Archive for September, 2008

1000-year-old wood Viking shield found in Denmark

Thursday, September 18th, 2008

Archaeologists excavating some Viking castles west of Copenhagen have uncovered a rare wooden Viking shield dating from over a thousand years ago.

Archaeologist Kirsten Christensen said the wooden shield has a diameter of 32 inches. […]

Christensen said Thursday it is the first time such a shield has been found in Denmark. She said the moist soil in the area is “ideal to preserve wood.”

The fir shield is believed to date from the late 10th century.

In the pictures it’s not fully excavated yet, but you can definitely see the classic shield shape. It looks like it came right off the pages of an Asterix and the Normans.

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In more ancient skeletons with TB news…

Wednesday, September 17th, 2008

Another ancient skeleton is providing clues to the spread of tuberculosis. This one is Roman from the 4th c. and was found on a construction site at York University.

If the new case is confirmed as TB it could provide scientists with a valuable tool to trace the movement of the disease as it is relatively rare for specimens to be discovered in the UK that date from any earlier than the 12th century.

Archaeologist Cath Neal, from the University of York said: “This was a remarkable find and detailed study of this skeleton will provide us with important clues about the emergence of tuberculosis in late-Roman Britain, but also information about what life was like in York more than 1,500 years ago.

Bone evidence suggests that the poor fellow might have contracted the disease as a child, possibly from domesticated animals, then it lay dormant until adulthood. I didn’t even know TB did that.

His burial is unusual, too. At the time of his death, people were buried in cemeteries. Our tubercular friend, on the other hand, was buried alone close to living quarters, maybe because his illness was rare and scary so his people were afraid to transport his corpse over any distance.

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Cerne Abbas giant in bold

Tuesday, September 16th, 2008

The Cerne Abbas giant, the chalk drawing of a man with a giant club and, er, another giant club carved into a Dorset hillside is getting some work done.

Over the years, animals walking over the design and vegetation reclaiming the space had blurred the once-sharp white lines of the famous figure. Thirty volunteers stepped up to the task of sprucing him up by digging up the overgrown greens and re-chalking the outline.

No one is quite sure when the giant first appeared. Some say he is a pagan fertility symbol and that if a childless woman and her partner spend the night camping between the giant’s legs, she will be a mother within two years.

Others claim that the figure represents the Greek hero Hercules, who was often depicted with a club in his right hand. Either way, there are no documents mentioning the giant before 1694 – although medieval writers had written copious amounts about the hillside itself.

Local records suggest that the giant was carved as late as the 17th century, during the Civil War, on the orders of the area’s bigwig, Denzil Holles. It was intended as a cruel parody of Oliver Cromwell, who was sometimes referred to mockingly as England’s Hercules.

He he… Carving a 180-foot effigy with a giant boner into the hillside is a pretty awesome flame of a Puritan.

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The original Pepto recipe: Chianti, cherries and herbs

Monday, September 15th, 2008

A pharmacist in Tuscany recently discovered an 18th c. recipe for a digestive miracle drug. The pharmacy was established by the current pharmacist’s ancestors in 1715, and apparently there are all kinds of manuscripts lying around or wedged in shelves.

“My ancestors left several manuscripts with formulas for digestive drinks, but this one struck me because of its ingredients. I knew it had strong scientific basis,” said pharmacist Giovanni De Munari, who found the old recipe from behind a small shelf in his Tuscany pharmacy.

Upon finding the recipe, De Munari brewed the beverage, and came up with a “low-calorie, highly digestive alcoholic infusion which tasted delicious.”

I’m not sure how wine, cherries and honey turn out to be low-cal, and red wine always makes me feel like someone took a strigil to my stomach lining the next morning, but the tasting delicious bit I can believe.

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A heartbreaking update

Sunday, September 14th, 2008

Earlier this year, I posted repeatedly about the federal raids on looted and overvalued-for-tax-fraud Asian antiquities in prominent California museums.

One of the sad results of this investigation was the arrest and death in custody of Asian antiquities specialist Roxanna Brown. She was known as a vocal opponent of the trade in looted artifacts, so it was shocking that she would be involved in this ugliness in the first place. Her sudden death was even more so.

Now the LA Times has a 3-part story on the life and death of Roxanna Brown, her fascinating history ranging from being a freelance reporter in Vietnam during the war, to her opium addiction, to her marriage to a Buddhist monk, to the brutal car accident resulting in the loss of her leg, to becoming the preeminent expert on Asian ceramics, to actually helping the feds in the early stages of the investigation, to her devastating final descent into tax fraud and antiquities smuggling, and horrible, awful death.

Here’s a bit about how the collectors, the Markells, used Roxanna Brown’s reputation to submit phony appraisals for donated antiquities so they could write greater sums off on their taxes.

In another e-mail exchange from March 2007, Markell asked Brown to sign six to eight blank appraisal forms for future donations and offered the scholar $300 “for using you, as it were, as the appraiser. . . .”

“If you are nervous about doing this, please realize that the Republicans are still in office, the IRS does not have enough personnel to review small-time appraisals and the appraisals are very well written and will never be challenged,” Markell wrote, according to a copy of the e-mail filed with the affidavit.

The documents indicate that Brown responded via e-mail the same day: “No problem! I am delighted to be your partner in this.”

That’s not all she did. Smuggler Robert Olson, the key fence of stolen goods in the museum investigation, had a whole file named “Roxanna” and this is the kind of stuff the feds found in it.

In one undated document, Brown offered to sell Olson ancient bronze bracelets, Neolithic stone tools and Thai ceramics from “burial sites on the Burmese border,” according to copies of the correspondence attached to the July affidavit.

In an e-mail dated April 2002 that bears her name, she confirmed that she had received $14,000 in cash from Olson for a prehistoric bronze. Two months later, another e-mail from Brown advised Olson’s grandson of a Thai bank account to which additional money could be sent.

So she was smuggling looted antiquities herself. It’s hard to wrap my mind around this.

When I first posted about her death, the articles suggested “an apparent heart attack.” The truth is Roxanna Brown died of a perforated ulcer, vomiting her own excrement in a jail cell.

Read the whole story here:

  • Part 1
  • Part 2
  • Part 3
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    1400 graves under the Salonika subway

    Saturday, September 13th, 2008

    Worked building a subway line in Salonika, Greece, have unconverted an enormous grave complex with over 1400 graves ranging in date from the 4th c. B.C. to the 4th c. A.D.

    The finds range from humble pits and altar tombs of stone to marble sarcophagi, the ministry said.

    One in five burial sites were found to contain offerings including Roman-era gold coins from Persia, jewellery made of gold, silver and copper, clay vessels and glass perfume-holders.

    It looks like such a jumble. I can’t figure out from the article or the picture if these graves were all found in one spot, or if this is some sort of collection area for sarcophagi. I can’t imagine they’d move them around already, so I’m going to go with the on-site theory.

    The subway also passes underneath the Jewish cemetery, incidentally, which was one of the largest in Europe and is thought to have contained 300,000 graves at its peak. Suprisingly huge, neh?

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    A little more about Amenhotep’s eye

    Friday, September 12th, 2008

    This article adds some juice to the dry announcement of the eye’s return.

    Zawi Hawass himself apparently saw it while he was in town for the Tut exhibit, recognized it right away and negotiated directly with the collector to get it back.

    Notice the use of the standard “in good faith” clause. Whenever you see that in conjunction with a returned antiquities, what that actually means is that the originating country won’t prosecute the collector for buying stolen goods.

    It’s not a genuine assessment of the collector’s approach to purchasing antiquities, which more often that not is better described as “avoiding the dirty reality because they like old stuff.”

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    Warrior gold found in Alexander’s birthplace

    Thursday, September 11th, 2008

    Archaeologists have discovered 43 richly laden graves of warriors in Pella, northern Greece, the birthplace of Alexander the Great.

    The graves range in age from 650-279 B.C., including 9 that date to Alexander’s time (320 B.C.). There are even 11 bejeweled women buried among them.

    Some were buried in bronze helmets alongside iron swords and knives. Their eyes, mouths and chests were covered in gold foil richly decorated with drawings of lions and other animals symbolizing royal power.

    “The discovery is rich in historical importance, shedding light on Macedonian culture during the Archaic period,” Pavlos Chrysostomou, who headed the eight-year project that investigated a total of 900 graves, told Reuters.

    Pavlas said the graves confirmed evidence of an ancient Macedonian society organized along militaristic lines and with overseas trade as early as the second half of the seventh century BC.

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    Amenhotep III gets his eye back

    Wednesday, September 10th, 2008

    It was stolen from the temple in Luxor during a fire in 1972. The looters found the usual willing buyer: a greedy antiquities dealer willing to purchase to loot no questions asked.

    The greedy antiquities dealer found the usual willing fence in Sotheby’s, where a German dealer bought it at auction.

    From there, the eye traveled to a museum in Basel, Switzerland, and now that Switzerland has signed a memo of understanding with Egypt to return illegally exported antiquities, it’s finally going back home, only 35 years after it was stolen.

    There are going to be lots more stories like these as Switzerland confronts its long history of warehousing looted goods.

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    Google microfiches 200 years of newspapers

    Tuesday, September 9th, 2008

    The days of having to rely on newspapers’ online archives or, heaven forfend, actual physical archives in libraries, will soon be over.

    Today, we’re launching an initiative to make more old newspapers accessible and searchable online by partnering with newspaper publishers to digitize millions of pages of news archives. Let’s say you want to learn more about the landing on the Moon. Try a search for [Americans walk on moon], and you’ll be able to find and read an original article from a 1969 edition of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

    Not only will you be able to search these newspapers, you’ll also be able to browse through them exactly as they were printed — photographs, headlines, articles, advertisements and all.

    That’s a major deal right there. Even the big papers with extensive archives available online don’t offer the full print experience. For pop culture fans, that’s a barely explored treasure trove of information at their fingerprints.

    I haven’t quite gotten the hang of how to scare up the good stuff. They seem to be starting with major events (the moon landing and the discovery of the wreck of the Titanic, for instance), but the blog entry also links to full issues of old papers turned up after a search for “Ford Model T.”

    (That particular paper, incidentally, is the April 6,1912 edition of The Evening Independent, which covers the filling passenger rolls for Titanic’s maiden voyage, Taft’s likely nomination, a flood in Tennessee and an anthracite miners’ strike in Philadelphia.)

    I want to see Victorian ads for some quack medicine or vibrators called Electromatic Hysteria Theraputalyzers, dammit!

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