group.”

Another raider had a healed fracture to his right femur that left his right leg significantly shorter than his left. A kidney or bladder stone was found among the skeletal remains. Some of the men had what researchers think is brucellosis, an infectious disease transmitted from unpasteurized milk or other close contact with the secretions of infected animals. It causes joint and muscular pain and at its worst, can result in arthritis, meningitis and neurological disorders.

Some of these remains, including the suppurating thigh bone, are now on display at the British Museum’s Vikings: Life and Legend exhibition. Although the British Museum was already well into the planning of the show when the Weymouth pit was discovered, they immediately moved things around so there would be room in the display for the decapitated raiders. The exhibition runs from March 6th to June 22nd and will include among its many treasures the first public display of the entire Vale of York Hoard.

In September, the Dorset skeletons will travel to the Museum of Prehistory and Early History in Berlin. In January of 2015 they will return to England where they will find a permanent home in the new Ancient Dorset gallery of the Dorset County Museum. There they will be displayed in their original positions in a reconstructed version of the burial pit.


Germany’s second oldest church found

Monday, March 3rd, 2014

During renovations on the Evangelical Church of Saint John in Mainz, Germany, workers have discovered remains that make it the second oldest church in Germany. They were installing a heating system under the nave when they found remains of a previous floor built in the ninth century about three meters (10 feet) below the current floor level. This earlier floor dates to the construction of the church by Archbishop on Mainz Hatto I.

Archaeologists excavated further, exploring the basement as well where they found even older structures from the 7th and 8th centuries. The remains are impressive in dimension. Walls reach as high as 10 meters (33 feet). Hatto I consecrated what was then St. Salvator, the cathedral and seat of the Bishop of Mainz, in 911, but it seems the remains of an older church were incorporated into the new construction. Hatto’s cathedral walls were built against the older ones instead of on top of it, thus allowing a very rare survival of substantial Carolingian structures.

Professor Matthias Untermann from the Institute of Art History in Heidelberg said the remains of the Carolingian walls stretched from the basement to the roof.

“This is a big surprise,” he said.

The Rhineland-Palatinate state curator Joachim Glatz said: “This is the only surviving Carolingian cathedral in Germany.”

Usually a bishop would build a cathedral in the Middle Ages at the exact location of the previous building, getting rid of the older church. But in Mainz the 1,000-year-old “Old Cathedral” was incorporated into the Carolingian one.

The surviving structure points to a church with a very different configuration from Hatto’s cathedral. According to Professor Untermann, the church had a small nave with a transept on the west side and double altars, one in the west and one in the east, an unusual feature.

Archaeologists also discovered two graves in the basement. One was a sarcophagus without a lid, the other a stone walled cyst. Both held skeletal remains. They have yet to be dated, but they area likely to be older than the 7th-8th century walls. There are no inscriptions or grave goods pointing to the identity of the deceased, but they were probably people of importance, secular leaders or high clerics. The style of the sarcophagus indicates it was made in the early Middle Ages. That doesn’t testify to the age of the burial, however, because it could have been reused multiple times since it was first crafted.

If the dating of the walls and graves is confirmed as Carolingian or older, that will make St. John’s the second oldest church in Germany. Only the High Cathedral of Saint Peter in Trier can claim greater age, thanks to its central chapel which was built at the direction of Saint Helena, emperor Constantine’s mother, in the 4th century.

Excavations are ongoing. At some point the church is going to back to full service — right now its parishioners are using the city hall and other local churches — but St. John’s leaders are very excited about the finds and once the digging is done, want to find a way to integrate the archaeological remains with the current church and make them visible to the public. They are also beginning the process of having the church declared a national heritage site.


Conserving the Staffordshire Hoard

Saturday, March 1st, 2014

The 4,000 Anglo-Saxon pieces of gold, silver and garnet weapons fittings discovered in Staffordshire field in 2009 and in a 2012 follow-up excavation impressed with the exceptional quality of workmanship even when they were still encrusted with soil. The cleaning process has revealed metalwork and gemwork of such sophistication experts aren’t even sure how it was accomplished. Because the pieces were damaged when they were stripped from their original weapons, conservators have had a unique chance to examine construction features that are invisible in complete pieces like those discovered at Sutton Hoo or other burial sites.

Conserving intricately decorated gold artifacts requires the use of special tools. The scalpels and microdrills in the standard conservator toolbox are too dangerous to use with soft, malleable gold. They could scratch or gouge the surface. Instead, the Staffordshire Hoard conservators are using thorns, natural thorns like off a bush. They have sharp points for getting between tiny beads and edges, but they bend under pressure and don’t scratch the surface of the gold, glass or gem insets.

This video from the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, co-owner of the hoard along with the Potteries Museum & Art Gallery, shows a conservator cleaning the top of a sword pyramid and a fragment of silver foil stamped with two male faces. You can see the thorn held in a pin vice scrape away the dirt. Then the surface is wiped with a cotton swab dampened with industrial methylated spirit. Soft brushes and air puffers gently remove the loosened soil.

The video at the bottom of this page shows the thorn deployed in cleaning the gold filigree of a damaged hilt plate, but that’s one of the simplest filigree designs. Conservation of the hoard has found a great many incredibly tiny, incredibly detailed filigree patterns. This blog entry from a jeweler covers just a few of the techniques the Anglo-Saxon craftsmen used to produce wirework so fine that we need microphotography to fully explore today. This blog entry describes some of the patterns — linear, spiral, zoomorphic, etc. — in the Staffordshire filigree pieces.

One of the most breathtaking examples of filigree is the stylized seahorse mount. Those spirals are so minute, three of them are almost as long as a grain of rice.

The garnet cloisonné has proven to hold hidden depths revealed by conservation as well. Like all cloisonné, it was made by creating a cell (called a cloison) out of gold wires. The cells were backed with gold foil and filled primarily with garnets. Today cloisonné is filled with vitreous enamel which is powdered before it’s fired, but the Anglo-Saxon jewelers had a much more difficult task because they had to cut the garnets into small, thin shapes that precisely fit the cloisons. Garnets are hard gemstones and probably had to be ground to shape, using what tools we do not know. We do know that missing garnets were replaced by red glass. Blue glass insets have also been found as have opaque glass checkerboard or millefiori designs that experts believe are recycled Roman pieces.

The foil behind the garnets give the gems an added shine boost, and it may give historians a boost into a new understanding of Anglo-Saxon schools of metalwork. So far conservators have identified four distinct gold foil designs. If they can be compared to artifacts discovered in other locations, it may be possible to group them by workshop or regional style.

This blog entry describes the conservation of two cloisonné objects. You can see in the microphotographs miniscule marks left during the stripping of the fittings and during the initial workmanship. Tiny troughs incised in the gold outline where the cloison walls once were, troughs just a quarter of a millimeter thick which is thinner than a lot of cloisonné produced today.

Bookmark the Staffordshire Hoard Conservation & Research blog now, and say goodbye to the rest of your weekend because every entry is fascinating. Enhance your reading with the swooningly gorgeous images on the Hoard Flickr page.


Confirmed: Tetrarchs looted from Constantinople

Thursday, February 27th, 2014

Framing a corner of the facade of St. Mark’s Basilica in Venice are high relief sculptures of four Roman emperors known as the Portrait of the Four Tetrarchs. Each pair is on a separate panel carved out of Imperial Porphyry, a dark purple-red color reserved in antiquity for emperors, in the early 4th century A.D. The figures are the two senior emperors (Augusti) and two junior emperors (Caesares) of the tetrarchy, a power-sharing system instituted by Emperor Diocletian in 293 that established one senior-junior pair to rule over the eastern empire (Oriens) and another over the western empire (Occidens). It only lasted two decades. By 313 civil war had chipped away at various usurpers and claimants leaving only Constantine I as Augustus Occidens and Licinius I as Augustus Oriens.

It’s not possible to identify the specific rulers depicted in the sculpture. Unlike the portraiture of earlier Roman emperors, the Tetrarchs are not realistic. There are no identifying characteristics or attributes, no naturalism, no individuality in the carving of garments or the men wearing them. Each pair shares an embrace, one bearded figure and one clean-shaved. It’s probable the bearded figures are Augusti and the Caesares are smooth-cheeked, but that’s symbolic of their relative ages and ranks, not a reflection of tonsorial reality. It’s also possible they were carved after the functional demise of the tetrarchy and are actually the three sons of Constantine (Constantine II, Constantius II, Constans) and his nephew Dalmatius, all of whom held the rank of Caesar.

What’s certain is they didn’t originate in Venice. They were looted, carried back to the city after the 1204 Sack of Constantinople during the Fourth Crusade. Their exact provenance has long been debated. No contemporary chronicles mention the Tetrarchs explicitly. There are references in 14th century sources to marble and porphyry tablets plundered from Constantinople, but not to sculptures. There are also references to stonework being looted from Acre after Venice defeated Genoese forces there in 1258.

Some historians have posited that the 1258 date is accurate, but that it refers to the arrival of the Tetrarchs in Venice rather than plunder from the Genoese castle in Acre. By this theory, the Tetrarchs had remained in Constantinople during the short-lived Latin Empire when Crusaders ruled Byzantium between 1204 and the restoration of the Byzantine Empire under Michael VIII Palaiologos in 1261. When the situation started getting hairy for the Latin Empire, the Tetrarchs and other loot were sent to Venice and arrived contemporaneously around the time of the Genoese loss at Acre.

A popular legend dispenses with all this Crusader jazz. According to this version of events, the sculpture was once four thieves who were caught in the act trying to steal of the basilica’s treasure by Saint Mark himself. They were petrified for their crime affixed to the wall where the treasure is kept to guard it for eternity.

In 1965, a Turkish-German archaeological excavation underneath the Bodrum Mosque, originally a 10th c. church called the Myrelaion, in Istanbul recovered a porphyry fragment of a heel standing on a rectangular base. It seemed to fit the Tetrarchs whose fourth figure is missing his original feet and base. The Myrelaion was built over a 5th century rotunda and next to the Capitolium, a temple associated with the imperial cult built during Constantine’s reign. The Capitolium was also known as the Philadelphion, the “temple of brotherly love,” after the sons of Constantine.

This is the likely source of the Tetrarchs. Each pair would have adorned one of the massive porphyry columns on the portico of the main entrance. The building may even have become known as the Philadelphion because of the Tetrarchs. They were soon identified as Constantine’s sons, regardless of whether that was the original intent, and since they’re embracing, they were seen as representations of fraternal love. (This site has some neat reconstructions of the Philadelphion and the Tetrarchs on their columns.)

So the evidence has piled up, enough that for decades the Tetrarchs were widely assumed to have been plundered from Constantinople, but it has taken until now for an official confirmation.

Last year, the Procurator of St. Mark made an exact replica of all four Tetrarchs in Venice and the foot found in Istanbul. The fragments were combined in one piece, which fits perfectly together. Additional analyses were also made of the materials and the porphyry used for the making of the sculptures and the foot fragment. The results have confirmed that indeed the same material was used for both and therefore they are identical.


700-year-old tea jar Chigusa at the Sackler

Monday, February 24th, 2014

Chigusa, glazed stoneware tea storage jar, mid-13th to mid-14th century ChinaChigusa was not born into refinement and elegance. It was a utilitarian piece, a large stoneware jar made in southern China in the 13th or 14th century and exported to Japan for use as a commercial container. Large at 16.5 inches high with four lugs around the neck and a mottled amber iron glaze that swoops down in overlapping ovals, once in Japan it was used to store tea, and it was this association that paved its road to glory.

Ciphers of past owners on Chigusa's baseChigusa worked uncomplainingly for centuries to earn a proper name, exquisite adornments and the contemplative gaze of some of the greatest masters of Japan’s tea culture. It had an important job. Matcha, the powdered green tea used in the tea ceremony, is harvested in May when the leaves are still young. Tea connoisseurs would stamp their names on the base of their jars and send them to the growers in the spring so the freshly picked and steamed leaves could be placed directly in the vessel. The mouth was sealed with a stopper and the tea left alone for six months to allow the flavor to ripen and mature. In November, the jar was opened and the first tea of the year drunk, an important ritual in Japan’s chanoyu (meaning “the way of tea”).

Tea master Kamiya Sotan's diary entry describing Chigusa, 1587The base of Chigusa has four names written in black lacquer. The first of them is Noami, a 15th century artist and tea expert for the Ashikaga shogunate. The next owner to leave his mark was Torii Insetsu (1448-1517), a tea master in the city of Sakai who would be revered by his successors. Ju Soho’s cipher is next. He is known to have hosted a tea in 1573 attended by Chigusa and the tea master Sen no Rikyu, one of the most influential masters, if not the most influential, in the development of tea culture. We know Chigusa was there at this ceremony because another guest, Imai Sokyu, wrote about seeing the “large jar … Chigusa” which had once belonged to the great Insetsu. A few years later the fourth owner, merchant Kondaya Tokurin, added his name to the base.

Chigusa's historical documentsWe don’t know who named the jar, but it was likely a poetry reference. The word means “myriad varieties” or “thousand plants” (it alters depending on which characters are used). By the time Sokyu wrote about Chigusa, its name was already known and the once workaday storage jar had become a meibutsu, a “celebrated tea object” that inspired masters to look at it carefully, writing journal entries about the smallest details of its glaze, shape and aesthetic significance. Tea master Yamanoue Soji observed Chigusa at a ceremony hosted by warlord Toyotomi Hideyoshi in Osaka Castle in 1584 and recorded it in his diary. So did Kamiya Sotan three years later.

Chigusa with mouth cover, cords, silk net bagOver the centuries, its rustic beauty would be adorned with precious materials worthy of its importance: a mouth cover made out of gold brocade Ming Dynasty silk, a blue silk net bag from the Muromachi or Momoyama period in the 16th century, blue ornamental cords from the Meiji era (1868–1912). It has three nested storage boxes to keep it and its accoutrements safe. The innermost box was made during the Edo period (1615–1868) from lacquered paulownia wood. What is now the middle box was originally the outer box. It was also made in the Edo period out of cedar wood stained with persimmon tannin. The outermost box today is from the Meiji era. Trays inside the innermost box hold the cords, net, letters and other documentation that illustrates the rich history of this unique jar.

Chigusa's three nesting storage boxesBy the 17th century, Chigusa was so important it played a part in Japanese politics. During the Tokugawa shogunate, shoguns and daimyos gave it as a gift to seal alliances and prove their loyalty. It remained in Tokugawa hands until the end of the shogunate in 1868, after which Chigusa entered the tea collection market. Wealthy industrialists owned it, allowing it to go on display very occasionally. It only left Japan once in 2009 when it went to New York City to find a new home. At a Christie’s auction on September 17th, Chigusa with all its goods was bought by the Freer Gallery of Art for $662,500.

Tray of innermost box with cords and envelopes holding documentationThe Freer and the adjacent Arthur M. Sackler Gallery are the Smithsonian’s Asian art branches, centered on core collections built by their eponymous founders. Chigusa is therefore in good company, despite its great distance from home. There are only a few hundred such large tea storage jars with all their accessories and documentation remaining in Japan, and only a smattering of remotely comparable pieces abroad.

On February 22nd, Chigusa and the Art of Tea debuted at the Sackler.

In Chigusa and the Art of Tea, Chigusa holds court alongside other cherished objects, including calligraphy by Chinese monks, Chinese and Korean tea bowls and Japanese stoneware water jars and wooden vessels that were used and enjoyed during this formative time of Japanese tea culture. In order to create the intimate feel of a 16th-century tea gathering, part of the exhibition space recreates a Japanese tea room, complete with tatami mats.

“Tea men looked at Chigusa and found beauty even in its flaws, elevating it from a simple tea jar to how we know it today,” said Louise Allison Cort, curator of ceramics at the Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery. “This ability to value imperfections in objects made by the human hand is one of the great contributions of Japanese tea culture to the world.”

Chigusa with brocade mouth cover and knotted ornamental cordThe exhibition includes a video of a tea master ceremonially adorning Chigusa, tying elaborate decorative knots with the blue cords, connecting the blue silk net bag, and tying the brocaded cover on the mouth. A traditional tea ceremony will be hosted for visitors on March 23rd and April 6th. There are also regular lunch tours led by curators and panel discussions with researchers Oka Yoshiko and Andrew M. Watsky. See the full list of events and dates here.

The exhibition closes on July 27th, 2014, after which Chigusa will travel to the Princeton University Art Museum in Princeton, New Jersey, where it will be on display from October 11th through February 1st, 2015.


A lady’s bag at the court of Mosul in 1300

Friday, February 21st, 2014

The ancient city of Mosul on the west bank of the Tigris in what is today Iraq, once home to the palace of King Sennacherib and Library of Ashurbanipal, has had many different rulers seek to profit from its location as a hub in trade routes connecting Persia, India and the Mediterranean. In 1262, it was conquered by the Mongol forces of Hulagu Khan, grandson of Genghis Khan who expanded the southwestern Mongol empire from Uzbekistan to Syria.

Hulagu was not known for his light hand. Any cities where he encountered resistance were destroyed and their inhabitants slaughtered. When the Mongols conquered Baghdad in 1258, they virtually leveled the city. It’s said that the waters of the Tigris turned black with the ink from the thousands of books from the Grand Library of Baghdad that the Mongols threw into the river. Mosul was spared, however, because governor Badr al-Din Lu’lu’ agreed to support Hulagu’s invasion of Syria. The Mongol Ilkhanid and Jalayrid dynasties ruled Mosul through the 15th century until it was conquered by the Turkic Aq Qoyunlu Confederation.

Even before the arrival of the Mongols, Mosul was famed for its exceptional metalworking tradition. The technique originated in Persia, but Mosul’s location at the cross-roads of trade influenced the craft, introducing new forms of vessels and designs from the Byzantine Empire. Brass containers were inlaid with silver and copper creating intricate geometric decoration and scenes of courtiers hunting, traveling, adorning themselves, drinking, eating and listening to live music. The Blacas Ewer, now in the British Museum, is an exceptional example of Mosul metalwork. Made by Shuja’ ibn Mana al-Mawsili in 1232 (he signed and dated the piece, for which we were eternally grateful), the ewer may have been commissioned by Badr al-Din Lu’lu’ or one of his courtiers. He is known to have commissioned a number of pieces that bear his name.

As noted by Spanish Muslim author Ibn Said al-Maghribi in his 1250 book Geography, Mosul metalwork vessels were so highly prized they were used as diplomatic gifts, a high honor considering they were made out of brass instead of the gold and silver that were the expected standard of gift-giving between rulers.

The Courtauld Gallery in London is the proud owner of another example of Mosul metalwork, a piece made in the first century of Mongol reign around 1300-1330. This form is one of a kind, so exceptional that it is rarely included in studies of the craft. The artifact has been part of the Courtauld’s permanent collection since 1966 when it was bequeathed to the institution by the grandson of collector and museum patron Thomas Gambier Parry. Experts have debated its function for decades. It’s shaped like a clutch purse, but they weren’t making brass ladies’ handbags in 1300s Mosul. Some proposed functions include wallet, saddlebag and document carrier.

The Courtauld is putting on a new exhibition centered around this beautiful piece. Court and Craft: A Masterpiece from Northern Iraq proposed a new function for the Courtauld wallet: a lady’s shoulder bag. Exhibition curator Rachel Ward found an important clue in the decoration of the bag itself.

The key to unlocking its secret is an unusual panel on the top showing a nobleman and women and their attendants. One of those, a smiling page boy, has the bag around his shoulder.

Wider research by Ward has turned up considerable visual evidence of bag-carrying page boys next to noblewomen but never alongside men.

“Other people in the past have called it everything from a work basket to a document wallet and inevitably male academics always assume it was for a man.

“What I’m saying is it’s a lady’s bag. It is the forerunner of a designer bag. The only difference between a modern and expensive designer bag and this one is that you get a bag carrier to go with it.”

The bag will be on display along with 40 other relevant works from collections around the world, including the Blacas Ewer. The exhibition will look at how Mosul society was depicted before and after the Mongol conquest in its art. The museum will also recreate the scene from the top of the bag, building a life-sized display of the courtly festivities from artifacts similar to the ones depicted.

The exhibition opened on Thursday and will run through May 18th.


Unusual Aztec dog burial found in Mexico City

Tuesday, February 18th, 2014

Archaeologists excavating underneath an apartment building in the Aztacapozalco neighborhood of Mexico City have unearthed an unusual group burial of 12 dogs dating to the Late Post Classic period of Aztec history (1350 to 1520 A.D.). Although dog burials are not in and of themselves uncommon in Aztec culture, these are unusual because they stand alone. Previous canine remains have been found in conjunction with human remains, or coupled with an important structure as sacrificial offerings. So far, archaeologists have found no human burials or building connected to any of the dogs.

In the Aztec religion, dogs played important roles is rituals and mythology of the underworld. Dogs acted as guardians and escorts for their masters’ souls as they traveled to the underworld. The deity Xolotl, often depicted as dog-headed, created a dog specifically to aid the dead in their voyage. It was the Xoloitzcuintli, also known as the Mexican hairless dog, that Xolotl gave to humanity instructing them to guard the dogs during life in exchange for the dogs guiding them through the nine levels of Mictlan, the main underworld destination. Dogs also played a less sanctified role in Aztec culture: as a dietary protein supplement.

The remains were found between 4.2 feet and 5.5 feet under street level in a pit 6.5 feet square. They are in good condition, skeletons almost entirely intact and articulated. They don’t appear to have been laid to rest in any particular pattern or orientation, but they were buried all at one time on their sides. No artifacts were found in this pit. Ceramics discovered in other trenches around the dog burial provide a contextual date. Their black geometric designs on orange pottery identify the pottery as Aztec III style, household goods that were ubiquitous in Late Post Classic Mexico.

Michael E. Smith, an anthropology professor at Arizona State University who was not involved in the project, said the discovery is important because it is the first such find.

“This is not the first time a burial of a dog has been found, but it is the first find where many dogs were carefully buried together, in a setting that is like a cemetery,” Smith said.

[Archaeologist Rocio] Morales Sanchez said they will need to dig deeper to see if there are other items that could help them find out why the animals were buried in that area.

Smith said it will be important to see the results of the analysis of the bones.

“That work will tell us about the breed of these dogs, and it may tell us how they were killed,” he said. “The full significance of the finds is rarely obvious at time of excavation; the analysis will give the full story.”

Osteological examination suggests these were common dogs, ie mutts, rather than one of the native pure breeds like the small Techichi and the hairless Xoloitzcuintle. The Techichi have unmissable short legs that none of the 12 dogs have and the Xoloitzcuintle lose their premolars in adulthood. The buried dogs were all adults at the time of death with full sets of teeth.

There’s some excellent footage of the excavation in this Spanish language video:


Richard III’s genome to be sequenced

Saturday, February 15th, 2014

The course of our Richard III nerdathon last Saturday did not run smooth, I’m afraid to say. I’ll just tear off the band-aid and state up front that the recording of the colloquium is as messed up as the live stream was. Right now, it doesn’t look like there is much of anything salvageable. St. Louis University’s Jonathan Sawday was kind enough to confirm the sad news in the comments. He apologized too, because he is a scholar and a gentleman, not because whatever went wrong was his fault.

We shall have to feed our Richard III habit with something else, like, say, that a team led by University of Leicester geneticist Dr. Turi King will attempt to sequence the full genome of Richard III and of Michael Ibsen, his relative down the female line from Richard’s sister Anne of York. All they may have in common is in their mitochondrial DNA, but there’s always a chance they share other genetic links.

There’s a chance all of us share some genetic connection to Richard III, and we’ll get the chance to check it out for ourselves once the sequencing is done. Richard’s full genome will be posted online for scholars to study and the rest of us to geek way out over. He will be the first identified historical figure to have his genome sequenced.

Analysis of Richard III’s genome will allow insight into his genetic make-up, including susceptibility to certain diseases, hair and eye colour, and as the genetic basis of other diseases becomes known, these too can be examined for. It is also expected to shed light on his genetic ancestry and relationship to modern human populations. In addition, next generation sequencing technologies will allow the researchers to detect DNA from other organisms such as pathogens. Whole genome sequencing from Otzi the Iceman found the first known human infection with Lyme disease, for example.

Turi King is particularly interested in looking for DNA evidence of a predisposition to scoliosis. Since there are no surviving contemporary portraits of Richard III — the oldest were painted 40 or 50 years after his death — whatever information they can find regarding his appearance and physical traits will be an interesting confirmation or denial of the dead king’s posthumous press.

The sequencing project is being funded to the tune of £100,000 ($165,000) by the Wellcome Trust, the Leverhulme Trust and Alec Jeffreys, the genetics professor at the University of Leicester who developed genetic fingerprinting. It will done at the University of Leicester and in collaboration with Professor Michael Hofreiter at the University of Potsdam.

Although the question of where to reinter the remains has become a thorny one thanks to the legal challenge brought by the Plantagenet Alliance, a group of distant relatives of Richard’s who believe he should be buried in York rather than in Leicester, the king’s remains and all the samples taken from him will have to be buried sooner or later. Once they’re gone, there will be no going back to get a second look. Have a fully sequenced genome will provide new information well into the future. As scientists identify more genes and determine which are responsible for any given feature, researchers will be able to return to the recorded genome to find them there.

Here’s Turi King giving a brief introduction to the genome sequencing project:

Here’s Leicester’s pitch to keep Richard’s body in the city where he was buried:

The next movement on the burial issue will be a judicial review at the High Court in London March 13th.


Medieval Scandinavian runic code cracked

Wednesday, February 12th, 2014

University of Oslo runologist K. Jonas Nordby has cracked an obscure runic code called jötunvillur. Nordby studied the 80 or so coded runic inscriptions that have been discovered in Northern Europe. Out of those 80, nine were written in jötunvillur code which dates to the 12th or 13th century. One of the nine turned out to be a miniature Rosetta stone. Carved on stick found at the old Hanseatic wharf in Bergen, southwest Norway, the inscription features the name of two men, Sigurd and Lavrans, written in both standard runes and jötunvillur.

Each rune has a name. For instance, the rune for “u” is named “urr,” and the rune “m” is named “maðr.” By studying the Sigurd and Lavrans stick, Nordby discovered that the jötunvillur code worked by replacing the rune sign with the last sound in the rune’s name. As you can tell from the two examples, however, many runes end with the same sound, so jötunvillur is very difficult to read unless you have a handy straight rune original right next to it. You have to guess and re-guess to try to make sense of the code, which is why despite the code mechanism now being exposed, the other eight examples of it still haven’t been translated, although Nordby thinks two of them might also be inscribed with proper names: Thorstein on one and Einar on the other.

Because of how difficult it is to read and the prevalence of names, Nordby believes jötunvillur wasn’t used to send secret messages, but rather as an educational tool to teach people the runic alphabet. It was meant to be written, not read, an exercise to help people learn the rune names. There were no schools that taught runes; it was a system passed down from person to person, and what better way to teach it than to make it fun, a game or a code to crack.

Henrik Williams, a professor at Uppsala University’s Department of Scandinavian Languages and a Swedish expert on runes, says that Nordby’s discovery is important.

“Above all, it helps us understand that there were more codes than we were aware of. Each runic inscription we interpret raises our hopes of soon being able to read more. This is pure detective work and each new method improves our chances,” says Williams.

He agrees that the codes could have been used as a tool for learning runes. But he is uncertain how big a role this would have played in the learning process. In any case, Williams thinks the codes were used for much more than communication.

“They challenged the reader, demonstrated skills, and testify to a joy in reading and writing.”

The most commonly used was digit code which divided the alphabet into a matrix of three rows and six columns. The coded figures had a vertical bar with small diagonal ones on either side. The number of bars on the left side of the symbol indicated which row the rune was in; the number of bars on the right side identified the column. Most of the other codes use Caesar Cipher, a relatively simple system named after Julius Caesar who is said to have used it to communicate with his military officers. It just shifts the letters three of four places to the right.

There is a great deal of playfulness evinced in the rune codes that have been cracked. A challenge to decipher the code is a frequent message. They also played with the format itself, hiding runes in the beards of carved figures or in the decoration of an altar. Some appear to be riddles. They’re games, brain teasers, like medieval Scandinavian Sudoku more than magical incantations or secret communications.

They do that job well, too, as Henrik Williams’ reaction to the recently cracked code underscores:

“But personally I think jötunvillur is an idiotic code, because whoever made it chose a system that is so hard to interpret. It’s irritating not being able to read it.”

I know that irritation well. I bet he stabs the crossword with his pencil when he can’t complete it.





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