1300-year-old wooden tablets found in Japan

Tens of thousands of wooden tablets known as mokkan from the Nara Period (710 – 784 A.D.) have been found in the remains of the Imperial Palace.

The research institute uncovered a hole containing a large number of wooden tablets while excavating the site last spring. The hole measured about 10 meters from east to west and 7 meters from north to south, and was about 1 meter deep at its deepest point. It was the biggest waste disposal pit in the palace grounds.

Most of the mokkan were in scraps, but investigations have uncovered writing relating to the imperial guard that protected the emperor, and the inscription “Hoki Period, Year 2,” referring to the year 771. There is a possibility that the wooden tablets were discarded when military-related facilities were set up.

Nara was the capital of Japan and seat of the emperor, hence the name “Nara Period”. It was during this time that the first Japanese literature appears in the form of imperial historians/propagandists, so these tablets found on the palace premises might contain all kinds of primary source material — government records, expenses, legal pronouncements — as well as early copies of Japan’s first books.

Previous collections of mokkan have turned up on the palace grounds before, and 74,000 wooden tablets were uncovered elsewhere in the city in 1989. It’s unlikely to beat the overall record, but this find might exceed the palace record of 50,000 mokkan discovered in one place.

The medieval manuscript genome project

An associate English professor at North Carolina State University, Raleigh, Timothy Stinson, has begun DNA testing medieval manuscripts.

Since parchment was made from animal skin, there is genetic material to be found in the pages of the books themselves.

Thousands of fragile manuscripts still survive from the Middle Ages (roughly 400 to 1500 CE), a time when most of Europe’s population was illiterate, and monks transcribed nearly all of the books that circulated around the continent. Until recently, scholars relied on visual analysis (such as handwriting samples) to trace the origin of most ancient texts. But Stinson says that more precise genetic analyses are possible because the preferred “paper” of the day was thin parchment made from the skin of local cattle, sheep or goats. “DNA offers much more specific information, but no one’s mapped it yet,” he says. […]

Medieval manuscripts often were written on pages made from the skins of as many as 100 different animals, according to Stinson. But scholars speculate that, at least until the mid-15th century, most books were made from local herd animals, which could make tracing their point of origin fairly reliable.

His goal is to create a large DNA database from manuscripts with a known provenance, and then use that database to pinpoint where unknown manuscripts may have come from.

The genetic material might also link manuscripts which have been separated over time and distance. There may be all kinds of partial books amenable to reconciliation scattered through libraries and collections around the world.

The database would be replete with information about quotidian aspects of medieval life, like herd movements and trade routes.

For a lovely browse of medieval manuscripts online, check out Oxford University’s Bodleian Library site.

FBI Returns Pre-Columbian Artifacts to Panama

Man, I love it when the news comes from a government press release. They give great backstory and sometimes (like this time), killer pictures.

In this case, the FBI returned over a hundred pre-Columbian artifacts to the government of Panama yesterday, including pottery and gold jewelry.

The FBI’s investigation revealed that the widow of an amateur archeologist was storing the items in and around Klamath Falls, Oregon. The investigation showed that the individual acquired many of the items while working as a teacher on a U.S. military base in Panama during the 1980s. It was also during this time that he married his wife, then a Panamanian citizen. The two brought many of the items with them when they moved back to the U.S. in the late 1980s. Over the years, the couple sold some of the items at various markets and on the Internet. The Klamath Falls man died of natural causes in October 2004. No charges are expected.

That’s one way to enhance your retirement funds, I suppose: loot for few years, get that “How to Sell on E-bay” book and go to town.

Panama has strict laws against antiquities ownership. Not only is stealing artifacts against the law, ownership of any kind is against the law. If it’s an antique from Panama it belongs to the government of Panama, full stop.

Europe’s culture — pretty much all of it — online

Two million items from Europe’s museums, archives, libraries, collections of all sorts are now available for the searching on a single website. Just type in a keyword and see what images, video, recordings and texts show up.

I searched for “Galileo” and it returned an entire digitized book from the Biblioteca Nazionale Centrale di Firenze, along with another 230 other texts, 448 images and 4 videos, including this awesome 1950’s Italian documentary on the importance of an educated populace to the economic and technological fortunes of the country.

Europeana’s list of contributors currently includes piles of national libraries, the International Federation of Television Archives, the Rijksmuseum and the Louvre in Paris.

Started by the European Commission in 2007, this is just the first prototype of a complete European digital library. Version 1.0 will have 6 million digitized items, and is scheduled to launch in 2010.

I’ve been waiting to post this entry since last November when Europeana first debuted, but it was so packed with win that it was instantly overwhelmed with traffic and had to be taken down for over 2 months.

Now it’s finally up and ready for copious, obsessive searching. :boogie:

Theme parks to the right of them, reenactments to the left

As with the Ancient Roman theme park outside the city, Rome is full of ideas to turn its historical sites into modern-day circuses. The latest is gladiatorial combat in the Colosseum itself.

According to [city council Head of Archaeology, Umberto] Broccoli’s plan, modern-day gladiators will engage in realistically choreographed mock fights, wearing original costumes and the same combat gear — swords, tridents, nets and daggers — that was used 2,000 years ago.

The re-enacted contests will be staged in the evening, accompanied by readings from the works of Latin poets such as Seneca. It has yet to be determined whether gladiators will fight on a stage over the arena’s subterranean chambers and tunnels or on a stage outside the Colosseum.

So classy, then.

Stressing that the fights would not be a Disneyland-like attraction, but a serious project to bring the sporting heroes of antiquity alive, Broccoli also dismissed fears that they might appear too crude.

“The gladiators themselves were vulgar. They were sweaty, they stank and they swore. Why not show them as they really were?” Broccoli said.

Classy but with funk, cussing and crotch sweat. Like a Pussycat Dolls concert.

The have some excellent street food in that area, too, so it’s probably a fairly cheap way to catch dinner and a show. My dad broke his tooth on this triple-thick almond brittle sort of thing at the Stations of the Cross one year.

Anyway, there are apparently all kinds of secretive events planned for the Colosseum this year. According to the deputy mayor of Rome, “2009 will be the year of the Colosseum.”

That’s a bold statement. 80 was hard to beat, what with the 5000 animals killed over 100 days of inaugural games.