Archive for the ‘Medieval’ Category

50 skulls, 200 jaws found at Mexico’s Templo Mayor

Sunday, October 7th, 2012

Archaeologists excavate pit filled with 45 skulls and 200 mandibles in Mexico City's Templo MayorArchaeologists have unearthed 50 skulls and more than 200 lower mandibles in the Sacred Precinct of Mexico City’s Templo Mayor, the National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH) announced Friday. The bones are estimated to be around 500 years old and are the largest single collection ever discovered in the Templo Mayor.

The skulls were found in mid-August in the course of construction work to create a new lobby entrance to the Templo Mayor museum. Archaeologists surveyed the site before construction detected the skeletal remains behind a ceremonial structure called a cuauhxicalco. Further excavation revealed a cache of 45 skulls and 200-plus jawbones piled on top of a sacrificial stone. They were not carefully laid but rather appeared to have been thrown there in a haphazard manner. The border of the skull deposit area was lined with stones, then filled with earth. The layer dates to the Temple IV construction stage, between 1440 and 1469.

Skulls and mandibles in the pitSome of the skulls have cut marks indicating abortive attempts to create skull masks. The Aztecs made masks out of the front part of human skulls. They would adorn them with jade eyes and accessories like necklaces, rattles and obsidian knives. The skulls were not worn as masks. The eye sockets were blocked with decorative stones, so anybody attempting to wear one would not have been able to see. As representations of the death god Mictlantecuhtli, the masks were put on display as ornaments or used as offerings in rituals. Day of the Dead skull masks and sugar skulls in modern Mexico are the descendants of this tradition.

The skulls may have been exhumed before their ritual use rather than having been freshly killed. Preliminary analysis found that most of the skulls belonged to women and men between 20 and 35 years old at the time of their death. They were in relatively good condition thanks to the high moisture content of the soil, but the pressure of the earth fill and later construction on the site did fragment some of the skulls. Still, a good many of them are still whole and archaeologists are optimistic that they will be able to restore the ones that aren’t.

Five pierced skulls found under sacrifice stoneUnderneath the sacrificial stone another five skulls were found, all of them with large holes in both temples. These were likely pierced by a wooden stake and strung together on a rack, a monument called a tzompantli made out of the skulls of the sacrificed. Archaeologist Raul Barrera believes the tzompantli were buried beneath the sacrificial stone as an offering to consecrate the stone itself. Aztecs often used skulls in the consecration of newly-built sacred spaces, particularly ones relating to Mictlantecuhtli.

Sacrificial stoneThe sacrificial stone, against which sacrificial victims would be made to lean for the priest to open their ribcages and remove the heart, is 17 inches high, 14 to 17 inches long and 4 inches thick. The skulls would serve a symbolic communicative role between the world of living men, the dead and the gods.

Skulls from the tzompantli in the labUniversity of Florida archaeologist Susan Gillespie, who was not involved in the excavation, said it caught her attention that the skulls that had been on the rack, called tzompantli, were buried separately.

“It provides rather novel information on the use and reuse of skulls for ritual events at the Templo Mayor,” Gillespie said in an email. [...]

“We normally associate [the sacrificial stone] with heart removal rather than decapitation,” she said. “It ultimately gives us a better understanding of how the Aztecs used the human body in various ways in their ritual practices.”


Anonymous buyers win Elizabeth’s saddle, Bonnie & Clyde’s guns

Monday, October 1st, 2012

Queen Elizabeth I saddlecloth, 1574It’s been a great end of the week for anonymous private collectors. On Friday, the green velvet and gold saddlecloth used by Queen Elizabeth I on her official visit to Bristol in 1574 was purchased by an unnamed buyer for £19,000 ($30,000), £23,560 ($38,000) including buyer’s premium. The estimated sale price was £8,000-10,000, so it more than doubled the minimum and almost doubled the top end of the range. Not a surprising outcome given how beautiful the saddlecloth is, its historical significance and its excellent condition considering it’s almost half a millennium old.

Distinguished Flying Cross awarded to Flight Lieutenant Marcas Kramer, 1940Nothing else at Dreweatts’ Arms, Medals & Militaria sale even came close. World War II lots were the runners up on sale price. A Distinguished Flying Cross medal awarded to Flight Lieutenant Marcas Kramer for gallantry and devotion to duty while under attack by German aircraft over Rotterdam on May 10th, 1940 sold for £4,200 ($6,800), £5,208 ($8,400) with buyer’s premium. That’s more than double the high estimate, a suitable tribute to a Jewish pharmacist from Bermondsey who calmly told his pilot how to avoid attack while he dismantled and repaired his gun, then used the gun to drive off the enemy. Marcas Kramer would not survive the war. He was killed on May 21st, 1941.

KPM Vase depicting Old Reich Chancellery Berlin flying the Fuhrer standard, 1933-38The second runner up in sale price is the other side of the pendulum. It’s a Nazi-era porcelain vase by the Königliche Porzellan-Manufaktur (Royal Porcelain Manufacture in Berlin) with an image of the Old Reich Chancellery in Berlin on the front. That’s the building where President von Hindenburg appointed Adolf Hitler Chancellor of Germany on January 30th, 1933. The Führer’s standard flies above the chancellery, and there’s a Third Reich eagle over a swastika on the back which dates the piece to between 1933 and 1938. The Old Reich Chancellery was destroyed in the war. The vase sold for £3,800 ($6,100), £4,712 ($7,600) with buyer’s premium, below the minimum estimate of £4,000.

Those buyer’s premium prices, by the way, do not include VAT or sales tax. That’s just the 24% cut the auction house gets. Nice work if you can get it.

Clyde Barrow's 1911 Colt .45The two Colt handguns taken from the still-warm bodies of outlaws Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow by former Texas Ranger Frank Hamer sold, as expected, for considerably more than their pre-sale estimates. Clyde’s Colt .45, retrieved by Hamer from the waistband of his pants, sold for $240,000. Bonnie’s Colt .38 Detective Special, retrieved by Hamer from her inner thigh where she kept it taped with white medical tape, sold for $264,000. They were both purchased by the same person, a Texas collector who wishes to remain anonymous.

Bonnie Parker's 1933 Colt Detective Special .38The full results of Sunday’s American Gangsters, Outlaws and Lawmen sale at RR Auctions in Nashua, New Hampshire will be posted on the auctioneer’s website today. The news stories note that several other Bonnie and Clyde objects sold well, among them a gold pocket watch found on Clyde’s body ($36,000), a 1921 Morgan silver dollar from his jacket pocket ($32,400), and because it’s important that we fetishize Bonnie as much as possible, one of her silk stockings found in their car after the shootout ($11,400). If the same Texas collector bought the stocking, he could recreate Bonnie’s entire leg with her sexy bullet-riddled outlaw accessories.

It’s fitting that the auction also included a giant hand-painted banner advertising a Bonnie and Clyde freakshow from the early 1930s. It’s 12 x 9 feet and features Bonnie in a red coat, smoking a cigarette, holding a gun and wearing her famous beret. Clyde is behind her looking like a dandy. He’s smoking too but carries no visible weapon. Clearly the outlaw lady is the star. The slogans (“The Wages Of Crime Is Death”) promise a stern moral lesson to justify their customers’ salacious gazes at whatever it is about “Boy & Girl Gangsters” they had on display.

I personally would have bid on Meyer Lansky’s hat. That’s a fine looking chapeau.

Meyer Lansky hat, 1940s


Buddhist deity carved from rare meteorite

Friday, September 28th, 2012

Remember how in Raiders of the Lost Ark the Nazis send that creepy Toht fellow to Nepal to track down the headpiece of the Staff of Ra so they can find the Ark of the Covenant and use it to unleash God’s face-melting wrath on their enemies in battle? Change Nepal to Tibet, Toht to zoologist and SS officer Ernst Schäfer, the Ark of the Covenant to the roots of the Aryan race, and the Staff of Ra to an iron statue of a Buddhist deity and it all really happened. (Okay not the face-melting.)

In 1938, Himmler sent Schäfer on an expedition to Tibet to trace the purported roots of the Aryan race. Schäfer himself, being an actual scientist instead of a mysticism-obsessed ignoramus like Himmler, was not keen on this plan. His goal was to document the geology, climate, flora, fauna and inhabitants of the region, but he had joined the SS in 1933, ostensibly just to be allowed to keep on working, so by 1938 he was well-versed in dirty Nazi compromise.

Between May of 1938 and August of 1939, Schäfer’s team traveled from the Indian Himalayan state of Sikkim to Lhasa to the Yarlung River Valley in western Tibet. They took tens of thousands of pictures, collected dozens of animal specimens, thousands of seeds, head casts and head measurements of hundreds of locals, a Tibetan mastiff and one iron statue of a deity with a swastika on his breastplate.

The swastika is of course an ancient symbol of the sun and good fortune, first appearing in the Indus Valley civilization about 3500 years ago. It came to religious prominence in the Far East with the spread of Buddhism but also appears in pre-Buddhist traditions like the early Bön religion of western Tibet, which included the swastika in its iconography in the 8th and 9th centuries. Since Aryanist theology held that the master race had conquered Asia after they fled the destruction of Atlantis (yeah, I know), Schäfer could well have thought this curious artifact would satisfy Himmler, who was very much into Hinduism and Buddhism and thought the Buddha himself might be the Aryan descendant of the post-Atlantis Nordic master race.

After Schäfer’s team returned to Munich, the iron statue dropped out of sight. It wasn’t until 2007 that its anonymous new owner reached out to a team of scientists led by Dr. Elmar Buchner from the Institute of Planetology at the University of Stuttgart to see if they could find out more about it. He only let them test the figure in a very limited way, however. They weren’t allowed to take any significant samples; they could only literally scrape the surface in an attempt to determine what the statue was made of. In 2009, the Iron Man, as he became known, was sold at auction. Since then, it has been in the hands of one of Buchner’s team and they have had full access to do whatever tests they wish on it.

The statue weighs about 23 pounds and is about 10 inches tall and 5 inches wide. It’s hard to determine exactly who it depicts, but Buchner thinks it’s a Bön culture artifact from the 11th century portraying a version of the Buddhist deity Vaisravana, known in Tibet as Jambhala. He is the god of fortune and wealth (which would be in keeping with the swastika), or sometimes a god of war (which would be in keeping with the armor he’s wearing). There are things missing, though; iconography and attributes you see in later depictions of Vaisravana are not present here. Some, like a flaming trident he holds in the crook of his left arm, could have been lost over the centuries. Buchner’s working theory is that the statue is a transitional figure that incorporates both pre-Buddhist and Buddhist elements, which is why it’s non-standard in some ways.

The most unusual part of it is not the iconography, but rather its composition. Buchner knew from the moment their eyes met across a crowded lab that Iron Man’s iron came from a meteorite. He could tell from thumb-like impressions left on the surface when the meteorite melted during its crash landing. Geochemical analyses confirmed that the Iron Man’s iron wasn’t just from a meteorite, but from the rarest of them all: an ataxite. The high levels of nickel and cobalt in the iron marked it as an ataxite class meteorite. Less than 1% of iron meteorites and less than .1% of all meteorites are ataxites.

Even more exceptionally, the researchers were able to pin down exactly which meteorite it had been carved out of. The geochemical data match those of the Chinga meteorite which fell to earth between Mongolia and Siberia about 15,000 years ago. The first reports of its discovery were made in 1913, but someone found a piece a lot earlier than that, almost a thousand years earlier than that, in fact.

The carver had to have known it was special because chiseling this kind of iron is a tough, tough job. Perhaps he had an inkling it came from the sky — there’s a long history of meteorites being treated with religious reverence in many cultures — or perhaps he just thought it was so unique it was perfect for depicting a god. After the carving, the figure was forged around the edges and base, and then gilded. Only traces of the gilding remain today.

Other meteorites that have been held to be holy were worshipped in rock form. Objects like knives and jewelry have been found carved from meteorites, as have animal figures like eagles. There are references in the historical record to the Tibetan craft of carving “sky iron,” but that craft has long since died out and none of the references mention the carving of humans or anthropomorphic deities. As far as we know, this statue is the only depiction of a human figure carved into a meteorite that’s ever been found.


Police find Wenlok Jug stolen from museum in May

Wednesday, September 26th, 2012

Screen capture of CCTV footage of thief about to break the display glass with a drain gratingA medieval bronze jug of great rarity and historical significance stolen from a museum in Luton, Bedfordshire, England this May has been found by the Bedfordshire police. The Wenlok Jug was stolen in a smash-and-grab burglary the night of May 12th from the Stockwood Discovery Centre. At 11:22 PM, the thief, his face wrapped with a scarf to stymie the CCTV cameras, climbed the museum’s fence, broke down the door and used a drain cover to smash through the half-inch thick laminated glass and polycarbonate compound of the display case. He took the jug and ran.

The museum’s insurance company offered a reward of £25,000 for the jug’s safe return because there was immense concern that the burglar planned to sell the 13-pound bronze artifact simply for its scrap value, a mere £20 ($32). The value to the museum was inestimable, both because of its market price and because of its national and regional importance. It is one of a very few datable medieval bronze jugs to bear the maker’s mark of an English bronze founder, possibly a bell founder, although the exact mark has not been found among extant medieval bells yet.

The Wenlok JugThe tankard is a foot tall and is decorated with coats of arms, including Plantagenet royal arms used between 1340 and 1405 and East Anglian arms, probably relating to the foundry. There are other royal and noble symbols — crowns, badges — decorating the jug, plus a dedication to “MY LORD WENLOK” inscribed all in capitals around the bottom half. There are two possible candidates for the Lord Wenlok in question. One is William Wenlock, Archdeacon of Rochester and canon of King’s Chapel, Westminster and of St. Paul’s Cathedral, who died in 1391 and is buried under St. Mary’s Parish Church of Luton. He wasn’t a lord in the sense of having the official title, but he was an important figure in local life and in the church hierarchy, so he could have been referred to as a lord for jug purposes.

The other is his great-nephew John, the first and only official Lord Wenlock, who fought and served under every king from Henry V to Edward IV. He was Chief Butler of England from 1461 to 1469, so the Wenlok Jug could well have been used to serve royalty. He was a Member of Parliament for Bedfordshire throughout the 1430s and 1440s, was High Sheriff of Bedfordshire and Buckinghamshire in 1444 and was elected Speaker of the House in 1455. His family seat was Someries Castle in Sir John Wenlock window in Wenlock Chapel at St. Mary's Church, LutonLuton which, since he changed sides twice during the Wars of the Roses, was forfeited to the crown after he died fighting (not very well, by some accounts, which claim he was killed by his commanding officer the Duke of Somerset for failing to press forward in support of him) for Henry VI at the Battle of Tewkesbury in 1471.

Both Wenlocks lived in Luton. The family bought the Manor of Luton in 1377 and lived there until John built Someries. Their names are on the town’s medieval guild register, and there’s a Wenlock Street in town. St. Mary’s Church also has a Wenlock Chapel with a stained glass window depicting Lord Wenlock in his knightly finery.

Asante Ewer at the British MuseumThere are only two other medieval bronze jugs like it known to exist. One is in the British Museum, the other in the Victoria and Albert. They differ in size, color and decorative details, but they all share a number of characteristics. They’re the same pot-bellied shape, although the British Museum piece looks quite different because it’s the only one of the three to have retained its lid. The other two had lids originally, but only the hinges are left now. All three inscriptions say different things, but they’re done in similar, and may I say awesome, Lombardic-style lettering. They all bear the same age royal arms (1340-1405).

Robinson Jug at the Victoria and Albert MuseumEven under the surface the three pieces show themselves to be related. A study of the three done by the British Museum found that they are made of the same alloy of copper, tin and lead known as leaded bronze. This was a popular material, but the jugs have the same impurities in the metal which suggests all three were cast at the same foundry. X-rays show that they were manufactured using the same technique — molten bronze poured into a mould with a front part, a back part and a core — which again was popular at the time. Unusual, however, was the use of metal spacers inside the mouldsWenlok Jug X-ray that ensured the metal would flow freely between the outer casing and the core. All three jugs used these spacers.

The Wenlok Jug is the smallest of the three but bears the earliest maker’s mark. It’s also the most recent discovery. Nobody knew it existed until it was found in a cellar at Easton Neston, Northamptonshire, the stately home of Lord Alexander Hesketh which he sold to a Russian retail store magnate in July 2005. Sotheby’s auctioned off some of the contents in May of that year, the Wenlok Jug among them. It was purchased at that auction by a London dealer for £568,000 ($920,000). In October 2005, the dealer sold it to the Metropolitan Museum of Art for £750,000 ($1,200,000).

Wenlok Jug (l), Robinson Jug (m), Asante Ewer (r)Given its extreme rarity, its connection to two similar pieces at the two top museums in the country, the royal arms and the medieval maker’s mark, the Reviewing Committee on the Export of Works of Art and Objects of Cultural Interest run by the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council declared it of national importance and outstanding significance for the study of medieval metallurgy. Culture Minister David Lammy promptly put a temporary export ban on the jug. The deal with these export bans is if a museum in-country can come up with the same amount of money the foreign entity spent on the purchase, then the local museum gets to buy it.

The Luton Council’s museum service, anxious to secure a masterpiece with such a close connection to the city for themselves and for the nation, stepped up to the plate. In the world of museums, it doesn’t get more David and Goliath than this. The Luton museum’s total yearly acquisition budget is £2,500 ($4,000). The Met spent $36.5 million on art purchases between June 2010 and June 2011, and that’s just a fraction of its overall acquisitions endowment of $632 million.

By hook and by crook, Luton scrounged up the £750,000 it needed to buy the jug out from under the Met. The bulk came from large grants. They got £137,500 from the National Art Collections Fund and £590,000 from the National Heritage Memorial Fund. They raised another £20,000 in donations from museum supporters, individuals, local organizations and small trusts. Throw in the museum’s annual acquisition budget and that makes exactly £750,000. They secured the Wenlok Jug at the end of February 2006, and in May it went on display at the Wardown Park Museum.

In 2008 it was moved to the newly constructed Stockwood Discovery Centre where it remained on display until the burglary earlier this year. The Bedfordshire police have been investigating the crime ever since it happened, and their doggedness has now paid off. They discovered the purloined jug on the morning of Monday, September 24th at a home in Tadworth, Surrey. Officers arrested two people at the scene. One has been charged with handling stolen property and the other is now out on bail pending further investigations. Museum experts have examined the jug today and confirmed it is the authentic artifact.

Police haven’t closed the investigation — they are still asking the public for any information they might have about the theft — but the Wenlok Jug is back home. The relief at the museum must be palpable. There was no replacing this piece. Even if they had the money, which obviously they do not, there simply isn’t another one like it.


1000-year-old limestone tombs found in Philippines

Friday, September 21st, 2012

Archaeologists from the National Museum of the Philippines have discovered the remains of an ancient village in the jungles of Mount Kamhantik near the town of Mulanay in Quezon province. Along with evidence of habitation, 15 rectangular coffins were found carved directly into limestone outcroppings in the jungle floor. A human tooth found inside one of the limestone tombs was radiocarbon dated in the U.S. and is at least 1000 years old.

There are no other burial sites of that age in the Philippines which feature carved stone coffins. Other archaeological sites from that period have been found with wooden coffins, earthen burials and pottery jar burials, but carving limestone requires greater technological advancement. Metal tools had to have been used, and this is the earliest evidence of people using metal tools to carve limestone tombs found in the Philippines.

According to a National Museum report, overall the village remains range in date from the 10th to the 14th century. Archaeologists have also found pottery shards, metal artifacts and fragments of bones from humans and animals in the coffins. Postholes carved into the limestone indicate dwellings were once erected over the jungle floor. They’ve only uncovered a small section of the estimated 12-acre site over the past year. Excavations will continue over the next few years.

The archaeological site is part of a larger 700-acre forest which was declared a protected ecological site by the government in 1998. The jungle at the base of Mount Kamhantik has been cleared for farming and habitation and the rest of the mountain was also in danger from slash-and-burn clearings. Since it is one of few remaining habitats for rare animals like cave bats and hornbills, the government placed the endangered mountain under protection to keep the thick forest intact.

Looters also did a number on the mountain years ago. In fact, it was treasure hunters who first exposed some of the limestone tombs looking for gold and other easily salable artifacts. It wasn’t until last year that archaeologists finally got a chance to explore the area and uncover more tombs and artifacts of major archaeological significance which are worthless on the antiquities market, like that tooth.

MulanayThe people in the nearby town of Mulanay are very excited about this find. Despite the natural beauty of the area, the town’s location at the foothills of the mountain on an uninterrupted six-mile strip of sandy beach on Tayabas Bay (headquarters of the 16th century Chinese pirate Lim Hong who used to dock there to bury his treasure before heading out for more pirating) with a coral reef 150 feet from the shore, and inland waterfalls surrounding a unique rock formation the locals use for picnics, Mulanay is still known more for battles between the army and the Maoist New People’s Army that took place there in years past. Mayor Joselito Ojeda hopes this discovery will finally erase that association and open the door to new ecotourism opportunities that will provide a much needed infusion of cash to the impoverished area.


More about the Richard III find

Thursday, September 13th, 2012

Now that the press conference is over, the University of Leicester has released a detailed statement on the find, new pictures, an excellent video illuminating the timeline of the excavation and awesomely, a five-panel artistic rendering of Richard’s death, burial and (potential) exhumation done in what I can only describe as a combination manga and stained glass style.

We start with the extensive press release. The statements from Richard Taylor and Peter Soulsby are the ones they made during the press conference. One interesting side note that I didn’t catch while live blogging is the reference to a period source for the location of Richard’s burial. Taylor quotes John Rous reporting that Richard was “at last was buried in the choir of the Friars Minor at Leicester.”

John Rous was the priest of the chapel of St. Mary Magdalen at Guy’s Cliffe which was built in 1423 by Richard Beauchamp, Earl of Warwick. The Beauchamps were Rous’ patrons, whom he served as chaplain from around 1445 until his death in 1491. He was therefore a contemporary of King Richard III’s and may have even known him, or at least seen him, since Richard traveled to Warwick several times.

Rous was an avid antiquarian and historical researcher. He wrote a history of the Earls of Warwick between 1477 and 1485, and a history of the kings of England after 1485. The former voices strong support for the Yorkist faction, including describing Richard as a king who ruled “full commendably, punishing offenders of his laws, and oppressors of his Commons, and so cherishing those that were virtuous that he got great thank of God and love of all his subjects, both rich and poor, and great laud of the people of all other lands about him.” Once England’s political fortunes changed after Bosworth and the ascension of Henry Tudor, Rous’ description of Richard changed too. Drastically. From the Historia Regum Anglie:

“Richard of York … was retained within his mother’s womb for two years, emerging with teeth and hair to his shoulders … like a scorpion he combined a smooth front with a stinging tail. He was small of stature, with a short face and unequal shoulders, the right higher and the left lower….”

You can see why Philippa Langley of the Richard III Society thinks the Tudor version of Richard is a myth bearing little resemblance to reality. Philippa, incidentally, was instrumental in making this whole thing happen. She brought together the University of Leicester and Leicester City Council and helped secure funding for the dig. She’s also working with the filmmakers who have been shooting the excavation for a documentary on the search for Richard’s grave that will air on Channel 4 later this year.

The press release sheds some light on the future plans for the remains. The Very Reverend Vivienne Faull, Dean of Leicester, remarks that should the skeleton prove to be that of Richard III, he will likely be reburied in Leicester Cathedral. The cathedral will coordinate with the Royal Household and the Richard III Society to handle the remains with all proper rites and rituals.
There’s already a memorial to King Richard in the cathedral and people leave flowers there now in remembrance of the king, especially on the anniversary of the Battle of Bosworth Field.

Dr. Jo Appleby, University of Leicester Professor of Human Bioarchaeology, provides more detail on the bones themselves. She excavated them personally, donning an Outbreak-style body suit and mask to ensure there would be no contamination of the remains.

The skull had a minimum of two injuries. The first was a small penetrating wound to the top of the head that had dislodged two small flaps of bone on the skull interior. The second was a much larger wound to the occipital bone (or base of the skull): a slice had been cut off the skull at the side and back. This is consistent with a bladed implement of some sort, but further laboratory-based analysis of the bones once clean will be needed to fully understand the nature of this injury. It should be noted that this did not cut through the neck and that the skull was still in its correct anatomical position when excavated. In addition to the injuries to the skull, there was evidence of an abnormality of the spinal column. This took the form of scoliosis, or a major sideways ‘kink’ in the area of the ribcage.

His feet appear to have been destroyed at some point, probably during later construction, but the body does not appear to have been moved. It seems he was buried in a simple shroud of which no remnants have survived.

You can see Dr. Appleby hard at work in this video that is an excellent outline of how the excavation progressed. The skeleton itself is blurred, for dignity, I guess? It wouldn’t do to show a potential monarch in the osteological buff.

Now the whole epic saga in five panels drawn by Emma Vieceli, with Kate Brown working on flat colours and textures and Paul Duffield on panel borders and text. Be sure to click on each thumbnail to see the artworks in all their high res glory.


Human remains found at Richard III burial site

Wednesday, September 12th, 2012

The archaeologists digging under the Leicester parking lot for the Greyfriars church where King Richard III was buried in 1485 started out with a long list of ifs and maybes. They weren’t sure they had the right location for the church which had been destroyed during Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries in 1538 and built over for centuries. Even if their research on the location did turn out to be have been correct, there might be no remains left after the Tudor destruction and subsequent development. If there were physical remains of the abbey and church left to be found, they might not have found them in the two trenches they planned to dig. If they did find physical remains of the church, they might not have been sufficient to map an accurate ground plan and find the choir area where Richard was buried. If they did locate the choir area, there might be nothing there. If they did find human remains, they wouldn’t necessarily be significant since many people were buried in abbeys in churches.

Knowing how the long the odds were of discovering anything pertinent at all, the University of Leicester’s excavation team was not so much cautiously optimistic as just plain cautious. They underscored that the archaeological search would nonetheless provide a fascinating window into the long-lost history of Leicester even when/if nothing Richard-specific was discovered. It was an exercise in managing expectations, as they say in the corporate world, not just the public’s but their own.

Then something completely unexpected happened: everything went right. The two trenches immediately revealed the remains of tiled walkways which proved to be the eastern cloister walk of the friary. They found part of the wall of the chapter house abutting it. Spurred by these promising discoveries, the archaeological team dug a third unplanned trench into a neighboring parking lot and found the walls of the church within the friary.

The next discovery was more than anyone had dared hope, or at least voice. Outside of the church perimeter to the south, the team unearthed a stretch of paving made of recycled medieval tiles of different sizes and wears laid in a random pattern. They believe these are the remains of the garden of Sir Robert Herrick, mayor of Leicester. Herrick bought the abbey land in the early 1600s and built a mansion and gardens on the site. Christopher Wren, future father of the famous architect, was tutor to Herrick’s nephew. He recorded that there was a pillar on the grounds inscribed “Here lies the body of Richard III, some time King of England.”

Meanwhile, in the third trench inside the church area, archaeologists found large chunks of window tracery and a lead window H-section (part of the support for a stained glass window). There was a large window behind the high altar in the east of the church. The choir where Richard III was buried was in the east side of the church. They also found a medieval silver penny, a stone frieze they think was part of the choir stalls and copper alloy letters that might have come from tomb inscriptions.

Given these giant glaring exes marking the spot, and the huge turnout of 1,500 people who lined up to see the dig during the three hours it was open this past Saturday, the Leicester City Council agreed to extend the dig for at least one more week. It was supposed to have stopped Monday, but they couldn’t quit when they were so close, and the dig has been a huge boon for Leicester making the press all over the world.

Then, early this morning, the University of Leicester announced that human remains have been found. That’s all they said. No further details until the press conference today at 11:00 AM BST which is being tweeted live on @uniofleicester. If you don’t want to follow on Twitter, the UoL website will be posting live updates on this page. The press conference will be carried on BBC and Sky television and will be streamed live on the BBC website. I’ve tweeted Leicester to ask for a link to the live stream because I can’t find it.

Wake up, everyone! This is too exciting to sleep through. :boogie:

Okay I’m doing my own version of live updates just because I’m nerding out like a crazy person. UL is tweeting that they’ll be referring to people at the press conference using their initials so they just posted a bunch of names with their initials. One of the people listed is Dr. Turi King (TK), from UL’s Department of Genetics. Does that mean they’ve got something to DNA test?

BBC News live stream here! And it works in the US too! Head asploding!

* Richard Taylor: the search has resembled something out of a Dan Brown novel in terms of the twists and turns it has taken.

* Peter Soulsby, Mayor of Leicester went over a couple of historical highlights of the city. Thanks the public employees for giving up their parking and says given today’s announcement, they are going to have to go without their parking lot a little longer.

* Richard Buckley, co director of University of Leicester Archaeological Services, is describing the site, the layout of the trenches and what was found where.

* Richard Taylor, Director of Corporate Affairs: They have found the remains of two people: one fully articulated skeleton of an adult male found in the choir of the church and one disarticulated human skeleton, one female found in the presbytery.


* Now Richard is telling me to calm the hell down because this isn’t any kind of sure thing, but it is exciting circumstantial evidence. Next up extensive testing and analysis.

* The location and modesty of the burial is in keeping with the historical sources, but the skeleton was not hunchbacked as Richard was described by Shakespeare and other sources. He was strong and appears to have died in battle. Historical sources invested physical deformity with spiritual deformity and could well have exaggerated Richard’s disability.

* Philippa Langley, lead for the Richard III society, had a dream, y’all. She says we should strive to make our dreams come true. She’s very composed, but I think she’s losing it on the inside.

* Exhumation of the male skeleton began Tuesday, September 4th.

* The archaeological site is not really display quality, so it sounds like the parking lot is going right back on top when they’re through.

* Next up is laboratory analysis at the University of Leicester. They’re hoping to recover mitochondrial DNA that can be compared to the DNA of Michael Ibsen, 17th generation nephew of Richard III. DNA analysis will take up to 12 weeks.

* Only DNA can confirm that these are the remains of Richard III. Osteology can confirm that the skeletal remains matches very well what we know of Richard from historical sources.

* The arrowhead found in the skeleton’s spine was barbed. They can’t say anything more than that right now since the find is so new. The barbed arrowhead was found between two vertebrae, not embedded in the bone.

* They haven’t cleaned the skull yet, but there are a couple of injuries to it visible. They don’t know if the head injuries or the arrow were the fatal blow. The only historical source to give details on how he died was the Ballad of Bosworth Field, widely considered unreliable. In the Ballad, Richard died of a poleaxe to the head.

* Philippa Langley thinks the Tudors constructed a mythological Richard, that to get closer to the truth of what kind of person he was, see the pre-Tudor sources from before he became king.

* She hopes the archaeology of Greyfriars will bring Richard’s story to an accurate and truthful conclusion.

And that’s all folks. Amazing. A. May. Zing.


Race against climate change in Alaska excavation

Saturday, September 8th, 2012

Coastal erosion at Nunalleq siteWhen people in the Yup’ik Eskimo village of Quinhagak saw artifacts from their pre-historic heritage being swept into the Bering Sea due to erosion of coastal land exposed by melting permafrost in 2008, they called in the cavalry: archaeologists from the University of Aberdeen. In Nunalleq, the site of the 2008 erosion event, the Aberdeen team has undertaken the first large-scale archaeological exploration of the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta, home of the Yup’ik people.

The Yup’ik, the largest indigenous group in south-western Alaska today, was one of the last groups contacted by Europeans (in the early 19th century). There’s plenty of ethnographic documentation of the culture, but almost no archaeological research. That adds even more urgency to this project of excavating and recovering artifacts of the prehistoric Yup’ik settlement before climate change and erosion takes them all to sea.

Wooden harpoonsInterestingly, the Yup’ik who inhabited Nunalleq between 1350 and 1650 A.D. themselves experienced a period of climate change, namely the Little Ice Age. Researchers hope that the artifacts and organic remains discovered at Nunalleq will illuminate how the Yup’ik responded to the rapidly cooling environment, how their diets and lifestyles changed. University of Aberdeen’s Dr. Rick Knecht hopes that the pre-history they find might help create a predictive model of how to cope with climate change in the future as well as explaining the past.

Certainly the excavations thus far have provided researchers with an extraordinary wealth of material. In additional to the bone, stone, sod, and charcoal that often survive the centuries, the permafrost has preserved masses of organic materials. Wooden artifacts like carved dolls and harpoons have been found in pristine condition, as have berry seeds, matting, ropes and baskets woven out of grasses, even animal fur and human hair.

Stable isotope analysis of the human hair will reveal what the early Yup’ik ate.

Cut human hairDr Kate Britton from the University of Aberdeen’s Department of Archaeology said: “Stable isotope (chemical) ‘signatures’ in human hair are directly related to the ‘signatures’ of foods consumed – literally, you are what you eat.

“In archaeological studies, this is used to provide evidence for which animal species were being hunted and eaten. Furthermore, human hair grows at an average rate of 1cm per month – so by chemically analysing it 1cm at a time we can obtain a month by month dietary ‘signal’ which indicates what these people were eating over a period of time. [...]

“We hope our analysis will allow us to evaluate dietary changes in Western Alaska at this time, determine the contribution of marine and terrestrial animals to the human diet and explore the implications for early subsistence strategies and maritime adaptations.”

With stable isotope and DNA analysis of the animal fur, archaeologists hope to identify which animals donated that fur, if they were domestic animals or hunted, and whether they were butchered for eating or for their pelts.

Carved wooden doll with charred faceThe archaeological record has already been found to support the oral histories of Yup’ik lore. According to stories handed down through the generations to contemporary Yup’ik residents of the nearby town of Quinhagak, the village was destroyed in the mid-17th century by the Kinak warriors during the “bow and arrow wars.” The enemy descended upon the village in the summer, burning the buildings and killing everyone they found. In fact, the remains of burnt houses with arrow points embedded in them, charred wooden dolls and few human remains confirm the village’s demise was a violent one. Radiocarbon dating supports the traditional date as well. A burnt house dates to around 1650.

One of the most exciting finds was a long stretch of wooden planking. Archaeologists initially thought the split driftwood planks formed the roof of an entrance tunnel dug to a sod house. An opening in the central room would have led to the tunnel, which would have also been used for storing food and supplies. According to Yup’ik oral histories, people tried to hide in the tunnels during the bow and arrow wars, but the houses were set on fire and the refugees smoked out and killed. Again the archaeology supported the stories, as the doorway of the sod house was coated with a thick layer of charcoal and ash. Sixteen slate arrow points were also found in the entry area, including one embedded in a structural post.

When the team removed the planks, though, they found that there was no tunnel dug down beneath. The planks were flooring instead, probably a grand boardwalk leading to the entrance of an important house, so the fire was set at the door and arrows were shot at people inside the house itself rather than hiding in a tunnel.

Here’s a video of the excavated boardwalk. You can see how precipitously close to the Bering Sea these important archaeological remains have gotten.

There’s a wonderful blog documenting this year’s three-week dig season: Nunalleq 2012. It’s an easy read and a fascinating one, each entry accompanied by copious photographs. I recommend starting from the bottom and working your way up. Although the archaeological team has packed up the artifacts and brought them to the University of Aberdeen for further study, the blog will continue to be updated with new information as they discover it.


Updates on two Kings: Martin Luther and Richard III

Friday, September 7th, 2012

Great news on two King fronts. First, the interview with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. discovered in a Nashville attic has been bought by magician David Copperfield. This is great news because he’s donating it to the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, the museum located in the Lorraine Motel, the place where Martin Luther King was assassinated.

David CopperfieldCopperfield enjoys collecting historical objects, particularly magic ones (remember the 1906 verbal gypsy fortune teller?), and even though Dr. King never made the Statue of Liberty disappear, as a dream merchant David has been inspired by the man who so famously expressed his own dream of equality and freedom with world-shifting results. He was particularly moved by the intimate, conversational tone of the recording, since so much of what we hear of Martin Luther King Jr. are speeches and sermons.

Copperfield didn’t want the recording to fall into a private collection never to be heard again, so he bought it himself and picked the National Civil Rights Museum because it’s in Tennessee, the same state where the interview was held and the recording found. The estimated monetary value of the recording was $100,000, but the price Copperfield paid has not been disclosed.

Barbara Andrews, Director of Education and Interpretation at the National Civil Rights Museum, said the museum plans to integrate the recording into the exhibit in the motel room where King stayed the last nights of his life. Few museums have audio from Dr. King integrated into their displays — probably because the King Center has the lion’s share of that material — so this will be a rare and important addition to their collection.

Andrews also said this:

The donation of this recording to the museum offers the opportunity to hear from this civil rights giant one more time – almost as though we are able to connect with him in the present again. At the time of this recording, the world and the movement were at a crossroads: the teeming war in Vietnam helped to shape the evolving foci of Dr. King’s work. On the one hand his attention was turned to the matter of economic justice and eradicating poverty while simultaneously pressing to move America’s moral compass toward human rights and away from the war effort on the other.

Martin Luther King Jr. at Ebenezer Baptist ChurchUnless it’s a bald misquote, I’m afraid this statement is just plain false. The interview was recorded on December 21, 1960. At that time, the end of the Eisenhower administration, there were fewer than a thousand US military personnel in Vietnam. It was a year after that before the first American soldier died in Vietnam. Kennedy increased the number of covert troops to 16,000 by the time of his assassination in November of 1963, but real ground troop escalation started under Johnson in August of 1964 after the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution granted him carte blanche for combat operations in Vietnam. The first anti-war demonstration took place in San Francisco in December 1964.

Martin Luther King Jr. was working with Johnson on the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act in 1964 and 1965, so he was reluctant to voice full-throated opposition to Vietnam. His first public statements against the war came in March 1965, and they were attenuated. He expressed dismay that “millions of dollars can be spent every day to hold troops in South Viet Nam and our country cannot protect the rights of Negroes in Selma,” but he made a point of expressing sympathy for the president’s predicament and supporting Johnson’s call for a diplomatic solution. He first detailed his opposition to the war in specific terms in his Transformed Nonconformist sermon at the Ebenezer Baptist Church on January 16, 1966 (see page 6 for his indictment of the war).

I will spare you the artless segue about kings and war and instead just abruptly switch tracks to Richard III. The excavations under the Leicester parking lot have already born significant fruit. They’ve found the remains of the Church of the Grey Friars.

Medieval remains uncovered on site, picture from University of LeicesterWhen last we saw our heroes from the University of Leicester excavation team, they weren’t even certain they had the right location. Various places had been suggested in the years since development obscured the ruins of the church, and there was a good chance that any identifiable remains could have been destroyed by later construction. As soon as the first two trenches were dug, it was clear the worst case scenario was not going to materialize.

Medieval inlaid floor tiles from the friary, picture from University of LeicesterThe trenches revealed tiled floors at right angles to each other, one a north-south passageway six and a half feet wide, the other an east-west structure sixteen feet wide. North of the east-west floor they found an open space and then a wall five feet thick. The floor tiles are medieval. Archaeologists think the north-south passageway and the intersecting floor were part of the cloister, a square covered walkway around a peristyle garden characteristic of many monastic communities. Cloisters were often built against the warm south side of a church, so that thick wall may be the south wall of the Greyfriars church.

Medieval remains in one of the trenches, picture from University of LeicesterOn Saturday, the team dug a third trench in the parking lot next door to see if that wall extended eastward, and it does! They found a continuation of the wall, a second wall about 25 feet north and a mortar floor between them. The floor was probably originally tiled as well, but those tiles have been lost.

Dig leader Richard Buckley enthuses:

“The size of the walls, the orientation of the building, its position and the presence of medieval inlaid floor tiles and architectural fragments makes this almost certainly the church of the Grey Friars.

The next step – which may include extending the trenches – will seek to gain more information on the church in the hope that we can identify the location of the choir and high altar. Finding the choir is especially important as this is where Richard III is recorded as having been buried.”

Architectural fragments from the friary buildings, picture from University of LeicesterThe site will be open to the public this weekend for a short window. On Saturday, September 8, from 11 AM to 2 PM, visitors will be allowed to see the excavation and some of the tiles and architectural remains that have been found thus far. Admission is free, but expect to wait in line because this story has spread far and wide and doubtless there will be crowds of people wanting to catch a glimpse of the work in progress.

If anyone reading this goes, please tell us all about it in the comments, or email me via the contact form and I’ll post it.


Experts dig under parking lot for Richard III’s grave

Saturday, August 25th, 2012

King Richard III, painter unknown, ca. 1590-1610King Richard III, last Plantagenet king of England and the last king of England to die in battle, was buried exactly 527 years ago on August 25th, 1485. Today, on the anniversary of his burial, archaeologists from the University of Leicester will try to dig him up again. It’s the first archaeological excavation ever to search for the lost grave of a British sovereign.

It’s all the Tudors’ fault, of course. Henry Tudor’s Lancastrian troops defeated Richard’s Yorkist army at the Battle of Bosworth Field on August 22, 1485. Richard died on that field, felled by blows to the head from a poleaxe. With Richard’s death, Henry Tudor became King Henry VII. One of his first acts as monarch the day after the battle was to bring Richard’s body to nearby Leicester where it would be exposed, naked, and then hanged for all to see so there would be no question that the old king was dead.

Richard III falls at Bosworth; Shakespeare Window in Southwark Cathedral, designed by Christopher Webb, 1954After two days of being subjected to public ignominy, Richard’s body was buried at Leicester’s Church of the Franciscans, aka the Greyfriars. After years of dynastic dispute, the new king certainly wasn’t going to have the one he considered a usurper buried in kingly pomp with his ancestors in London, so instead the friars buried him unceremoniously in their abbey. Ten years later, Henry’s guilty conscience gnawed at him enough that he would spend £50 to have an alabaster memorial monument built over Richard’s tomb.

Then came the second Tudor Henry. Henry VIII split with the Catholic Church and the violent dissolution of the monasteries that followed did not spare Greyfriars. In November of 1538, the Greyfriars abbey and church in Leicester was destroyed. There is no record from that time describing what happened to Richard’s tomb and remains. The popular legend is that his tomb was smashed to bits and Richard’s body was taken by a mob and thrown in the River Soar. The earliest source for that story comes from mapmaker and historian John Speede writing seventy years after the purported events, however, and people who certainly would have written about it in the interim had it happened never mention a desecrating mob.

In fact, according to Christopher Wren, father of the famous architect, in 1612 there was a new monument over Richard’s grave. The property where the monastery once stood had been purchased by Leicester’s former mayor Robert Herrick who built an elegant house and gardens on the site. On the spot where the tomb of the king had been, Herrick erected a pillar inscribed, “Here lies the body of Richard III, some time King of England.” Wren worked as a tutor to Herrick’s nephew at that time and saw the monument while walking the grounds with Robert.

Richard III Society plaque on Grey Friars StreetAs the centuries passed, development entirely changed the cityscape and the exact location of Greyfriars church was lost, although the neighborhood was known. (There’s a street in the area conveniently called Grey Friars Street.) The Richard III Society put a plaque on a building to mark one potential spot.

A recent archaeological survey on Grey Friars Street done when a 1950s structure was being demolished to make way for new construction cast a whole new light on the question of where the church had been. It was a case of the dog barking in the night. The dig was in the center of the Greyfriars location, but archaeologists found nothing but a small piece of stone coffin lid. If the church had been there, they would have found much more evidence of its presence. This non-discovery discovery moved the epicenter of the Greyfriars site considerably to the west, an area that has more parking lots than real estate.

John Speede map of Leicester county and city, 1616Another recent discovery that boosted the odds of finding Richard’s burial was made by genealogist and Richard III expert Dr. John Ashdown-Hill. While researching his book The Last Days of Richard III, Ashdown-Hill examined the maps John Speede had made when he searched for Richard’s grave. He found that Speede had been looking at the wrong monastery, Blackfriars instead of Greyfriars.

Armed with this new information, University of Leicester experts used map regression analysis (a systematic comparison of different kinds of maps from different eras) to pinpoint the most likely site of the former Greyfriars church. It’s a parking lot used by the Leicester City Council.

Leicester City Council parking lotThe parking lot was surveyed Friday with ground-penetrating radar, and several archaeological hot spots were identified. Today the excavation begins. Guided by the GPR data, the archaeological team plans to start digging two long trenches.

The trenches will run North-South and should intersect with the church’s East-West walls (helpfully, Christian churches are usually built on the same alignment). The ULAS team shouldn’t have to dig too deep as, although there are hundreds of years of remains to get through, the actual strata are fairly shallow. Previous Leicester excavations have shown that the Roman layer is less than a meter down – and if you reach that, you’ve gone way past 1485.

The excavation will continue for two weeks. No visits to the dig will be allowed because the parking lot is for Council employees only, and it’s not in a publicly accessible area under normal circumstances. The weekend of September 8th, however, the site will be opened to the public. Come Monday the trenches will be filled back in and a week later it will be a parking lot again.

Archaeologists are very cautious in their estimates of what they might find. Fragments of an alabaster tomb would be nice; human remains of a male of proper age bearing evidence of fatal battle wounds would be ideal. Since time is very limited, they won’t be able to excavate any remains that aren’t likely Richard candidates, and given that churches and abbeys were thick with burials inside and outside the buildings, they could well encounter an embarrassment of options.

Michael Ibsen swabs his cheek for his royal DNAIf by some freakish good luck they do find remains that could be Richard’s, DNA experts will attempt to match its mitochondrial DNA to that of a direct descendant down the female line of Richard’s sister, Anne of York. Dr. Ashdown-Hill traced this unbroken matrilineal genealogy to Mrs. Joy Ibsen, an English-born journalist who had emigrated to Canada in her 20s. She was in her 80s when Ashdown-Hill found her and was highly amused to discover she was a 16th generation niece of Richard III. Mrs. Ibsen has since passed away, but her son Michael, a furniture-maker who lives in London, gave a swab of his precious mtDNA to the project. He was also present on Friday when the University of Leicester team explored the parking lot with ground-penetrating radar.

For more about the Greyfriars project and Richard III, see the University of Leicester’s microsite. For a short but thorough overview, see this video featuring University of Leicester archaeologist Richard Buckley, the lead archaeologist on the Greyfriars project.