Archive for the ‘Modern(ish)’ Category

Export bar placed on Robert the Bruce seal matrix

Wednesday, March 30th, 2016

A unique double seal matrix commissioned by Robert the Bruce that is one of very few surviving objects linked directly to King Robert I has been sold to an overseas buyer and is in danger of leaving the UK. The seal sold at auction on December 4th, 2015, for £151,250 ($217,450), well above the pre-sale estimate of £80,000-120,000 ($115,140-172,710). The buyer is American and applied to the Culture Ministry for an export license. The Art Council’s Reviewing Committee on the Export of Works of Art and Objects of Cultural Interest (RCEWA) recommended that Culture Minister Ed Vaizey block export to give UK museums or collectors the opportunity to raise the purchase price and keep the artifact in the country.

In 1315, Robert the Bruce granted the Abbey, with which he had a longstanding relationship and where he would be buried after his death, a royal charter.

“Robert, by the grace of God King of Scots, to all upright men in his whole land, greeting: Know ye that, for the safety of our own soul and that of our predecessors and successors, Kings of Scotland, we have given, granted, and by this our present Charter, have confirmed to God, the Blessed Mary the Virgin, the Church of the Holy Trinity, and St. Margaret, Queen of Dunfermlyn, and to the monks serving and to serve God for ever in the same, the right of patronage of the vicar Church of Inverkeithing, with the pertinents, as freely and quietly, fully, peacefully, and honourably as the predecessors formerly of Roger de Moubray, knight, who had forfeited it to us, have held and possessed the said right of patronage most freely, quietly, and honourably in all things, by rendering to us nothing therefore by only the suffrages of their prayers: Besides, we give and grant, and, by this our present charter, confirm to the foresaid monks, the whole of our new great Customs from all their lands within our kingdom, viz., the land of the burghs of Dunfermlyne, Kirkcaldy, Musselburgh, and Queensferry, and from all their other lands whatsoever; To also let the said monks have and use their own Koketa, according to the liberties of their regality, and our present concession in all their foresaid lands; and let this Koketa be acknowledged and admitted by all burgesses and our people, and foreign merchants throughout our whole kingdom, without obstruction from our chamberlains, or other servants of ours whatsoever for the time being, without petition from any other allocation of liberation, by finding for this our donation and concession of the said Customs for us and our successors, in honour of God and the Blessed Virgin Mary, and the aforesaid Blessed Margaret in the Choir in front of her shrine, one wax candle solemnly lighted, continually and forever. In testimony whereof we have caused our seal to be attached to our present Charter, these fathers being witnesses. William, and William, Bishops of St. Andrews and Dunkeld; Bernard, our Chancellor, the Abbot of Aberborthick; Duncan and Thomas Randolph, of Fife”

This charter granted the Abbey some lands and conferred the right to collect revenues from customs duties and taxes. The two-part bronze seal, known as a Cokete Seal, was commissioned by the Bruce for the Abbey to use on customs documents. We know the exact date it was made because there’s a record of it in the archives of Dunfermline Abbey: “The Cocquet Seal of the Regality Court of Dunfermline was engraven this year by sanction of King Robert the Bruce, by Chapter, dated at Scone, 10th July, 1322, along with letters patent to all who paid customs at Bruges, in Flanders, or elsewhere, notifying that wherever this Seal was in due form produced, it was to be recognised as the authority for collecting the customs granted to the Abbey by the King, &c.”

The two parts were pressed together over a large blob of wax to form a seal. The wax seal would then be attached to an official document with a piece of parchment (for a brilliant example of attached seals acting as signatures, see the letter to Pope Clement VII from the peers of England asking for Henry VIII’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon to be annulled). The obverse seal matrix features an image of Saint Margaret, Queen consort of King Malcolm III of Scotland, founder and patron of Dunfermline Abbey, and is bordered with the Lombardic Latin legend “+ S’COKETE REGALITATIS.DE. DVNFERMELYNN,” (Cokete Seal of the regality of Dunfermline). The reverse features the royal arms of Scotland bordered with the legend “+ROBERTVS DEI GRACIA REX SCOTORVM” (Robert, by the Grace of God, King of the Scots).

The RCEWA made their recommendation on the grounds that it was of great value for the study of medieval goldsmith work and sigillography and the re-establishment of Scottish institutions under Robert the Bruce.

RCEWA Member Leslie Webster said:

“This remarkable and handsome seal-die is of national importance on several counts; it is closely linked to the charismatic figure of Robert the Bruce, and to the history and institutions of Scotland at a crucial time in its evolution as a nation; its association with the royal abbey of Dunfermline sheds light on how the king acted out his authority, delegating the powers of the crown; and its outstanding quality may suggest the influence of French craftsmen.”

The Scottish government has declared itself in support of all efforts that would keep the seal matrix in the UK, ideally in a Scottish museum, but there’s no official campaign that I could find. Here’s an Indiegogo campaign that’s been set up by a concerned individual who would use the funds to acquire the seal and donate it to the National Museum for Scotland. It’s less than 1% funded at this point, and I suspect the money is more likely to be raised by the institution itself tapping its private donors and launching a public campaign like the Victoria & Albert Museum did with Wolsey’s Angels. The National Museum already has an impression of the obverse in its collection. I imagine they’d be keen to have the original matrix pair.

Time’s awaistin’. The temporary bar expires on June 21st. If there’s a good faith effort to raise the money and it looks like they have a chance of reaching the goal, the deadline may be extended until September 21st.

Another Battle of Thermopylae found in palimpsest

Monday, March 28th, 2016

The leaves of books in the Middle Ages were made of parchment and vellum, created from animal skins in an expensive and time-consuming craft. It was so costly that scribes often recycled pages from earlier books, removing the ink to create a blank sheet. In the early Middle Ages, the ink was washed off and over time the shadow of former writing reappeared like a pentimento in a painting. In the later Middle Ages, they used pumice powder to scrape the ink away for good.

Volumes with the ghostly memories of previous texts still impressed in the pages are called palimpsests and researchers have been trying to read the vanished writing for centuries, either by careful sight-reading of whatever could be discerned or, starting in the 18th century, by the use of chemicals like tincture of gall which is high in tannic acid and badly damages the manuscript. Nowadays we have new options courtesy of spectral imaging technology.

Researchers Gunther Martin of the University of Bern and Jana Grusková of Comenius University in Bratislava enlisted the aid of Los Angeles-based organization the Early Manuscripts Electronic Library (EMEL) to examine a palimpsest in the Austrian National Library in Vienna using brand new multi-spectral technology. The text in question is the Codex Vindobonensis historicus gr. 73. The bound collection of 10th century ecclesiastical ordinances was acquired in the 16th century by Ogier de Busbecq, Holy Roman Emperor Ferdinand I’s envoy to Constantinople, an avid manuscript collector who would bequeath his collection to the imperial library in Vienna. The parchment pages of the codex came from two different 11th century manuscripts, with 11 pages of monastic rules and prayers added in the 13th century.

The presence of hidden text in the Codex Vindobonensis was discovered decades ago, but even under UV light the text was too faint to be read accurately. A few years ago the Austrian Science Fund (FWF) funded Martin and Grusková’s research into palimpsests, allowing them to look behind the visible script of the codex with EMEL’s multi-spectral technology. The pages were irradiated with lights of different wavelengths. Each type of light is absorbed into the parchment and ink to different degrees. Photographs capture the degrees of absorption and then computer software stitches the pictures together to create a detailed image of the hidden text.

With this system, Martin and Grusková were able to read pieces of the ancient Greek text underwriting the medieval and discovered a precious treasure: significant sections of a history of Rome’s 3rd century Gothic wars written by 3rd century Athenian historian P. Herennius Dexippus. His history, the Scythica (Dexippus called the Goths Scythians), was only known from very fragmentary quotes in much later books. These hefty passages shed a whole new light on the wars of the mid-3rd century.

Martin and Grusková published several of the passages into German in 2014. Now Oxford University’s Christopher Mallan and the University of Queensland’s Caillan Davenport have translated one of the fragments into English. It’s a splendid description of a battle at Thermopylae, probably the most famous battle site of the ancient world where in 480 B.C. King Leonidas’ 300 Spartan warriors and other Greek forces took their brave last stand against the far larger army of Persian King Xerxes.

I find it a tremendous bummer when news stories about this kind of discovery do not include the full text, even when it’s a bit dry or appeals only to the nerdiest history nerds, and in this case the lack of the complete quote in the press accounts is unforgivable because it’s pure awesome. All killer, no filler.

[The Goths invaded Thra]ce and Macedonia, and plundered the entire countryside therein. And then, making an assault upon the city of the Thessalonians, they tried to capture it as a close-packed band. But since those on the walls defended themselves valiantly, warding off the battle columns with the assistance of many hands, and as none of the Scythians’ hopes came to pass, they abandoned the siege. The prevailing opinion of the host was to make for Athens and Achaia, envisioning the gold and silver votive offerings and the many processional goods in the Greek sanctuaries: for they learned that the region was exceedingly wealthy in this respect. When the approach of the Scythians was reported to the Greeks, they gathered at Thermopylae, and set about blocking them from the narrow passes there. Some carried small spears, other axes, others wooden pikes overlaid with bronze and with iron tips, or whatever each man could arm himself with. And when they came together, they completely fortified the perimeter wall and devoted themselves to its protection with haste. And it seemed that the area was otherwise very secure, since the road which led to Greece beyond the Gates was narrow and impracticable on account of the harsh terrain. For the Euboean Sea, at its greatest extent, stretches up to the flat lands near the mountains and makes them most difficult to access on account of the mud, and adjacent to these extends Mt Oeta [, which...] on account of the closeness of the rocks, makes the place almost impassable for both infantry and cavalry. The generals elected for the entire war were proclaimed by the Greeks: first Marianus, who had been chosen previously by the emperor to govern Greece inside the Gates; in addition to him, Philostratus the Athenian, a man mighty in speech and thought; and also Dexippus, who was holding the chief office among the Boeotians for the fifth time. It seemed that the most prudent course was to encourage the men with a speech, and to recall the memory of their ancestors’ valour, so that they would undertake the entire war with greater heart and not give up either during an extended period of watch, or during an attempt on the wall, if such an attempt were to take place at some point in time. When the men had gathered together, Marianus, who had been given the responsibility of addressing them on account of his status, spoke as follows: ‘O Greeks, the occasion of our preservation for which you are assembled and the land in which you have been deployed are both truly fitting to evoke the memory of virtuous deeds. For your ancestors, fighting in this place in former times, did not let Greece down and deprive it of its free state, for they fought bravely in the Persian wars and in the conflict called the Lamian war, and when they put to flight Antiochos, the despot from Asia, at which time they were already working in partnership with the Romans who were then in command. So perhaps it may be good fortune, in accordance with the daimonion, that it has been allotted to the Greeks to do battle against the barbarians in this region (indeed your own principles of fighting the wars have turned out to be valid in the past). But you may take confidence in both your preparation for these events and the strength of the region — as a result of which, in previous attacks you seemed terrifying to the enemies. On account of these things future events do not appear to me not without hope, as to better…

It’s the content and style of the writing that identifies it as the work of Dexippus. The Scythica was known to include several siege narratives and long speeches (likely fictionalized) by military leaders. The details about the engagement at Thermopylae — the geography of the site, the weapons of the militia, the names and origins of the generals — indicate this passage was part of a far larger narrative history of the period. No other history written in Greek during the 3rd century goes into such detail about events in the reign of the emperor Gallienus. Only Scythica fits the bill.

There are other characteristics that mark it as Dexippus’ history. The author uses no Roman terms, titles or Latinisms. The focus is on regional figures — Dexippus the Boeotian and Philostratus the Athenian — working in tandem with Roman authorities — Marianus — and on the valor and achievements of Greeks. Even the Roman general makes a point of admiring the history of Greeks’ fight for freedom.

On these points Mallan and Davenport agree with Martin and Grusková, but there are significant areas of disagreement as well. For example, Martin and Grusková believe this battle happened during the Herulian invasions (267/8 A.D.), when the barbarian invaders defeated the Greeks at Thermopylae, but Mallan and Davenport make a strong case, in my opinion, for the battle taking place during an earlier Gothic invasion in around 262 A.D. The Herulian invasions were predominantly seaborne, but there’s no mention of naval engagements in any of the newly discovered fragments, nor do any other sources on the Herulian invasions mention a battle at Thermopylae, which, given its iconic status, is an unlikely oversight. Also Thessaloniki was successfully besieged by the Heruli. This passage describes the Thessalonian defenders as victorious.

Another area of disagreement is the identity of the Roman general Marianus. Martin and Grusková identify him as dux Aurelius Marcianus, one of Gallienus’ generals who fought against the Goths in the late 260s and conspired to kill the emperor in 268. Mallan and Davenport posit that he is a previously unknown general named Marianus, a senator and proconsul of the Roman province of Achaia. (In keeping with his rejection of Latinisms, Dexippus’ reference to Achaia is a geographical region of Greece, not the Roman province. The Greeks called the Roman province “Greece inside the Gates.”) Since proconsuls had limited garrisons at their immediate disposal, he would have had to turn to local militias to help defend the pass.

The reference to the generals being “elected” suggests the defensive forces were assembled by a Greek political body, probably the Panhellenion which was the only body in the 3rd century that covered the regions of Greece represented by the three generals: Boeotia (Dexippus), Athens (Philostratus) and Marianus (Achaia). No other sources mention the Panhellenion appointing military leaders, but the invasion was an extraordinary circumstance which required a speedy military response.

Mallan and Davenport therefore propose a new reconstruction of the Gothic invasion of the early 260s. In late 261 or early 262, the Goths invaded Greece and laid waste to the provinces of Thrace and Macedonia. They besieged Thessaloniki, but it was ably defended by the residents so they moved on to the Roman province of Achaia. The Greeks, likely through the Panhellenion, quickly organized a defense of the province under three generals with Marianus, Roman proconsul of Achaia, at the lead. The Goths invaded Achaia by late 262, early 263, but were turned back by Marianus and Greek militia at the pass of Thermopylae. They didn’t leave empty-handed. On their way out they sacked the rich temples and sanctuaries of Greece before moving on to the Roman Asia province at the end of 263. The threat to Greece was over (for a few years).

Concretions removed to reveal iron body of Hunley

Sunday, March 27th, 2016

The iron body of the Confederate submarine H. L. Hunley has been revealed after 137 years in the salt water of Charleston Harbor, 13 years in a tank of cold fresh water and two years off and on in a sodium hydroxide solution. Conservators at Clemson University’s Warren Lasch Conservation Center have been working to preserve the delicate vessel since it was raised in 2000. The long water bath was necessary to slowly stabilize the iron which would have cracked and corroded if exposed to oxygen after so many years underwater. The weak sodium hydroxide solution (99% water, 1% NaOH) helped leech salt out of the iron and soften the concretion layer.

A combination of rust, sand, rock and assorted ocean debris, concretions are hard as concrete. The concretion layer that coated the entire submarine, inside and out, was so thick, the original iron has been obscured since the Hunley was first raised from the harbor floor. Some areas of concretion were harder than the iron underneath them. In order for the sodium hydroxide treatment to leech the corrosive salt out of the iron skin effectively, the concretion had to be removed first. In May of 2014, the submarine was immersed in sodium hydroxide for the first time. That initial three-month soak was intended to loosen the concretions.

When the tank was drained of the solution after three months, conservators had three days to chip away at the concretion before the tank was filled again. In a cramped workspace that was a hazardous caustic environment requiring the use of face masks, goggles and specialized protective suits, conservators used small drills, chisels and hammers to remove the rock-like incrustation. It was painstaking, dangerous work. One false move with a hand tool and the iron skin of the submarine could be irreparably damaged.

After three days of assiduous labor, the tank was refilled with the sodium hydroxide solution for another three months, then drained for chipping and on and on like that for more than a year. At the end of the process, conservators removed 1,200 pounds of concretion, about the weight of a grand piano, just from the exterior of the submarine. The Hunley‘s iron skin was seen by human eyes for the first time since the Civil War.

Conservators had hoped that removing the concretion would reveal damage that might explain what happened to the H. L. Hunley on the night of February 17th, 1864. We know that its mission to sink the USS Housatonic was successful. The submarine drove a spar-mounted torpedo into the starboard stern of the Union warship and its payload of 135 pounds of gunpowder exploded, blowing a large hole in the side of the enemy vessel. While the hand-cranked submarine with its crew of eight men was very close to the explosion — the spar was only 16 feet long — the Hunley and its crew survived. They signalled the success of the mission with a blue magnesium light, as previously arranged, and then were never heard from or seen again.

They did find some clues on the skin of the submarine. Archaeologists found damage to the bolts and clamps of the boom that held the spar in place. They also discovered a crack in the bow where the spar was mounted. The impact from the explosion or the ramming appears to have torn out a clamp and cracked the Hunley‘s bow cap.

That’s not a smoking gun, however. Archaeologists were looking for evidence of bullet damage. Records indicate the submarine was seen before the attack and the Union ship fired on it. Bullet holes would have confirmed this report and would have explained why the vessel was too damaged to return to safety. One large hole was found, but it was the result of years of scouring by sand and salt before the submarine was covered by the sand on the ocean floor and kept relatively intact.

Conservators have now moved their attentions to the interior of the submarine. It too is covered in concretions, and this workspace is even more cramped. The crew compartment is less than four feet in diameter. It’s unlikely they’ll find one key piece of evidence that explains the fate of the Hunley in the interior. This part of the project is focused on what happened in the claustrophobic nightmare of that tiny iron cigar in the last moments of the crewmen’s lives. Conservators hope to find artifacts — personal effects, uniform buttons, tools — that will help them piece together what happened to the Hunley.

Anytime an artifact is found, the scientists will have to stop scraping to map its location on a 3-D grid.

Scafuri said that all these clues are probably all scientists will have to piece together the final moments of the first attack sub. Every piece of evidence suggests one thing and eventually that research will point to an answer for the biggest lingering question: why didn’t the Hunley return after sinking the Housatonic.

Between work on the interior, conservators are busy restoring pieces of the sub that were removed — rubber gaskets and glass deadlights, for instance. All those pieces will be replaced when the caustics treatment ends and the sub is ready for dry display.

It’s going to be a few years before the submarine is ready for permanent display in the open air. The sodium hydroxide soaks will continue for at least five years and possibly as many as seven more years. The solution must be replaced every three to four months even when all the concretion has been removed because it will get too salty to be effective.

There are some excellent shots in this video by the Friends of the Hunley of the Hunley before and after the concretions were removed. It looks amazing.

NY fort’s cannons came from 1744 shipwreck

Friday, March 25th, 2016

There are 49 replicas and 19 original historic cannons at the Fort William Henry Museum in the Adirondack town of Lake George, New York. The fort is itself a replica, built on the site of the original Fort William Henry, a British outpost from the Seven Years’ War. It was besieged by the French and their Indian allies in 1757 and was compelled to surrender when reinforcements were not forthcoming. Some of the surrendering prisoners were killed by Indian warriors disgruntled by the French prohibition that kept them from looting the defeated fort. It was widely publicized as a massacre at the time and figures as high as 1,500 slaughtered were bandied about in the immediate aftermath. The real number, modern historians believe, is more like 200 killed and wounded, about 7.5% of the prisoners. The siege of Fort William Henry played a central role in James Fenimore Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans.

Because of the popularity of the book, the famous massacre, the short but bloody history of the fort and its ideal location on a lake in the Adirondacks, the site of Fort William Henry became a tourist mecca. To take advantage of the historical tourism market, the replica was constructed in 1954 as full-scale copy of the original. To lend it authenticity, the owners of the attraction wanted some genuine Colonial artillery. Among the 19 antiques were nine cannons which had been salvaged a few years earlier in the Florida Keys.

Newspapers at the time of the sale noted the pieces were bought from treasure hunter Art McKee who had raised them from a wreck off the coast of Looe Key, a key named after the British warship HMS Looe which hit a reef in the area and sank in 1744. Named after the town of Looe, Cornwall, the ship only saw two years of service before its demise. The Looe was dispatched to protect the south Atlantic coast of America from Spanish incursions and interfere with Spanish shipping during a conflict that would later be blessed with one of the greatest names of all time: the War of Jenkins’ Ear. On February 5th, 1744, the Looe struck a reef and was grounded. The captured Spanish merchant ship following her suffered the same fate. The crews were evacuated, all food stores that could be salvaged were salvaged and then both ships were burned.

In 1951, the Smithsonian Institution sent an expedition to Looe Key to explore a reported shipwreck from which a few coins had been retrieved. At the time, not even the precise date of the ship was known and certainly not the name. The fact that the key was named after a British warship that had gone down off its coast had been lost in the mists of time. Metal, glass and porcelain artifacts had survived the conflagration. The team recovered large numbers of artifacts — among them iron ballast, shot, bolts, nails, rum bottles, Chinese porcelain fragments, earthenware, pipes, animal bones from the pickled meat stores, the eyepiece of a navigation instrument and one 2,000-pound cannon barrel.

They didn’t find a smoking gun, so to speak, that would immediately identify the ship, but they did find some clues. One of the 6-pound shots had an arrow on it, a mark indicating it was the property of the British royal family. The barrel was marked with a crowned rose, the insignia of Tudor and Stuart monarchs which was no longer used after Queen Anne’s death 1714. The lifespan of an iron cannon on a ship was no more than 40 years, which gave researchers an outside date for the ship of 1754. Inside the barrel the team found the remains of a wooden tompion which indicated the ship had not gone down in battle but rather by accident or misadventure.

Armed with those few clues, Smithsonian curator of naval history and team leader Mendel L. Peterson hit the archives. Looking through the ship casualty lists for a British warship that sank between 1720 and 1750, was armed with both six and 12-pound cannons and was lost by accident, Peterson found an entry in Clowes The Royal Navy for “1743 Looe 44 guns, Capt. Ashby Utting, Lost in America.” He then confirmed that among those 44 guns were six and 12-pounders. Suddenly the name of the key made a new kind of sense, and it helped confirm that Peterson had identified the wreck.

Looe Key is now part of Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary so treasure hunters couldn’t make a meal of its underwater historic sites today, but back then it was unprotected. Art McKee followed in the Smithsonian’s footsteps. Once they were gone, he pulled up the heavy artillery they had left behind and sold it to the Fort William Henry Museum. At the time they were still marked with the crowned rose, a fact noted in articles about the acquisition. Exposure to more than 60 Adirondack winters has claimed the insignia, unfortunately, and in 1967 the fort’s records were destroyed in an arson fire so the cannons’ origins were lost.

In 2014, researchers began to measure all of the fort’s artillery, replica and original. Discovering the source of the nine cannons bought in 1954 was part of the project, and now the research has paid off.

The fort’s researchers discovered the caliber of the nine cannons matched that of the armament known to have been aboard HMS Looe when it sank. That fact, and McKee’s role in the guns’ salvage, leads researchers to believe the Looe was the source, [maritime archaeologist Joseph W.] Zarzynski said.

“If Art McKee sold them, then they are most certainly from HMS Looe,” said Charles Lawson, an archaeologist for Biscayne National Park who has studied 18th-century wreck sites in Florida’s waters.

The fort wants to restore those historic cannons which are heavily weathered and rusted now, but it’s going to take a major fundraising push. Restoring just one of them may cost as much as $30,000.

Here’s a cool 20-minute documentary about the investigation into the origins of the nine cannons.

Chinese oracle bones: from rubbings to 3D scans

Thursday, March 24th, 2016

Oracle bones are inscribed ox shoulder blades or the flat underside of turtle shells that were used for divination in Shang dynasty China (ca. 1600-1046 B.C.). The Shang was China’s second dynasty and the oracle bones are the oldest surviving texts in the Chinese language. They are the main source historians have about Shang China and Bronze Age China in general, but were only recognized as the immense cultural patrimony they are in 1899. Antiquarian Wang Yirong found some oracle bones being sold in Peking as “dragon bones” which were ground into powder and used in traditional medicine to staunch a bleeding wound. He recognized they were engraved with ancient script. The oracle bones were dated to the Shang dynasty when the origin of the ones floating around in markets was discovered near the village of Xiaotun in Henan Province, the Shang capital.

The late 19th, early 20th century was a turbulent time in China. Cultural patrimony issues were not governmental priorities and foreign scholars and collectors stepped into the void. One of them was Lionel Charles Hopkins, brother and biographer of the famous poet Gerard Manley Hopkins, a diplomat who went to China in 1874 and remained there until his retirement in 1908. He collected almost 900 oracle bones which he studied over the four decades of his retirement. He died in 1952 at the age of 98. Hopkins left his oracle bone collection to Cambridge University.

Hopkins broke a lot of ground in the study of oracle bones, but he too was fooled by fakes. There were so many of them that for a couple of decades after their discovery, the authenticity of all of them were in question. It was only when excavations began in the late 1920s at Xiaotun that large numbers of oracle bones were confirmed to be part of the Shang royal archive. About 200,000 thousand bone fragments are known today, a quarter of which are inscribed.

Diviners used the oracle bones to invoke the ancestors of the Shang dynasty royal family who were believed to know the future. They were also thought to have influence on future events. When a Shang royal wanted to know the outcome of a war, the success of a harvest, an impending natural disaster or anything else, they turned to diviners and their oracle bones. On the reverse of the bones diviners carved out divots known as divination pits. The pits were exposed to fire, creating vertical cracks with a short perpendicular crack halfway down on the obverse of the bone. The cracks were interpreted as answers to the diviners’ questions and those questions were engraved next to the crack. The divination served double duty: predicting the future and securing the benign intervention of the ancestors. The inscriptions are invaluable records of Shang society, and can be of international import. One of the oracle bones in the Hopkins Collection is the oldest dated record of a lunar eclipse known in the world.

The texture of the bones and writing is important to historians, as are the divination pits and cracks. Within a couple of years of Wang Yirong’s discovery, rubbings of the inscriptions were published in books and suddenly collectors were clamouring to buy oracle bones. As usually happens when there’s an overwhelming demand for a finite material, unscrupulous dealers quickly produced as many forgeries as possible. Many oracle bones have both original engravings, pits and cracks, and forged text added to make a simple bone look fancier. The more text, the more expensive the artifact. Sorting out the genuine from the fraud requires careful examination of the bones, their inscriptions and cracks.

Since the earliest discoveries, the surface of oracle bones were captured with rubbings. In 1982, oracle bone expert Mme. Qi Wenxin visited the UK to make rubbings of all the bones in public and private collections. Cambridge’s Hopkins Collection was one of her stops. These rubbings are not the kind you made on gravestones in 5th grade art class with a crayon and tracing paper. Mme. Qi’s tools were a brush made of fine human hair, the finest quality Chinese black ink, very thin tissue-like paper, a piece of silk wrapped around natural cotton and a water infused with the herb baiji (Bletilla Rhizome). Baiji is used in traditional Chinese medicine to stop bleeding and reduce swelling, but infused in the rubbing water, it helps the paper adhere to the bone. If plain water was used, the paper would come off during rubbing.

The side of the bone not being rubbed was fixed to the table with putty. Then the paper was placed on top and brushed with the baiji solution. Mme. Qi tapped the wet paper into the engraving by lightly hitting it with the human hair brush until every letter of the inscription showed through the paper. When the paper was dry, the silk-wrapped cotton was dabbed into the sticky ink and stippled on with care not to cake it on too thickly. Once the ink layer dried, another was applied. The process was repeated until the inscription becomes clear, a white negative against the inky black background. You can see Mme. Qi at work in this video.

Now the Cambridge University Library has taken the first step in establishing a new kind of archive. It has scanned the first of the 614 oracle bones in its collection in high resolution 3D. As far as we know, it’s the first oracle bone in the world to be 3D scanned.

The image brings into sharp focus not only the finely incised questions on the obverse of the bone, but also the divination pits engraved on the reverse and the scorch marks caused by the application of heat to create the cracks (which were interpreted as the answers from the spirit world). These can be seen more clearly than by looking at the actual object itself, and without the risk of damage by handling the original bone.

Once scanned, a precise replica of the bone was 3D printed so it can handled and examined by students and researchers who would otherwise not be allowed access to the originals for conservation purposes. If the 3D scanning trend catches on, there’s another exciting possibility: that more of the hundreds of thousands of fragments may be pieced back together thanks to computer matching.

Cambridge UL Oracle Bone CUL.52 Hi Res
by Professor Dominic Powlesland
on Sketchfab

Explore Richard III’s grave in 3D

Tuesday, March 22nd, 2016

It’s been a year since the mortal remains of King Richard III were reinterred in Leicester Cathedral. Archaeologists from the University of Leicester are ushering in the anniversary with a 3D reconstruction of Richard III’s grave as it was when it was first fully excavated in September of 2012.

Photographs from the excavation were run through Agisoft PhotoScan software which processes images photogrammetrically to generate a 3D digital model. The software looks for shared elements in overlapping photographs which are then plotted onto a 3D point cloud. The cloud is converted into a polygon mesh and the photos applied to it so the topographic layout has a photorealistic surface.

Mathew Morris, Site Supervisor for University of Leicester Archaeological Services was the man who first discovered the remains of King Richard III on the first day of the dig under the Leicester car park. He said: “Photographs and drawings of the grave, whilst dramatic, are only two-dimensional and do not always best show nuances in spatial relationships that a three-dimensional model can.

“Photogrammetry provides a fantastic analytical tool that allows us to examine the grave from angles that would have been physically difficult or impossible to achieve during the excavation, and gives us the ability to continue to examine the king’s grave long after the excavation has finished.”

It also artfully conveys how shoddy a grave it was. It’s too short for one, which is particularly half-assed when you consider that Richard’s spinal curvature made him shorter than average. (Without the scoliosis, he would have been 5’8″ tall, about average height for the time. The S-curve in his spine knocked a couple of inches off his height.) The sides of the grave were not dug straight, but with sloping sides. The bottom of the grave was uneven. You can see on the 3D model just how restricted the space was, how the body leans towards one side like when you’re way too old to have to sleep in a twin bed and the head is propped up uncomfortably.

The interactive model has been uploaded to the 3D sharing platform Sketchfab. There are five points of note marked out — his skull with its war wounds, his curved spine, his missing feet, lost when a pit intersecting with the unknown grave was dug centuries later, the titled head indicating the grave was too short for the body and the sloped sides emphasizing how carelessly the grave was dug. There’s very little content, but when you click on one of the numbers, the view shifts in a neat way. It’s fascinating to see the grave from every possible angle, as if you were lying underneath it, above it, inside it or next to it.

King Richard III's grave
by Archaeological Services (ULAS)
on Sketchfab

“Joan of Arc” ring unveiled at French theme park

Monday, March 21st, 2016

The ring purported to have belonged to Joan of Arc that was sold at auction last month for $412,845 is back in France. Its new home is the Puy du Fou theme park in the Vendée region of western France where the ring was unveiled with great pomp on Sunday by the park founder Philippe de Villiers before a crowd of 5,000.

The theme of Puy du Fou is French history through the centuries. Visitors can enjoy gladiatorial combat and real live quadriga races at the Gallo-Roman stadium, the traditional crafts in the medieval city, the adventures of the Knights of the Round Table complete with dragon slaying and enchanted lake, a Viking longship attack on a wooden keep, a working mill and musicians in the 18th century village, the bird of prey show in a ruined castle, a joust and tricks from horseback knights, the vicissitudes of a French naval officer fresh from the Revolutionary War in America to the French Revolution, a swashbuckling 17th century adventure of the dastardly Richelieu versus the King’s Musketeers, a Belle Epoque city ca. 1900, a fire fountain show on the lake at night and much more.

This party-time version of the past is a fitting setting for the ring because there are widespread doubts as to its authenticity. An Oxford University laboratory dated the ring to the 15th century based on its style, wear and engraving, but that’s as close as it gets to any actual facts linking this jewelry to the Maid of Orléans. They share a century. That’s all we know for sure. The long track record of ownership history included with the ring is entirely speculative. It’s based solely on the fact that Lady Ottoline Morrell’s ancestry can be traced back to Cardinal Henry Beaufort, Bishop of Winchester, who was present at the trial and execution of Joan of Arc. There are no references in archives or histories that mention the ring being owned by anyone in the family at any time between 1431 and when it first appears on the historical record in 1914.

On the advice of experts, neither the town of Orléans nor the Joan of Arc Historical Exhibition in Rouen bid for the ring. There are many fake Joan of Arc relics out there, and the association of this particular piece with Joan only dates to the early 20th century when there was a revival of Joanmania. Philippe de Villiers is no museum curator, however, and he insists despite the lack of evidence that the ring is unquestionably authentic. As a politician, leader of the conservative Movement for France party, he is keen to claim Joan and there’s a hefty portion of nationalism underpinning this acquisition. At Sunday’s unveiling he said “It’s a little bit of France that has returned. The ring has come back to France and will stay here,” then launched into a stirring rendition of La Marseillaise.

He was putting Britain on notice there. Appropriately enough, the export of the ring has sparked a war, of words this time, between the British and French. When the auctioneers gave the ring to park lawyers, they informed them that an export license would have to be secured before the ring could leave the country. Any antiquity worth more than £39,219 that has been in the UK for more than 50 years requires a special export license issued by the Culture Minister. The license is only issued after the Reviewing Committee on the Export of Works of Art and Objects of Cultural Interest (RCEWA) gives the Minister its recommendation, and in the case of this ring, it’s highly unlikely that they would have let it walk away without temporarily blocking export to give British institutions the chance to raise the purchase price and keep it in the country.

Philippe de Villiers has no intention of returning the ring, illegally exported or no, a position he made very clear at Sunday’s ceremony.

“The British government has sent our lawyer an unprecedented demand: the return of the ring to London,” Mr de Villers told the shocked throng. [...] “Is the ring part of England’s national heritage?,” he asked the crowd, which booed loudly. Cheers erupted, however, when he asked whether it was part of France’s heritage.

Mr De Villiers claimed that he had checked the rules and found they only apply if the object is taken out of the European Union. In a mocking nod to Britain’s upcoming referendum over whether to remain or leave the EU, he told the crowd: “It is not at all our intention to have a Puy de Fou exit.”

In a final flourish, he laid down the gauntlet by stating: “Ladies and gentlemen from Britain, if you want to see the ring, then come to the Puy de Fou. For the rest it’s too late.” “The ring has returned to France and here it will stay…even if the European Commission orders it back.”

So much ado about a very questionable artifact. I have to admit, though, as theme parks go, even with its inherently inaccurate, sanitized, kid-friendly, way too clean version of history, it’s pretty cool. I am all over that quadriga race.

Torlonia collection to see the light after 40 years in the basement

Thursday, March 17th, 2016

One of the most important private collections of ancient sculpture in the world hasn’t been on display in four decades. In fact, it really hasn’t been on public display since the 19th century. The Torlonia family’s collection of antiquities, 620 world-class Greek, Roman and Etruscan statues and sarcophagi, has been favorably compared without hyperbole to the ancient sculpture collections of the Capitoline and Vatican Museums, and the Italian government has tried for years to craft an agreement with the family that would allow these unique treasures to be seen by the public. On Tuesday, March 15th, Culture Minister Dario Franceschini announced that the long-sought agreement has been reached and about 60-90 of the most important pieces in the Torlonia collection will go on display in 2017. The details haven’t been worked out yet, but the likely venue will be the Palazzo Caffarelli Clementino on the Capitoline Hill.

The Torlonia family are new, by Roman standards. The founder was Marino Torlonia, born Marin Tourlonias in Auvergne, France, in 1725. He moved to Rome and became the manservant of powerful Neopolitan cardinal Troiano Acquaviva d’Aragona, best remembered today for having employed Giacomo Casanova in 1744 only to dismiss him when he was discovered hiding a teenaged runaway in the cardinal’s residence on the Piazza di Spagna. Acquaviva died in 1747, leaving Marino Torlonia an inheritance which he used to set himself up as a textile merchant.

The business was successful and Marino parlayed some of his income into a small lending concern. When he helped Pope Pius VI with some pesky financial matters, he was granted the title of duke. It was his son Giovanni Raimondo Torlonia who took both businesses and ran with them. He made savvy deals with the French occupiers under Napoleon and when the French troops left after the Treaty of Paris in 1814, Giovanni was flush with cash, cash the old noble families distinctly lacked. The Banco Marino Torlonia was delighted to loan them money with their estates and furnishings as collateral.

Pope Pius VII granted Giovanni Raimondo Torlonia a princely title in 1814, the first of many. Just two generations removed from Marin Tourlonias, the Torlonia family was one of the richest in Rome, as ennobled as it could be and, thanks to advantageous marriages, related to some of the greatest noble houses of the city — the Colonna, Orsini and Borghese. When those loans went into default, the Torlonia family accumulated lands and artworks by the cartload, including pieces from the Orisini, Cesarini and Caetani-Ruspoli families and a prized 17th century collection of ancient sculptures from the Giustiniani family.

Not that they needed the loan collateral to make out like bandits. After the upheaval of the Napoleonic period, many noble families were compelled to sell their properties and private collections. The great collection of dedicated antiquarian Cardinal Alessandro Albani was sold along with his Roman palace, Villa Albani, to the Chigi family who in turn sold it to the Torlonia. Giovanni also bought more than a thousands pieces from the estate of sculptor and restorer Bartolomeo Cavaceppi, among which were important sculptures Cavaceppi had acquired from the collections of the Savelli, Cesi and Pio da Carpi families.

Their extensive property holdings proved invaluable sources of ancient statuary as well. Draining swamps and developing lands, the Torlonia unearthed antiquities hand over fist, particularly from the man-made Roman harbour of Portus, the town of Fiumicino where Leonardo da Vinci Airport now stands, and the ancient Etruscan cities of Vulci and Cerveteri

In 1859, Giovanni’s son Alessandro founded a private museum in one of their palaces on the Via della Lungara. The sculptures, including about a hundred Roman portrait busts from the late Republican and Imperial period so prized many scholars consider them superior to the busts in the Capitoline and Vatican Museums, were installed in the 77 rooms of the palace. Already by the 1870s the public was not allowed inside the museum. I can’t confirm whether they ever were, for that matter. Alessandro Torlonia granted access only to his aristocratic friends and occasionally to experts. The collection was catalogued repeatedly in the 1870s and 1880s. Some of the catalogues were illustrated with photographs, among the first in Italy to be printed with pictures instead of drawings. (here’s a text-only example from 1881)

In the 1960s and 1970s, the collection was gradually packed up and stored, perhaps in other Torlonia properties, perhaps in the basement of the old museum. Another Alessandro Torlonia, great-grandson of the museum’s founder, got permission from the government to repair the roof, but those repairs proved to be a smokescreen for an illegal subdivision of the palace into 90 tiny apartments. A 1979 judgement from Italy’s supreme court of appeals found that the sculptures had been stored in “narrow, insufficient, dangerous spaces [...] removed from the museum [...] crammed together in unbelievable fashion, leaned against each other without care for consistency or history.” The court ruled that the private owner should pay a fine to the state equal to the value lost or diminished by this dire, careless treatment of cultural patrimony. That ruling was never enforced.

With tension between the state and the family, the past 40 years have seen many long negotiations go nowhere. Finally the parties have managed to come together, although the vast majority of the Torlonia sculptures will not be on display, at least not right away. I hope this is just a first step. None of these works should be gathering dust in basements.

The history of this collection, how it was amassed from acquisitions, debt collections and excavations on Torlonia properties, may be a central theme of the first exhibition. It’s particularly relevant to the Torlonia collection as opposed to some of the older ones built gradually by noble families over the course of centuries. The way entire collections were absorbed by the Torlonia makes for a unique perspective into the history of antiquities collection in Rome, with built-in organizational divisions, like, for instance, the pieces from the Cavaceppi collection in one section, the pieces from the Giustiniani collection in another. The sculptures unearthed on Torlonia estates could be in another section.

Again, it’s still in the early stages, but the Ministry is hoping to make this a traveling exhibition. After the Roman show, the treasures of the Torlonia collection will go to top museums in Europe and the United States. Eventually a permanent place will be found for it back home in Rome.

Shipwreck from Vasco da Gama’s 2nd voyage to India found

Tuesday, March 15th, 2016

A rare early shipwreck from Vasco da Gama’s second voyage to India (1502-1503) has been discovered off the coast of Oman. It is the earliest Age of Discovery ship ever found and thanks to its remote location, archaeologists got there first.

Portugal sent ships on an annual journey to India, the Carreira da India, since Vasco de Gama discovered the sea route in 1498. It was a long, arduous, and very dangerous journey in the open ocean down the full length of west Africa, across the Cape of Good Hope, north up the east coast to Mombasa, modern-day Kenya, then across the Indian Ocean to Calicut (Kozhikode) in southern India. Many ships and men were lost on the India Route — one study found 219 ships were wrecked between 1498 and 1650 — and yet, very few shipwrecks have been discovered, and the few that have been were stripped bare by looters before archaeologists had a chance to explore them.

Without their contents, ships area difficult to date. The earliest Carreira da India wreck that could be conclusively dated is the São João which sank in 1552. The lack of an archaeological record for those first 54 years have left a large gap in our understanding of the early Portuguese trade to and from India. Hoping to find a wreck from that 54-year gap, researchers scoured archives looking for the possible location of two ships — the Esmeralda and São Pedro — that sank during Vasco da Gama’s second voyage to India in 1503. The two ships were captained by Vicente and Brás Sodré, brothers and da Gama’s maternal uncles, and led an independent squadron in the fleet that had separate military orders directly from Portuguese King Dom Manuel I to “make war against the ships of Meca” on the Malabar coast and corner the spice trade.

In 1503, after da Gama had returned to Portugal with the bulk of the fleet, the Sodrés went above and beyond their orders, leaving the Indian Ocean for the Gulf of Aden where they attacked and pillaged Arab ships of their cargoes of spices, prized textiles, sugar and rice. When one of the lead ships needed repairs, the squadron was moored off an island now known as Al Hallaniyah, 28 miles from the south coast of Oman. A violent storm broke them to pieces. Everyone on the Esmeralda died, including commander Vicente Sodré. Brás Sodré and most of his crew survived the wreck of the São Pedro, although Brás died a short time later of unknown causes.

The Sodré squadron’s special status, military adventurism/piracy and the demise of the lead ships made for an especially rich documentary record with multiple extant accounts of the voyage and wrecks, including an eye-witness report from the captain of another ship in the squadron. The research determined that the island where the ships had wrecked was likely Al Hallaniyah. Based on the findings, a 1998 expedition searched the area and found dozens of round stone shot and lead-iron shot typical of 16th century heavily armed ships.

The remoteness of the location made a full investigation difficult. It wasn’t until 2013 that shipwreck recovery experts Bluewater Recoveries Ltd. partnered with the Oman Ministry of Heritage and Culture to excavate the site. A geophysical survey was followed by an extremely complex excavation and artifact recovery project which ultimately retrieved 1911 objects. The ship itself is gone. The hull and masts were torn apart by the storm, and the squadron crew burned the ships after salvaging whatever they could.

Between 2013 and 2015, excavators found Portuguese, Chinese, Persian and West African ceramics which roughly dated the ship to between 1450 and 1550, a large quantity of ordnance, including 19 copper-alloy and one iron breech chambers, three handgun barrels, 91 handmade stone shot, a copper-alloy disc with the Portuguese royal coat of arms and the armillary sphere that was Don Manuel I’s personal shield from before he was king, and coins, including 12 gold Portuguese cruzados, 11 from the reign of Dom Manuel I and one from the reign of his predecessor Dom João II. One of the coins was instrumental in narrowing down the date of the wreck . It’s a silver índio, a type of coin first struck in 1499 and discontinued by 1504. They were explicitly produced for the Portuguese trade in India and because they were minted for such a short time, they are extremely rare. This is only the second one known to exist.

Another great archaeological jackpot was the discovery the ship’s bell. CT scanning found the letter M and the numbers 498 on the bell. The numbers are what’s left of the date — 1498 — of the ship’s construction and the M was the key clue to identifying the ship as likely being the Esmeralda. This is the oldest ship’s bell ever found. Here it is being excavated:

Here’s a CT scan of it:

Here it is all cleaned up and conserved:

There are more videos and information on the website dedicated to the shipwreck of the Esmeralda. The full interim report on the find can be read here.

London Stone will finally gets it due again

Sunday, March 13th, 2016

London Stone doesn’t look like much. It’s an irregular chunk of oolitic limestone hidden behind a grate on the footing of a 1960s building on Cannon Street. A bronze plaque above the grating is the only hint that it’s worth peering through penumbra to the object within. To actually see the stone, you had to go inside whatever business was occupying the storefront — at various times a Bank of China branch, a sporting goods store and most recently a WH Smith — and look into a knee-high glass case. The case wasn’t even visible when it was in a WH Smith because it was blocked by a magazine rack.

Yet, this unpreposessing rock has an illustrious history. Its origins are unknown, and that mystery has birthed uncounted legends, rumors and myths, most of them invented in the past 150 years. It’s been said to be the stone from which Arthur drew the sword that made him king, a druidic altar, a piece of the palace of the Roman governor of Londinium, the plinth for the Palladium brought to the city by Brutus of Troy, legendary founder of London, and a fetish stone installed by the first prehistoric settlers of what would become London. A slightly more realistic theory is that it was the milliarium of Roman London, the stone marker in the precise center of the city from which all the miles in Britain were counted.

There’s no more evidence for the plausible theories than for the fantastical ones. The stone appears on the historical record in the Middle Ages. It was installed on the south side of what was then known as Candlewick Street (Cannon Street isn’t about the weapon; it’s just the end-product of centuries of usage alterations from the original Candelwrichstrete), held to the ground with large iron clamps. Most of it was below the surface.

A gospel given by Æthelstan (924–939), the first king to rule of all of England including the Viking north, to Christ Church, Canterbury, has a reference to a piece of land belonging to the church that is “neer unto London Stone.” That suggests London Stone was famous enough already in the 10th century to be used as an identifying landmark, and it continued to be a key geographical reference for centuries. A document from the reign of Stephen (1135-1154) records a fire starting at a house “neere unto London Stone.” It is repeatedly mentioned in official records to describe the locations of buildings. It was also a popular moniker for people who lived in the neighborhood (a certain John de Londenston stabbed his wife Agnes in 1241) and for drinking and eating establishments. There was an Old London Stone Coffee House, a London Stone Tavern and a London Stone Eating House which was said to be the first house built after the 1666 Great Fire of London.

It wasn’t just a convenient marker; it was held in high esteem. A house on the north side of St Swithin’s church, the home of London’s first Mayor Henry Fitz Aylwin and the seat of government from 1189 to 1212, was considered highly prestigious because it was near the stone. Jack Cade, leader of a popular rebellion against King Henry VI in 1450, entered London on July 3rd and made a point of going to London Stone where he struck it with his sword and declared himself lord of the city. Shakespeare describes it colorfully in Henry VI, Part 2:

[Enter JACK CADE and the rest, and strikes his staff on London-stone.]
CADE: “Now is Mortimer lord of this city. And here, sitting upon London-stone, I charge and command that, of the city’s cost, the conduit run nothing but claret wine this first year of our reign.

(Cade claimed descendance from the powerful Mortimer family.)

After the Great Fire leveled much of the city, the stone’s foundations were exposed for the first time in hundreds of years. Its large dimensions suggested London Stone must have been part of a monumental feature of some kind. The fire may also have damaged it, cracking it apart. Five years after the fire, the Worshipful Company of Spectacle Makers was compelled by court order to destroy a faulty batch of 264 pairs of eyeglasses by dashing them against London Stone. The guild’s records say they were broken “on the remayning parte of London Stone.”

By 1742 the stone was obstructing traffic in what was then a narrow lane, so it was moved to the north end of the street and installed in the wall next to the door of St. Swithin’s church. In A Journey from Birmingham to London (1785) by W. Hutton, the author observes that the residents pay little attention to the stone.

The small information received from history and the smaller from tradition, prove its great antiquity. This curiosity is as little regarded as known. The numerous crowd of passengers take less notice of this stone than of those upon which they tread. My enquiries were answered with a supercilious smile, and all the intelligence I could gain was, “It is a place of rest for the porters burden.” [...]

This Stone appears of a marble texture near four feet high, two broad, and one thick. An ornament at the top is broken off. In the front is an oval aperture or recess two feet long, at the bottom of which is a broken fragment which has supported perhaps an image or urn, expressive of the original design. Time seems to have destroyed the lower part of the oval, and art has supplied the place with a patch.

In 1798, the stone was moved again to the east side of St. Swithin’s south wall and in 1820 it was set into an alcove in the center of the south wall. It rested there for 120 years, a much-visited tourist attraction. Then came World War II and the Blitz. St. Swithin’s was destroyed, but the walls, and the stone embedded in one of them, still stood. The ruins of the church were finally demolished in 1962 and the current building was erected with the sad, gloomy little grilled out alcove as the ignominious dwelling for the former celebrity stone.

Now that building too is slated for demolition, only this time London Stone will be treated with the respect due.

Planning permission has been granted for the demolition of the building and the erection of new premises on the site, to include a special raised plinth so that the artefact can be viewed by the public. During the building works, it is hoped that London Stone will be displayed in the Museum of London for about 20 months from late spring. [...]

While it is at the museum, research will be carried out in an attempt to define its geology, which may help to explain its origin and purpose. But the likelihood is it will remain, to paraphrase [author Iain] Sinclair, an object that everyone agrees is significant, even if no one quite knows why.

And perhaps that is the way it should be. According to [the Museum of London's John] Clark: “It is a mysterious and mystic object. I’m not sure if we want to know what it really was; in the end, that would spoil it.”

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