Archive for December, 2009

Top Ten Archaeology Finds of 2009

Thursday, December 31st, 2009

It’s the year’s end and I’m going to keep it short and sweet. For your at-a-glance entertainment, here are two lists of the top 10 finds of the year:

  • Archaeology Magazine’s Top 10 Discoveries of 2009
  • National Geographic’s Most Viewed of 2009

  • There’s surprisingly little overlap, most likely due to their different readerships. The Stafforshire Hoard probably wins the year.

    Thanks to you all for following this humble blog among many. :thanks: May the new year and new decade bring you nothing but good things. :boogie:

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    Turkey wants Santa’s bones

    Wednesday, December 30th, 2009

    The original tomb of St. Nicholas in Myra/Demre The original Santa Claus, the third century Saint Nicholas, was born and died in what is now Demre, Turkey. In his day it was the Hellenistic Lycian city of Myra and he was its bishop. He was known for leaving gifts for the needy, like gold coins in shoes left outside people’s doors, even climbing down a chimney once to leave a gift.

    He was buried in Myra, as per his request, and there he remained for centuries. In 1087, sailors from the Italian city of Bari took advantage of the chaos from invading Seljuk Turks to abscond with St. Nicholas’ bones, over the vociferous objections of the Orthodox monks caring for them. They claimed they had a vision from St. Nick himself, to preserve his remains from the Muslim invader; others claimed they were just thieving pirates.

    Tomb of St. Nicholas in BariThe bones were re-interred in a church in Bari, where they’ve been ever since. Now Turkey is considering asking for them back. Turkey is primarily Muslim so they don’t worship him as a saint, but they certainly appreciate his tourism value.

    Prof Nevzat Cevik, head of archaeological research in Demre, says Saint Nicholas had made it clear during his life that he wanted to be buried in his home town.

    Even without the bones, the town of Demre has not been shy about cashing in on its most famous native son – today visitors to the Byzantine church there are greeted by a large, plastic Santa statue, complete with beard and red snow-suit.

    Classy. I can see how they might want something a little more upmarket, especially since St. Nicholas’ remains are said to exude a rose watery myrrh kind of substance called manna which is collected every year on December 6th, his saint day, and sold at the church gift shop.

    The bones have been scientifically examined only once, in the 1950s. They found a largely intact skeleton of a small man — about 5 feet tall, short even back then — with a broken nose. No explanation of the manna thing, but Bari is a seaside town and he is buried in a crypt below sea level, so there could be various causes of moisture.

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    Likely tomb of legendary Chinese leader found

    Tuesday, December 29th, 2009

    The inner chamber of what may be Cao Cao's tombChinese archaeologists have uncovered an 1800-year-old tomb in Xigaoxue, a village in Henan province in east central China, which they think belonged to legendary 3rd century warrior king Cao Cao.

    The mausoleum is large (8,000 square feet) and austerely decorated, which coincides with contemporary descriptions of Cao Cao’s burial. Inside the tomb archaeologists found the remains of one man in his 60s, — Cao Cao was said to be 66 when he died — a woman in her 50s — Cao’s wife died 10 years after him in 230 A.D. and was buried in his tomb — and another woman in her early 20s, possibly the queen’s servant/companion.

    Tablet incribed "King Wu of Wei"The tomb was actually found last year by kiln workers digging for mud to make bricks, but it wasn’t until authorities caught looters with stone tablets inscribed “King Wu of Wei” – Cao’s posthumous title — stolen from the mausoleum that they began the official excavation.

    Now that authorities know what a major find this could be, the tombs being carefully monitored to keep it safe from looters. Cao Cao is a looming figure in Chinese history and culture.

    During his rise to power during the waning years of the Han Dynasty, Cao Cao became known as a clever yet cruel tyrant who was also a military genius.

    His exploits form an important aspect of the 14th century historical novel “Romance of the Three Kingdoms,” known as one of China’s greatest literary works and a publication that remains widely read today.

    Cao Cao remains a mainstay in Chinese culture and is a frequent character in Peking opera and historical theatre. He was most recently portrayed in director John Woo’s blockbusters “Red Cliff” and “Red Cliff 2″.

    Cao Cao’s poetry is still taught in school, and his cruel cunning has elevated him from king to cultural reference. In Chinese, the expression “speak of the devil” translates to “speak of Cao Cao and Cao Cao arrives.”

    Agate decorative items found in the tombOver the past year of excavations, 250 artifacts have been found in the tomb complex, including stone carvings of daily life in Cao’s time, stone tablets bearing inscriptions of sacrificial objects, and some agate decorative items that could be Cao’s personal belongings.

    Chinese officials seem certain that the tomb is Cao Cao’s, but there is some debate in the scholarly community. The stone tablets are the best evidence that it’s Cao’s mausoleum, but since they weren’t found in context (thank you, looters), we can’t be sure that’s where they came from.

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    Louisa May Alcott smoked hash

    Monday, December 28th, 2009

    There’s a documentary premiering on PBS tonight at 9:00 about Louisa May Alcott. In conjunction with a new biography about the author, Louisa May Alcott: The Woman Behind Little Women reveals just how varied and rich a life she led.

    Her father was involved in the utopian and transcendalist movements and was an experimental educator, so little Louisa got quite the diverse education. Henry David Thoreau taught her botany. Ralph Waldo Emerson and Nathaniel Hawthorne taught her literature.

    It was no paradise, though. Her father found her strong-willed nature and dark hair (seriously) a vexing sign of demonic tendencies, and he was no bread-winner, so Louisa had to work hard virtually her whole life to support her family.

    Louisa Alcott’s life was no children’s book: she worked as a servant, a seamstress, and a Civil War nurse before becoming a millionaire celebrity writing “moral pap for the young,” as she called it. Under pen names and anonymously, she also wrote stories with enough drugs, sex and crime to prove the author was no “little” woman. When she died, Alcott took her secret identity as a pulp fiction writer with her, and kept it for nearly a half-century.

    That secret identity was A. M. Barnard. Two of her Barnard works are available for free from the Gutenberg Project: Behind a Mask: or, A Woman’s Power, and The Abbot’s Ghost or, Maurice Treherne’s Temptation, A Christmas Story.

    The third, A Long Fatal Love Chase, was rejected by her publisher for being too scandalous (the central plot element is a woman who finds herself in a bigamist marriage with an abuser). In dire need of money to support her family, Alcott ruthlessly edited it in hopes of getting it in publishable condition, but the key bigamy plot point was too large to be overcome.

    It remained unpublished until 1995, when a fervent Alcott collector bought the manuscript and edited it back to its original juicy condition. Stephen King reviewed it for the New York Times and he loved it.

    Here’s a nifty preview of the documentary airing tonight on PBS. It takes a novel, playful approach to its subject and looks like a lot of fun.

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    Leonardo’s stolen Madonna back on display

    Sunday, December 27th, 2009

    Madonna of the Yarnwinder, Leonardo da Vinci, 1501Here’s a stolen Holy Mother and Child with a happy ending, for a change. Leonardo da Vinci’s Madonna of the Yarnwinder was stolen from the walls of Drumlanrig Castle on August 23, 2003. Four men joined a tour group visiting the castle, then lagged behind the rest of the ground and overpowered the security guard who was guarding the painting. They hustled it into a waiting car and got away, discarding the frame just outside the castle walls.

    It is one of the few Leonardos in private hands and the only Leonardo in Scotland. The 9th Duke of Buccleuch took it with him wherever he went. Needless to say, he was devastated by the theft. The painting had been in his family for generations.

    Then, out of the blue, 4 years later the painting turned up in a Glasgow law office. Unfortunately, the 9th Duke died just a few weeks before the Madonna was found. :(

    Valued in the region of £50 million, the work, owned by the Buccleuch Heritage Trust, was considered so important that it was placed on the FBI’s list of the world’s ten most wanted stolen artworks.

    “One very much hoped we would see it again,” said [director Michael] Clarke. “Very often these great works do come back — though not always, sadly — and they are recovered often through clever police work. I know it was extremely upsetting for the previous Duke of Buccleuch. I know he was really, really knocked back by this theft. It is a pity the recovery did not come in time for him to enjoy it.”

    Michael Clarke is the person who authenticated the work after the police found it. He had been there in 1992 when the 9th Duke had loaned it to the National Gallery for display, so he knew right away it was the real deal.

    The 10th Duke asked the conservators of the National Gallery to cared for it after it was returned. They carefully examined it for damage — there was none, thankfully — and reframed it. Now the 10th Duke has now lent it to the National Gallery of Scotland in Edinburgh, where it takes pride of place in the Old Masters gallery.

    From a letter by a contemporary of Leonardo’s, we know he was painting it for Florimond Robertet, a French diplomat. Leonardo was less than reliable at completing his commissions, however, so we don’t know if Robertet ever got the painting.

    We also don’t know how much of it was painted by the master’s hand. His studio filled in a lot of blanks when he got behind on his delivery dates. In this case, the overall design, the figures and the rocks in the foreground all appear to be Leonardo’s. The background was likely added, possibly quite a bit later, by another artist or artists.

    Eight men have been with the theft. They are scheduled to go on stand trial next year. Apparently they didn’t even know its real value. They were just using it as collateral for drug deals, the bastards.

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    The T’s hidden world

    Saturday, December 26th, 2009

    There’s a neat story in the Boston Globe about the first tunnels built for the T, Boston’s subway system. Some of the tunnels built in the late 19th and early 20th century but long since abandoned are like little ghost towns. Subterranean Pompeiis, if you will.

    Others have been refurbished for use as a power station, testing facility for new subway features, or for emergency drills.

    Over the years, crews have come through the old Tremont Street tunnel to run utility lines or, in recent years, to consider and then reject the possibility of fitting high-speed Silver Line buses in the narrow tunnels. There is also a large mound, probably 15 feet high, of rusted-out 10-gallon water and biscuit containers that date to the 1960s, the height of the Cold War, when the tunnel was considered a nuclear fallout shelter.

    Check out the tunnels in this video:

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    A sad Nativity story

    Friday, December 25th, 2009

    Nativity with Saints Francis and Lawrence, Caravaggio, 1609One of Caravaggio’s last paintings (painted in 1609, a year before he died), the Nativity with Saints Francis and Lawrence, was stolen from the oratory of San Lorenzo in Palermo in 1969. Despite many appeals from authorities, scholars and art lovers at the time and since, the painting has never been recovered.

    The meager hope, if it can be called that, was that the theft had been commissioned by a mafia don and the painting was hanging in some private collection, possibly to turn up after a death or search warrant or trial.

    Those hopes both flickered and dimmed in the mid-80′s when during the trial of former Italian prime minister Giulio Andreotti a heroin dealer and mafioso named Francesco Marino Mannoia said he’d been one of the thieves in 1969. According to him, they damaged the painting in removing it from the frame, and the private collector who commissioned the theft wept at the sight of it.

    Still, that was better than some of the other theories, like that it was moved to Naples and destroyed in the 1980 earthquake or left the country alltogether. Now a former mafia hitman who has turned state’s evidence says he heard from his boss 10 years ago about the sad fate of the masterpiece.

    Gaspare Spatuzza, who was imprisoned in 1997 on multiple counts of murder and turned informer last year, has told magistrates that Filippo Graviano, a Mafia boss for whom he was a hitman, told him in 1999 in prison that the painting was destroyed in the 1980s.

    He said that Graviano, who with his brother Giuseppe Graviano ran one of the most powerful Cosa Nostra clans, had told him that the painting, said to be worth at least £20 million [$32 million], was handed for safe keeping to the Pullara family, part of the Santa Maria di Gesu clan in Palermo, who hid it in a farm outbuilding. “There it was eaten by rats and pigs, and so was burnt,” Spatuzza said.

    There’s no way to confirm the story, of course, so there’s still a chance the Nativity could be hidden away somewhere instead of destroyed, but I’m afraid it’s a slim one. :(

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    The Secrets of Tomb 10A

    Thursday, December 24th, 2009

    Bits of wooden models in a jumble on the floor of the tomb, 1915In 1915, archaeologists with the Harvard University-Museum of Fine Arts Expedition digging in Deir el-Bersha found a 4000-year-old tomb of a governor and his wife. It had been torn apart thousands of years before by tomb robbers looking for jewels and precious metals. Even the mummies were decapitated, and to add insult to injury, the robbers set the tomb on fire on their way out.

    Amazingly, the elaborate wooden coffin, decorative items and mummies which the looters hadn’t deemed worth stealing back then, survived. They were in jumbled pieces, but they were still there, and thus began a hundred years of work by archaeologists to reassemble Mr. and Mrs. Djehutynakht’s tomb.

    The dramatic results are now on display at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.

    Projected on a wall, the images pull visitors into the harsh desert and the startling moments when MFA registrar Hanford Lyman Story and expedition team members blasted away enormous boulders and encountered a shaft that showed signs of fire and plunder. They dug down another 30 feet to reach the bottom, and there, among the debris, was an entrance to a burial chamber.

    “Inside, they discovered a chaotic scene with objects strewn throughout the small room by robbers in search of booty,” according to museum documents. “Proving an eerie greeting for the 20th-century visitors was a linen-wrapped painted head perched on top of a coffin, appearing to observe the excavators. Propped up in the far corner was a limb-less, head-less torso.”

    The central part of the exhibit shows artifacts recovered from the tomb, including the mummified head. Computerized tomography scans showed that the bones that would indicate whether the head belonged to Djehutynakht or his wife were removed during mummification. DNA tests currently being undergone might tell us more.

    Another room displays the largest known collection of wooden models from the Middle Kingdom which portray people going about their business on Djehutynakht’s estate. Egyptians believed the figures at work, religion and play on 60 ships would come to life and serve their masters in the afterlife. Conservators spent 10,000 hours pieces these objects back together from thousands of shards destroyed by looters.

    The highlight of the exhibit is the Bersha coffin, the brightly painted cedar outer coffin in which 3 other coffins were nested to hold Djehutynakht’s mummy. It’s presented disassembled so visitors can see the intricate hieroglyphics on the inside of the coffin, meant for Djehutynakht to read.

    The MFA has a great website set up for the exhibit. There’s a slideshow of the tomb as it was found in 1915, and a neat zoomable viewer of the reconstructed artifacts. Then there’s the totally cool 3D computer scans of the mummy head (see below).

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    Church sells its Tiffany window for homeless shelter

    Wednesday, December 23rd, 2009

    Rev. Suzanne Andrews stands under Tiffany window of St. John the DivineThe First Baptist Church in Brattleboro, Vermont, is facing a crushing budgetary crisis. The roof is leaking, the walls are peeling, the furnace is ancient and its homeless shelter has 4 times the occupancy it had just 2 years ago. The $8,000 they have left in the bank isn’t even going to tide them through the winter, especially since the shelter runs 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, which means huge power and gas bills.

    So two months ago the congregation had a meeting about the financial fix and they decided to sell the church’s crowning glory: a 1910 signed Tiffany Studios stained glass window of St. John the Divine. The 9-foot tall, 33-inch wide beauty was donated by wealthy supporters 100 years ago.

    “The Tiffany, as beautiful as it is, is a material thing. And the choice was, should we keep the Tiffany? Or should we sell the Tiffany, and keep our doors open. So that’s what we’ve decided to do,” said Pastor Sue Andrews.

    The pastor said that in the midst of the recession, the church’s donations in the weekly offering have dwindled.

    An antique dealer told the pastor that the window would make an estimated $40,000 to $60,000 at auction. Since the AP first carried this story a few weeks ago, the church has received multiple bids, the highest for $75,000. They’re still praying for a miracle donation that will allow them to keep operating the church and shelter without having to sell the window.

    I wish them to best, but it doesn’t look good. They’re not the first church to have to sell itself to get by in this economy. An Episcopal church in New Jersey had to sell three Tiffany windows to raise money for operations.

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    The “Arbeit Macht Frei” Saga

    Tuesday, December 22nd, 2009

    You probably read about it the theft of the “Arbeit Macht Frei” sign at the entrance to Auschwitz. It was major news, of course, which is why I didn’t post about it because I figured y’all would have heard about it already. Now that the thieves have been captured and the backstory is coming out, I can’t let it go uncommented.

    Just to lay it out clearly for those of you who haven’t seen the story, the infamous wrought iron sign at the entrance to Auschwitz was stolen in the wee hours of Friday morning. It caused a furor, needless to say, and Polish authorities went whole hog to get it back. They deployed a full force of police, roadblocks, security checks and airports and border crossings, sniffer dogs, a reward for information, the works.

    Investigators found that the sign had been partially unscrewed and partially torn off the gate. The thieves then carried the 16-foor-long, 90-pound sign 300 yards to a gap in the concrete wall. The bars blocking the gap had been cut apart and footprints nearby indicated the thieves carried the sign to a waiting vehicle.

    Finally, just before midnight on Monday, less than 72 hours after the theft, the Krakow police found the sign and arrested 5 men on suspicion of having stolen it. The sign was found in the home of one of the suspects outside of Czernikowo, a village 180 miles north of Auschwitz. It was cut into three pieces, one word per section, missing the “I” in “Frei” which the thieves were unable to remove from the gate.

    Investigators are still questioning the suspects. They’ve brought three of them back to the scene of the crime to have them re-enact the theft to plug security holes. It turns out these rats actually stopped midway when they realized they didn’t have the proper tools for the job, left the camp, bought a spanner then came back to finish.

    The theft was commissioned by a non-Pole. Prosecutors aren’t releasing any details about the commission, but media reports suggest the sign was heading to Sweden. Two of the suspects were apprehended in the port city of Gdynia, where ferries and container ships to Sweden depart.

    None of the five men have known neo-Nazi ties, although they have criminal records including robbery and some violent crime. Four of the suspects are unemployed; one owns a small construction company. It was that last guy’s truck which was used to transport the sign.

    The five suspects will likely be charged with “theft of a special cultural item” which could garner them as much as ten years in prison. The $40,000 reward provided by the Polish government and various donors will be divided among several people who provided information leading to the culprits’ capture. Interpol is involved now to follow the trail to whatever neo-Nazi collector scum commissioned this outrage.

    The sign will be welded back together by conservators and put back in place in time for the 65th anniversary of the liberation of the camp by the Soviet Army on January 27th. Security will be drastically improved, one hopes, before they do that. Auschwitz is strapped for cash, unfortunately, and in desperate need of extensive conservation. Germany recently pledged $86 million to an endowment fund to help preserve the camp, but they need twice that to keep the camp from falling apart.

    Police display two pieces of the stolen Auschwitz sign

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