Archive for February, 2009

Clovis tool cache found in Colorado

Saturday, February 28th, 2009

Patrick Mahaffy was having some a fish pond installed in his front yard when the landscapers digging heard a clink and found 83+ prehistoric stone tools.

Researchers at the University of Colorado-Boulder dated the artifacts to 13,000 years ago when the Clovis people hunter-gatherers roamed the area.

The Clovis culture populated the Americas around the same time as the first people crossed the Bering Land Bridge from Asia, about 13,000 – 13,500 years ago.

The cache is one of only a handful of Clovis-age artifacts uncovered in North America, said Bamforth.

The tools reveal an unexpected level of sophistication, Bamforth said, describing the design as “unnecessarily complicated,” artistic and utilitarian at the same time. […]

The cache was buried 18 inches deep and was packed into a hole the size of a large shoe box. The tools were most likely wrapped in a skin that deteriorated over time, Mahaffy said.

“The kind of stone that’s present — the kind that flakes to a good sharp edge — isn’t widely available in this part of Colorado. It looks like they were storing material because they knew they would need it later,” said Bamforth.

Even cooler than that, there are detectable traces of animal blood and protein on the weapons.The Clovis hunters used these tools to kill and/or butcher camels, horses, sheep and bears.

Besides the sheer awesomeness of camels in Colorado, this is noteworthy because it’s the first evidence we have of Clovis people eating anything besides woolly mammoths.

Mahaffy will donate almost all of the tools to a museum, but he plans to rebury a few of them where he found them.

“These tools have been associated with these people and this land for 13,000 years,” he said. “I would like some of these tools to stay where they belong.”

These hominid feet are made for walking

Friday, February 27th, 2009

They’re approximately 1.5 million years old and they prove that the ancestral humans to whom they belonged (most likely Homo erectus) walked like we do. Prints Show a Modern Foot in Prehumans.

An international team of scientists, in a report on Friday in the journal Science, said the well-defined prints in an eroding bluff east of Lake Turkana “provided the oldest evidence of an essentially modern humanlike foot anatomy.” They said the find also added to evidence that painted a picture of Homo erectus as the prehumans who took long evolutionary strides — figuratively and, now it seems, also literally. […]

Studying the more than a dozen prints, scientists determined that the individuals had heels, insteps and toes almost identical to those in humans, and that they walked with a long stride similar to human locomotion.

That means they could walk and run over long distances much like we do today, something scientists have suspected from examining fossilized Homo erectus skeletons. Since those skeletons were incomplete and no foot bones had been found, the question of how they walked and ran was still an open one.

The footprints discovered in Kenya, researchers said, indicated that the erectus foot functioned much as a human foot does: the heel contacts the ground first; weight transfers along the arch to the ball of the foot; and the push-off is applied by the forefoot. In apes and apparently earlier hominids, this force comes from the midfoot.

These are the first prints found that were made by members of our genus Homo. The only earlier set we have are 3.7 million years ago and were left in what is now Tanzania by Lucy’s species, Australopithecus afarensis.

Update: The rat and rabbit go for $20 mil each

Thursday, February 26th, 2009

The three day Yves Saint Laurent auction is done, and the contested Chinese bronzes have sold to anonymous bidders for 20.3 million dollars apiece.

The precious Qing dynasty fountainheads, looted from the imperial Summer Palace by British and French troops 150 years ago, were snapped up one after the other by anonymous telephone bidders.

China had demanded the statues’ return, but the French government said it received no official request from Beijing, and the sale went ahead after a Paris court threw out a Chinese group’s last-ditch attempt to have it stopped.

Not only did the court throw out the last-ditch attempt, but it fined The Association for the Protection of Chinese Art in Europe — the Chinese government-sponsored organization which filed the suit — $2000, to be split between Christie’s and Pierre Bergé’s company.

China is seriously put. out. Even Jackie Chan is in high dudgeon, and you know he will fuck a French dude up.

Official wrath was nothing compared with the anger of Chan, who told reporters in Hong Kong: “They remain looted items, no matter whom they were sold to. It was looting yesterday. It is still looting today.”

Chan, who collects and has in several cases donated antiquities, said he was to start filming a movie next year about the search for, and return of, treasures from the palace. “But now we have lost two more pieces. This has made me really angry,” he said, adding that the sale was “shameful”.

China is going to make Christie’s pay, though. They’ve ordered officials to scrutinize every import and export Christie’s tries to make in China from now on, so basically they can kiss their Chinese business goodbye for the time being.

The total haul of the auction was an astonishing $484.5 million, far exceeding estimates. Absurd records were set all over the place, for artists like Matisse, Mondrian, Klee and Brancusi, and for 20th c. furniture. One Art Deco Eileen Gray chair went for $28 million.

To be fair, it is a pretty awesome chair.

Mexico hits the jackpot

Wednesday, February 25th, 2009

Miguel Leoff, an American dentist, had the largest private collection of pre-Columbian antiquities, mainly collected between 1940 and 1960 when it was still legal for individuals to purchase and own antiquities in Mexcio.

(Since 1972 all antiquities have been declared property of the state, although pre-existing collections were allowed to remain with the owners as long as they were itemized and declared.)

His widow has now donated that collection in its entirety to the Mexican government.

That’s 8100 pieces, from quarter-ton Toltec monoliths of Quetzalcoatl emerging from the jaws of a serpent to tiny clay figurines, donated on the sole condition that they remain together. Needless to say, Mexico had no problem agreeing to the terms.

“It literally took my breath away as I opened case after case to discover these objects in tortoiseshell, jade, serpentine and gold,” Xochicalco archeology director Marco Antonio Santos told a press conference.

Experts say it is the most spectacular private collection ever unveiled in Mexico given the number of artifacts, their variety and their general condition. […]

Among the most important pieces are a clay flute in the form of a bird, two Inca pottery pieces from Peru, a figure from Ecuador and a pottery figurine from Guatemala.

[Polemic interlude]You wouldn’t know this from reading the AP article because they avoid ugly realities that contradict their “ooh, shiny things!” theme, but this collection is fruit of the poisoned looting tree. One of the stele actually bears the marks of the chainsaw used to sever it from its wall.

Santos lamented this sad fact in the press conference, noting that removed from their original context, they’ve been stripped of much of their archaeological value and are now reduced to lovely but limited pieces of art.[/Polemic interlude]

Anyway, some pieces need restoration — there is evidence of crude repair attempts using dental materials — but overall the collection is in excellent condition.

They’re on display now at the Xochicalco Archaeological Site Museum in Xochicalco, Mexico. Once the collection is fully documented and restored, it is scheduled to go on the road.

Treasures of the Black Death

Tuesday, February 24th, 2009

Catchy title, innit? I can’t claim credit, though. It’s the name of an exhibit of medieval jewelry at the Wallace Collection in London.

The 14th century jewels come from two hoards — one uncovered in Colmar, France, in 1863, the other in Erfurt, Germany, in 1998 — most likely buried by Jews in fear of their lives during the Black Death when gentiles blamed them for causing the plague.

The entire Jewish population of Colmar was massacred in January 1349, and 1000 Erfurt Jews were slaughtered in one day in March 1349, so probably whoever buried their most precious treasures never had a chance to retrieve them because they were killed during these pogroms, died of plague or were expelled never to return.

Most of the surviving gold and silver treasures from this time are ecclesiastical, since secular gold and silverwork tended to be remade later into more fashionable jewellery or melted down for coinage. But here we can see what fashionable men and women about town were wearing 650 years ago: lumpily gaudy brooches with tiny heraldic lions roaring among boulders of sapphire and garnet; belt fittings with robed figures and serpentine beasts in gothic niches; silver-gilt clasps in the form of fleurs-de-lis, dragons and flowers.

There is also a handy cosmetic set that would have hung from a belt, comprising a little silver flask that may have contained scent, a tiny scoop for ear-cleaning, and attachments for other beauty tools. Some of the symbols could do sentimental service on charm bracelets today: clasping hands, a padlock, a bow poised to shoot love’s arrow.

Many of the objects relate to marriage. The star exhibit, from Erfurt, is a gold Jewish wedding ring (pictured [left]), shaped like a hexagonal building – symbolising both the marital home and the Temple of Jerusalem – with gothic arches, gables and a pyramidal roof on which is inscribed mazel tov (good wishes). The same slogan adorns two similar rings, from Colmar and from a hoard found in Weissenfels, Germany. These large and precious pieces were worn only on the day of the wedding ceremony.

The exhibition runs until May 10th and admission is free.

Once the Erfurt hoard returns to Germany it will go permanently on display in what was once the Erfurt synagogue.

Built around 1100 A.D., the Old Synagogue is thought to be the oldest standing synagogue in Europe. Many parts of the building are original, including, notable for its rarity, the roof.

It was used as a warehouse after the 1349 massacre until it became a dance hall in the late 19th c. Nazis partied the night away there, unaware of its history.

The Danton found chilling on the seabed

Monday, February 23rd, 2009

The Danton was a 19,000-ton French battleship sunk by German U-boat torpedoes 18 March, 1917. It went down with 296 souls, including the captain, who reputedly stood firm on the bridge as the ship sank. The rest of its 1000-man were rescued by patrol boats and a destroyer in the area.

A consortium surveying the Mediterranean for a gas pipeline between Algeria and Italy has found the wreck southwest of Sardinia, and it’s in amazingly good condition considering that it was hit by two torpedoes, spun around a couple of times and gouged a wedge out of the seabed before finally landing where it now stands, upright, gun turrets intact.

“Its condition is extraordinary,” said Rob Hawkins, project director with Fugro GeoConsulting Limited.

“After it was hit by the torpedoes, the Danton clearly turned turtle and rotated several times. You can see where it dropped some infrastructure on the way down and then impacted on the seabed.

“You can see where it slid along the seabed before coming to a rest,” he told BBC News.

The French government wants the site to be protected, and thankfully the gas folks are moving the planned trajectory of the pipeline so it doesn’t disturb the Danton or the area around it.

You can see footage of the wreck taken by the Fugro robots at the BBC link.

The Danton now and then:

Walker Evans’ postcard collection

Sunday, February 22nd, 2009

I love postcards. I had a fabulous postcard collection as a kid (currently stashed in my parents’ attic somewhere) so I’m fascinated by the 9000 piece postcard collection of pioneer of American photography Walker Evans currently on exhibit at the Met.

Walker Evans is best known for his Depression Era photography, especially of migrant farmers and sharecroppers he made for the Farm Security Administration.

He began collecting these penny cards when he was a boy of 12 in 1915. He kept on collecting for the next 60 years after that, and you can even see the influence of some of these postcards on his early photography.

“On the most simple level, the postcard is this democratic form,” said Jeff Rosenheim, the show’s curator and an Evans scholar. “It shows in a simple, unvarnished, artless way the generic realities of local life — the small-town Main Street, the local bank, the park.”

Rosenheim said Evans would borrow this “straightforward, mostly frontal style” for his own photography, producing “documents that record the scene with an economy of means and with simple respect.”

Here’s one the postcards in his collection next to one of Evans’ own photographs taken 6 years later:

The influence of the postcard on the photographer is impossible to miss.

Besides that, there are just some awesome postcards in the collection. The ones are display are mainly from the first half of the 20th c. They’re colorized, not shot using color film, and some of them have a great sense of whimsy and fun about them.

My two favorites:

For more of Walker Evans’ photography, see his catalogue on ArtNet.

Bergé makes China an offer they can and will refuse

Saturday, February 21st, 2009

Pierre Bergé, Yves St. Laurent’s partner of many years and co-owner of the massive $400 million art collection going on the block next week, has made China an offer: I’ll give you the bronze rabbit and rat estimated at $25 million for free if you give your people human rights.

“I’m not about to give the Chinese presents, contrary to what they think,” said Bergé, a businessman, patron of the arts and longtime rights campaigner.

“I am ready to give these Chinese heads to China if they are ready to recognise human rights,” he told French radio.

No word yet on whether the Chinese government has accepted the offer, but it seems more likely that they’ll just keep pressing their case in the courts.

A judge is scheduled to rule on whether the pieces can be included in the sale on the actual morning of the sale. Given that the pieces were looted by Lord Elgin’s troops 150 years ago, chances that China will get the bronzes back are slim.

This collection is mind-boggling. Christie’s even had to split up the catalogue into a different catalogue for each genre because there is just that much treasure.

You can view all the catalogues online. They’re in French and the software is a tad unwieldy, but it’s still a draw-dropping browse. It’s the kind of stuff you’d see at Versailles or Schonbrun or some other absurdly rich locus of power.

An X-ray 1 billion times brighter than the sun

Friday, February 20th, 2009

It’s hard to wrap my mind around that figure, but it’s apparently not an exaggeration. The Diamond Light Source in Oxfordshire, England, will debut an X-ray machine this fall that utilizes a beam of synchroton light, an intense form of radiation that will allow antiquities to be scanned without harm at a heretofore unthinkable level of detail.

This will allow researchers to see through solid objects and build images on a micron scale, revealing details less than the width of a human hair. […]

British Museum scientists will be among the first to use the beamline known as the Joint Engineering, Environmental and Processing or Jeep.

They will use the beam on a group of mysterious half life-sized Egyptian bronze statues to discover how they were created.

The bronzes are joined somehow — various parts have been put together — but the joints are so dense archaeologists have never been able to pinpoint how it was done. Once JEEP is up and running, the synchroton light will answer that question, as well as a host more questions about its manufacture and restoration history.

How it works reads like something Doc Brown would say:

To create the super-bright light beam, electrons are fired into a straight accelerator where they reach a speed close to that of light. The electrons then pass into a booster ring where they gain up to 3 giga electron volts in energy before being pushed into a storage ring.

Here the electrons pass through specially designed magnets that bend the beams, releasing synchroton light, which filters down the beamline.

The whole process works in a fraction of the time taken by existing methods such as CT scans and standard X-rays.

That means the fascinating and detailed CT scan of a mummy I just posted about a few days ago will look like a crayon stick figure drawing in comparison, and it’ll only take a minute to produce details at a micron level.

I cannot wait to see what those statues reveal.

Roman decorative gynecology

Thursday, February 19th, 2009

Romans weren’t big on body shame, that much I knew, but I didn’t realize they were quite this sanguine: Ancient Roman Lamp Shows Gynecological Exam.

A group of archaeologists has found in the northern Spanish region of Leon a ceramic lamp dating from the beginning of the 1st century that shows a representation of the gynecological exam performed on a sick woman. […]

The find is of an oil lamp, “an exceptional piece that illustrates the presence of doctors in the city,” and – specifically – a military hospital, the expert said.

On the lamp’s surface “appears a very slender woman, possibly affected by a serious illness, like cancer, and a doctor who is performing a gynecological exam with a vaginal speculum,” Morillo said.

Although there are representations of Roman speculums (specula?) on the record, this is the first one known on a lamp.

The find is in the hands of unnamed private individuals, for some reason that escapes me, but it’s expected to wind up in the Leon Provincial Museum shortly. There are no pictures either, just an archaeological drawing.

Assuming the drawing is accurate, the speculum is a little weird-looking, to be honest. It looks like a bellows. 😮





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