Archive for August, 2009

Previously unknown Agatha Christie story found

Friday, August 21st, 2009

It’s called The Capture Of Cerberus. Christie wrote it in 1939, thinking it would be part of her Labours of Hercules short story series in Strand magazine.

Publishers turned it down, probably because there’s a rather unfortunate German dictator in there and Poirot has to solve the mystery of who shot him.

The Capture Of Cerberus (she wrote a completely different short story with the same title in 1947) revolves around a dictator called August Hertzlein, who is clearly Adolf Hitler.

In the course of the plot, Christie expresses the naive hope that Hitler could have been converted to Christianity and begun preaching love and peace.

There really were people in the Thirties who believed this. One of them was Frank Buchman, founder of the Oxford Group, a hugely influential movement which has gone under various titles, including Moral Rearmament and Festival Of Light.

The story was found in her longhand notebooks by John Curran, a Christie enthusiast and author in his own right.

You can read the Hertzlein excerpt in the Daily Mail. (It begins about abruptly with a bold paragraph about a quarter of the page down.) The short story will be serialized in subsequent Saturday editions.

The whole of Cerberus and The Mystery of the Dog’s Ball, another unpublished story Curran found in Christie’s attic, will be published along with her notebooks in Curran’s latest book.

Incidentally, don’t believe the Mail’s gloss that Poirot’s ever so mild expressions of horniness might have scared off the publishers. His attraction to flamboyant redheads of dubious morality — the Countess Vera Rosakoff in particular — is a recurring theme in Poirot stories.

Vote for a new Hope Diamond setting

Thursday, August 20th, 2009

The Smithsonian celebrates this year the 50th anniversary of Harry Winston’s donation of the 45.52-carat deep blue Hope Diamond. He sent it to the museum via registered mail on November 10, 1958 (2 bucks for postage, $143.29 for a million dollars of insurance).

To celebrate the anniversary, the diamond will for the first time in 50 years be removed from its current setting and placed in a new setting designed by contemporary Harry Winston jewelers. There are three settings in the running, and you can help choose which one will host the Hope by voting for your favorite online.

Voting started yesterday and will remain open until September 7th, so you have plenty of opportunities to votebomb for your favorite.

Although the winning design will be announced in September, the setting won’t actually be ready until May of next year. The Hope diamond will therefore be removed from its setting in the fall and displayed nekkid until May. This is a first, and most likely a last in our lifetime.

Then it will be set in the contest winning design for and put on display until the end of the year. Hope will return to its original Harry Winston setting in late 2010.

I can’t believe it’s 2500-year-old butter

Wednesday, August 19th, 2009

The miracle preservative that is the Irish peat bog has struck again, this time surrendering a 3000-year-old oak barrel filled with 2500-year-old butter. It was found by workers at a peat company who were “harrowing” the bog.

(I think getting to harrow anything is a cool job description. The only other context I ever hear it in is in the story of the Harrowing of Hell.)

The butter was found in an oak barrel three feet high and one foot wide with an intact lid. It weighs 77 pounds. The butter-packed barrel is similar in type to other (smaller) examples that range in date from 500 B.C. to 500 A.D. This isn’t the first time a butter barrel has been found, but they’re not usually so complete and nowhere near so large.

Split along the middle due to the expansion of butter over time, the barrel features tool marks from a knife, chisel, adze or axe.

Inside, the butter has turned white and is now adipocere, a kind of wax.

“It’s rare to find such a well preserved butter barrel, with the lid intact and attached. It is an invaluable addition to the national collection,” Padraig Clancy, assistant keeper at the National Museum of Ireland, told Discovery News.

According to Clancy, it is likely that the butter was put in the bog for practical reasons, rather than ritual. Probably, it was the stored harvest of an Iron Age community, who used the bog as a primitive kind of fridge.

It might have been intentionally placed in the bog to preserve it. Such a huge amount would likely have been the product of multiple people, perhaps even the entire community.

The bog butter is drying out right now. Once it’s dry, it will be coated in a wax preservative and kept at the National Museum of Ireland.

Incidentally, people have tasted ancient bog butter and lived to tell the tale. :ohnoes:

Silver pocketwatch returned to family 130 years later

Tuesday, August 18th, 2009

Diver Rich Hughes found an engraved silver pocket watch off the coast of Pembrokeshire. It was engraved with its owner’s a/s/l and Hughes took it upon himself to find out more about one Richard Prichard, 1866, Abersoch, North Wales.

He discovered that Prichard was the captain of the merchant vessel Barbara. He died on the trip and was buried at sea. His replacement proved less than competent and went down with the ship on the Pembrokeshire coast.

The watch would have been on its way back to the captain’s family. But the inexperienced new master, whose name is recorded only as Captain Jones, mistook the Bristol Channel for St George’s Channel heading towards Liverpool.

The vessel was hit by a storm and sank off the village of Freshwater West in November 1881. All the crew were rescued by lifeboat apart from Captain Jones who went down with his ship.

That means the watch was underwater for 128 years. The movement is no longer moving, of course, but the watch itself still looks great.

So Rich Hughes couldn’t find anything more about Richard Prichard, so he enlisted amateur historian David Roberts to trace the family tree.

Roberts succeeded. He found Captain Prichard’s cousin’s grandson, Owen Cowell. He’s a retired dentist and as the closest living relative, he’s getting the watch.

He won’t keep it all to himself though, ’cause he’s cool. It will go on display at a local museum at the end of the month.

Amateur finds prehistoric rock art in Scotland

Monday, August 17th, 2009

Musician and amateur archeologist George Currie has found a large group of cup and ring marks carved on a stone in Perthshire. The stone carvings could date to anywhere between 3,000 to 5,000 years ago.

The cup and ring style is well known in Scotland — George Currie himself has come across several hundred — but this stone has almost 90 carvings on it, an unusually voluminous collection.

Some of the cups have rings around them and a number of linear grooves can also be seen, with some still showing the individual blows of craftsmens’ tools.

Mr. Currie found the stone on land overseen by the National Trust of Scotland, so he sent them GPS co-ordinates of the find as soon as he made it.

Nobody knows what the markings mean or even if they stand for anything in particular.

NTS archeologist for the west of Scotland Derek Alexander said there was a great interest in cup and ring marks.

“There is always going to be a debate about what these things mean.

“They seem to lie on boundaries, so they could be a way to place people in a location. There are also suggestions they are maps of the stars, maps of burial grounds or tribal symbols.”

Early humans used fire to make stone tools

Saturday, August 15th, 2009

A study of a prehistoric site in Mossel Bay, South Africa has found evidence that early humans used fire to heat hard-to-carve stones. Once heated, even the toughest stones chip more easily leaving a sharper cutting edge.

The heat transforms the stone so that it’s harder and more brittle, which allows it to be more easily chipped away into a sharper edge. It also gives the stone a special sheen, which helped the archaeologists identify the tools as resulting from fire treatment.

“The most noticeable thing about heat-treated stone is that it has a luster or a gloss to it that’s fairly distinctive,” Brown said. “A stone that’s heated will only show that gloss if it’s been flaked after it’s heated.”

The sheen evidence was then confirmed by archaeomagnetics (measures iron particles realigned by heat) and thermoluminescence (a dating technique that identifies when an object was fired).

Some of the stones on the site date to having been cooked as far back as 164,000 years ago. The process seems to have been in common use by 72,000 years ago. That’s 50,000 years earlier than previously thought.

This is a whole new point on the human-fire continuum. We know people started cooking with it 800,000 years ago. Ceramics kick in 10,000 years ago, and metal extraction just 5,000.

This step follows easily from people cooking with fire — you’ve always got rocks around a fire — and the engineering aspect sets up the transition to hardening clayware by firing it.

New theater finds old theaters

Friday, August 14th, 2009

The Smock Alley Theatre was the first theater built in Dublin in 1662, after the Restoration of the monarchy brought fun back the British empire. It was home to the Theatre Royal for almost a hundred years after that.

It was rebuilt twice over the years, then finally demolished and replaced in with a 1813 with the Catholic Church of St Michael and St John.

The church in recent years had become the Viking Adventure Centre, which sounds both fun and slightly pathetic, and since that business failed, the building had stood vacant.

Now the Smock Alley Theatre has gotten a grant to rebuild a theater and acting school on the site. In preparation for the new construction, archaeologists excavated the site and found to their surprise the walls of the all three of the original theaters and all kinds of period artifacts.

Smock Alley Theatre director Patrick Sutton said leading archaeologists Margaret Gowan and Lindzi Simpson got more than they bargained for when excavators exposed the walls of the original theatre’s horseshoe-shaped ampitheatre as well as the theatres’ other incarnations in 1700 and 1735 after digging about two feet down.

“We didn’t expect to find the walls of the original three theatres but through this scraping away we unearthed the three lives of the theatres. It’s a great day for the country and the world history of theatre,” he told the Irish Independent. […]

They also unearthed some fascinating artefacts including a ceramic curler used by one of the actresses, pieces of the original mosaic floor tiling, a broken wine bottle and oyster shells left behind by theatre patrons who snacked on oysters during performances.

As Sutton points out in the article, the Globe theater, famous as it is, didn’t get to be built on the original site, so this is a great coup.

The artifacts will be moved to the National Museum and the foundations sealed for their preservation, but the hope is that once the new theater complex is finished, there will be a space to display all the finds.

John Quincy Adams on Twitter

Thursday, August 13th, 2009

Two hundred years ago last Wednesday, John Quincy Adams set out as the first ambassador from the United States to Russia, appointed by James President Madison. He kept a detailed journal of the trip, but also kept a separate diary that described each day in one line.

Now the Massachusetts Historical Society is using John Quincy Adams’ daily summations to class up Twitter. You too can follow his voyage of one-liners exactly 200 years after they happened.

Since part of his 140 characters are dedicated to his current longitude and latitude, you can even follow along on Google Maps as he moves. The nice people at the MHS courteously provide a link and everything.

Interesting highlights for me:
1. he loves him some Plutarch,
2. passing other ships seems to have been a regular, sometimes daily, occurence,
3. John Quincy Adams would totally be a Weather Channel junkie if he were with us today.

You can also read his full diary entries on the MHS website. They have a complete digital archive of the scanned pages. It’s a bit of a challenge to navigate and read, so you might want to start here.

Adams ambassadorship was an eventful one. He was on the job when Napoleon made the damn fool decision to invade Russia He stayed until 1814, when he was recalled to negotiate the Treaty of Ghent, ending the war with Britain that had seen the burning of the White House.

Borg technology reveals ancient colors

Thursday, August 13th, 2009

Scientists at museum like the Met are using silver nanoparticles to analyze microscopic fragments of ancient art. This is a major advance because more conventional analysis requires a fairly sizable sample, which in some cases can be destructive to the artifact.

The nanoparticles also do a fantastic job highlighting ancient dyes, so you get to see the palette of antiquity in a whole new light.

Silver nanoparticles work by absorbing tiny amounts of dye molecules and enhancing the reading of diluted dyes. The nanoparticles also prevent otherwise fluorescent substances from reflecting too much light when a laser is shined on them.

Using such a tiny sample is important when art historians and scientists study small fragments of 4,000-year-old Egyptian letters. Removing even a tiny sample often destroys important details about the available technology and materials available to ancient civilizations.

Using silver nanoparticles, Met scientist Marco Leona has identified a particular red dye called madder lake, derived from the madder plant.

Making the dye from the plant is a complex chemical process, so the fact that the ancient Egyptians were making it as early as 1900 BC means they were even better chemists than we give them credit for.

Leona was also able to identify the same dye made from the shells of an Asian insect on two different 12th c. French statues. That suggests that Asian-European trade networks were more complex than previously imagined, even in the Middle Ages.

Bronze Age cist burial found on Scottish royal site

Wednesday, August 12th, 2009

Archaeologists excavating the Forteviot site in Perthshire, Scotland, since 2006, have found evidence of the largest Stone Age henge complex in Scotland and now, a unique cist burial.

The 4 ton capstone was found last summer, but they weren’t able to lift it them. Now thanks to an industrial crane, the capstone has been removed to reveal a cist — a small buried coffin made of stone — containing artifacts and traces of human remains known infelicitously as “grave wax”.

“The real treasure of this burial is not the metal objects in it, but the organic remains,” [Aberdeen University‚Äôs Dr Gordon Noble] said. “This sort of material rarely survives in Scotland and it gives us an insight into what other objects were being used, not just the things that usually survive such as flint tools.

“The objects in the grave and its construction could equate to a high-status person to warrant such a burial,” he added. “To move a four-ton slab of stone in the Bronze Age was quite an undertaking.” […]

The capstone was found to have a unique carving of a spiral and axe shape on the side facing into the burial, while the cist itself had several axes or other weapons carved into the stone at the end where the head of its occupant is likely to have been.

The grave dates to between 2200 and 2100 BC, which is 400-500 younger than the estimated age of the huge henge.

The Forteviot site was an important one in the Middle Ages as well. A “palace” in Forteviot is mentioned as the death place of one of the first kings of united Scotland, Kenneth MacAlpin, who died in 858 AD.

Archaeologists are excavating a high-level medieval cemetary on the site hoping to find clues to the whereabouts of the purported palace, which isn’t likely to have borne much resemblance to our current notions of what a palace looks like.




August 2009


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