Archive for September, 2009

Last chance to see Mary Queen of Scots’ last letter

Sunday, September 20th, 2009

Mary Stuart, Queen of ScotsSix hours before her head was so roughly separated from her body, Mary Queen of Scots wrote one final letter to her brother-in-law from her first marriage, King Henri III of France.

It it she proclaimed her innocence of any crime and accused her enemies of martyring her for her Catholic faith.

The Catholic faith and the assertion of my God-given right to the English crown are the two issues on which I am condemned, and yet I am not allowed to say that it is for the Catholic religion that I die, but for fear of interference with theirs. The proof of this is that they have taken away my chaplain, and although he is in the building, I have not been able to get permission for him to come and hear my confession and give me the Last Sacrament, while they have been most insistent that I receive the consolation and instruction of their minister, brought here for that purpose.

The bearer of this letter and his companions, most of them your subjects, will testify to my conduct at my last hour. It remains for me to beg Your Most Christian Majesty, my brother-in-law and old ally, who have always protested your love for me, to give proof now of your goodness on all these points: firstly by charity, in paying my unfortunate servants the wages due them – this is a burden on my conscience that only you can relieve: further, by having prayers offered to God for a queen who has borne the title Most Christian, and who dies a Catholic, stripped of all her possessions.

She died on February 8, 1587, but her doctor didn’t manage to deliver to the letter to Henri until the end of the year. Ultimately it was Philip II of Spain who fulfilled her obligation to her servants, paying their back wages and pensions via his ambassador, Bernardino Mendoza.

The letter remained in the French royal archives until it was donated to Scots College seminary in Paris as a relic of her martyrdom. The College was dissolved after the French Revolution, its archives scattered.

The letter passed through the hands of a variety of collectors after that, until a group of subscribers raised the funds to purchase it and donate it to the Scottish nation in 1918. It was kept in the Advocates Library until the National Library of Scotland was created in 1925, and that’s where it’s been ever since, kept in an air and light-tight safe.

Now, to draw people in to its new visitors’ center and showcase its rare treasures of Scottish history, the National Library has put the letter on public display, but only for a week because of its fragile state of preservation.

Tomorrow, September 21st, is the last day it will be available for public viewing. The response has been phenomenal so far. People have been flocking to the exhibition — more than a 1,000 visitors a day — so I’m sure tomorrow will be see crowds galore.

If you happen to be in Edinburgh, wear comfy shoes and get in line because you won’t likely have an opportunity like this again.

If like me you happen not to be anywhere near Edinburgh, the pictures and translations from the National Library will have to suffice.

Mary's last letter to Henri III, page 1 Mary's last letter to Henri III, page 2 Mary's last letter to Henri III, page 3 Mary's last letter to Henri III, address

More on Alexander the Itsy Bitsy

Saturday, September 19th, 2009

Megan Webb surveys the Tel Dor siteYou know the miniature gemstone of Alexander the Great I blogged about last month?

Well, it turns out he was found by one Megan Webb, an undergraduate student from Annapolis, Maryland, who joined the University of Washington Field School’s program at Tel Dor to get some extra credits and learn about ancient ceramics over the summer.

Beginner’s luck doesn’t even begin to cover it. I mean, this is the only Alexander portrait carved on miniature gemstone that has ever been found in an official dig — there are only a dozen or so in the world, and the others were all looted so we have no idea where they came from — and the nice Art History/Ceramics major who joined on an Indiana Jones-inspired lark finds it?

I wonder if some of the professionals on the dig were secretly shaking their fists. Although her boss, Sarah Culpepper Stroup, certainly isn’t.

“She was so careful, so methodical in her work, that’s really how she found it,” Stroup said. “She’s fantastic.”

I’m glad to hear that, because if some slacker had stumbled on what is widely considered the find of the year on the Mediterranean, many heads would doubtless explode.

This is such a major find, not only for its beauty and quality, but also because it rewrites the history of the Macedonian conquest of the area.

Alexander the Great’s armies swept across the area – including Tel Dor – around 322 B.C., she said. But because the town walls are still intact, Stroup thinks there was no resistance there.

“You don’t wear a very expensive, beautiful ring with the figure of Alexander the Great if you’re resenting your Greek overlord,” she said.

“I think the story people have been telling has been a very dramatic story…. but as we’re seeing at Dor, that’s not how it happened. (Here) we see how cultures will adopt and adapt and transform another culture.”

We still don’t know for sure what stone it is, incidentally, but Stroup thinks it’s a carnelian. It would have been set in a ring originally (hence its itsy-bitsiness) and is about 2300 years old.

50 new graves found near Pella

Friday, September 18th, 2009

Bronze helmet and gold foil as it was buriedAlmost a thousand graves have been excavated over the past nine years in the cemetery of Arhontiko, near the ancient city of Pella where Alexander the Great was born.

Now we can add more to the tally, as archaeologists have uncovered 50 new graves dating to the 6th c. BC.

Decorated gold fold piecesWeapons, helmets, gold, pottery and figurines were buried in some of the graves, indicating high social status among the deceased.

Gold foil pieces decorated with animal figures ornamented the eyes, mouth and chest of the aristocrats. The animal designs were symbols of royal power.

Ten of the 24 tombs, dated to the Archaic Period (580-480 BC), are believed to have belonged to aristocrat warriors. Based on the findings, the specific tombs are positioned along two paths that crossed each other, confirming that the “best” spots in pre-Classical cemeteries were reserved for the tombs of the wealthy and members of the aristocrat class.

Moreover, the deceased were buried based on their social class while members of the same family were buried close to each, other forming clusters dating back to the second half of the 7th century BC (late Iron Age) and even down to the early Hellenistic era.

Grave with artifacts

The rise of the decline industry

Thursday, September 17th, 2009

Check out this neat article about the flurry of recent books about the decline and fall of Rome.

It’s by Bryan Ward-Perkins, author of a great decline book of his own, that was the source of the greatest list of all time. His experience gives him an interesting insider’s perspective on what publishers are up to (ie, trying to sell books, of course).

For example, on the left is the cover art he wanted, on the right is the cover art he got:

"The Artist in Despair over the Magnitude of Antique Fragments" by Henry Fuseli, 1778-80 “The Course of Empire: Destruction”, by Thomas Cole, 1833-36

In the great battle of meditative vs. lurid, lurid wins hands down. (Not that I’m hating, mind you. I dig them both.)

Anyway, the books Perkins profiles offer a variety of theories for the fall, but he thinks they all cluster around a central anxiety.

But it is hard not to conclude that a widespread anxiety over a modern “decline of the West” underlies the presence of all these books on the disintegration of the Roman empire, and of a reading public prepared to buy them. It is certainly very striking that so many books have recently appeared on the dissolution of Rome’s power, and so very few chart its rise and apogee. Europeans, and their descendents the North Americans, have had it very good for four or five centuries, thanks to their dominance (military, political, economic, cultural, even religious) over the globe. Romans had it very good for about the same number of centuries. Then things got a lot more “complicated” for the Romans. Are we in the modern West headed in the same direction?

Most of the six books make explicit and/or implicit analogies between the Roman then and our modern now. James O’Donnell’s The Ruin of the Roman Empire takes a particularly intriguing stance.

His takes is that Eastern Emperor Justinian ruined things for everyone when he invaded Italy and defeated the Ostrogoths who had established a fairly serviceable kingdom after killing the last emperor and sacking the place. From O’Donnell’s perspective, the barbarian Ostrogoths were trying preserve Roman civilization, and Justinian was an impulsive militarist who didn’t think through the long-term consequences of his bellicosity.

Sound like anyone we know? 👿

Strange burial found in Caistor Roman Town

Wednesday, September 16th, 2009

Unusual Roman skeleton buried sidewaysArchaeologists excavating the Roman town of Venta Icenorum aka Caistor Roman Town in Norfolk, England, have uncovered a skeleton buried in a strange way. Instead of being laid out neatly as is customary with Roman burials, this body is on its side with its hands behind his back.

“This one has been seemingly put sideways into a shallow pit and the ground surface would have barely covered it. It’s folded up and at first sight it seems to be a very strange-looking individual.

“The question is whether we are in a cemetery area of the town or if we are looking at something stranger. None of us who have worked on Roman cemeteries in the past have ever come across anything like this.

“It could be that they were executed as a criminal, murdered and shoved into a pit or it was someone who was deemed abnormal in some way so the body was not accorded the normal burial.”

University of Nottingham archaeologist Dr. Will Bowden speculates that he might have been executed or murdered, which would explain the unusual posture.

Dr. Bowden, incidentally, has been working on the Caistor site for 2 years. His team surveyed the site using a Caesium Vapour magnetometer which produced a detailed map of the entire buried Roman town. The street plan was already known from aerial photographs, but this survey was much more detailed, including the water supply system, the baths, temples, the forum and a semi-circular building that might have been a theater.

They also discovered some circular features that may predate the Romans, suggesting a possible previous settlement by the Iceni, warrior queen Boudicca’s people. The Roman town might have even been built on top of the Icenian settlement in retribution for the rebellion.

Caistor is under happy green fields now — which is one of the reasons it’s such a valuable archaeological gem because you don’t have to upend a couple of thousands years of incremental building to get to the Roman parts — and before the recent survey, people thought the Roman town was abandoned when the empire fell apart in the 5th c.

They’ve found some indications of Saxon settlement, though, which pushes back Caistor’s demise to the 9th c., when nearby Norfolk became the population center.

3D rendering of Caistor Roman Town

World’s largest stone tools (not a Kanye West post)

Tuesday, September 15th, 2009

Four gigantic stone axes were found in the 1990s, but they’re only getting reported now as researchers document the finds in the now-dry Lake Makgadikgadi basin to study Stone Age climate and migration changes.

They haven’t been precisely dated and thousands of similar but smaller stone tools have been found on the site. Look at the size of these things:

Giant Stone Age axes

What the hell kind of Stone Age Sasquatch wielded those monsters, is what I want to know? I assume the largest ones had to have been used two-handed.

There’s no comment in the articles on how they might have been used. The research is really not so much about the tools themselves, but about what the presence of the tools can tell us about human interaction with a changing ecosystem.

Professor David Thomas, Head of the School of Geography and the Environment at the University of Oxford, said: ‘Many of the tools were found on the dry lake floor, not around its edge, which challenges the view that big lakes were only attractive to humans when they were full of water.

‘As water levels in the lake went down, or during times when they fluctuated seasonally, wild animals would have congregated round the resulting watering holes on the lake bed. It’s likely that early human populations would have seen this area as a prolific hunting ground when food resources in the region were more concentrated than at times when the regional climate was wetter and food was more plentiful and the lake was full of water.’

Makes sense to me. In fact, I’m not sure why people thought otherwise.

The 19th c. world in living color

Monday, September 14th, 2009

Henry Harrison was the paymaster-general of the British Royal Navy at the end of the 19th c. He traveled the world, taking copious pictures and biological specimens.

He was also an artist, so he adroitly colored all of his slides while he was still on the spot, coming amazingly close to photorealism for the era.

Hell, even for this era. My parents have plenty of colorized pictures from their childhood with excessively pink cheeks and glaringly yellow hair.

In addition to the collection of magic lantern slides, he left detailed notes of his subjects. He travelled from Egypt to the South Pacific, taking in most of the important ports of call along the way. The photographs include graphic images of the punishment meted out by the Chinese authorities in the early years of the Boxer Uprising.

Photographs show captured rebels in tiny crates, awaiting execution, and the aftermath of mass beheadings.
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Other locations include the Pyramids, India, Venice, Pompeii, Tonga and the West Indies. One of the slides is labelled: “An English party ascending the Great Pyramid.”

Chinese rebels about to be beheaded An English party ascending the Great Pyramid

The Boxer Rebellion pictures are dated 1895, which is 3 years before the generally agreed upon beginning date of the revolt.

I’m not sure if the label is Henry Harrison’s or something the appraisers have determined. If it’s the latter, that’s something quite notable. Not only are these never before seen images of the repression, but they’re well in advance of what we might expect to see.

His large collection slides and specimens have remained in the family all this time. Now his granddaughter-in-law is selling 30 of the slides, the paints he used to color them and his notes on how to color in the photographs.

The catalogue will be online on the auctioneers’ website a week before the October 1st sale.

Queen Vic’s knicks

Sunday, September 13th, 2009

A pair of Queen Victoria’s linen bloomers and a matching chemise were found in a private collection this week.

Dating to around 1890, the monogrammed unmentionables have been hidden away in the collection for over a hundred years, probably given to a good and faithful servant as mementos of the Queen after her death.

Queen Victoria's bloomers and chemiseThe knickers were bought by Historic Royal Palaces at auction for £600 earlier this summer.

Alexandra Kim, curator of the Royal Ceremonial Dress Collection, said: “The drawers have quite a large waist – about 56 inches.

“By this stage in her life, Queen Victoria had gained quite a few inches.

“When she was about 18, her waist was about 20 inches… Over the years, particularly having given birth to nine children, that changed entirely.”

As well as featuring Queen Victoria’s monogram, the underwear has a laundry mark – a number which allowed it to be traced after it was sent to be washed.

The pants are what is felicitously known as “split drawers”, so now that it’s on display in the Royal Ceremonial Dress Collection, you too can see where Queen Victoria went pee pee.

The collection includes another 12,000 other pieces of clothing from royalty and courtiers over the past 400 years or so, see the slideshow from the article for some pictures.

My favorite is William III’s Christmas elf outfit. Seriously, can you even believe this is adult clothing?

William III stockings and vest

They have a design of a little flower, surmounted by a crown worked in at the ankle, and a ‘W’ in the cuff at the top. He is generally known as a serious monarch and soldier and it is fascinating to see that, informally, the King must have looked very dapper in his coloured stockings.

Like the dapperest of Christmas elves. :love:

Bearded man found in swinging Stone Age pad

Saturday, September 12th, 2009

Archaeologists excavating the amazingly rich Neolithic site of Çatalhöyük in Turkey have found a stone figurine of a reclining male with a luxuriant beard. He’s got a prodigious nose too.


Isn’t he handsome? I heart him way better than the putative mother goddess figurines they keep finding in caves, and have, in fact, found in Çatalhöyük as well.

He’s about six inches high and about 9,000 years old.

Çatalhöyük is a complex of richly decorated structures, living areas next to cooking areas on top of burials. I just heard about it today from this story, but browsing the website I can’t believe how damn fancy these Stone Age digs were.

Çatalhöyük was the final resting place of some of the world’s first farmers. Other figurines representing farmyard animals and people in sitting and standing positions have already been excavated at the site, which dates back to the dawn of farming some 9,000 years ago.

Archaeologists working on the site have discovered primitive houses with rooms decorated with vulture skulls, wild boar tusks and teeth from weasels and foxes. Some of the buildings are believed to have humans buried beneath them.

Look at the horns installed in the pediment of a wall:

Horn core installation on pedestals

Southfork Ranch wishes it had steer horns on the wall anywhere near as cool as those.

Here’s a red wall I love:

Red painted wall

Always in style, a red wall.

The above pics are from Çatalhöyük’s gorgeous Flickr stream. It’s very much worth browsing, although it hasn’t been updated in 2009 so there’s nothing about the bearded man with the sheep nose.

The oldest linen in the world

Friday, September 11th, 2009

Archaeologists excavating a cave in the Republic of Georgia have found the oldest known fibers used by human beings. They’re flax fibers and they’re 34,000 years old.

The flax, which would have been collected from the wild and not farmed, could have been used to make linen and thread, the researchers say. The cloth and thread would then have been used to fashion garments for warmth, sew leather pieces, make cloths, or tie together packs that might have aided the mobility of our ancient ancestors from one camp to another.

An abundance of wild flax grew in the area around the cave, so would have been able to fashion any number of goods. Some of the fibers found were twisted together, suggest they were used as string or rope. Some of them were even dyed.

These are tiny fragments we’re talking about, not visible to the naked eye. They were found in samples of the clay from the cave floor when paleobiologists were looking at it under a microscope searching for tree pollen.

Bar-Yosef and his team used radiocarbon dating to date the layers of the cave as they dug the site, revealing the age of the clay samples in which the fibers were found. Flax fibers were also found in the layers that dated to about 21,000 and 13,000 years ago.

So people in that cave were making linen for tens of thousands of years, at least.

Twisted and dyed flax fibers, ca. 34,000 years ago




September 2009


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