Ancient Roman Swiss Army knife on display

Yesterday Cambridge University’s Fitzwilliam Museum reopened its Greek and Roman gallery after a year and a half of renovations. One of its most prized items on display is an unspeakable cool folding multi-tool device that puts a Swiss Army knife to shame.

The tool features a knife, a spoon, a three-tined fork, a spike, a spatula, and a small pick. The spike may have been used as an escargot extraction device (snails were a very popular food in ancient Rome), and the pick may have been a toothpick. Archaeologists think the spatula may have helped pull sauce out of narrow-necked bottles.

Roman Swiss Army knife

It was made out of silver sometime between 200 A.D. and 300 A.D. Roman folding knives are not uncommon, but most of them are made out of bronze and have fewer parts. This is the ultra-deluxe version, and so probably belonged to a wealthy person who traveled a lot, like a merchant.

There are many other one of a kind items in the Fitzwilliam Museum’s Greek and Roman collection. It’s widely considered one of the best small museums in the country, and the building itself is a gem of elaborate Neo-Classical architecture. It has been fully restored preserving its historical features, but also adding extensive modernizations like a whole new lighting system that brings the many carvings and reliefs to new life.

Along with the gallery, the collection has been meticulously conserved, so there are pieces on display now that have never been seen before. For a fascinating glimpse into the renovation process, see this Project Progress blog written by the museum curators and staff. Sadly they seemed to have stopped making new entries in August of last year, but there are still some great pictures and descriptions of how it all went down.

Roman era sarcophagus from Crete depicting the return of Dionysus from the East

The oldest Roman coin ever found in Britain

The silver denarius was found by a metal detectorist ten years ago in Hallaton, Leicestershire, but it was just one of 5,000 coins in a hoard that included a rare Roman cavalry parade helmet, a decorated silver bowl and the remains of over 300 pigs probably consumed during a ritual feast, so it has taken a decade to date it.

The Leicestershire County Council bought the Hallaton hoard and created a special gallery for it at the Harborough Museum in Market Harborough. The coins have been in storage since they were brought to the museum while museum researchers carefully dated and catalogued them. The somewhat worn silver coin dates to 211 B.C., that’s 4 years older than the previous record-holder.

The Hallaton Treasure is the greatest number of Iron Age coins ever found in Britain. Archaeologists think the site was a shrine built by the Corieltavi tribe, but they don’t know how such an ancient coin came to be in their possession. Most of the 5,000 coins date to the mid first century A.D., around the time of the Roman invasion.

Some archaeologists have however speculated that such Roman Republican coins found their way into Britain before the Roman conquest in 43 AD and were evidence of exchange through trade or diplomacy.

Professor David Mattingly of the University of Leicester’s School of Archaeology and Ancient History said: “This hoard has changed our view of just how significant the East Midlands were in this period and this coin is a good example.

“It indicates there was contact between this region and the Roman Empire despite the distance between the East Midlands and the parts of Britain the Romans arrived in, like Colchester and Chichester.”

He added: “It was minted in Rome at the time of the Hannibalic wars and here it is turning up after what must have been quite a long journey.”

The silver denarius would have been a day’s wages for a soldier or an unskilled worker. It features a helmeted goddess — possibly Roma — on one side, and the twins Castor and Pollux riding galloping horses on the other. The wear suggests it passed through a great many hands in its long lifetime before it went to ground in the 1st c. A.D.

The coin has a place of honor in the Hallaton Hoard display at the Harborough Museum, and is scheduled to go on tour within the UK this year.

Oysters and hazelnuts: Elizabethan popcorn

The Globe in the foreground, The Rose in the midground, the Bear Garden in the background, reconstruction of 1602 SouthwarkElizabethan audiences at The Globe and The Rose theaters gnoshed on oysters, mussels, hazelnuts, walnuts, pies and dried fruit while attending plays by the likes of Shakepeare and Marlowe.

The evidence has emerged from the most detailed study ever carried out on a Tudor or early Stuart playhouse. Archaeologists have been analysing the thousands of seeds, pips, stones, nutshell fragments, shellfish remains and fish and animal bones found on the site of the Rose Playhouse on London’s South Bank.

Museum of London Archaeology has just published the findings in The Rose and The Globe: Playhouses of Shakespeare’s Bankside, written by archaeologists Julian Bowsher and Pat Miller.

Bowsher and Miller found that there was an identifiable class component to what audiences ate. The standing crowd in the open area in front of the stage — felicitously referred to as “groundlings” or “stinkards” — mainly stuck with shellfish and nuts. In fact, the huge quantities of discarded hazelnut shells doubled as a kind of sawdust layer on the floor to absorb the many grossnesses of weather and population density.

Oysters remained a staple in the diet of London’s poor well into the Victorian period, Bowsher notes. Large quantities of oyster shells have been found in pretty much every excavation she’s done at the Museum of London Archaeology.

The covered gallery seats where the monied theater-goers gatheredl, on the other hand, show evidence of a more rarefied diet of crab, sturgeon and imported dried fruit like raisins, fig and peaches.

There are also remnants of New World contributions to Elizabethan culture, like pumpkin seeds and tobacco leavings. Sir Walter Raleigh had only introduced Virginia tobacco to England in 1578, but audiences at The Globe and The Rose seem to have been smoking pipes just 10 years later.

We know tobacco was being grown on the banks of Thames already, but we don’t actually know that it was Virginia tobacco, though. It could have been Latin American tobacco via Spain’s colonies which was introduced to Europeans right after Columbus sailed the ocean blue.

Visscher map of London, 1616, The Rose is no longer between The Globe and the Bear Garden

$800,000 umbrella stand

800,000 Chinese porcelain umbrella standAn elderly couple in Dorset, UK, found much to their astonishment that the umbrella stand they put in a junk room because they thought it was ugly was an Chinese imperial vase made for the Emperor Qianlong in 1740. Its estimated auction value is £500,000 ($807,000), which is more than their house and everything in it is worth.

The couple, who prefers to remain anonymous, received it as a gift 50 years ago. They had no idea that it was a rare and valuable item. Over the years it’s seen some harsh treatment. There’s a noticeable crack in it and some paint stains. In perfect condition it might have been worth twice as much.

The vase is considered top quality porcelain from the period, a period which itself is considered the Golden Age of Chinese porcelain. The artwork is a beautifully detailed landscape of wooded mountains, most likely a one-of-a-kind design. The base is marked with insignia of the Emperor Qianlong and the Chinese script at the top of the vase translates to “precious thing.”

Guy Schwinge (scha-winge!) from Duke’s, the auction house whose appraiser found the vase during a walkthrough of the vendors’ home, clearly agrees:

“Successful firing of underglaze blue and red on one object required the highest level of technical mastery.

“Different firing conditions are necessary and it is a process fraught with difficulties.

“For this reason it is a combination of colours usually reserved only for the finest imperial wares.

Qianlong vase“The quality of the painting on the vase is of the highest order.

“Stylistically it is reminiscent of the work of Wang Hui, who produced a series of 12 monumental scrolls depicting the Kangxi Emperor’s Southern Inspection Tour of 1689.

“The form of the vase is that of a Chinese lantern, a style characteristic of wares from the reign of Yongzheng and the early part of the reign of Qianlong.

“This vase balances elegance of form, outstanding decoration and technical prowess, which are all characteristics of the great period of innovation in porcelain manufacture under the legendary kiln supervisor, Tang Ying.

“He was so highly regarded by the Emperor that in 1743 he was commanded to compile an illustrated book on porcelain manufacture, which is an invaluable reference for scholars.”

There’s also some vague Florence Nightingale connection that none of the articles elucidate. Duke’s wesbsite cites Florence Nightingale’s home Embley Park as the original UK source of the vase.

Sinosauropteryx was a redhead

Artist recreation of russet SinosauropteryxA study performed on Chinese fossils has established for the first time the color of a dinosaur. Sinosauropteryx, a fast, dog-sized carnivore, was covered in orange “dino fuzz” with white stripes on his tail.

The team identified fossilized melanosomes—pigment-bearing organelles—in the feathers and filament-like structures of fossil birds and dinosaurs from northeastern China.

Found in the feathers of living birds, the nano-size packets of pigment—a hundred melanosomes can fit across a human hair—were first reported in fossil bird feathers in 2008. […]

These earlier findings proved it was possible for melanosomes from dinosaur times to survive in fossils.

But until now no one had found the pigments in dinosaurs—other than birds, which many paleontologists consider to be dinosaurs. And no one had used melanosome shape and density to infer color.

The team used a scanning electron microscope to examine the feathered dinosaur fossils found in Liaoning Province, China. There has been some question as to whether “dinosaur feathers” were actual precursors to feathers as we know them today, or were instead fossilized internal collagen.

This study puts the controversy to bed quite conclusively. Under the electron microscope, the filaments are full of melanosomes much like modern feathers are. Since melanosomes contain the pigment melanin (hence the name), feather color can sometimes be deduced based on the type of melanin.

The two most common types of melanin found in modern birds are eumelanin, associated with black and grey feathers, and phaeomelanin, found in reddish brown to yellow feathers.

Sinosauropteryx fossil showing stripes on tailMelanosomes of both types were found during the new study, providing “the first empirical evidence for reconstructing the colors and color patterning” in dinosaurs and Chinese fossil birds, Zhang and his colleagues write.

For example, the 125-million-year-old early bird Confuciusornis was found to have color variation between blacks and browns in a single feather. And dark areas in Sinosauropteryx’s tail were “absolutely packed with phaeomelanosomes,” said Benton—a finding that led the team to propose that the dinosaur’s tail was striped with “chestnut to rufous [reddish brown] tones.”

That’s not the final word on dinosaur style, though. Some of the most glorious plumage gets its color from diet. Flamingos are pink because of the carotenoid proteins in the plankton they eat, for instance.

Still, this opens up a lot of doors to move beyond speculation on the question of dinosaur coloration. It’s not just feathered fossils that can provide information, but other melanin-rich tissues like skin and hair.