Archive for February, 2008

Bowl tells the tale of Maya blue

Friday, February 29th, 2008

Maya blue is an beautiful azure pigment used by the Maya in religious rituals and to decorate rarified pieces. Not only is it super purty, but it’s also remarkably tough. It’s impervious to heat, moisture, even acid and modern solvents. So how did the Maya make such a badass blue?

Scientists and archaeologists have known for a while that they combined a white clay mineral called palygorskite with indigo, but they didn’t know exactly how it was made.

Dr. Dean Arnold of Wheaton College has connected some of the dots by using new technology to examine a bowl that’s been lying around the Field Museum of Chicago for the past 75 years. The bowl contains a hard lump of incense, and Dr. Arnold noticed some palygorskite and indigo seemed to be burned into it.

Making [Maya blue], he said, requires fusing palygorskite and a small amount of indigo over a slow, low-temperature source of heat, and he began to suspect that, for the ancients, the heat source was burning copal incense. It was a process that could be done in ceramic bowls at religious sacrificial sites like the Sacred Cenote.

To confirm his thinking he enlisted the co-authors of the paper: Jason Branden of Northwestern University’s department of materials science and engineering, and Patrick Ryan Williams, Gary Feinman and J.P. Brown at the Field Museum’s department of anthropology.

They used a scanning electron microscope to study the hardened incense, confirming the presence of palygorskite and indigo.

So it seems like the priests were scaring up Maya blue right there on the edge of the Sacred Cenote, painting it on objects (and occasionally people) before throwing them in the pit as a sacrifice.

Tough as it is, the pigment needs time to cure, so the more hastily applied product ended up lining the pit with a 14-foot layer of blue silt.

Edward H. Thompson noticed the lining a hundred years ago when he dredged the cenote for goods and shipped everything he found/stole to Harvard, but he didn’t bother to ask why it was there or what it was.

Dr. Arnold is picking up his slack with fascinating results.

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All of your beeswax…

Thursday, February 28th, 2008

are belong to Oregon.

Loretta LeGuee of Gold Beach, Oregan, came across a huge hunk of 300 year old beeswax while beach combing. It seems to have come from a Spanish shipwreck which has been known to toss up random chunks of beeswax over the years.

They suspect the beeswax is either from the Santo Christo de Burgos, which sank in 1693, or the San Francisco Xavier, which disappeared in 1705. In both were tons of beeswax from the Philippines bound for Mexico via the Manilla-Acapulco trade route, Williams explained. There is historic evidence one of the ships wrecked in Nehalem Bay, creating the beeswax bounty, according to the team that hopes to conduct archaeological research at the site.

“Where she (LeGuee) found it would be unusual, being so far south,” Williams said, noting the ocean currents off Oregon flow north, not south. “But we know the Indians were trading it prehistorically up and down the coast.”

Apparently there were no native honey bees in the Americas. I’m going to have to look that up, though, because it sounds weird to me.

Anyway, here’s the yuge chunk of wax. It’s totally cool.

For more about the Beeswax Wreck, check out The Beeswax Project.

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America’s oldest urban site uncovered in Peru

Wednesday, February 27th, 2008

It’s a circular plaza 5,500 years old.

A team of Peruvian and German archeologists uncovered the circular plaza, which was hidden beneath another piece of architecture at the ruins known as Sechin Bajo, in Casma, 229 miles north of Lima, the capital. Friezes depicting a warrior with a knife and trophies were found near the plaza. [...]

Prior to the discovery at Sechin Bajo, archeologists considered the ancient Peruvian citadel of Caral to be one of the oldest in the Western Hemisphere, at about 5,000 years.

Scientists say Caral, located a few hours drive from Sechin Bajo, was one of six places in the world — along with Mesopotamia, Egypt, China, India and Mesoamerica — where humans started living in cities about 5,000 years ago.

There are even older layers underneath the structure they’ve uncovered, so this may be one of the oldest cities in the world, not just the Western Hemisphere.

They’ve had to fill in the site to keep it safe from, you guessed it, looters. It’s a miracle the site was discovered intact to begin with.

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Earliest surviving heraldic roll blocked from leaving England

Tuesday, February 26th, 2008

Margaret Hodge, UK Culture Minister, has put an export block on the Dering Roll, a beautifully illuminated roll of arms from the 13th century. Sotheby’s is looking to sell it out of country, apparently, although I can’t find out the details of the sale other than it was part of a lot listed for sale on December 4.

The Minister’s ruling follows a recommendation by the Reviewing Committee on the Export of Works of Art and Objects of Cultural Interest, administered by the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council. The Committee recommended that the export decision be deferred on the grounds that the roll is of outstanding significance for the study of early English heraldry and is so closely connected with our history and national life that its departure would be a misfortune. The Committee awarded a starred rating to the roll meaning that every possible effort should be made to raise enough money to keep it in the country.

The Dering Roll was produced in England in the last quarter of the 13th century. It is eight and a half feet long and contains the coats of arms of approximately one-quarter of the English baronage of the reign of King Edward I. As the earliest surviving English roll of arms it is a key document of medieval English knighthood. As a statement of the knights who owed feudal service to the constable of Dover Castle, it carries outstanding local as well as national significance.

The cost is $400,000 or so and all offers need to be submitted by April 19 (although there might be an extension until July). For an illuminated roll of such historical importance and such lush design, that seems eminently doable. I’m surprised it hasn’t been snapped up already, possibly by one of the families whose coat of arms are represented.

~ Thanks to John Harrison of the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council, for the picture. ~

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Burmese govt: Do as I say, not as I do

Monday, February 25th, 2008

The Burmese Ministry of Culture prohibits mining and excavation near archaeological sites. Unfortunately, that prohibition doesn’t extend to government-owned mining concerns. Cement Factory Accused of Destroying Antiquities.

The Kawgun cave—a natural lime stone cavern, 200ft high and 300ft long—is located near a village of the same name, two miles from Hpa-an. It contains many images and artifacts that historians say date from the Pyu era, spanning the period from the first century to the ninth century AD. [...]

Residents say the blasting dislodges the Kawgun cave’s Buddha statuettes and other historical objects. “Buddha statues are broken day after day, and we feel very frustrated,” a monk told The Irrawaddy. “We want to repair the damage, but it should be the responsibility of the department of archeology.”

Beautiful cave. Here’s hoping the publicity shames them into stopping the destruction.

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A brief history of chocolate

Sunday, February 24th, 2008

Smithsonian Magazine has a great little article on the history of chocolate. I knew that it was primarily a drink for most of its history, but I didn’t realize it only was made a solid only after the Dutch process made a powder from chocolate liquor.

In 1828, a Dutch chemist found a way to make powdered chocolate by removing about half the natural fat (cacao butter) from chocolate liquor, pulverizing what remained and treating the mixture with alkaline salts to cut the bitter taste. His product became known as “Dutch cocoa,” and it soon led to the creation of solid chocolate.

The creation of the first modern chocolate bar is credited to Joseph Fry, who in 1847 discovered that he could make a moldable chocolate paste by adding melted cacao butter back into Dutch cocoa.

By 1868, a little company called Cadbury was marketing boxes of chocolate candies in England. Milk chocolate hit the market a few years later, pioneered by another name that may ring a bell – Nestle.

So it seems the cream egg is the least of Cadbury’s accomplishments.

John Cadbury, incidentally, was a Quaker of notable social consciousness who went into the chocolate/coffee/tea beverage business out of Temperance Society idealism.

The Cadbury’s site has an excellent history section itself, both of the company and of the bean.

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Minoan Crete in New York City

Saturday, February 23rd, 2008

The Onassis Cultural Center will be hosting an exhibit of ancient Minoan artifacts starting March 13.

The exhibition brings to light aspects of Minoan daily life during the second and third millennia B.C., including social structure, communications, bureaucratic organization, religion, and technology.

In eleven thematic sections, the exhibition maps chronologically the establishment and great achievements of Minoan culture. Here the viewer can explore the historical and cultural context of this celebrated society and gain insight into its mysteries, such as the legends surrounding the reign of King Minos of Knossos, who commissioned the fabled Labyrinth of Greek mythology.

Most of these pieces have never been seen outside of Crete, so if you’re planning on being in the Northeast US between March 13 and September 13, you might want to make a point of visiting.

Remember: Minoans are reknown not just for the legendary labyrinth designed by Daedalus, the bull dancers, queen Pasiphae having sex with a bull and giving birth to the Minotaur, but also for topless babes. That place was lousy with breastseses.

Just sayin’, in case it sweetens the deal for anyone.

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The Amber Room? For reals?

Friday, February 22nd, 2008

It seems like a long shot to me, but some German treasure hunters think they’ve found the fabled Amber Room in a cavern 65 feet underground.

The discovery of an estimated two tonnes of gold was made at the weekend when electromagnetic pulse measurements located the man-made cavern 20 meters underground near the village of Deutschneudorf on Germany’s border with the Czech Republic.

The team, which used heavy digging equipment, hasn’t been inside the room but analysis of the electromagnetic test has led it to believe that the cavern contains gold.

“I’m well over 90 percent sure we have found the Amber Room,” the mayor of Deutschneudorf, Heinz-Peter Haustein, who led the search, told SPIEGEL ONLINE. “The chamber is likely to be part of a labyrinth of storage rooms that the Nazis built here. I knew it was in this area. I just never knew exactly where.”

The Amber Room was made of 55 square meters of etched and mosaic amber panels backed with gold. A gift from Prussian King Friedrich Wilhelm I to Czar Peter the Great in 1716, it lived in the Catherine Palace until Nazi troops stripped it and shipped it back to East Prussia where it was on display in Königsberg Castle until 1945.

Then it disappeared. Nobody’s sure what happened. Königsberg was hit pretty hard at the end of the war, and the amber was already brittle before it was stripped from the walls in Leningrad.

Then there are theories about it having been packed into a submarine that sank in the Baltic, or stashed in a mineshaft, or hidden in underground cave networks along with piles of other Nazi loot. Hence our current treasure-hunting friends.

Meanwhile, back in St. Petersburg, the Amber Room has been painstakingly recreated. It took Russian artisans and historians, $8 million in German corporate funds, 25 years and 6 tons of amber to do it, but do it they did. Here’s a wall from the recreated Amber Room that gives a sense of its lavish beauty and detail:

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Ancient city discovered in India

Thursday, February 21st, 2008

Archaeologists have uncovered the remains of a fortified urban center which flourished 2,500 years ago in the eastern state of Orissa in India.

Researchers say the items found during the excavation point to a highly developed urban settlement.

The population of the city could have been in the region of 20,000 to 25,000, the archaeologists claim.

The excavations include 18 stone pillars, pottery, terracotta ornaments and bangles, finger rings, ear spools and pendants made of clay.

The estimates of population size and period are very much speculative at this point, however. Only a small fraction of the city has been excavated so far. Unfortunately, most of the area within the fortifications is privately owned, so there’s a chance it will remain unexcavated, especially since sprawl is pushing development dangerously close to the perimeter.

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Freud’s final resting vase

Wednesday, February 20th, 2008

I came across a delightful series of podcasts offered by a Syndey radio station called Self Improvement Wednesday.

This week, I learned that Sigmund Freud had a huge antiquities collection, and was in fact buried in a red-figured, 4th c. BC Greek vase.

Okay, his ashes were, but still, that’s really something because even though these vases might have been used for exactly that purpose in the Etruscan graves from whence they were unearthed, they hadn’t been en vogue as cremation urns for several millennia by the time Freud passed away in 1939.

Listen to the podcast. It’s short and sweet and really fascinating. You’ll find out about how he had 2,500 antiquities in his collection and just 3,500 books in his library. You’ll also hear about his friendship with Princess Marie Bonaparte who gave him the vase in which he and his wife Martha currently reside and helped get him out Austria after the Anschluss.

Then there’s the bit about Athena’s missing spear, and Thoth’s giant member, but I’ll leave that to you to discover.


For more info on Freud’s antiquities collection, see the Freud Museum in London.

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