Archive for August, 2009

Another lavish Macedonian burial found in Greece

Monday, August 31st, 2009

Silver vessels used for burial in AigaiArchaeologists excavating the ruins of Aigai, the royal seat of Macedonian kings like Alexander the Great and his father, Philip II, have uncovered two large silver vessels, one of which contains human remains.

This is the second time bones have been found in containers in the middle of town rather than in the nearby cemeteries. Last year the bones were found along with a gold wreath. This time, in a handsome silver vessel similar to others found in the royal tumulus decades ago.

So clearly the people re-interred in these places were wealthy, possibly Macedonian aristocrats, possibly even members of the royal family.

Archaeologist Stella Drougou said the new find is “very important, as it follows up on last year’s.”

“It makes things very complex,” she said. “Even small details in the ancient texts can help us solve this riddle. We (now) have more information, but we lack a name.”

Drougou told The Associated Press that the fact the funerary urns were not placed in a proper grave “either indicates some form of punishment, or an illegal act.”

“Either way, it was an exceptional event, and we know the history of the Macedonian kings is full of acts of revenge and violent succession.”

The remains in the silver vase have not yet been analyzed, so we don’t know the date, gender, age of the deceased.

One of the excavators speculates that the bones found last year belonged to Alexander the Great’s illegitimate son, Heracles. He was assassinated and buried in a secret location during the wars of succession after Alexander’s death.

There’s no way to know for sure, though. All we know is they were the bones of a teenaged male, but without an inscription or some other specific evidence of identity, speculation is all we’ve got.

Emmett Till’s casket donated to Smithsonian

Sunday, August 30th, 2009

Emmett Till and his mother, Friday was the 54th anniversary of Emmett Till’s lynching. To mark the occasion, his family announced the donation of his original casket to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture.

Chicago native Emmett Till was just 14 years old when he was beaten, tortured and shot in the head for allegedly whistling/flirting/touching the hand or waist of a white woman (the witnesses’ stories are inconsistent on what actually happened) while visiting his uncle in Money, Mississippi. The case drew national attention and is considered a seminal event of the Civil Rights era.

The picture seen 'round the world of Emmett Till's open casket His casket played a pivotal role in this history, as his mother, Mamie Till Bradley, insisted against all kinds of pressure from Mississippi authorities that it be open for viewing and photographing. “I wanted the world to see what they did to my baby,” she has famously said, and she got her way.

A picture of the mutilated boy published in Jet magazine went around the world, publicizing the horrors of the Jim Crow South and galvanizing the fledgling Civil Rights Movement.

His murderers, Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam (the husband of the white woman in question and his half-brother), were acquitted in minutes by a jury of all white men, despite Till’s uncle’s testimony that they had dragged him out of the house and other witnesses who saw them with Till and heard Emmett’s cries shortly thereafter. The killers even admitted it in Look Magazine once the trial was over and died entirely unrepentant.

He was buried in Burr Oak Cemetery in Alsip, Illinois, and then exhumed in 2005 when the case was reopened in hopes of confirming other participants in the crime. As is customary with exhumations, Emmett’s body was reburied in a new casket. The original one was supposed to be preserved for a memorial museum, but instead it was tossed into a shed by the incredibly creepy cemetery manager who seems to also have embezzled the memorial donations.

That manager and several gravediggers made the news recently for having dug up hundreds of bodies, dumped them and resold the plots. Emmett’s body seems to have been spared, but his casket was not. It was found rusting in a garage full of broken headstones, lawn care equipment and assorted trash. There was apparently a family of possums living in the casket.

Till's casket in the garage Till's casket in the garage, detail

Now the casket, its glass viewing window still intact, is safe in the hands of the Rayner and Sons mortuary, the same funeral home which first prepared Emmett’s body for burial. They will send it to the Smithsonian’s Museum Support Center for restoration and conservation until it can be displayed in the new National Museum of African American History and Culture when it opens in 2015.

Hugest Viking hoard in 150 years goes on display

Saturday, August 29th, 2009

The Vale of York Hoard was found in a a field in Harrogate, North Yorkshire, in January 2007 by a father-son team of British metal detector hobbyists, and after 2 years of fundraising, was purchased by both the Yorkshire Museum and the British Museum, who will alternate putting it on display.

The hoard is a thousand years old, and contains precious artifacts from Afghanistan, Ireland, Russia and Scandinavia, courtesy of the Vikings’ vast reach and plundering skills. The artifacts include 617 silver coins, silver ingots, jewelry, and an intricately carved gilt silver cup which alone is worth £200,000 (ca $325,000).

Gilt silver cup from the Vale of York hoardMuch of the hoard, which contains 67 objects [not counting over 600 coins], was preserved inside the gilt silver vessel, made around the middle of the 9th century, close to where the present-day Franco-German border runs. It was probably intended for use in church services and was believed to have been looted by Vikings from a monastery.

The artefacts were extraordinarily well-preserved because they had kept in a lead container. The hoard also contains coins relating to Islam and the pre-Christian religion of the Vikings.

The whole hoard went for a jaw-dropping £1,082,000 (ca $1,760,000) which will be divided between the two finders and the landowner who allowed them to metal detect on his property in the first place.

Preservationists have only just begun the process of cleaning and restoring the hoard. They’ve been using a porcupine quill under a microscope, believe or not, to clean out the intricate designs.

The really ol’ ball and chain

Friday, August 28th, 2009

A rare complete set of prison shackles were found by official Thames mudlarks (yes, there are official mudlarks, 50 or so people licensed to dig for artifacts in the mud on the Thames shores) on a warf in southeast London. It’s the only known full set of irons to have been found via excavation.

At first mudlarks Steve Brooker and Rick Jones thought they’d find a cannon ball. They almost discarded it because they see so many cannon balls they’re hardly worth digging up anymore. Our heroes followed up, however, and found instead something unique.

The padlock is skillfully made with the screw-thread carved after the padlock had been cast. English padlocks of this time were not made in this way suggesting it was made somewhere in continental Europe, possibly Germany.

The long spike on the padlock would have pointed toward the other leg when it was fitted around the ankle, Sumnall said.

The shackles are about 300 years old, and since they were found locked without a key, may have ended up in the Thames with someone poor soul actually attached to them. There were no human remains, but they could easily have been scattered by the currents.

The 17.64 lb fetters were well-preserved by the thick anaerobic Thames mud so they’re in excellent condition. They’re on display right now for a limited time at the Museum of London Docklands.

Gilt Roman horse head found in Germany

Thursday, August 27th, 2009

In a scene straight out ancient Rome’s versions of “The Godfather”, German archaeologists have uncovered the beautifully preserved horse’s head from a Roman equestrian statue.

The life-size statue is gold-plated bronze, and they also found the foot of the rider, thought to be Augustus.

“This bronze sculpture counts among the best pieces to have ever been found from the area of the former Roman empire,” said Eva Kuehne-Hoermann, Hesse’s minister for science, at the unveiling of the head in Frankfurt on Thursday. “Nowhere else is there a finding of this form or quality.”

It dates to 3 or 4 BC, the time when the Roman outpost in the area was founded. Five or so years later, after Rome’s dramatic defeat in the Battle of Teutoburg Forest, German tribesmen dismembered the statue and threw the head in a well.

That turned out to be good news for us, because the water in the well actually helped preserve the head for us to find. Restoration will still take a couple of years, but once it’s done, the pieces will be exhibited in a museum in Hesse.

Alexander the Itsy Bitsy

Wednesday, August 26th, 2009

A magnificent miniature of Alexander the Great has been found during the excavation of Tel Dor, an ancient port city 30 miles south of Haifa, Israel.

It was engraved on a gemstone less than a centimeter long and less than half a centimeter wide. Despite the teeniness of the medium, the artist carved the youthful Alexander in exquisite detail.

Clearly this was a highly valuable piece even in its own day, something that is surprising given the location. You’d expect to find a treasure like this in the major centers of the Greek empire, not so much in Israel, although Alexander did take the ancient city (called just plain Dor back then) without encountering resistance on his way to Egypt in 332 BC.

“It has been accepted to assume that first-rate artists – and whoever carved the image of Alexander in this gemstone was certainly one of them – were primarily active under the patronage of the large royal courts in Greece itself or in major capitals,” the scientists explained. “It turns out that local elites in secondary centers such as Dor could allow themselves – and knew to appreciate – superior artwork.”

This is one of the reasons archaeological context is so important, btw. Not to flog my hobby horse or anything, but if this piece had been looted and turned up wherever without a record of where it was found, nobody would ever have thought it came from Israel.

Now not only do we have this extraordinary piece of art, but we know something we hadn’t even considered about the time and place in which it was made.

Finally a non-annoying use for cellphones in museums

Tuesday, August 25th, 2009

Starting tomorrow, the Brooklyn Museum will give visitors with internet-enabled cellphones a program to create their own customized gallery guides.

So you go to the Brooklyn Museum, add an item to your cellphone gallery guide, then the program suggests other things you might want to see. You can add notes as you go, and upload your guide to the museum website for other visitors to share.

For example, a visitor to the ancient Egyptian galleries containing more than 1,200 objects might focus on the Old Kingdom section, encompassing Dynasties 3 through 6, from 2675 through 2170 B.C. There, they might select a limestone group statue depicting a man, his wife, and their small son that was the first major work of Egyptian art ever exhibited in America. Given their interest in this statue, the program then might suggest that the visitor look at three elaborately painted wooden tomb statues depicting a man at various stages of his life and an exquisite alabaster statue of the child King Pepy II seated on the lap of his mother. […]

Through the aggregation of data provided by many visitors and their individual tastes, the guide is designed to grow more intelligent as more visitors use it and more data is supplied. The new customized guide will be free to all visitors and may be used on any Web-enabled mobile phone.

That’s going to be damn handy, and I say this as someone without an internet-enabled phone. It’s so easy to find yourself wandering aimlessly in large museums. After a while even the most extraordinary objects can seem to blend into one.

On a side note, who knew the Brooklyn Museum had a 1,200-object ancient Egyptian gallery? 😮

Golf course groundskeeper finds mammoth tooth

Monday, August 24th, 2009

Nineteen-year-old groundskeeper Patrick Walker was edging weeds on the Morrison Lake Country Club golf course in Saranac, Michigan, when he came across a large black rock-looking thing.

His boss was ready to toss it out, but Walker remembered a plaster cast of a mammoth tooth he had seen in a science class once and immediately recognized its shape, size and that unusual tread pattern.

They called up some local folks who had found fossils in their back yard and got the names of some University of Michigan experts, one of whom hilariously suggested that this 9-inch-wide, 10-pound fossil was the remnant of a pig barbecued on the property.

Thankfully, they reached Dr. Scott Beld, from the University’s Museum of Paleontology and he recognized it as the tooth of a small Columbian mammoth, perhaps an adolescent or a female.

There may be more of the mammoth to be found under the green, but the golf course is a small operation and they can’t afford to tear up the property for excavation.

Roman naval battle in New York City

Sunday, August 23rd, 2009

Brooklyn artist Duke Riley has a thing for recreating historical watercraft. Two years ago he sailed a wooden submarine he made from Revolutionary War designs towards the Queen Mary 2. Naturally they arrested him.

This year, he staged a whole Gladiatorial-style naval battle in the reflecting pool at Flushing Meadows Corona Park, site of two World’s Fairs, one in 1939, the other in 1964.

A giant “Unisphere” was built in the middle of the central fountain in 1964, along with other structures, statues and reflecting pools. (It’s near the New York Mets’ old Shea Stadium and new Citi Park.)

One of the 1964 pools became the site of this naumachia. Plumbers from the city parks department filled the pool for the first time since the 1964 World’s Fair. It provided a perfect venue for the mock Colosseum on water.

Of course, even filled the reflecting pool is just a foot and a half deep, so the reed ships and catamarans had to be designed to carry people and float on a puddle.

So he invited a bunch of friends to make 5 ships representing the five boroughs of New York City, plus representatives from museums in each of the boroughs to serve as crew on their ship.

Instead of the gladius and trident, toga-clad crew and spectators used tomatoes as weapons. The spectators were inspired to join the fray more directly, and the ships were basically torn apart.

Then for the grand finale Riley produced a surprise 6th ship modeled after the Queen Mary 2, his old nemesis, and set it joyously alight with fireworks until they flipped it over in the water to douse the flames.

Now that is what I call a great time.

Scotland’s earliest face

Saturday, August 22nd, 2009

It’s basically a stick figure made out of rocks, but it’s notable as the earliest anthropomorphic carving ever found in Scotland.

The face and its lozenge-shaped body – measuring just 3.5cm by 3cm – were carved on the Orkney island of Westray between 4,500 and 5,000 years ago.

The enigmatic figurine had lain undisturbed in the earth at the Links of Noltland – one of Orkney’s richest archaeological sites – until just last week.

It’s not only the earliest known Scottish Stone Age carving of a human, but so far it’s the only one.

The cup and ring carvings I blogged out earlier this week are from the same era, and that sort of abstract design is all they’ve found dating to Neolithic times before now. So needless to say, Scottish archaeologists are psyched.

It’s a little on the border between human form and morse code, to be honest, but I can see the person in there.

See, the dots on either side of the Tic-Tac-Toe grid are eyes, the grid is his nose, the scratches above might be hair, the circles on the right and left of the trunk are probably breasts.

The arms are carved on the sides and can’t be seen in this picture.




August 2009


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