Archive for the ‘Modern(ish)’ Category

Lock of George Washington’s hair found in college library

Monday, February 19th, 2018

A lock of George Washington’s hair has been discovered in an 18th century almanac in the library of Union College in Schenectady, New York. Archivist Daniel Michelson found a red leather-bound volume of the Gaines Universal Register or American and British Kalendar for the year 1793 nestled in the stacks on the third floor of the library and gave it to librarian John Myers to catalogue. The almanac is inscribed “Philip Schuyler’s a present from his friend Mr. Philip Ten Eycke New York April 20, 1793.”

Schuyler was a member of a very prominent New York family that figured largely in the Revolutionary era and beyond, so the fact that the book belonged to him made it an important object. Myers carefully turned each pages of the book and found annotations from Philip Jeremiah Schuyler including instructions on how to “preserve beef for summer’s use.” Then, inside an envelope stuffed into the accordion folder affixed to the book’s cover, Myers discovered strands of grey hair bound in a single white thread. The envelope was labelled “Washington’s hair, L.S.S. & (scratched out) GBS from James A. Hamilton given him by his mother, Aug. 10, 1871.”

Philip Jeremiah Schuyler was the son of General Philip John Schuyler who fought in the Revolutionary War and was elected to the Continental Congress, the New York State Senate and the Senate of the United States. He is considered one of the founders of Union College. General Schuyler was a personal friend of George Washington’s and served under him in the Revolutionary War. His daughter, Philip Jeremiah’s sister, Eliza was married to Alexander Hamilton. The James A. Hamilton who wrote the note on the envelope identifying the hair as George Washington’s was their third son.

Alexander and Eliza were close friends of George and Martha Washington. It’s likely that Martha gave them the lock of hair after George’s death in 1799 as a memento, a common practice at the time, all the more so for prominent citizens mourned by many friends and indeed the whole country.

“In an era when people frequently exchanged hair as a keepsake, it’s quite probable that Martha had given Eliza some of George’s hair, which in turn was given to their son, James, who later distributed it, strand by strand, as a precious memento to close friends and family members,” said Susan Holloway Scott, an independent scholar and author of the recent historical novel “I Eliza Hamilton.”

Officials with the Schuyler Mansion, a state historic site in Albany, believe that James Hamilton gave the lock of Washington’s hair to his granddaughters, Louisa Lee Schuyler and Georgina Schuyler, whose initials are on the envelope discovered at Union. The mansion displays another few strands of Washington’s hair in a locket kept under glass.

A lack of documentation on clear custody of the material found in Union’s archives or DNA testing makes it difficult to verify that the strands of hair are Washington’s. The handwriting believed to be James Hamilton’s on the envelope is similar to Hamilton’s handwriting that accompanies strands of Washington’s hair held by the Massachusetts Historical Society.

DNA testing is not possible as the hairs have been exposed to too many hands and potential contaminants to allow for accurate results. They’re also cut, not pulled from the root as Martha was not a monster. Union College has no record of the book entering its collection, so there’s no clear line of ownership history that could help solidify the claim. However, the Schuylers had such a strong connection to the college and the hair itself is very similar to other strands that are confirmed to have been George Washington’s.

India Spartz, head of Union College library’s Special Collections and Archives, is currently conserving the hair bundle, the almanac and an 1804 letter to 1804 Philip Jeremiah Schuyler that was also found inside the accordion folder. The group will be exhibited at an undetermined point in the future.


Purloined Klimt drawing found in secretary’s closet

Sunday, February 18th, 2018

A mystery almost 70 years in the making was solved when a lost drawing by Gustav Klimt was returned to the Lentos Museum in Linz, Austria, after the death of a former secretary who turns out to have stolen it decades ago. The sensual drawing of two women, Zwei Liegende (“Two Reclining Figures”), was one of four loaned to the museum (then the Neue Galerie der Stadt Linz) by Linz-born artist Olga Jäger in 1951. The other three were pieces by Egon Schiele. In 1964 it was loaned to the Albertina Museum in Vienna and returned without incident. That is the last mention of the four loaned works on the historical record.

Olga Jäger died in 1965 and it seemed the disappearance of the drawing might fly under the radar forever, but in 1990 Olga’s niece-in-law, wife of nephew Kurt Jäger, sent the museum a letter asking that the loaned works be returned. Museum staff looked for the art in their own stores and in other city and regional collections, but came up empty. The niece’s sons pressed the case in 2006 and again a thorough search was fruitless.

In 2011, the Jäger descendants sued the City of Linz and were awarded damages in the amount of €100,000 ($124,000) for the loss of one of the Schiele works (“Paar”). Damages got even more damaging in 2017, when the Linz Regional Court ordered the city to pay the Jägers €8.21 million (about $10 million) for the other three. The Klimt drawing was the least costly of them, assessed at €100,000.

This January, the Klimt was returned to the museum out of the blue. It was delivered by a lawyer who explained his client, said former secretary, has died in December and left explicit instructions in her will to recover the work from her closet and give it back to the city.

But how did the Klimt drawing end up in a closet? According to [Julius Stieber, the director of culture and education for the City of Linz], the secretary’s will said that in 1964, she noticed some irregularities with the documentation of the Schiele pictures after a loan to the Albertina Museum in Vienna, and notified the Neue Galerie’s then-director, Walter Kasten.

Mr. Kasten told her to keep the irregularities quiet and gave her the Klimt drawing as “hush art,” Mr. Steiber said, further describing the will’s account of the events. “For years the Klimt hung in her apartment, but when the Jäger case became public, she hid it in her wardrobe,” Mr. Stieber said.

“It’s like a thriller,” Klaus Luger, the mayor of Linz, said in a news conference on Tuesday.

The secretary has not been named for legal reasons. The three Schiele pieces are still missing and there is no evidence she was involved in their loss. Was Kasten handing out art like candy to cover his tracks? The police investigation is ongoing.

Meanwhile, the discovery of the 1990 letter, which had also fallen through the museum’s cracks, has led to a reopening of the court case. It could be pivotal in determining whether the heirs waited too long to pursue their case. The statute of limitations may have run out.

The drawing is now on display in the 1918 – Klimt – Moser – Schiele exhibition at the Lentos Museum. It runs through May 21st, 2018. After it closes, the drawing will be returned to the Jäger family as long as they repay the €100,000 the museum paid them for it.


Sea monsters and murder scandal in one dress

Thursday, February 15th, 2018

The Yale Center for British Art recently acquired a portrait of a young lady by renowned Jacobean painter William Larkin. The panel painting is believed to be a depiction of Lady Jane Thornhaugh, wife of Sir Francis Thornhaugh, because its ownership history can be traced back through family inheritance to an 18th century Thornhaugh. The inscription provides a date for the portrait — 1617 — and the age of the subject as 17. Assuming on solid grounds that the sitter was a Thornhaugh, only Lady Jane could fit the date and age.

William Larkin’s portraits of early 17th century aristocracy and nobility capture more than just the individuals’ looks. They are invaluable records of the fashions, textiles, accessories, furnishings and styles of the most rarified denizens of James I’s court. Lady Thornhaugh’s gown in this portrait provides a glimpse into the playful motifs popular in Jacobean times, and is even a little scandalous, and I don’t mean the more than generous décolleté.

She is wearing a masque costume with a pale yellow lace collar and a silk gown embroidered with fantastical flora and fauna, including insects, birds and numerous sea monsters diving in and out of the embroidery. As if that weren’t cool enough (and it is), the yellow color of her lace collar and cuff is a nod to a huge scandal that rocked high society shortly before the portrait was painting.

It all started with a poem in praise of the ideal wife. The poet was Sir Thomas Overbury, one of King James I’s favored courtiers. He introduced his bestie Robert Carr to court and Carr quickly rose in the ranks of the king’s retinues, soon becoming his favorite and among the most powerful men in England. Overbury was seen as Carr’s puppetmaster, largely because he was. When Carr began an affair with Frances Howard, Countess of Essex, Overbury protested that it would harm his standing at court as she was notoriously unchaste. Carr ratted him out to Frances Howard, so when Overbury wrote and circulated A Wife, she was sure that was a direct hit on her as the embodiment of none of those wifely virtues.

The Countess schemed to take Overbury down, spreading malicious gossip about him and then convincing the King to offer him an ambassadorship to Russia which Overbury would turn down, offending James. Overbury got thrown in the Tower of London for that offense, and was dead within months.

Two months after Overbury’s death, Frances Howard had successfully secured an annulment from her husband and remarried to none other than Robert Carr. That’s when the rumors started that there was some kind of shenanigan afoot. Overbury had died too conveniently and too quickly. Could Frances Howard have had a hand in it?

It took two years for anyone to look into it, but when King James I reluctantly agreed to an investigation, famed jurist Edward Coke and philosopher and statesman Sir Francis Bacon were selected to lead it. The trial in 1616 revealed that Frances Howard had definitely had a hand way up in it. She had replaced the Lord Lieutenant of the Tower with one of her minions and got a new gaoler appointed to tend to Overbury. The gaoler, Richard Weston, poisoned Overbury with sulfuric acid. He was aided in this by Anne Turner, another minion of Frances Howard’s who was well-known for her skills as a yellow starcher who produced the pale yellow collar and cuffs so favored by the fashionable set at court and so sharply detailed in Larkin’s portrait.

Frances Howard and Robert Carr were convicted of the murder, but quickly pardoned by King James. Anne Turner was hanged from her neck until dead, a neck adorned, as poetic justic would have it, with a yellow starched ruff.


Footballers take tax break, leave chateau to ruin

Monday, February 12th, 2018

The Château de Tancarville, a historic castle near Le Havre in Normandy largely built in 18th century incorporating remnants of earlier structures going back to the 11th century, is in a parlous state. The current owners, an association of a dozen footballers chaired by midfielder Rémi Gomis, now a member of the Swiss team FC Wil, acquired it in 2013, receiving a tax exemption from the government premised on the stipulation that they would see to its renovation. The idea was to convert the remains into rental apartments.

It didn’t happen. Nothing has happened. The town hasn’t heard from these guys since early 2017 when a law firm representing them made contact. Since then, it’s been complete radio silence as the castle falls to pieces.

The silence of the owners worries the mayor even more as the site is gradually deteriorating: wild vegetation, unsecured wells, stones that gradually break from the medieval ruins … [Mayor] David Sablin had to take measures to ensure the safety of places.

“The town hall has filed a prohibition order to the site, with its main access. We also contacted the prefect of Seine-Maritime, to consider a danger and order the owners to act quickly on this listed building.”

Left without maintenance, the remains dating back to the 12th century deteriorate. Below the rocky outcrop, the parking of a carpool area is threatened by falling rocks. Finally, regular intrusions on the site have been noted. Sometimes devastating for this heritage at risk.

Jean-Loup Diviné, president of the association of the Friends of the Castle of Tancarville, is also in constant fear at the deterioration of the site.

“On the weekend of January 30, people again got into the castle and tore stones off the ruins. The association has repeatedly placed locks to close access to the castle, but they are regularly demolished. There is a complete lack of reaction from the owners and if we do nothing, there will be nothing left of the site in a few years.”

The first castle built on the picturesque and easily defensible site, a spur overlooking the Seine, belonged to Raoul de Tancarville, chamberlain of William the Conqueror. All that remains today of that castle is the square tower. Subsequent Lords of Tancarville rebuilt it and added to it. A 15th century chapel survives, but the bulk of what remains today was the new castle built on the ruins of the medieval one from 1709 to 1717 for Louis Henri de La Tour d’Auvergne, Count of Évreux. (A few years later Louis Henri would have a Paris crash pad built then known as the Hôtel d’Évreux and now known as the Élysée Palace, official residence of the President of France.)

The castle’s revival was cut short by the French Revolution. It was pillaged and sacked to the point of near-destruction. By 1793, it was in ruin. With the restoration of the monarchy in the 19th century, the castle’s fortunes took a positive turn. It was restored for the Count Leonce of Lambertye, a preeminent gentleman botanist whose books were widely read in scientific circles, in the mid-1800s. It was listed by the French government as a historic monument in 1862.

Staring in the 1990s, the castle passed through numerous hands. It has at various points been a private home, an art gallery and a restaurant. The sale to the association was a Hail Mary pass, a less than ideal plan for the preservation of the architecture, but the only option left that would keep the walls up in some form. Now that those hopes have proved vain, the Friends of the Castle of Tancarville have reached out to journalist, television and radio presenter and expert in royal families Stéphane Bern who has recently been charged by President Macron with creating a list of monuments and historic structures in France that are in particular peril and helping to secure financing for desperately-needed repairs. Inclusion on that list, or even just getting the word out on a national stage, might spur the owners into actually keeping to the terms they agreed to when they bought the property.


Mauritshuis identifies “copy” as original Jan Steen

Sunday, February 11th, 2018

A work in the Royal Museum of Fine Arts Antwerp (KMSKA) long believed to be an 18th century copy of Jan Steen’s The Mocking of Samson has been identified as an original painting by the Dutch Golden Age master himself. The KMSKA, currently closed for renovations, sent the painting to the Mauritshuis in The Hague as part of a long-time collaboration that has born such extraordinary fruit that a new Jan Steen has now been added to the museum’s permanent collection.

The painting caught the eye of Mauritshuis conservation experts when they were considering which works were good candidates for inclusion in the upcoming exhibition dedicated to Steen’s Histories, i.e., his depictions of scenes from Biblical and Classical mythology.

Emilie Gordenker, director of the Mauritshuis: “During the process of selecting the loans for the Jan Steen’s Histories exhibition, our curator Ariane van Suchtelen had a strong suspicion that The Mocking of Samson was not a copy, but had actually been painted by Jan Steen himself.

After further research, restoration and technical examination we have come to the conclusion that not only is this painting by the master himself, but that it is still in excellent condition. It’s as if the canvas is fresh out of Jan Steen’s studio – thrilling!”

Conservators were surprised to find when looking at the back on the canvas that unlike most 17th century paintings, Samson had never been relined. The practice of gluing a second canvas to the back of the first to support it was widespread, but this painting was the original canvas alone still on its original strainer (fixed wooden supports that, unlike stretchers, cannot be adjusted at the corners to tighten the frame when the canvas slackens) attached with its original nails, no less.

Fragmentary evidence added more authentic detail. There are additional holes at the canvas edge where string had once been threaded through to connect the canvas to the frame when Steen was creating the painting. Some fragments of that string are still in those holes.

Then, when the yellowed and cracked varnish layer on top of the painting was removed during conservation, the paint itself was found to be in superior condition, with brilliant colors, clear brushstrokes and negligible wear and tear. It’s very rare for a 17th century painting to make it to the 21st in such exceptionally good condition. Perhaps its years of misidentification was salutary to its long-term survival, as nobody bothered trying to restore it with practices that would later prove destructive.

The Mauritshuis has been working assiduously with Shell researchers for six years in an attempt to pin down the chronology of Steen’s oeuvre. Very few of his works have firm dates — about 10% of his surviving paintings — so museum experts have teamed up with experts at the Shell Technology Centre in Amsterdam to examine as many Steens as possible. They use a scanning electron microscope with energy dispersing X-rays to examine the pigments and determine the chemical makeup of the paint and the concentrations of each element.

One of the pigments, a bright green earth color that wasn’t used much in the 17th century, appears unusually frequently in Jan Steen’s late period shortly before his death when he had returned to his hometown of Leiden. As luck would have it, The Mocking of Samson also contains the tell-tale green earth pigment. It was used in the stash of the standard-bearer on the right. That dates the work to the 1670s.

The newly rediscovered painting, now fully restored and ready for primetime, will join its thematic brethren in Jan Steen’s Histories when it opens at the Mauritshuis on February 15th. Once some of his most popular and expensive paintings, Steen’s histories fell out of fashion in latter part of the 18th century. His humorous, playful, juicy depictions of the great soap opera-like dramas of Samson and Delilah, Lot and his daughters and the worshipping of the Golden Calf, so enjoyed by 17th century patrons, were held to be in poor taste a century later, and were somewhat ostracized by collectors and institutions. Even the Mauritshuis only added one of Steen’s history paintings to its fabled collection in 2011. That’s a long time for a category of works by such an important artist to be on the outside, lurid little faces pressed against the glass. The museum is making up for lost time by putting on this exhibition with the work in its collection, Moses and Pharaoh’s Crown, and loans from other collections around the world.


Remains of 19th c. Chinese immigrants found in Lima

Tuesday, February 6th, 2018

They weren’t found buried in a huaca this time. The remains of three 19th century Chinese immigrants were discovered by work crews from Calidda, a natural gas company in Lima, Peru. The bodies, buried in plain wooden coffins, were found less than a meter under the surface in Lima’s Carabayllo neighborhood where the Calidda crew was installing new pipelines.

Archaeologist Cecilia Camargo excavated the remains after which they were transported to her laboratory for study and conservation. She believes based on their clothing that the three individuals were adult men, but that is educated guesswork at the moment. Osteological analysis will have to be performed to confirm, and whether any conclusion can be drawn will depend on the condition of the bones. There were grave goods found inside the coffins — opium pipes and lighters, mainly — but they don’t provide much information about the people interred.

Zelaya examines another of the immigrants' bodies. Photo by Guadalupe Pardo, Reuters.After the final abolition of slavery in the mid-19th century, Peru was desperate for cheap labour to work their most terrible jobs: the sugar and cotton plantations in the foothills of the Andes. Chinese immigrants stepped into the breach. They were woefully mistreated and were not allowed to be buried in municiple and church cemeteries because they were not Catholic. As a result, they were inhumed wherever a surreptitious spot could be found. Camargo thinks more such human remains will be unearthed in the Carabayllo area.

In other news from Peru that you probably read about elsewhere because it made headlines around the globe, the trucker who drove over the Nazca Lines, leaving tire marks on the delicate geoglyphs, has been arrested and charged with damaging an archaeological monument. There are signs warning drivers that they’re on the boundary with a forbidden zone and to keep out of the area of the Nazca Lines, signs he either deliberately ignored or didn’t see. Security personnel in the Pampas de Nazca caught him in flagrante, as it were, and reported him to the National Police of Peru. A judge released him on his own recognicance. Should he see trial and be convicted, he could receive up to six years in prison.

The good news is the damaged Lines are repairable, the Ministry of Culture’s manager in Nasca, Johny Isla Cuadrado, announced Wednesday.

“The truck left an affectation of medium grade, that is, repairable. We have people trained to restore the surface of the land and make traces of damaged geoglyphs,” Isla said in conversation with El Comercio.

The archaeologist added that the Nasca Lines have been affected for decades, including by the construction of the Panamericana Sur. “In the era of terrorism, a military camp was established in an area of ​​geoglyphs next to the road,” Isla recalled.

Ana María Ortiz de Zevallos, head of the Decentralized Culture Directorate of Ica, said that since 2015 they have funds from the US Embassy for the conservation of the Nasca geoglyphs. With this money, figures of historical value have been repaired in recent years.


UK bars export of rare Georgian baby house

Monday, February 5th, 2018

Following the recommendation of the Reviewing Committee on the Export of Works of Art and Objects of Cultural Interest (RCEWA), Britain’s Minister for Arts, Heritage and Tourism has placed a temporary export ban on a rare early Georgian miniature baby house sold at a London auction last May. The owner has applied for an export license so the rare piece will leave the country unless a buyer in the UK can scare up the sum of £78,000 (£65,000 plus £13,000 VAT, about $109,000 total). The ban defers the license application until May 1st. If an interested party is found to have a realistic shot at raising the money, the ban can be extended until August 1st.

What makes this little house worth the effort to keep in the country is that it’s one of only 30 known English baby houses built before 1760 still extant. It was constructed by an anonymous craftsman between 1720 and 1740 in Palladian style, probably modeled after a real house in Richmond although the specific house is unkonwn. Most of it is mahogany, with details in oak and softwood. The windows are glazed. Three hinged doors open to reveal nine rooms on three floors, each with their own fireplace. The central column of rooms are incised with lines to make it look like the walls are wood panelled. The hinged doors have locks, and top quality ones at that. Counting its base with elegantly turned feet, the baby house is 6’8″ high, 4’5″ wide and 2’2″ deep.

Like other examples of exceptionally detailed and luxurious miniature houses like the Dollhouse of Petronella Oortman (ca. 1686-1710) now in the Rijksmuseum, this Georgian house was not a toy. They were fine, expensive pieces and either kept as curios for adults to enjoy, or used to encourage their young daughters to learn how to run a household.

The concept of the miniature house came to England from the Netherlands and Germany in the early 18th century, and was intended for training the young daughters of wealthy families in household management. Miniature furniture, and utensils in silver, pewter and porcelain, were supplied by toy merchants, while girls were encouraged to develop sewing skills by making clothes for the house’s dolls.

Due to their intricate and expensive design baby houses were more a training tool than a plaything for children until the early 19th century, when the design was simplified and production increased, resulting in the dolls’ houses of more recent time

Its earliest history is a mystery, but by the 19th century it was at Grove House, Tottenham, home of the Forster family of Quaker educators, philanthropists, reformers and abolitionists. (Fortuitous connection to an earlier blog entry: Prison reformer Elizabeth Fry was inspired to take up the cauuse after she visited Newgate Prison at the behest of William Forster.) It may have belonged to William’s sisters Elizabeth and Sarah Forster. Their nephew, William’s son William Edward, a Member of Parliament who in the fine tradition of his family introduced the Education Act of 1870 and would later become Chief Secretary for Ireland, received it by descent and left it to his daughter Florence. It stayed in the family one more generation after her before being sold to a dealer and entering a private collection.

RCEWA member Peter Barber said:

“This captivating and little altered house in miniature takes us into the elegant eighteenth century home while also shedding unique light on the education of young middle class girls at that time.”

The RCEWA made its recommendation on the grounds of the house’s outstanding significance for the study of the history and material culture of childhood.


Thieves ransack stores of Canterbury Archaeological Trust

Saturday, February 3rd, 2018

Thieves have broken into the Kingsmead stores of the Canterbury Archaeological Trust and made off with coins, metal artifacts, bone artifacts, tools and more than 850 Anglo-Saxon beads. They ransacked the storage warehouse, leaving it a shambles and making it hard for the Trust’s staff to sort out exactly what was stolen. A conservative estimate is at least 1,500 pieces. It was not a one-time deal. They broke in four times at the end of January, on January 18th, the night of the 22nd-23rd, then on the 23rd and 24th. They went so far as to cut a hole in the side of the building and yank out copper wiring from the walls.

It would serve them right if they were panting with exertion when they broke through that wall, because what they didn’t know is the exterior wall they broke through contained asbestos. I hope they inhaled deeply. Sorry not sorry. The disturbance of old asbestos only adds to the Trust’s burdens in recovering from the mess the thieves left behind, unfortunately, on top of all the other work that needs to be done. Only expensive hazmat abatement specialized are equipped to handle asbestos removal, and they don’t come cheap. Neither do plumbers and electrician, and that hole in the wall cut through electric and water pipes as well.

[T]he attacks in Canterbury appear to have purely financial motives. The two thieves also stole copper cables from the building during the burglaries and one of the men was caught on camera stealing beer from a local shop. […]

“The combs are so fragile that in their hands they will disintegrate,” added [Trust director Paul] Bennett.

“They may end up on eBay or car boot sales for pennies whereas their real place is in a museum. They are our legacy for future generations.

“These two people have been allowed to run rampant and steal our material. They are a couple of low lives who live locals. They must have a huge swag bag.

“It is the heritage of Canterbury trampled and trodden on by a pair of thieves. We have been caught up in a whirlwind of thievery.”

A supporter has started a GoFundMe campaign to raise money to help defray the costs of dealing with the break-in. It has a £1,000 goal, which while modest will contribute meaningfully to the expense of added security, personnel time and repairs. It’s about a third of the way to goal after one day.

CAT is asking collectors and enthusiasts who know their coins and beads to keep a sharp eye open on eBay and other sites where the looted objects might be offered for sale, also to share the Facebook post to get the word out as far as possible about the theft. CAT staff are updating a photo album with pictures of the stolen objects as they figure out what’s gone. That will give you an idea of what to look for on sites like eBay that don’t ask too many inconvenient (or any) questions about the source of the antiquities up for bid.


LiDAR reveals hitherto unknown vastness of Maya civlization

Friday, February 2nd, 2018

Researchers using LiDAR (Light Detection And Ranging) technology to explore the Maya Biosphere Reserve in the Petén region of Guatemala have found evidence of large public buildings, homes, royal palaces, roads and other structures far more extensive than anyone had any idea existed. More than 60,000 man-made features invisible to the naked eye under the thick jungle canopy have been identified. The scans were done from helicopters. Researchers took aerial shots of the tree tops and then digitally removed the trees, thus peeling back nature’s reclamation of land that the Maya had developed and populated to an astonishingly advanced degree.

The reserve covers an enormous area of 8,341 square miles, almost three times the size of Yellowstone National Park. Within it lie the visible archaeological remains of great Maya cities like Tikal and Holmul. Researchers scanned 10 sections of the reserve totaling more than 800 square miles, a fraction of the Maya Biosphere Reserve but big enough to generate the largest amount of LiDAR data ever collected for an archaeological study.

The results suggest that Central America supported an advanced civilization that was, at its peak some 1,200 years ago, more comparable to sophisticated cultures such as ancient Greece or China than to the scattered and sparsely populated city states that ground-based research had long suggested.

In addition to hundreds of previously unknown structures, the LiDAR images show raised highways connecting urban centers and quarries. Complex irrigation and terracing systems supported intensive agriculture capable of feeding masses of workers who dramatically reshaped the landscape.

The ancient Maya never used the wheel or beasts of burden, yet “this was a civilization that was literally moving mountains,” said Marcello Canuto, a Tulane University archaeologist and National Geographic Explorer who participated in the project.

Tulane University archaeologist Francisco Estrada-Belli, a Maya expert who has made some extraordinary finds on the ground as well as participating in the aerial study, calls the LiDAR data “revolutionary” and expects it will take a century to thoroughly examine and fully understand the sheer masses of information discovered by the scanning technology. The conclusions that can be derived from the material that has been sifted through are exploding what we thought we know about Maya civilization.

Already, though, the survey has yielded surprising insights into settlement patterns, inter-urban connectivity, and militarization in the Maya Lowlands. At its peak in the Maya classic period (approximately A.D. 250–900), the civilization covered an area about twice the size of medieval England, but it was far more densely populated.

“Most people had been comfortable with population estimates of around 5 million,” said Estrada-Belli, who directs a multi-disciplinary archaeological project at Holmul, Guatemala. “With this new data it’s no longer unreasonable to think that there were 10 to 15 million people there—including many living in low-lying, swampy areas that many of us had thought uninhabitable.”

Virtually all the Mayan cities were connected by causeways wide enough to suggest that they were heavily trafficked and used for trade and other forms of regional interaction. These highways were elevated to allow easy passage even during rainy seasons. In a part of the world where there is usually too much or too little precipitation, the flow of water was meticulously planned and controlled via canals, dikes, and reservoirs.

Among the most surprising findings was the ubiquity of defensive walls, ramparts, terraces, and fortresses. “Warfare wasn’t only happening toward the end of the civilization,” said Garrison. “It was large-scale and systematic, and it endured over many years.”

This is only the beginning of the project. Over the next three years, the PACUNAM LiDAR Initiative will scan 5,000 square miles of the Guatemalan lowlands, spreading north to the Gulf of Mexico where Maya city states rivalling the ones to the south engaged in some of those centuries of conflict and alliance shifts that necessitated the construction of so many defensive structures.

Meanwhile, on Tuesday, February 6th, the National Geographic Channel will premiere a special on the LiDAR research entitled Lost Treasures of the Maya Snake Kings which is a bit of an eye-roller, but there you have it. The Snake Dynasty of Calakmul (which is in Mexico, not Guatemala and so was not scanned in this phase of the project) is undeniably cool, and their influence extended well into the Petén region of modern-day Guatemala, so I get the impulse to put them in the center frame.


Rare 14th-16th c. shipwrecks found in Stockholm

Wednesday, January 31st, 2018

Archaeologists have discovered the wrecks of two ships in the Baltic Sea off Stockholm. That’s not unusual because the Baltic is a) really cold, and b) so saline that shipworm (and other assorted wood-eating critters), which can devour a wooden wreck in a matter of months, find it distinctly inhospitable. There are at least 100 intact ships on the Baltic Sea bed around Stockholm.

What is unusual about the two that have just been discovered is their age. One is a medieval cog believed to date to the 14th or early 15th century. The other is from the 16th century. Most of the ships that sank in Stockholm’s waters date to the 17th and 18th centuries when Sweden’s naval fleet was in its fullest fulgor.

Swedish National Maritime Museums (SNMM) divers found the wrecks just before Christmas while photographing and surveying the seabed for a new museum dedicated to the maritime archaeology of the Baltic Sea.

The wreckage from the Middle Ages is mostly submerged in mud and its details indicate that it is a cog, most likely from the 14th or 15th century. The ship is 23–25 meters in length and seven meters wide. It is likely to have had a mast with a square rig. More shipbuilding details indicate it being from the Middle Ages, such as protruding deck beams with unusually high knees and a simple anchor wheel. When cog ships were introduced on the seas they were a brand new, large and powerful type of ship that came to dominate large parts of the trade around the Baltic Sea for centuries.

The other shipwreck is estimated to be from the 16th century and still stands with the mast straight up and fully equipped. Some of the discoveries onboard include 20 barrels of osmond iron, kitchen utensils and tools. The extent of the iron found is unprecedented in previous maritime findings. Osmond iron has largely built Sweden, but also supported countries around the Baltic Sea. Gustav Vasa wanted to ban the iron, and this happened later in 1604 when osmond iron was replaced with wrought iron.

The SNMM is working on a ground-breaking new approach to shipwreck archaeology and display: leaving them where they are. Instead of investing in the risky, time-consuming and prohibitively expensive recovery of shipwrecks as was done with the incomparable Vasa, known wrecks and ones still to be discovered will stay on the Baltic Sea floor where they will be explored by marine archaeologists. The new maritime archaeological museum, to be built next to the Vasa‘s museum home in Stockholm, will display artifacts and fragments of wrecks recovered in the dives rather than the ships themselves. Visitors will still get a chance to see them, not in person after decades of conservation and restoration (always precarious), but as if they had been part of the diving team. The wonders of computer graphics and virtual reality technology make it possible to experience marine archaeological remains in their original context, in virtual situ, if you will.

The Treasures of the Baltic Sea museum is scheduled to open in 2020.





February 2018
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