Archive for May, 2008

Solid gold toothpick and earwax spoon

Wednesday, May 21st, 2008

Divers have found the weirdest little thing off the coast of Key West. Treasure hunters were looking for the shipwreck of a Spanish galleon that sank in 1622 which has produced some handsome treasures like gold bars and a lead casket full of pearls in the past.

Instead of ingots, they found this:


See, you pick your teeth with the pointy bit on the left, then you scoop out your earwax with the spoony bit on the right. The hoop at the top middle indicates it was worn on a chain. I call that classy.

What if they absentmindedly used the wrong side? Waxy gums and punctured eardrums would not make for a pleasant trans-Atlantic voyage.


The care and feeding of archaeologists

Tuesday, May 20th, 2008

Do you ever wonder how dig workers get fed? I figured it was either hotel food or camping food, but the truth turns out to be a lot more interesting (and delicious) than that.

Evans came to the role of dig cook, which she adores, more by chance than planning. About 10 years ago her husband, who has a long-standing interest in archaeology, spotted an advertisement from a British academic looking for someone to cook for 15 people at an excavation site in Cyprus.

“I thought, 15 people, I could do that,” Evans says. “If someone asks me to cook for their party, I get really excited.

“I’ve done catering, worked in restaurants and cafes and done a lot of my friends’ weddings but I had never thought of cooking as a way of travelling and seeing other parts of the world.”

She got the job. “Then I had to get an atlas and look up exactly where Cyprus was.”

Much coolness ensues. Apparently archaeologists eat two breakfasts because they start so early in the morning and then try to avoid the midday heat.

She never knows what sort of cooking apparatus she’s going to find on site, whether it’s mud brick ovens or old Pepsi fridges like the 50’s one with the built-in bottle opener in Back to the Future.

But damn, she scores some fantastic produce from the locals. Who needs electricity when you’ve got this:

“One man used to turn up with 48 huge, perfect peaches on a tray, straight from the tree. Local women used to give me olives. They used to make haloumi in one village and we used to buy big buckets of it.”


Mass-murder in South Korea

Monday, May 19th, 2008

In 1950, South Korean military rounded up thousands of prisoners and sometimes under the watchful eye of American military observers, shot them and buried them in ditches.

Those mass graves, long spoken of as “fiction” or leftist propaganda or else blamed on the North Korean army by US and South Korean officials, are still being uncovered today as the Korean Truth and Reconciliation Commission attempts to fulfill its brief.

The victims were supposed to be Communists working with the North Koreans, but according to a former prison guard/executioner who testified before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, they were really garden variety criminals, peasants rounded up in random sweeps, even women and children.

The mass executions — intended to keep possible southern leftists from reinforcing the northerners — were carried out over mere weeks and were largely hidden from history for a half-century. They were “the most tragic and brutal chapter of the Korean War,” said historian Kim Dong-choon, a member of a 2-year-old government commission investigating the killings.

Hundreds of sets of remains have been uncovered so far, but researchers say they are only a tiny fraction of the deaths. The commission estimates at least 100,000 people were executed, in a South Korean population of 20 million. […]

The declassified record of U.S. documents shows an ambivalent American attitude toward the killings. American diplomats that summer urged restraint on southern officials — to no obvious effect — but a State Department cable that fall said overall commander Gen. Douglas MacArthur viewed the executions as a Korean “internal matter,” even though he controlled South Korea’s military.

Pictures of the massacres taken by a US Army major are among the documents recently declassified by the US government. I can’t find them on the National Archives website, but there are several included in the AP photo gallery.


Connecticut’s endangered stone walls

Sunday, May 18th, 2008

My parents have a couple of God-knows-how-old stone walls on their property in Connecticut, and I’ve never paid them much attention except when investigating the crannies for lizards and snakes.

It turns out, though, that these historic remnants of the state’s farming past are in danger from developers and thieves of various sorts.

They sometimes come in broad daylight, with bulldozers and other heavy equipment, loading rocks from Connecticut’s old stone walls into dump trucks and carting them away to beautify another home, decorate a driveway or make a rustic entrance to a mall.

More surreptitious scavengers of stone work in the dark or slip deep into the woods, where old stone walls often exist in isolation, glimpsed only by hikers. After they pluck the most desirable ones, weathered stones covered in lichen to establish their antique pedigree, they typically leave behind a jumbled, rock-strewn mess.

In most places, salvaging or removing such stones with a landowner’s permission is lawful, but from the historical point of view, archaeologists and preservationists say, it is a crime, a theft of history. Stone walls are an important part of the landscape, delineating where settlements and farms existed, and how they operated. They tell a story about who we were — and are.

Much of the time the scavengers have the permission of the property owners who have no particular need or affection for their stacked stone treasures. Some towns have zoning ordinances that regulate the mining of stone walls, but the ones mentioned in the article are mainly about walls on or abutting public land.

Then there’s the question of the few poor laws out there being enforced. Here’s the spoiler: they aren’t.


Harrison Ford elected to AIA board

Saturday, May 17th, 2008

AIA = Archaeological Institute of America. Why was Mr. Ford, aka Indiana Jones, an “archaeologist” indistinguishable from the looters the AIA decries, elected to this position?

“Harrison Ford has played a significant role in stimulating the public’s interest in archaeological exploration,” said Brian Rose, President of the AIA. “We are all delighted that he has agreed to join the AIA’s Governing Board.” […]

Harrison Ford is already helping to raise public awareness of the AIA and its mission as the news of his election to the Board has spread. Many media outlets have covered the story.

And there you have it. They might as well benefit from the publicity of the revived Indiana Jones series even though Dr. Jones is about as far from a role model for archaeologists as you could conceive.

Oh well… I’m sure Harrison Ford will do just fine in his role as board member, whatever that might entail. Clearly he’s already done the job the AIA hoped he’d do by bringing attention to the organization.


Bactrian Hoard on the move

Friday, May 16th, 2008

Over two hundred antiquities from the National Museum of Afghanistan in Kabul are hitting the road this spring, including gold pieces from the renown Bactrian hoard.

The exhibition will open at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., starting May 25th, and will move on to the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, and finally, The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.

The story of how these precious artifacts survived the past few decades of violence and chaos in Afghanistan is a fascinating one.

The so-called Bactrian Hoard, one of the greatest archeological finds of the 20th Century, is the heart of the trove, discovered accidentally in 1978 by Russian archeologist Viktor Sarianidi, Hiebert’s mentor. Six 2,000-year-old nomadic tombs, from an area in northern Afghanistan that was once an important crossroads on the Silk Road, contained more than 20,000 beautifully crafted pieces.

Before Sarianidi could study the items, the Soviets invaded, and he rushed the pieces to Kabul, where they went to the National Museum. That was the last he saw of them.

Unbeknownst to him, 10 years later, as the communist government weakened and rockets rained on the city, a group of museum workers packed the most important artifacts into boxes, sealed them with their signatures and brought them to the presidential palace, where they were stored in a vault.

“Only 13 to 20 people knew about the treasures, and as fighting between the different groups got worse we decided not to tell anyone about them,” said Omara Khan Masoudi, now director of the National Museum in Kabul.

It was not until 2003 that a new government under President Hamid Karzai entered the palace and discovered — in a massive Austrian-made vault, alongside the government’s gold bullion — piles of sealed boxes.

By then, rumors had circulated for decades that the Bactrian Hoard had been looted or taken to Moscow or even melted down, so it was rediscovering the treasure all over again when officials opened those boxes.

The museum workers who saved the antiquities are known as the key-holders. They’ll be accompanying the exhibition along its route because in Afghanistan curators are bound by law to their collections and are personally responsible to ensure their safety.

I think that’s totally cool. They’re sworn guardians of ancient treasure like characters out of Indiana Jones or The Mummy.


CA Museum raids result in arrest, death

Thursday, May 15th, 2008

The January raids on four California museums resulted in the arrest of art historian Roxanna Brown on Friday.

Yesterday, she died in a federal prison of an apparent heart attack.

As is routine with all inmates upon booking, Brown was given a medical screening at the prison. A spokeswoman for the detention center did not disclose the status of that screening.

By Monday, Brown was too ill to appear in court, but did appear briefly Tuesday. She had been charged with one count of wire fraud, allegedly for allowing art collectors to use her electronic signature to overstate the value of items they donated to several Southern California museums. The collectors then claimed fraudulent tax deductions, investigators said.

Brown was a vocal anti-looting advocate. Her position was that buyers of antiquities should only consider purchasing finds from well-documented official digs. Anything short of that was likely to result in buying stolen goods.

How to reconcile this highly ethical stance with the tax fraud charges, I have no idea. Now she will never have the chance to clear her name, although I’m certain the investigation will continue.



Caesar 2 years before the assassination

Wednesday, May 14th, 2008

Divers in France have found a marble bust of Julius Caesar tentatively dated 46 B.C. in the Rhône river. If the date pains out, that would make this the oldest surviving portrait of Caesar.

It’s no idealized representation, either. His age shows, and it only ads to his hotness.


There were some other marvels nestled in the murky depths of the Rhône.

Among other items in the treasure trove of ancient objects is a 5.9 foot marble statue of Neptune, dated to the first decade of the third century after Christ.

Two smaller statues, both in bronze and measuring 27.5 inches each also were found, one of them, a satyr with his hands tied behind his back, “doubtless” originated in Hellenic Greece, the ministry said.

“Some (of the discoveries) are unique in Europe,” Culture Minister Christine Albanel said. The bust of Caesar is in a class by itself.

They’re not done diving, so there may be more treasures to be found.


Inca brain surgeons improved (after a few centuries)

Tuesday, May 13th, 2008

Holes cut into skulls in the Cuzco area indicate that trepanation was a relatively common practice for Inca surgeons, most likely as treatment for combat injuries.

Interestingly, the skulls dating from 1000 A.D. show no evidence of bone regrowth which means the owners of said skulls died under the knife. They clearly didn’t give up, though, because by 1400 A.D. 90% of the skulls showed healing and no infection.

Of 411 skulls that were sufficiently well preserved to study, 66 had holes cut through the bone.

In one location, 21 of 59 skulls—over a third—had received trepanation.

While methods of trepanation varied over time, Inca surgeons eventually settled on a scraping technique to penetrate the skull without causing wider injury.

“The skull was slowly scraped away, resulting in a circular hole surrounded by a wider area of scraped bone,” Verushko said.

Some of the skulls had been perforated more than once, including one individual who had undergone the operation seven times.

Damn. Stop-loss much? :eek:


The green fairy is really just hooch

Monday, May 12th, 2008

Absinthe, the mysterious green beverage beloved of turn-of-the-last-century artists, has long had a reputation for causing dangerous madness. Van Gogh’s ear-cutting episode was reputedly brought on by a bad absinthe trip.

It was banned in Europe in the early 20th c. due to this Reefer Madness panic. The ban was finally lifted in 1988, but even so the myth of the pre-ban “original” absinthe’s mind-bending characteristics has persistent.

German scientists have examined the contents of sealed pre-1915 absinthe bottles to see just what exactly makes the green fairy tick. Turns out, it’s just green anise-flavored moonshine.

German researchers worked with US and British colleagues to test the level of thujon in 100-year-old bottles of absinthe. Thujon, a chemical found in wormwood, was the substance blamed for causing psychotic episodes.

The research found that absinthe contained only minimal levels of thujon and that the psychoactive effects were also questionable.

It was 140-proof, though, so no need to look further than the hooch factor to explain people acting the fool under the influence. Especially when you consider that absinthe tastes like licorice and is often served over a sugar cube. That sweet stuff really sneaks up on you.






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