Top Ten Archaeology Finds of 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:

    Turkey wants Santa’s bones

    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.

    Likely tomb of legendary Chinese leader found

    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.

    Louisa May Alcott smoked hash

    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.


    Leonardo’s stolen Madonna back on display

    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.