Archive for September, 2009

Update: Fromelles dig comes to a close

Thursday, September 10th, 2009

Australian Rising Sun badgeI first posted about the Fromelles battlefield dig last June. Now, after uncovering the remains of 250 World War I soldiers and 1200 of their artifacts (and running into some controversy in the process), the excavation at Pheasant Wood is coming to a close. The official last day of the dig is September 14th, but they’re just doing cleanup at this point.

The remains are scheduled to be re-interred in the first months of next year, this time with full honors in a new military cemetery near the battleground. The gravestones will leave space for any potential identification.

Archaeologists took DNA samples from each of the soldiers, but there’s no guarantee that the British specialists working with the samples will be able to extract viable DNA for comparisons with known relatives of the deceased.

There will be an identification board convened in March of next year where identifying evidence will be presented. If the evidence is deemed sufficient, relatives will be able to have the headstones personalized with an inscription of their choosing.

The article quotes UK Veterans Minister Kevan Jones thanking the Oxford Archaeology team (not affiliated with the eponymous university) for “working in very tough conditions [to recover] the remains of these brave soldiers with the utmost care and respect.” That’s not just a courtesy plug. The Oxford team has been under fire, ostensibly for doing sloppy work.

Australian newspapers quoted one Johan Vandewalle, a self-described “Belgian battlefield specialist”, accusing OA of cutting corners to excavate on the cheap, jumbling up bones and allowing the site to be damaged by rain.

The battlefield specialist, Johan Vandewalle, played a key role in the successful excavation and recovery of the remains of five Australian soldiers found in Zonnebeke in northern Belgium in 2006.

It has been revealed that Mr Vandewalle was seconded secretly to Fromelles in June when bad weather highlighted that the firm chosen to complete the excavation, Oxford Archaeology, was inadequately prepared to cope with rising groundwater and rainstorms.

According to him, the whole excavation was downgraded from an archaeological dig to a body recovery operation, so instead of the site being uncovered layer by layer, they dig deep into the center of a grave to get to the human remains as quickly (and cheaply) as possible. He claims they also should have reinforce the pits ahead of time as originally planned, instead only doing so after rain had already damaged the site.

Vandewalle isn’t an archaeologist. He’s a carpenter and amateur battlefield expert who was hired to help with drainage issues but felt his expertise was being ignored. He’s also friends with a Peter Barton, a historian from Glasgow University which also wanted to handle the project but was outbid by Oxford Archaeology.

Naturally the Oxford Archaeology team denies all the charges.

“It is different from work on a medieval site, where we might be looking for information about life-style and diet. But we are applying the same rigorous forensic archaeological techniques. And we are determined to do it with the dignity these people deserve.

“Good archaeological practice demands that archaeologists must remove recent deposits first, to avoid any risk of the site and results being contaminated.

“To the untrained eye it might have looked like we were burrowing into the pit, rather than dealing with it layer by layer.”

The remains of an Australian soldier's gear at Fromelles, 1918Archaeological politics aside, if you think you may be related to one of the soldiers who died at Fromelles, call the sJoint Casualty and Compassionate Centre at 0011 44 1452 712 612, extension 6303, or email

Your DNA might put a name on the headstone of an unknown soldier.


Hoard of coins hidden by Judean rebels found

Wednesday, September 9th, 2009

Archaeologists from the the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and Bar-Ilan University researching and mapping an extensive cave system in the Judean hills have found a cache of 120 gold, silver and copper coins dating to the period of the Bar-Kokhba Revolt, between 132 to 135 AD.

The some 120 coins were discovered within a cave that has a “hidden wing,” the slippery and dangerous approach to which is possible only via a narrow opening discovered many years ago by Dr. Gideon Mann, a physician who is one of the early cave explorers in modern Israel. The opening led to a small chamber which in turn opens into a hall that served as a hiding place for the Jewish fighters of Bar-Kokhba.

Most of the discovered coins are in excellent condition and were overstruck as rebels’ coins on top of Roman coins. The new imprints show Jewish images and words (for example: the facade of the Temple in Jerusalem and the slogan “for the freedom of Jerusalem”). Other coins that were found, of gold, silver and bronze, are original Roman coins of the period minted elsewhere in the Roman Empire or in the Land of Israel.

That’s pretty damn industrious for rebels to re-strike minted coins with their slogans and symbols. They were quite successful rebels, in fact, as they actually established a self-governing Jewish state for a couple of years over various parts of Judea, with Simon Bar Kokhba as the ruler. The silver and copper coins were re-struck during that period. The gold coins still retain their original Roman minting.

This many high quality Bar-Kokhba period coins have never been officially found before. Looters have kept a steady stream of them on the black market so who knows what other hoards have been uncovered in an unofficial capacity, but this is the largest cache ever recorded.

It’s also significant in its location. The cave is near the ancient fortress of Betar, the site of the Bar-Kokhba revolt’s last stand against the Roman legions after they were chased out of Jerusalem. The refugees who fled to the cave with their most valued possessions were preparing for the worst, but doubtless hoping they’d be able to come back and reclaim their treasures.

They weren’t, obviously, and in the end, over a half a million Jews were killed, plus more sold in to slavery. In retaliation for the revolt and to prevent any future attempts against his imperial authority, Hadrian exiled all Jews from Jerusalem, outlawed the Torah, built statues of himself and Jupiter on the site of the Temple, and literally wiped the name of Judea off the map, renaming the region Syria Palaestina after the Philistines of Goliath fame.

Pictures property of Israeli government, courtesy of Jerusalem University.



Tuesday, September 8th, 2009

So I finally finished reviewing one out of three segments on last night’s History Detective. It took me longer than I expected and the entry is WAY longer than I expected.

Going forward, I might pick a favorite segment instead of doing a full review, otherwise I know I’ll get bogged down. Or I could save it for weekends. I often have a helluva time finding new stories on weekends, and I’d have plenty of time to while away on prolix prose.

What do y’all think? Should I bag the whole thing and stick with the finds?


Watching the History Detectives: Duke Ellington Plates

Tuesday, September 8th, 2009

Serenaded by the strains of the not-exactly-relevant-but-totally-catchy “Watching the Detectives” by Elvis Costello, I settle in to view this week’s episode of the History Detectives.

Garfield Gillings holds the first plate of Ellington's "Take the 'A' Train"The first segment features metal printing plates of Duke Ellington’s signature tune, “Take the ‘A’ Train.” Garfield Gillings of Brooklyn, New York, shows sociologist and History Detective Tukufu Zuberi a set of beautiful metal plates with the sheet music for the famous song engraved on them backwards.

He found them in a dumpster in Harlem 20 years ago, and wonders if they may be the original printing plates of the song. There’s no publisher name or copyright notice on them.

Zuberi’s first stop is with printing historian Frank Romano, who tells him they are indeed intaglio plates used for music typsetting between 1939 and 1944. “Take the ‘A’ Train” hit the charts in 1941, so the timing fits. Romano notes that it’s amazing the plates survived the war. They’re made out of tin and lead, metals that were getting recycled constantly for the war effort.

He also answers the question of why there’s no ownership information on the plates. Each plate was engraved by a professional, and then printed off of only once. The print was then photographed and a negative made. A small piece of film with the current copyright information would be added to the negative, and that negative would then be transferred to a high speed printing press for publishing. That way the plates could still be used even if the publishing info changed.

Next up is Loren Schoenberg, of the National Jazz Museum in Harlem. He points out that “Take the ‘A’ Train” was the first piece of music Ellington published via his own music publishing company, Tempo Music Co. He was a pioneer in this. Many African-American musicians like Miles Davis and John Coltrane followed in his footsteps and created businesses so they could keep full ownership of their music and retain the profits from its publishing.

Ironically, Billy Strayhorn, the pianist and composer who wrote “‘A’ Train”, got a salary from Ellington, but didn’t own the publishing rights to his own song. Eventually, after many years of collaboration, Duke gave him a 10% share of the company.

Jazz historian Stanley Crouch says Strayhorn may have been a victim of his own genius. He was so good at composing in Ellington’s style that people widely assumed Ellington was the author.

Now it’s on to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, where Ellington collection curator John Hasse oohs and aahs a little over the plates. They have over 100,000 pages of Ellington’s unpublished music, but even he has never seen printing plates before.

He says that not only was Tempo Music Co. a pioneering endeavor from an artist to own his art, but at times it actually sustained Duke Ellington’s band. Running the ban was a high cost operation; sometimes they ended up in the red and it was the publishing arm that made enough money to keep the band on the road.

Cover of original print editionIn 1944, for example, the band made $404,969.67. Their expenses were an exhorbitant $394,711.94, leaving the entire band with a net profit of $10,257.73 for the year. The whole band was supposed to live on that! Even in 1944, that’s a lot of tap water and ramen noodles right there.

Then John Hassey whips out the first print edition of “Take the ‘A’ Train”, published by Tempo Music Co. in 1941. Except for the copyright notice on the bottom of the page, it matches the plates exactly.

Tukufu Zuberi goes back to Brooklyn to share the good news with Garfield: he dumpster-dived himself up the original printing plates of one of the most famous jazz tunes in history, and the first hit of artist publishing pioneer, Tempo Music Co. Garfield is adorably excited, as well he should be.

A transcript of this segment is available in pdf format here. The full episode can be viewed online here, although fair warning, the viewer inevitable crashes my Firefox browser. It works fine in IE 8.


British find source of Easter Island red hats

Monday, September 7th, 2009

moaihatsSome of the famous monolithic figures called moai which have come to characterize Easter Island, wear styling cylindrical head pieces. They seem to have been added to certain moai in later generations, nobody really knew what they signify or where they came from.

A pair of British archaeologists — the first to excavate on the island since Katherine Routledge in 1914 — have found some answers about the red hats.

Dr Colin Richards from the University of Manchester and Dr Sue Hamilton from University College London have discovered the existence of a road used to transport the outcrops of volcanic rock leading to a previously unstudied “sacred” quarry where the material was mined. They have also found an axe believed to have been left at the quarry as an offering confirming the site’s quasi-religious meaning to the ancient Polynesians. Dr Hamilton believes the “hats” may have represented a plait or top knot worn by the elite chieftains, who were engaged in a bitter struggle for prestige and power, which was symbolised by the building of ever-taller statues known as moai created in memory of their ancestors.

Out of the 1000 moai on the island, only 70-75 got chapeaus, so possibly they indicate some kind of elite status. The color of the red scoria pumice used to make the hats is also associated with high status, much like the Tyrian purple dye was associated with royalty in the ancient Mediterranean.

It would take a person of high status in the community to organize the work force necessary to quarry the red scoria pumice, transport it and mount it on top of the three-story figures.

Dr. Richards and Dr. Hamilton think the hats first began to appear between 1200 and 1300, which is also right around the time when the moai increase dramatically in size. A burst of chieftain competitiveness, perhaps?



Introducing a new feature

Sunday, September 6th, 2009

Truth be told, I haven’t come up with a story for today (slow news over the long weekend), and I didn’t want to let a day go by without saying something, so I’m drumming up an entry out of a little idea I had.

Specifically, I’ve become completely obsessed with a PBS show called History Detectives. I’ve watched a half dozen episodes by now, and I inevitably sobbed at least once per hour. It features 3 different segments about an artifact its owner would like investigated.

Sometimes the stories are deeply personal, like the pencil portrait of an American pilot who sat for it while imprisoned in Stalag 17 whose granddaughter wanted to find the artist, a fellow American POW. That’s the kind of stuff that leaves me in a hopeless puddle.

Other times it’s a neat artifact with less emotional impact, but holding just as much fascination, like the house built on an old trolley car bought for a hundred bucks in the 30’s when the rail system was dissolved.

Anyway, I’ve decided I’m going to blog a review the day after each episode. They air on Monday at 10:00 pm in my market, so that means expect your weekly Watching the History Detectives missives on Tuesdays.

I’m hoping it’ll encourage people who haven’t seen it yet to seek it out (you can watch episodes online), and most importantly, it’ll give me a chance to chatter about each amazing story with a target audience of people who might actually give a rat’s ass. :boogie:


Gladiators were vegetarian carbo-loaders

Saturday, September 5th, 2009

Trident holes in a gladiator's skullThere is only one known gladiator graveyard. It’s in Ephesus, Turkey, and dates to around 200 AD. More than 60 gladiators are buried in a small cemetery on the road to the Temple of Artemis.

A study of the bones interred there has turned up some unexpected facts about the gladiatorial diet. No feasting on entire sides of beef whatsoever.

Contemporary accounts of gladiator life sometimes refer to the warriors as hordearii–literally, “barley men.” Grossschmidt and collaborator Fabian Kanz subjected bits of the bone to isotopic analysis, a technique that measures trace chemical elements such as calcium, strontium, and zinc, to see if they could find out why. They turned up some surprising results. Compared to the average inhabitant of Ephesus, gladiators ate more plants and very little animal protein. The vegetarian diet had nothing to do with poverty or animal rights. Gladiators, it seems, were fat. Consuming a lot of simple carbohydrates, such as barley, and legumes, like beans, was designed for survival in the arena. Packing in the carbs also packed on the pounds. “Gladiators needed subcutaneous fat,” Grossschmidt explains. “A fat cushion protects you from cut wounds and shields nerves and blood vessels in a fight.” Not only would a lean gladiator have been dead meat, he would have made for a bad show. Surface wounds “look more spectacular,” says Grossschmidt. “If I get wounded but just in the fatty layer, I can fight on,” he adds. “It doesn’t hurt much, and it looks great for the spectators.”

They made up for the inevitable calcium deficiency by taking vitamins. Since it was then instead of now, the supplements took on the form of something disgustingly unpalatable: brews of charred wood or bone ash. It did the trick, though. The bones found have enormously higher concentrations of calcium than the general population.

Knee perforated by 4-point daggerThe skull bones indicate gladiators received serious but non-fatal head blows often, despite the fact that all of the combat styles but one used helmets. Three of the skulls had holes from a trident in them.

The marks of a four-skewer dagger found in a knee bone explain how this weapon — heretofore only known from inscriptions — was actually used.


$30,000 (empty) whiskey bottle

Friday, September 4th, 2009

California Clubhouse bourbon, 1872-74It’s a rare a California Clubhouse Whiskey Bottle from the early 1870’s. The company only produced its bourbon for 2 years, so there are few whole bottles left. Only 9 are known to exist, and this is the first one to sell at auction.

They’re treasured by Westerniana collectors as well as bottle collectors, because they were a high-end whiskey from the era of Deadwood and John Wayne. It’s also famous for its intricate embossing, very desirable from a collector’s perspective.

This bottle just sold for a bid of $27,000. That’s $30,240 once you add the 12% buyers premium. See a video describing it in more detail here.

Minnow trap bottle, turn of the 19th c.I didn’t look through the whole catalogue, but almost all of the items I saw on several pages sold for a few tens or hundreds of dollars, so the California Clubhouse bottle is a major stand-out.

This turn of the century minnow trap sold for $180. You put in a river and it traps the fishies. Clever design, isn’t it?


Massive 3,700-year-old wall found in Jerusalem

Thursday, September 3rd, 2009

3700-year-old fortification, City of DavidArchaeologists digging in the oldest part of Jerusalem have uncovered a 79-foot-wide wall dating back to the 17th c. BC. That’s back in the Bronze Age, when it was a small, heavily fortified Canaanite town known today as the City of David.

The 26-foot-high wall seems to have been part of a passageway from the City of David to the sole source of water in the area, the Siloam Spring, so it was vitally important that it be secure.

No fortifications of this size have ever before been discovered from the time of the First Temple, considered the zenith of Jerusalem’s development in the biblical period. The next period of such massive construction would not be for another 1,700 years, during the time of King Herod in the Roman period.

The Canaanite walls the archaeologists discovered are about two meters apart, rise to a height of some eight meters in some places and are made of gigantic stones, three to four meters thick. About 24 meters have been exposed, but excavators say this is only one-third of their original length.

A small portion of the wall was first discovered in 1909, but nobody had any idea of how massive it was. Now that this 79-foot section has been found, archaeologists hope that there is a great deal more still to be uncovered.

The unexpectedly massive construction suggests a stronger, larger Bronze Age town than people realized.

The wall is open to the public starting today.


Watery Mexican tart lobs a convent at us

Wednesday, September 2nd, 2009

Forty years ago the Malpaso dam was built in the Mexican state of Chiapas to produce hydroelectric power. As is the case with too many of these schemes, it flooded the community Quechula and completely submerged its 16th c. Convent of Santiago.

Now, thanks to a drought that has dramatically lowered the water level, a full 32 feet of the 49-foot tall convent has emerged. What a beautiful 32 feet it is.

16th c. Convent of Santiago emerges from the waters

It’s made from carved bricks, decorated with Maya figures. You can see its famous double choir windows, an unusual feature in a Dominican monastery of that era.

Little more than the facade was left by the mid-1900’s, but a 90-year-old Quechula resident remembers climbing the bell tower as a child and ringing the 7 antique bells, only one of which was saved before the flooding.





September 2009


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