Archive for the ‘Modern(ish)’ Category

A little gift

Monday, December 25th, 2017

I hope you’ve all had a grand, warm, lucrative, family-and-friends filled Christmas Day. As it has been a tad busy, I’m going to keep it short with a little gift post in the form of pretty pictures. You might recall my recent article about The Portrait of Achille Deban de Laborde (1817). As I was in the neighborhood visiting family, I popped into the Clark Art Institute to enjoy its exceptional collection of Winslow Homers, George Inneses, Renoirs, Monets, Sisleys, Alma-Tademas, Sargents, Renaissance Old Masters and about a thousand other art historical gems.

I also made a special pilgrimage to the 18th century French portraiture room to see the youth in a replica of his father’s Napoleonic uniform. He is just as sweet and soft-eyed as he looked in the official release pictures.


In that same gallery is a painting by Louis-Léopold Boiully, a portraitist and genre artist who was highly celebrated in his time and managed to thrive from the ancien regime all the way through to the July Monarchy, although he did have a little less than pleasant moment with the Committee of Public Safety over the erotic undertone of his paintings which would have cost him his life had it not been for the discovery of a properly propagandistic Le triomphe de Marat (1794) in his studio. The genre paintings capture scenes of French society, street life and current events. Most of his portraits were of middle class people and celebrities, including Robespierre.

The painting in the Clark, however, is not a portrait, even though it’s in the portrait gallery. It is a trompe l’oeil from 1785 called, appropriately, Various Objects. It depicts what looks like a pinboard with letters, a nosegay of pansies, a black and white drawing, a glass bottle hanging from a string, a leather pouch, scissors, a switchblade and a drawing compass. I think it’s pretty great, and appreciate it all the more because it was Boiully who coined the phrase “trompe l’oeil.”

Happy holidays, everyone!

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Queen’s gold and worker’s footprint to shine in Penn Museum’s new Mespotamian galleries

Saturday, December 23rd, 2017

On November 1st, the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology began its first major renovation since it was founded in 1887. The building, a grand historical treasure in its own right, is in dire need of upgrades, especially systems. Most urgent is the air conditioning system which doesn’t need upgrading because it doesn’t actually exist. The museum gets hot in the summer and the body heat and moisture from visitors exacerbates the problem, putting the delicate objects on display at risk.

The three-phase renovation will create a new exhibition space with state-of-the art climate control technology and 6,000 square feet in which to showcase the Penn Museum’s stellar Near East collection. A pioneer in the field of Middle Eastern archaeology, the Penn Museum was the first in the country to send a team to explore Mesopotamian sites in 1887. They’ve been back hundreds of times since and collected more than 100,000 objects, making the Penn Museum’s Near East collection one of the greatest in the world.

More than 1,200 of those objects will go on display in the new suits of three galleries — Towards Cities, Ur: The Great City, The World of Cities — dedicated to Mesopotamian history, giving visitors a panorama of the evolution and development of culture and urban life in the cradle of civilization through objects of enormous rarity and significance.

The artifacts getting an abode worthy of them include the splendid headdress of Sumerian Queen Puabi, made from 24 feet of gold ribbon, 20 gold rings and long strands of lapis lazuli and carnelian beads. It was found by Sir Leonard Woolley during his excavation of the Royal Cemetery at Ur in 1928. Other Royal Cemetery stand-out pieces will go back on display in the new galleries, among them the bull head fragment from an ancient lyre made of gold, silver, lapis lazuli and shell, the Ram in a Thicket statuette.

It’s not all glittering gold masterpieces of luxury materials. The breadth of the collection allows the Penn Museum to tell the story of how Mesopotamia moved from villages to large cities with massive populations and an unparalleled collection of wealth. Front and center in the new Middle East Galleries will be one of the museum’s most unusual Sumerian objects: a footprint left in a piece of wet mud brick in Ur 4,000 years ago. One of the world’s oldest wine vessels will be on display (a Neolithic pot discovered at Hajji Firuz Tepe, Iran, that dates to around 5400 B.C.), a baby rattle, a writing primer for children and many more objects that will give visitors a view into daily life from writing and record-keeping to agriculture, labour, meal preparation and burial practices over 10,000 years of Mesopotamian history.

The Middle East Galleries will take pride of place in the renovated museum, right next to the entrance hall. It officially opens to the public on Saturday, April 21, 2018.

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Turkey busts massive artifact smuggling ring

Friday, December 22nd, 2017

Istanbul police have recovered 26,456 ancient artifacts and arrested 19 people in the biggest anti-smuggling operation in Turkish history.

Among the items recovered were a golden queen’s crown with an inscription of the Hellenistic god, Helios, a bust dedicated to Alexander the Great’s conquest of India and a statue of a goddess dating back to the Hittite era 3,000 years ago.

The 26,456 objects recovered also included Egyptian-origin statues and Phoenician-type teardrop vials.

“The retrieved artefacts are… more valuable than the artefacts in the inventory of an average size museum,” Istanbul police said in a statement.

One of the seized artifacts is a rare bird: a 3,000-year-old Mycenaean sword ostensibly owned by the hero Achilles himself. It’s not rare that some random object would be attributed to a hero of Troy — that kind of faux relic was venerated in temples for hundreds of years — but very few of them have survived in any recognizable form.

This archaeological bonanza was the hard-won result of three months of painstaking investigative work and surveillance of key suspects. Operation Zeus switched from tracking mode to busting on December 12th when six men in northwestern Turkey’s Duzce province were arrested in the course of attempting to sell some of the trafficked artifacts. They were interrogated and named names leading to more arrests in four other provinces.

Police haven’t been to determine how such a vast number of high quality artifacts were acquired or where they came from, but we know they were intended to be sold on the black market through art dealers and shady outfits in multiple countries. Investigations are ongoing. The objects will be given to the Istanbul Museum of Archaeology for further study and conservation.

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Remains of large Wari temple discovered in Peru

Thursday, December 21st, 2017

Archaeologists have discovered an ancient pre-Hispanic, pre-Inca Wari temple at the archaeological site of Espíritu Pampa in the jungles of Peru’s La Convención province. The team first found the walls shaped like a capital D, a characteristic design for Wari culture temples. A second, smaller D-shaped structure was found in the middle of the big D. Archaeologists believe this was likely an astronomical observatory, a key element of Wari worship and important section of the full temple. It may also have been used to perform religious rituals.

Also inside the larger temple walls, the archaeological team discovered two burial pits built with small slabs of stone. The first of these was found to contain tooth fragments from an animal. The second burial contained to large Wari ceramic vessels, a silver pectoral band and one silver crown or headdress. One of the pots was particularly striking (and very much typical of Wari craftsmanship), a stylized representation of a crowned individual with large and prominent eyes, nose and mouth. The crown is painted on and is first archaeological evidence that Espíritu Pampa was home to a ruling elite during the heyday of Wari power.

When that day no longer made hey, the last hurrah of Inca independence filled the void, and there’s evidence of that too in the physical structure of the temple. On the long edge of the D-shaped enclosure, there are architectural remains of square and rectangular design. This is Inca work. The interior confirmed this identification when archaeologists unearthed tupus, silver needles and ceramic bottles and assorted vessels used for ceremonial purposes.

This second, later habitation by the Inca had a brief but significant heyday in the 16th century. As the Spanish conquest proceeded at a precipitous rate, Manco Inca Yupanqui defied the Spanish rulers who had installed him to be their puppet king. When Francisco Pizarro left his two bratty younger brothers behind in Cusco as regents (ie, the real rulers), they were so vicious and disrespectful that Manco Inca rebelled. He fought them in open combat, besieging Cusco for 10 months. He was successful at first, but eventually left the highlands to the Spanish and moved to the remote jungle were he founded the independent Neo-Inca State in his new capital of Vilcabamba in 1539.

Not quite so new, as it happens. Vilcabamba and Espíritu Pampa are the same city. Manco wisely selected a spot that already had surviving ancient architecture (the Wari Empire lasted from around 600 A.D. to 1100 A.D.) to piggyback off on — a major advantage in the jungle — and then proceeded to do just that. The distant location did not keep the fledgling independent state safe. There was near-constant fighting in the hills, not just between Inca and Spanish, but between Spanish factions, the first civil war to break out between the conquistadores in Peru. It was that subconflict that ultimately led to Manco’s death. He was killed by members of the anti-Pizarro faction who were hiding out in Vilcabamba under Manco’s generous protection. In exchange for his support, they murdered him in 1544. Manco’s men returned the favor.

The artifacts have been recovered from the dig and are slated to get a thorough cleaning, conservation and examination by experts at the Physical Chemistry Unit of the Decentralized Directorate of Culture of Cusco.

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Old bones identified as remains of one of England’s 1st turkey dinners

Wednesday, December 20th, 2017

Archaeologists have identified turkey bones so old that may well be the remains of one of the earliest turkey dinners in Britain. We’re talking Tudor turkey here, almost a century before the first Thanksgiving (which according to contemporary sources didn’t actually feature turkeys anyway; the Wampanoag brought deer and the British settlers migratory waterfowl). The three turkey bones in question, two femurs and an ulna, are not a new discovery. They were unearthed in 1983 on Paul Street in central Exeter during an archaeological excavation of the site of a planned shopping center and were squirreled away in storage boxes at the Royal Albert Memorial Museum. At that time they were neither identified as turkey bones nor were they dated.

University of Exeter archaeologists dusted them off recently to investigate whether they could find out more about their age and background using technology and information that was not available in 1983. After a thorough examination and testing of the bones themselves as well as the pottery found next to them, researchers were able to identify them as turkey bones dating to between 1520 and 1550. That places them very early in the timeline of the bird’s introduction to Britain by gentleman navigator and future MP William Strickland who bought a half dozen wild turkeys from Native Americans in 1524-1526 and sold them upon his return to Bristol.

They were exotic creatures and the first ones were likely kept as very showy pets or estate adornment rather than immediately devoured. Turkey didn’t become popular as a poultry dish until after 1550, which, incidentally, is the year Strickland was granted a coat of arms that starred a “turkey-cock in his pride proper,” tail feathers at full spread.

Professor Alan Outram, zooarchaeologist and Head of Archaeology at Exeter, said: “As the date of these bones overlaps with the historical evidence of Strickland’s introduction of the birds, the remains of this feast may well represent the earliest physical evidence for a turkey dinner in Britain. This is an important discovery and could allow more research to be carried out about early domestic breeds and how the turkey has changed genetically since the 16th century.”

Analysis by Malene Lauritsen, a post-graduate researcher in the University of Exeter’s archaeology department, has proved from the bones that the turkeys were butchered and were probably eaten as part of a feast by wealthy people. The pottery lying alongside was also of high quality.

They were found together with the remains of a veal calf, several chickens, at least one goose and a sheep. This selection of food – some of which were very expensive at the time – suggests this was the rubbish created by a feast attended by people of high status.
“What is exciting about these turkey bones found in Exeter is that they date from almost exactly the same time as the first birds came to England. Their age certainly means it is possible that these are the remains of one of the first turkeys to come to England, or a turkey bred from this group,” Ms Lauritsen said.

“It is extremely rare to find turkey bones from this period. Remains from the first half of the 16th century have only been found in two other sites in Britain, the oldest from at St Alban’s Abbey in Hertfordshire. I have found cut marks on the bones, showing the birds were butchered. We can only guess at who ate them, and for what reason, but turkey would have been very expensive and the same household certainly ate other pricy meat too, so this must have been a special occasion.”

The bone trio has gone on temporary display at the Royal Albert Memorial Museum to give them due recognition after so many years of obscurity. In early 2020, they will become part of Exeter: A Place in Time, a much larger exhibition about the city’s archaeological record in the RAMM’s Making History gallery.

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Frantically seeking a last-minute gift for the budding archaeologist?

Tuesday, December 19th, 2017

Look no further. Scientists at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History (MPI-SHH) have solved all your Bad Santa problems by creating a short but extremely sweet coloring book about archaeology for all the kids out there with visions of skeletal remains and radiocarbon analysis dancing in their head. (Don’t even pretend you weren’t one. In fact, don’t even pretend you aren’t still one.) The best part is you can get it online for free, which means you don’t even have to order it to get it. You just click on this link (pdf) and print that bad boy up.

It’s called Adventures in Archaeological Science Coloring Book and it’s just as adorably serious as it sounds. It manages to touch on some of the most important scientific techniques in use in archaeology today: the study of dental calculus to map an individual’s diet and health, DNA analysis, radiocarbon dating, analyzing microscopic food residue on the inside of pottery, stable isotope analysis and more. The issues are addressed succinctly in a few lines accompanying eminently colorable line drawings of ancient figures, animals and scientists in full gear. Actually now that I think about it that poses a significant challenge, color-wise. You’d either wear out the white pencils or throw caution to the winds and go psychedelic.

The project started out as an adjunct to a workshop on scientific illustration run by Christina Warinner and Jessica Hendy at the MPI-SHH. It has been a popular course for several years running, so when the Institute was pondering events for Germany’s public outreach evening, the Long Night of Science, Warinner had the idea to enlist her students to make a coloring book that illustrated the science of archaeology. Then, as Warriner and Hendy were adding the text and editing the final version, they realized they wanted it to have as wide a reach as possible. Enter crowdsourcing.

As we were making the final touches to the coloring book, we realized that it would be a shame to have it only accessible to English and German-speaking children. Human history belongs to all of us, and the research and discoveries we feature in the book have taken place all over the world. We thought – wouldn’t it be great if we could share this information with children everywhere – in their own native language – so that they too could experience the joy and excitement of science and archaeology? Wouldn’t it be amazing if we could bring this book with us to our field projects so that we could explain to local children what we are doing and what the world learns by studying people from the past? And most importantly, what if we could show these children that they too could be part of this process and inspire a future generation of archaeological scientists around the globe?

One of the best things about being at an institute like the MPI-SHH is that our researchers come from all over the world. I’ve lost count of how many nationalities are represented among our students and staff, but it is more than twenty, and together we work in dozens of countries on every continent. As the coloring book was nearing completion, we asked for volunteer translators and we were absolutely overwhelmed by the response – with immediate offers for Spanish, Chinese, Arabic, Croatian, Finnish, and Swedish, among others. After posting the coloring book to Facebook, we had many more offers from archaeologist colleagues and collaborators, and we now have translations underway for Hindi, Turkish, Italian, Greek, Ukranian, and Hebrew. And we’ve also reached out to the communities where we conduct fieldwork, and we will soon have translations in Nahuatl, Yucatec Mayan, Nepali, Mongolian, and Tibetan.

One of the things I have loved about the translation process is that nearly every translation is being performed by an archaeologist or anthropologist who is a native speaker of that language. This means that in addition to learning about archaeological science, the children will be introduced to someone from their own language group who is participating in this research. We hope that this will help give the children tangible role models from their own countries and communities, and to help make this connection even more clear, we are adding “cartoonified” portraits of each translator to the back cover so that children can see them, look them up, and learn more about their work.

The coloring book is available in several of those languages already — English, Chinese, Spanish, German — with many more in the planning stages. Arabic, Dutch, Italian and Nahuatl are on the cusp of being released. Many more have been assigned translators. You can keep track of their progress here.

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Largest group of artifacts from 18th c. coffee house found in Cambridge University cellar

Monday, December 18th, 2017

In the mid-18th century, an establishment named Clapham’s Coffeehouse served beverages and comestibles to customers in Cambridge, England. Coffee and chocolate had been sold in England since the 17th century, and were popular with people on various rungs of the social ladder from working stiffs to literary luminaries to reigning monarchs. When William and Jane Clapham opened their place in the 1740s, coffee and chocolate houses were still doing brisk business. Clapham’s quickly became a social hub, popular with students and townies alike who were always keen to enjoy the hot gossip and news served daily alongside the hot food and drink. The good times rolled at Clapham’s until the mid-1770s when Jane, widowed and ready to retire, sold the coffeehouse. It was a well-timed retirement as hot coffee and chocolate’s fortunes were by then on the decline as tea rose inexorably to become the national drink.

The building changed hands and was in-filled. Soon Clapham’s was forgotten and the one-time hotspot was left in the cold until the 21st century when Cambridge University’s St John’s College called in archaeologists to survey the area of its Old Divinity School and a cellar was found off All Saints’ Passage that had hundreds of 18th century coffeehouse artifacts. The excavations were completed in 2012. In the final accounting, archaeologists recovered more than 500 objects, several of which provided clear evidence of their former owners.

Some of the items found were still clearly marked with William and Jane’s initials. They included tea bowls (the standard vessel for drinking tea at the time), saucers, coffee cans and cups, and chocolate cups – which the researchers were able to distinguish because they were taller, since “chocolate was served with a frothy, foamy head”. They also found sugar bowls, milk and cream jugs, mixing bowls, storage jars, plates, bowls, serving dishes, sauceboats, and many other objects.

Even though Clapham’s was a coffeehouse, the finds suggest that tea was fast winning greater affection among drinkers; tea bowls were almost three times as common as coffee cans or cups.

Perhaps more striking, however, was the substantial collection of tankards, wine bottles and glasses, indicating that alcohol consumption was normal. Some drinkers appear to have had favourite tankards reserved for their personal use, while the team also found two-handled cups, possibly for drinking “possets” – milk curdled with wine or ale, and often spiced.

Compared with the sandwiches and muffins on offer in coffee shops today, dining was a much bigger part of life at Clapham’s. Utensils and crockery were found for making patties, pastries, tarts, jellies, syllabubs and other desserts. Animal bones revealed that patrons enjoyed shoulders and legs of mutton, beef, pork, hare, rabbit, chicken and goose. The researchers also found oyster shells, and bones from fish such as eel, herring and mackerel.

This sensational find gave researchers the chance to do the first comprehensive study of artifacts from a single, identifiable 18th century coffeehouse. Being able to develop a thorough understanding of the history one specific coffeehouse by examining its material culture is important because you don’t have to rely solely on period sources written sources which could be any combination of incorrect, incomplete, incompetent, ignorant, one-sided, lying, etc.

Although coffeehouses have traditionally been associated with the increasing popularity of smoking in Britain, there was little evidence of much at Clapham’s. Just five clay pipes were found, including one particularly impressive specimen which carries the slogan “PARKER for ever, Huzzah” – possibly referring to the naval Captain Peter Parker, who was celebrated for his actions during the American War of Independence. The lack of pipes may be because, at the time, tobacco was considered less fashionable than snuff.

Together, the assemblage adds up to a picture in which, rather than making short visits to catch up on the news and engage in polite conversation, customers often settled in for the evening at an establishment that offered them not just hot beverages, but beer, wine, punch and liqueurs, as well as extensive meals. Some even seem to have “ordered out” from nearby inns if their favourite food was not on the menu.

There was little evidence, too, that they read newspapers and pamphlets, the rise of which historians also link to coffeehouses. Newspapers were perishable and therefore unlikely to survive in the archaeological record, but the researchers also point out that other evidence of reading – such as book clasps – has been found on the site of inns nearby, while it is absent here.

“We need to remember this was just one of thousands of coffeehouses and Clapham’s may have been atypical in some ways,” Cessford added. “Despite this it does give us a clearer sense than we’ve ever had before of what these places were like, and a tentative blueprint for spotting the traces of other coffeehouse sites in archaeological assemblages in the future.”

Their first research paper on the find. the excellently named “To Clapham’s I go,” has just been published in the journal Post-Medieval Archaeology

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Puttin’ on the Rijks

Saturday, December 9th, 2017

Rembrandt van Rijn (1606–1669), 'Portrait of Marten Soolmans', 1634. Purchased by the Kingdom of the Netherlands for the RijksmuseumWhy yes I am absurdly pleased with that title, thank you for asking. When the Rijksmuseum is putting on a show dedicated to full-length portraiture of moneyed art patrons from the Renaissance to the 20th century, certain puns become irresistible. The new exhibition, High Society will be centered around the museum’s most spectacular new babies, the portraits of wealthy merchant Marten Soolmans and his bride, heiress Oopjen Coppit painted by Rembrandt van Rijn in 1634. He was only 28 years old but already had made a name for himself as the top portraitist Rembrandt van Rijn (1606–1669), 'Portrait of Oopjen Coppit', 1634. Purchased by the Republic of France for the Musée du Louvreon the scene. He had known Soolmans since the latter’s desultory stab at law school in Leiden when he was 15, and as Oopjen Coppit was kind enough to bring an enormous pile of cash into the matrimonial home as a dowry, Marten booked the best to have himself and his wife immortalized top to bottom. These are the only full-length, life-sized portraits Rembrandt ever painted.

The pair is jointly owned by the Louvre and the Rijksmuseum who spent €80 million apiece to buy the portraits from Baron Eric de Rothschild. Because the portraits were already in France with the baron, the Louvre got first crack at displaying them in accordance with the intricacies of the shared acquisition deal. They went on display in Paris in March 2016 for three months, then moved on to Amsterdam where they had another brief three-month display next to the Night Watch before being taken off public view for much-needed conservation. The portraits had only been lightly cleaned and had “fake saliva” daubed on to bring back some of their original sheen before their debut at the Louvre.

That thorough restoration, undertaken by a joint team of experts from both national museums, is just about finished now and the wedding couple will be shown conserved, repaired, their finery back to its finest, for the first time at the new exhibition opening March 8th, 2018. It’s not the happy couple who will be peacocking it in this show. The Rijksmuseum took the opportunity to make Marten and Oopjen the fulcrum of a larger exploration of the evolution of the full-length portrait in art history, borrowing more than 35 masterpieces from private collections and museums in Paris, London, Florence, Vienna and California, among others. This is the first exhibition dedicated to this most magnificent of portrait formats.

Life-sized, standing, full-length portraiture had been the province of kings and powerful aristocrats in earlier times, and barely seen at all up north. The portraits of two proud exponents of the moneyed Dutch bourgeoisie illustrate the upwardly-mobile aspirations of the young Dutch Republic, then just 50 years old and focused on building wealth through trade and industry instead of bloodlines, currying monarchical favor and conquest. Marten and Oopjen were some of the earliest examples of the style being employed in Holland.

The earliest life-sized portraits of worthies standing around looking fabulously wealthy (or telegraphing their politics or promoting their families or celebrating their greatest beauties or their weddings, as in the case of Marten and Oopjen) that we know of were painted by Lucas Cranach the Elder in 1514. The subjects were Henry Paolo Veronese, Count Iseppo da Porto, c. 1552. Baltimore, Walters Art Museum and Florence, Galleria degli Uffizi, Contini Bonacossi Collectionthe Pious, Duke of Saxony, and his wife Catharina, Countess of Mecklenburg. Less than a decade later the Italians stepped up to the plate with the unnamed subject in Moretto da Brescia’s Portrait of a Man (1525). The earliest known couple depicted in a full-length portrait by an Italian artist are Count Iseppo da Porto and his wife Countess Livia Thiene by Paolo Veronese (ca. 1552).

From those beginnings, the format spread north and west during the 16th and 17th centuries. Great masters like Velázquez, Anthony van Dyck and Frans Hals went big during this period, as did Rembrandt with Marten and Oopjen. The exhibition keeps going, illustrating the shift in focus from people of noble rank to people with money to socialites and even (gasp!) artists in the early 20th century. One of the last portraits to be painted from the group on display is one of Edvard Munch by Walther Rathenau (1907).

The exhibition is a short one — giant rarities don’t get loaned very often or for long — and closes on June 3rd, 2018.

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Massive Venezuela petroglyphs mapped for the first time

Friday, December 8th, 2017

Large rock art panels discovered recently on islands in the Atures Rapids in the Amazonas region of western Venezuela have been thoroughly mapped and studied for the first time by researchers from University College London (UCL). The engraved images of animals, people and symbols were carved by local people up to 2,000 years ago. (Shortly after the Spanish arrived, Jesuit missionaries identified the Adoles as the inhabitants of this area, but we don’t know who was there before.) Thanks to the historically low level of the Orinoco River, more petroglyphs have been exposed. Researchers found eight groups of rock art on five islands. Some of these engravings, individual and as a group, are huge. One panel is festooned with 93 petroglyphs over an area of 3270 square feet. A horned snake from another panel is 100 feet long just on its own. These are some of the largest rock art panels ever found anywhere in the world.

It was a challenging task recording such large and spread-out petroglyphs carved into high rock faces in the middle of the Orinoco River. That’s why this study is unprecedented. Others have studied the artworks, but were not able to get anywhere near as close and as a detailed a view as the University College London archaeologist. The team employed robot aides in the form of drones to take aerial overhead pictures of the engraved surfaces that were out of puny human reach. Every petroglyph was documented in photographs and their dimensions and positioning measured using photogrammetry (a technology that derives precise spatial data from photographs by creating 3D renderings of the pictures). Researchers also studied the relationship between the Atures Rapids petroglyphs, their archaeological and cultural context and the links they suggest between the locals who carved them and other indigenous peoples of pre-Hispanic Latin America.

The paper’s author Dr Philip Riris (UCL Institute of Archaeology) said: “The Rapids are an ethnic, linguistic and cultural convergence zone. The motifs documented here display similarities to several other rock art sites in the locality, as well as in Brazil, Colombia, and much further afield. This is one of the first in-depth studies to show the extent and depth of cultural connections to other areas of northern South America in pre-Columbian and Colonial times.”

“While painted rock art is mainly associated with remote funerary sites, these engravings are embedded in the everyday – how people lived and travelled in the region, the importance of aquatic resources and the seasonal rhythmic rising and falling of the water. The size of some of the individual engravings is quite extraordinary.” […]

In one panel surveyed, a motif of a flautist surrounded by other human figures probably depicts part of an indigenous rite of renewal. Performances conceivably coincided with the seasonal emergence of the engravings from the river just before the onset of the wet season, when the islands are more accessible and the harvest would take place.

The research is part of the Cotúa Island-Orinoco Reflexive Archaeology Project, funded by the Leverhulme Trust.

Principal Investigator, Dr José Oliver (UCL Institute of Archaeology), said: “Our project focuses on the archaeology of Cotúa Island and its immediate vicinity of the Atures Rapids. Available archaeological evidence suggests that traders from diverse and distant regions interacted in this area over the course of two millennia before European colonization. The project’s aim is to better understand these interactions.”

“Mapping the rock engravings represents a major step towards an enhanced understanding of the role of the Orinoco River in mediating the formation of pre-Conquest social networks throughout northern South America.”

The UCL research team’s findings have been published in the journal Antiquity and can be read here. It’s openly available for now (be warned: that could change) and makes a fascinating read.

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Earliest known slave remains found in Delaware

Thursday, December 7th, 2017

An archaeological excavation at the historic site of Avery’s Rest in Rehoboth Bay, Delaware, has unearthed the skeletal remains of some of Delaware’s earliest colonists. The inhumation burials of 11 individuals interred in the late 1600s include three of African descent, one of them a child. These are the earliest known remains of enslaved people ever discovered in Delaware.

Seven of the eight individuals of European descent were neatly buried in a single row. The three African Americans — two adult men and one child of about five years of age at time of death — were interred near the seven but in a separate section. Black and white were all buried in coffins, although only the nails have survived. The people of African descent were not related to each other and their mitochondrial DNA places their ancestral origins in west, central and east Africa. Most of their lives, if not all of them, were spent in the mid-Atlantic area of what is now the United States. Rehoboth Bay was wilderness then, and officially part of Pennsylvania and therefore a Dutch colony.

The hardship of their lives was writ large on their bones. One of the people of African descent, an adult male about 35 years of age, received a blow to the head so severe it chipped a piece of bone off his right eyebrow and fractured his face. Experts believe it wasn’t likely to be the strike that killed him, but it did happen at the time of his death and likely contributed to it. His spine showed signs of heavy labour and his front teeth have grooves from where he bit down hard on his clay pipe while doing all that heavy labour. All of the remains show signs of copious dental issues: cavities, abscesses, extractions. One petite 4’11” adult woman was missing all but six of her teeth.

Avery’s Rest is listed in the National Register of Historic Places because it was part of the vast 800-acre property of Captain John Avery who moved to Rehoboth Bay from Maryland in 1675 shortly after the colony changed hands from the Dutch to the British. A ship’s captain in Maryland, he grew his plantation into a major agricultural and livestock concern, planing corn, wheat and most of all, tobacco. There is evidence of a peach orchard on the property as well, some of the first peach trees imported to what would become the United States.

John Avery became a very wealthy and prominent community leader in Delaware, attaining the rank of captain in the militia and receiving an appointment as Justice of the Peace of Whorekill Court in 1678. He doesn’t seem to have endeared himself to many in the role; he was frequently reported for going into rages and showering his fellow justices with abusive language. He was said to have beaten one of them with a cane. They didn’t have long to put up with his irascibility. Avery died in 1682, leaving his plantation to his wife and three children. His will and estate inventories list 50 head of cattle, other assorted livestock, tools, furniture and two humans bound in chattel slavery valued at 3,000 pounds of tobacco apiece.

Despite its significant history as a very early plantation owned by a first-generation English colonist and its including on the National Register, in 2005 the site was acquired by real estate developers to build housing. The Archaeological Society of Delaware and the Delaware Division of Historical and Cultural Affairs asked the developers allow them to dig a trench or two on the off-chance there might be some archaeological material from the earliest days of European and African presence in Delaware and the developers magnanimously granted them permission to excavate the site in 2006 and 2007. Construction, and the attendant destruction of anything left unexcavated, went forward after that, but the teams continued to explore neighboring land.

The teams excavating the site were hoping to find the remains of the main house Captain Avery and his family lived in, but they never did. By 2007, they had found wells, one wooden well lining (preserved in the waterlogged environment), fence lines, clay pits, glass beads, numerous pipe bowls, Spanish coins, metal pieces from horse fittings, assorted pottery and a large number of animal bones, likely left behind during the process of butchering all that stock mentioned in the estate documents for trade, not for family consumption.

These were meaningful discoveries from a social historical perspective, providing researchers with a rare opportunity to explore the day-to-day operations of an early colonial plantation that was large and prosperous enough to anchor the trade and supply of the British residents of the New World colony. They weren’t the structures the archaeologists had been hoping for, however, so over the next few years they kept looking for them on adjoining properties.

In 2012, they found something else entirely: the first human remains. That triggered a legal requirement that next-of-kin be sought to grant state permission to excavate and study the remains. Three Avery descendants stepped up and granted said permission. By September of 2014, 11 bodies had been unearthed and the Smithsonian Institution’s experts were on the ground to recover the remains and move them to the Smithsonian laboratory for thorough analysis.

So thorough was it that the analysis has taken three years to complete. The age, gender, ethnic origin of the decedents are now known, with even more detail to come.

“Avery’s Rest provides a rare opportunity to learn about life in the 17th century, not only through the study of buried objects and structures, but also through analyses of well-preserved human skeletal remains,” said Dr. Owsley, who leads the Division of Physical Anthropology at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History. “The bone and burial evidence provides an intriguing, personal look into the life stories of men, women and children on the Delaware frontier, and adds to a growing body of biological data on the varied experiences of colonist and enslaved populations in the Chesapeake region.”

Bone and DNA analysis confirmed that three of the burials were people of African descent and eight were of European descent. Coupled with research from the historical record, Dr. Owsley further determined that the European burials may be the extended family of John Avery and his wife Sarah, including their daughters, sons-in-law and grandchildren. However, genetic markers alone are not sufficient to determine the exact identities of the remains. […]

The remains will stay in the custody of the Smithsonian, where they will assist ongoing work to trace the genetic and anthropological history of the early colonial settlers of the Chesapeake region. Delaware law strictly forbids the public display of human remains.

While the Smithsonian works the science, Delaware, the Archaeological Society and other historical organizations are launching a research project in the hopes of discovering the identities of the 11 people found buried at Avery’s Rest. Any information they uncover would become part of an exhibition, be it names, places, dates or facial reconstructions.

“Delaware’s history is rich, fascinating and deeply personal to many of us who call this state home,” said Secretary of State Jeff Bullock. “Discoveries like this help us add new sharpness to our picture of the past, and I’m deeply grateful to the passionate community of historians, scientists and archeologists who have helped bring these new revelations to light.”

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