Archive for July, 2009

51 Viking raiders found beheaded in an English pit

Friday, July 31st, 2009

It’s not yet confirmed that they were Viking raiders, but evidence suggests that the 51 skeletons unearthed near Weymouth, on the southern coast of England, were a raiding party who encountered unexpectedly effective Saxon opposition and paid for it with their heads.

(And their clothes. They were found nekkid.)

Many of the skeletons have deep cut marks to the skull and jaw as well as the neck. “The majority seem to have taken multiple blows,” Score said.

The bodies show few signs of other trauma, suggesting the men were alive when beheaded.

One victim appears to have raised an arm in self-defense: “The hand appears to have had its fingers sliced through,” Score noted.

The heads were neatly piled to one side of the pit, perhaps as a victory display, the team suggests.

The burial dates to sometime between 890 and 1034 AD, which was peak Viking longship era.

The method of burial suggests that the locals did the killing, because Viking raiders didn’t drop the raiding to carefully stack heads and bury the enemy dead. They killed and kept on raiding, leaving bodies in their wake.

The location of the burial — atop a hill by the main road to Weymouth — also supports the theory that the deceased were killed by the people who lived there.

A chemical analysis of the dead guys’ teeth should confirm whether they were grew up in Scandinavia or England, and a closer analysis of the bones will reveal what kind of muscle development the strapping youths had.

If, for instance, their bones show evidence of overdeveloped arms and shoulders, that would suggest they were oarsmen.

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Ancient Coloradoans had dinner delivered

Thursday, July 30th, 2009

The Chaco people lived in the southwest United States between 850 and 1250 AD. One of the most dramatic structures they left behind is known as Chimney Rock, a great house built on a mesa near Pagosa Springs, Colorado.

Archaeologists from the University of Colorado have found bone remnants that suggest the inhabitants of Chimney Rock ate fancier meals (ie, venison) than the folks living on the ground below the mesa (ie, rabbit).

The university team spent five weeks this summer digging at the Chimney Rock Great House, which was inhabited between A.D. 1075 and 1130. The team had access to two rooms for the first research dig allowed by the U.S. Forest Service at Chimney Rock since the 1970s. It is in those rooms that they found the remnants of meals to support their theory.

Under the rock floors, where the builders would have discarded their trash as they were constructing the rooms, archaeologists found the bones of small animals. Above the floor, they found the bones of larger mammals — either the elk or deer that are plentiful in that area. They found no tools to indicate the food was prepared in those rooms.

They’re thinking that maybe the commoners down on the ground who built the structure hauled the big game and water up to the elites living in Chimney Rock.

University of Colorado professor Steve Lekson theorizes that the Chimney Rock dwellers may have been sent there from the capital of Chacoan culture in New Mexico in order to perform some essential cosmic rites. Chimney Rock was a lunar observatory built in a grand style very much unlike the below-mesa dwellings.

It seems the rabbit eaters may have delivered elegant repasts to the Chimney Rock elites, as tribute or simply as part of their cultural duty.

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OMG ArchaeoBus!1

Wednesday, July 29th, 2009

You know, like a bookmobile only with archaeologists inside of librarians and artifacts instead of books!1 How completely awesome is that?

It actually used to be a bookmobile for the Athens Regional Library System that traveled to rural parts of Northeast Georgia, but budget cuts had long since left it parked and forlorn.

As a member of the Society for Georgia Archaeology, archaeologist Thomas Gresham had long wanted to put together a roving archeology show.

When he joined the library board and the subject of what to do with ye olde bookmobile came up, he proposed they sell it to the SGA for a mobile museum. Nine hundred bucks changed hands and the deal was done.

That was two years ago, and now the ArchaeoBus is primed and ready to travel to libraries and schools in Clarke County, Georgia, showing all comers artifacts excavated locally and giving mini-instructionals and labs on archaeological processes.

So far they’ve only done one planned stop, but Rita Elliot, the archaeologist who drove it to Athens from the mechanic in Savannah where the bus was first repaired and fitted with display cases, has big plans to integrate the bus into students’ curricula.

Elliot and other volunteers want to apply about a dozen activities and presentations to students’ in-class curriculum.

Archaeologists might ask younger kids to offer theories about where an artifact like a coin or a dish came from and then explain their guesses.

Older kids might have to show how they can use the Pythagorean theorem to map out a field excavation site using string on a peg board, Elliot said.

Using the theorem, archaeologists can lay out an accurate rectangular grid system to mark the layer of the soil where artifact is found.

“You want it so that you can see the clues in the soil, and unfortunately, the only way to do that is math, so the Pythagorean theorem comes in handy time after time,” Elliot said.

How many times do teachers hear the “But how am I going to use this in the real world?” refrain. The ArchaeoBus will answer that question as well as a million others about the history of the state and the study of material remains in general.

I am so into that I could not be more into it.

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Cyprus’ religious heritage decimated by looting

Tuesday, July 28th, 2009

Remember that long-winded entry about the Syriac Bible found by Turkish Cypriot police in Famagusta? I babbled about it so long because the articles in the international press took a complicated story about looting, smuggling and ethnic conflict and stripped it down into some silly ZOMG JESUS BIBLE sensationalism.

Well, those complexities hinted at in the local news stories are part of a really scary big picture.

In the wake of Turkey’s 1974 invasion of Cyprus, the island has suffered astronomical losses to its cultural patrimony, particularly its Orthodox heritage. The US Helsinki Commission has released a report detailing the destruction and it ain’t pretty.

According to the report:

  • 500 Orthodox churches or chapels have been pillaged, demolished or vandalized.
  • 133 churches, chapels and monasteries have been desecrated.
  • 15,000 paintings have disappeared.
  • 77 churches have been turned into mosques, 28 are being used by the Turkish military as hospitals or camps, and 13 have been turned into barns.

That’s all in the northern part of Cyprus, still occupied by Turkish forces. The report was released last week which was the 35th anniversary of the invasion, a Turkish embassy spokesman pointed out, and it was compiled without Turkish input.

Also, it’s not like there’s no looting going on in the south — the Syriac Bible is thought to have been destined for a buyer in the south — so of course there are politics at play in the report and its release.

The Law Library of Congress report, underlines Turkey’s legal responsibility “to refrain from acts of hostility and damage against cultural property located in the northern part of Cyprus; to prohibit and prevent theft, pillage, or misappropriation of cultural property; and to establish criminal jurisdiction to prosecute individuals who engage in acts of destruction, desecration, and pillage […]“. Moreover, in the Report’s concluding remarks it is stated that “under conventional and customary international law, Turkey, as an occupying power, bears responsibility for acts against cultural property. Responsibility also arises based on legal instruments addressing the illicit export and transfer of ownership of stolen cultural objects from the occupied northern part of Cyprus”.

The Washington representative from Northern Cyprus, Hilmi Akil, considers that straight propaganda. It’s a two-sided problem, in his view, since looting and site destruction happens in the south too. He notes Turkish Cypriot and Greek Cypriot leaders are setting up to a joint committee to confront the problem together.

Somehow, I don’t find that a terribly comforting prospect.

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Art Deco renewal at 30 Rock

Monday, July 27th, 2009

The building at 30 Rockefeller Plaza is famous now for being the headquarters of NBC and the name of the network’s finest comedy show. When it was first built in the 30′s, however, its Art Deco murals coordinated by Edward Trumbull stole the show.

At long last, attention is again being payed to these masterpieces of the genre and restorers are hard at work on a two year project to return the faded and darkened works to their original splendor.

Before the cleaning began, Mr. Greene enlisted several scientists to analyze and test the murals to determine their condition, the composition of the paints and exactly what had been done by previous conservators. “I was afraid these murals were hiding a multitude of sins,” he said.

It was the 1970s varnish, they realized, that had to be removed first. One scientist formulated a chemical cleaning solution, but Mr. Greene was afraid to use it, concerned that it might damage the paint underneath.

He also tried removing the varnish with an electric toothbrush, but it didn’t come off easily enough. Then he realized that the simplest method was still the best: gently rubbing all the surfaces with an agate burnisher or a bone folder, a tool more commonly used for book binding. By working slowly, in tiny sections, the varnish began to flake off easily. “It’s a green, incredibly low-tech solution,” Mr. Greene said. Still, he added, “it is going to take two years to get through all the murals, one inch at a time.”

It’s amazing how with all our fancy technologies, so many major restoration projects use things like a basic stone scraping tool or Q-Tips and water to remove decades/centuries/millennia of grime.

The theme for the 30 Rock murals was the New Frontiers of society in all fields — science, labor, education, travel, communication, humanitarianism, finance and spirituality — and Trumbull enlisted a variety of fine muralists to convey this theme in concert with the warm stone background of the structure itself.

Over the dirty, dirty years, the murals have darkened dramatically, so when the restoration is done, we’ll see the figures cooperate with their environment in a way that hasn’t been seen in decades.

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Harry Patch, the last Tommy, dies at 111

Sunday, July 26th, 2009

Harry Patch was a machine-gunner in the Duke of Cornwalls’s Light Infantry, conscripted into military service when he was 18 years old. He died yesterday in his sleep.

He was known as “the last Tommy” because he was last British veteran of the trenches of World War I.

“Tommy” was the nickname for the common British infantryman, immortalized in Rudyard Kipling’s poem “Tommy”.

Harry Patch fought at Passchendaele, the third battle at Ypres, Belgium, in 1917. 70,000 British troops died in that battle. He never spoke of his wartime experiences until he was 100 years old, believe it or not, when he was interviewed for a documentary.

He grew up in Coombe Down, near Bath, left school at 15 and trained as a plumber. He was 16 when war broke out and reached 18 just as conscription was being introduced. He joined the Duke of Cornwall’s Light Infantry.

“I knew what it was going to be like: dirty, filthy, insanitary,” he said in an interview with The Daily Telegraph.

He was removed from the front line on September 22 1917, after being injured in an artillery bombardment which killed his friends.

Mr Patch recalled: “I can remember the shell bursting. I saw the flash, I must have passed out. The next thing I could remember was the dressing station. A wound in my groin. The nurse painted something around it to stop the lice getting at it. I was given a good hot bath. The lice came off – you could pick them up with a shovel – bloody things.”

Mr. Patch didn’t truck much with the glorious war narrative, needless to say. RIP, brother.

This leaves only one remaining British veteran of WWI. Claude Choules is a Royal Navy vet now living in Australia. During World War I, he served on the battleship HMS Revenge and was witness both to the surrender of the German Imperial Navy in 1918 and to its scuttling by its German commander, Admiral Ludwig von Reutera, a few months later.

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Is Berlusconi flouting antiquities laws?

Saturday, July 25th, 2009

In case you haven’t been following the latest from the Italian premier, Silvio Berlusconi has become embroiled in yet another sex scandal, this one involving transcripts and recordings of his alleged conversations with an escort, one Patrizia D’Addario.

Among the usual disquisitions on how his astonishingly manly stamina is a family trait, the importance of the escort masturbating frequently and the many fine features of his Sardinian estate, Villa Certosa, there’s this tidbit (translation mine):

SB: Here’s another lake.
PD: With swans?
SB: Yes
PD: … with swans.
SB: Yes, but we take them out later because we want to have clean water to swim in.
SB: This is a fossilized whale.
SB: Under here were found 30 Phoenician tombs from 300 before Christ.
SB: Here, see, these here are the meteorites. These are the gifts … see these here I went to India… this is the labyrinth… What did I tell you?

Hold up, what was that bit about the Phoenician necropolis again? Because by Italian law anybody who finds ancient remains on private property has to report it and allow the state to excavate. There is no record of Berlusconi having done that.

Naturally his lawyer denies everything, and it certainly would be a highly unusual find. Phoenician tombs are rare. Finding 30 in one place, especially in an area where no evidence of a settlement has ever been found, is unheard of.

Oddly, there is a small local newspaper story from 2005 that describes that same lawyer showing functionaries from the archaeological superintendence and some art squad carabinieri antiquities found on the property, namely some pottery and traces of a small necropolis from the third century AD.

Neither the lawyer nor the Sardinian authorities claim any knowledge of this today.

So far Berlusconi has blown off the various would-be sex scandals that have proliferated since his wife filed for divorce, but this antiquities angle may turn out to be something he can’t actually duck so easily. MPs on both sides of the aisle are calling for an explanation and/or an investigation.

Not reporting archaeological finds carries a possible 12 month prison sentence. They aren’t joking around.

On a side note, a fossilized whale? Parties packed with hookers, barely legal wannabe models and naked politicians may well turn out to be the most normal things about Villa Certosa.

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Five Roman shipwrecks!

Friday, July 24th, 2009

Maritime archaeologists of the Aurora Trust have discovered no fewer than 5 ancient Roman shipwrecks lying in the deep Tyrrhenian waters off the west coast of Italy, near the island of Ventotene.

The ships were probably heading for the island to find a safe harbor in the storm, but obviously the storm got them first and sank them within this relatively small area.

The trading vessels, dating from the first century BC to the fifth century AD, lie more than 100 meters underwater and are amongst the deepest wrecks discovered in the Mediterranean in recent years, the researchers said on Thursday. [...]

The vessels were transporting wine from Italy, prized fish sauce from Spain and north Africa, and a mysterious cargo of metal ingots from Italy, possibly to be used in the construction of statues or weaponry.

Gambin said the wrecks revealed a pattern of trade in the empire: at first Rome exported its produce to its expanding provinces, but gradually it began to import from them more and more of the things it once produced.

Aurora has some great pictures and footage of the wrecks on their website.

Here’s a neat comparison. The following are captures from Site 5, which is a well-preserved ship carrying North African amphorae of garum from the 5th century AD. On the left is the sonar image, the right the camera closeup.

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Modern human suspect in Neanderthal murder

Thursday, July 23rd, 2009

Shanidar 3 was a 40-50 year old Neanderthal male, most likely felled by a deep blow to his left ninth rib somewhere between 50,000 and 75,000 years ago.

A variety of things might have caused this ultimately lethal wound, but researchers think the best candidate is a projectile weapon such as the ones crafted by the Homo sapiens of the time.

Churchill and his colleagues examined Shanidar 3, one of nine Neanderthals discovered between 1953 and 1960 in a cave in northeastern Iraq’s Zagros Mountains. The team also ran experiments with a specially calibrated crossbow, which they used to deliver stone-pointed spears with different forces to simulate a thrusting spear and a long-range projectile weapon like a dart. [...]

Then, the researchers compared the wounds created by the different scenarios, finding the thrusting spears did lots of damage, breaking multiple ribs.

“With the projectile weapon, even though it’s traveling faster, it’s a lot lighter and it tends to make distinct cut marks in the bones without injuring surrounding bones. That’s like what we saw in Shanidar 3,” Churchill said.

Neanderthals had spears but only the thrusting varietal, not the throwing ones, so it seems likely that the spear which inflicted the fatal wound was thrown by a modern human.

Modern humans used spear throwers, detachable handles that connected with darts and spears to effectively lengthen a hurler’s arm and give the missiles a power boost.

Shanidar 3 didn’t die immediately. The wound shows evidence of some healing, so he probably died several weeks after from infection.

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1500-year-old Silla armor unconvered in Korea

Wednesday, July 22nd, 2009

The Silla dynasty was one of three to rule Korea during the Three Kingdoms period (57 BC to 668 AD). Murals have been found showing cavalrymen with intricate armor on both horse and rider, but until now, that was all the evidence we had of Silla warriors.

Archaeologists excavating the Silla tombs of the Jjoksaem District of Gyeongju (the onetime capital of the Silla Kingdom), have unconvered an astonishingly complete set of armor, scale for the human and barding for the horse, dating between the 4th and 6th centuries AD.

Scale armor is made of hundreds of small, intricately connected metal pieces. Compared to ordinary metal armor, scale armor makes it a lot easier for warriors to move, significantly enhancing the mobility of the entire army.

Murals from the era show that scale armor was used during the Three Kingdoms period, but without any hard evidence, Korean archaeologists have only been able to guess at what the armor might have looked like.

“Scale armor is known to have been used in other countries like China, but in Korea it only existed in rock paintings that we haven’t seen in person,” Lee of the Cultural Heritage Administration said.

Silla burial customs seem to have played a major part in the dispersal of their remains. After burial, a person’s belongings were left outside the tomb for people to take, so finding a buried set of armor is unprecedented.

This burial had a coffin where the body was interred (no remains of the body were found) and a box containing the decedent’s belongings. The armor was found in the coffin, laid out flat underneath the body.

The barding was on the bottom, neck and chest armor first, then the flank and hindquarters armor. On top of that was the scale armor.

You can see how it looks flattened out in the picture on the left. The mural on the right shows it in action.

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