Archive for March, 2010

Morgantina Treasure on display in Rome

Sunday, March 21st, 2010

The Scylla emblem, Morgantina TreasureThe Morgantina Treasure is a cache of 16 highly decorated gilt silver dishes from the Greek era of Sicily (before the 3rd c. B.C.). Its owner — who must have been a collector because the pieces are different styles and ages — buried it in 211 B.C. to keep it safe from the Romans invading Sicily during the second Punic War.

Italian art officials said the pieces form one of the most important Hellenistic silverware collections to have survived from Sicily. The pieces are known as “The Morgantina Treasure” after the name of the ancient Greek settlement where they were excavated, near what is now the Italian city of Aidone.

Angelo Bottini, the archaeology superintendent in Rome, said the objects were likely crafted by different artists and served different functions. Some, like the large bowls with mask-shaped feet, were likely used to mix wine with water during meals; others, like the plates, were likely used during ceremonies, officials said.

Morgantina was a prosperous Greek town from 1000 B.C. to 211 B.C. After the Roman takeover, the town faded away into farmland, and our silver-burying hero never made it back, so the silver stayed underground for 2000+ years, until looters dug it up from the Morgantina archaeological site in the late 70’s or early 80’s.

Malcolm Bell III was director of the Princeton team excavating the Morgantina site during that period. He saw first hand a group of unauthorized diggers working on a hill which was soon rumored to have been the source of a huge silver find. Looters were bold in those days, working without fear of repercussions under officials’ very noses.

They smuggled it out of Italy and as the same old story goes, indicted antiquities dealer Robert Hecht sold it over a period of several years (1981-84) to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. He is thought to have made something like $2,700,000 from the Morgantina silver.

It was Malcolm Bell who ultimately nailed the provenance of the silver set. He saw it at the Met in 1988, then in 1996 was asked to excavate the reputed hill where the silver was found, then finally the Met allowed him to get a close look at the silver in 1999. He found an inscription that turned out to be a name, a name he knew from a house he had excavated in Morgantina.

That key piece of research (along with massive amounts of pressure from the Italian Culture Ministry and legal system) made it possible for Italy to reclaim the silver in the 2006 deal with the Met that also resulted in the return of the Euphronios Krater.

So now the Morgantina Treasure is on display in Rome for the very first time. It will be on display at the Museo Nazionale Romano through May 23. After that, it goes back home for the first time since it was so callously removed to go on display in Palermo’s Museo Archeologico Regionale.

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Inside (and upskirt) the Bloomsbury set

Saturday, March 20th, 2010

Ralph Partridge, EM Forster, Lytton Strachey, Pierre Lancel and Francis Patridge 1922-4A heretofore unseen collection of diaries, letters and pictures from two of the younger, lesser known members of the Bloomsbury set, the group of artists and writers including Virginia Woolf and EM Forster who came to typify the bohemian lifestyle of inter-war British intellectuals, is going on display at Cambridge University’s King’s College archive center.

Rosamond Lehmann was a successful novelist in the 30s Her archives include manuscripts and notes from many of her works, plus a huge amount of correspondence from the likes of EM Forster, Siegfried Sassoon and Virginia Woolf, and poems from luminaries of the era, including her lover, poet laureate Cecil Day Lewis, father of Daniel.

Writer Frances Partridge‘s collection includes her extensively detailed diaries, lectures, notes, and not only her own photograph albums but also those of biographer and critic Lytton Strachey and painter Dora Carrington, whose doomed relationship was depicted in the movie Carrington by Jonathan Pryce and Emma Thompson.

A University spokesman said the articles showed a fascinating glimpse of the lifestyles, interests and opinions of a unique group of women who flourished between World War I and World War II.

He said the women voiced political opinions and enjoyed university education while many of their contemporaries would not have benefited from the same opportunities.

Archivist of King’s College, Cambridge, Patricia McGuire, said of Lehmann and Partridge: “These two women in particular had all the benefits of the inter-war era.

“They were allowed to come to Cambridge at a time when women were finally earning some rights in Cambridge.

“In 1921 they were allowed titular degrees, which were not the same as university membership but it was a big step forward for women in education, and women were getting the vote if they had a university degree or were landowners so it was a wonderful time in women’s rights.”

Dora Carrington poses nakedTheir vie bohème, as it so often is, was made possibly by the financial independence of the people fortunate enough to live it. You can see what a privileged life they really lived in these letters and pictures. Nannies and country homes are involved. Also nudity. Dora Carrington posed nekkid like a statue, and Frances Partridge is topless kind of a lot, actually. Only Virginia made a point of staying clothed in pictures.

In one of the sadder letters is from Virginia Woolf’s sister Vanessa Bell telling her friend that it’s just a matter of time before they find the body and officially announce her death, but she knows from the letters Virginia left behind and her footprints found by the riverside that her sister has killed herself.

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DeMille’s Egypt under the dunes of California coast

Friday, March 19th, 2010

'The Ten Commandments' set, 1923In 1923 filmmaker Cecil B. DeMille built an insanely huge faux Egypt set for his epic silent film The Ten Commandments on the Guadalupe-Nipomo Dunes near Pismo Beach in California. The location was well-used by early Hollywood for desert scenes — Rudolph Valentino’s The Sheik had been filmed there two years before — but the set DeMille built was an other scale altogether.

Under the direction of French artist Paul Iribe, a founder of the Art Deco movement, 1,600 craftsmen built a temple 800 feet wide and 120 feet tall flanked by four 40-ton statues of the Pharaoh Ramses II. Twenty-one giant plaster sphinxes lined a path to the temple’s gates. A tent city sprung up to house some of the 2,500 actors and 3,000 animals used to tell the story of Moses leading the Israelites to the Promised Land.

Once shooting was over, DeMille found the set was too huge and complicated to take with him and way too valuable to leave standing for squatter films to use, so he had it dynamited and bulldozed into a 300-foot trench.

DeMille mentioned it in his biography.

“If 1,000 years from now archaeologists happen to dig beneath the sands of Guadalupe,” DeMille wrote, “I hope they will not rush into print with the amazing news that Egyptian civilization . . . extended all the way to the Pacific coast of North America.”

Remnants of DeMille's lost city, Guadalupe-Nipomo Dunes, CaliforniaIn 1982, NYU film school graduate Peter Brosnan heard about the lost Egypt of DeMille and decided to go look for it. And make a documentary about the search, of course.

He hit the archives, tracked down surviving extras from The Ten Commandments, and the next year, one of those extras pointed out a dune that didn’t shift in the wind. They found many pieces of statuary, and even a 6-foot-wide bas-relief of a horse head.

The discovery made the news for a while, garnered all kinds of enthusiasm both for excavating this iconic piece of Hollywood history and for the documentary about it. Brosnan need $175,000 to do a proper archaeological dig and the proffered enthusiasm never converted into funding.

He never gave up, though, and now, 27 years after he started, he thinks he may just have scared up the grant money to finish the documentary. It’s not just about the DeMille history, but also about the location and town of Guadalupe which has a golden age or two of cinematic history under its belt.

The Guadalupe-Nipomo Dunes Center, which has several rescued pieces of the set on display, says (hopes?) the documentary will be released this summer, but Brosnan is still negotiating with Paramount for use of footage from The Ten Commandments, so that date is not firm.

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Dogs likely originated in Middle East, not Asia

Thursday, March 18th, 2010

An extensive dog genetics study at UCLA has returned results that suggest that the Middle East is the birthplace of the domesticated dog as well as of cities and agriculture. Dogs share more DNA with the Middle Eastern gray wolf than with any other wolf population in the world.

Earlier genetic research pointed to dogs having an East Asian origin, but this result was never supported by the archaeological record. Dogs, on the other hand, have been found buried along with humans in the ancient Fertile Crescent.

Top and bottom in some browsers view of the skull of a 31,700-year-old wolf (a1) and dog (b1) found at a site in BelgiumPrevious genetic research had suggested an East Asian origin based on the higher diversity of mitochondrial sequences in East Asia and China than anywhere else in the world. (Mitochondria are tiny cellular structures outside the nucleus that produce energy and have their own small genome.) However, that research was based on only one sequence, a small part of the mitochondrial genome, Wayne noted.

“That research made extrapolations about how the domestic dog has evolved from examination of one region in the mitochondrial genome,” Wayne said. “This new Nature paper is a much more comprehensive analysis because we have analyzed 48,000 markers distributed throughout the nuclear genome to try to conclude where the most likely ancestral population is.

“What we found is much more consistent with the archaeological record,” he said. “We found strong kinship to Middle Eastern gray wolves and, to some extent, European gray wolves — but much less so to any wolves from East Asia. Our findings strongly contradict the conclusions based on earlier mitochondrial DNA sequence data.”

A small group of East Asian dog breeds were found to be genetically related to Chinese wolves, so obviously that means there’s mating between the wolves and dogs, but we don’t know how recent or ancient the interbreeding is.

Another interesting tidbit from the study is that when you map out the relationships between ancient and modern dogs, the structure produced is surprisingly similar to the way dog shows classify dogs by function (herding, sporting, working, etc.). The one exception appears to be the toy dog, whose DNA come from all classes.

“We found there is a surprising genetic structure that accords with functional classifications — suggesting that new breeds are developed from crosses within specific breed groups that share particular traits,” Wayne said. “If they want a new sight hound, they tend to cross sight hounds with each other, and the same with herding dogs and retrieving dogs. That may not seem so surprising, but we had no reason to think beforehand that these groups would be strongly genealogical.

“There are some notable exceptions, such as ‘toy dogs.’ In this grouping, there are many different kinds of lineages represented, including traces of herding dogs and retrievers. When it comes to miniaturizing a dog, breeders start with a larger breed and cross that with a miniature dog to make a dwarfed breed on a new genetic background, causing the mixing of various lineages. It’s a mix-and-match approach for some of these breed groupings. But in other cases, new breeds have been based on combinations of breeds that have specific traits.”

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Curious Saxon artifact stumps experts. In a mall.

Wednesday, March 17th, 2010

Unknown Saxon artifact and its CAT scanA circular Saxon object found in a tomb at The Meads, Sittingbourne, in 2008, has so far stumped book research, microscopes and CAT scans. Nobody knows quite what it is.

It’s a disk made out of wood, silver and bronze and there are some holes on it suggesting that it was mounted on something, but beyond this at-a-glance level of evidence, scientists have so far not penetrated.

Despite using microscopes, X-rays and reading articles about burial grounds, the Canterbury Archaeological Trust (CAT) has been unable to identify it.

CAT believe that the object could be a decorative form of mount as it was discovered next to a sword.

Finds manager of CAT Andrew Richardson said: “We don’t currently recognise it, but it may be a decorative mount on something, but we don’t know what it’s mounted on.

Tests will continue, of course. A chemical analysis of the wood might hint at whether it was attached to something else, and since the disc was found with over 2,500 other artifacts in this Saxon burial ground of 229 graves, there might be some other items found with it that could suggest they were once mounted together. If there was a common pattern to the corrosion areas, for instance.

Two shields and two spears were found in the same grave as the disc. So far they haven’t found anything on the weapons to suggest the circle was mounted on one of them, but they’re still looking. The wealth of the grave goods indicates the deceased was someone of high status in his community.

Perhaps most interestingly/oddly of all, this analysis is being performed in a lab in what appears to be a shopping mall, the Forum Shopping Centre, to be precise. They have a display up not only of the disc, but of several weapons and other pieces found at The Meads.

You can go watch them poke at things and use titrating pipettes and whatnot. Some of the sciencey-analysis types are actually volunteers trained by the professionals to use microscopes and X-ray scanners to help analyze and process the thousands of artifacts.

It’s a bit weird that you could watch laboratory archaeology being done by professionals and volunteers between The Gap and Williams Sonoma, but it’s also kind of brilliant.

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7th century Mexican murals restored

Tuesday, March 16th, 2010

The Tetitla compound, in Teotihuacan Archaeological Zone outside of Mexico City, is renown for magnificent pre-Spanish murals dating to between 600 and 700 A.D. Restorers from the National Institute of Anthropology and History have been working on half of the murals for 2 years and now some of their hard work is on public view.

The conservation work has thus far focused on 8 of the 16 murals which are in particularly damaged condition from the constant battering of sun, wind, dust, moisture and all around hard living.

“Intervention began in September 2007, conducting scientific research and taking pigment samples to be analyzed with ultraviolet technology, which allows knowing mineral composition. Graphic registers made after the discovery, 70 years ago, were studied as well,” [said Jaime Cama Villafranca, expert from the National School of Conservation, Restoration and Museography].

Recovery of the black pigment of Las Aguilas mural was achieved, which was no longer perceived by the naked eye. “The mural presented eagle’s heads painted in red, floating on a white space”.

“After analyzing it, we found rests of black lines that united the heads. We restored the black feathers described in archaeological reports of the 1940’s decade”.

'Las Aguilas' mural in Tetitla

It was no easy task. Not only did restorers have to repair pigment lost from layer erosion and humidity-generated salinization, but they had to combat structural problems in the buildings themselves. They could hardly repair a mural while the ceiling was leaking and the floor eroding.

Tetitla is thought to have been a ritzy neighborhood in the ancient city, mainly because the extremely colorful and detailed wall art suggests people with discretionary income cared to beautify the area.

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The Ides of March at the British Museum

Monday, March 15th, 2010

In 42 B.C., Marcus Junius Brutus and Gaius Cassius Longinus, aka the Liberatores, the lead conspirators in the assassination of Julius Caesar 2 years before, had military control of the Eastern provinces, including Greece and Macedonia. In Macedonia, Brutus even kept a handy little portable mint with him, which he used to issue a silver denarius celebrating the assassination of Caesar on the Ides of March (March 15).

The denarius has a portrait of Brutus on the obverse, with on the reverse a liberty cap flanked by two daggers over the inscription EID(ibus) MAR(tiis). The liberty cap was the garment given to a manumitted slave to indicate his free status, so the reverse side symbolizes Brutus and Cassius liberating Rome with their daggers.

Their are 60 or so known copies of the silver denarius including several in the British Museum collection, but there are only 2 copies of a gold version, known as Aurei, and one of them has recently been adjudicated a fake.

That means there is only one genuine Eid Mar Aureo, and it’s going on display at the British museum today, in honor of the 2,054th anniversary of Julius Caesar’s assassination.

The British Museum was first shown the coin in 1932 but couldn’t afford to buy it. Many private owners later, it has now been loaned to the museum, and will be displayed for the first time. […]

The coin was punched with a hole shortly after it was minted, probably so it could be worn – certainly by a supporter, conceivably by one of the conspirators.

Brutus Eid Mar coin, gold

The inscription on the obverse side of the coin is BRVT(us) IMP(erator) L(ucius) PLAET(orius) CEST(ianus), so for Brutus, acclaimed “imperator” by his troops, and for Lucius Plaetorius Cestianus, the man who actually made the coins and ran Brutus’ mobile mint.

That could have been hanging around Brutus’ or Cassius’ neck while they were in Macedonia, still thinking they had a chance. They didn’t, though. In October of 42 B.C., just months after the coin was struck, Brutus and Cassius were routed by Marc Anthony and Octavian’s forces and died in the Battles of Philippi.

It’s a shame that such a powerful connection to these history-defining events has been in hiding for 80 years. There’s no information on the private collector who loaned the coin to the British Museum. Now that the other gold coin has been declared a fake, its market value is off the charts. If the British Museum couldn’t afford it in 1932, it’s not likely to be able to afford it now, should it ever go on sale.

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Sweden extradites neo-Nazi for “Arbeit Macht Frei” theft

Sunday, March 14th, 2010

A Swedish court has ruled that Anders Högström, the man Polish authorities suspect commissioned the theft of the “Arbeit Macht Frei” sign over the gate to Auschwitz, can be extradited to Poland.

Anders HögströmHögström founded Sweden’s National Socialist Front party in 1994, but left the party 5 years later in the wake of a rash of bank robberies and assaults by far-right groups, one of them resulting in murder. He denies the charges of being a mastermind, but fully admits to having acted as middleman between the five Polish thieves and the ultimate buyer. His defense is a little rich for my blood:

“I was asked if I wanted to take the sign from one location to another,” he said during an interview with the daily Aftonbladet. “We had a person who was willing to pay several millions [of kronor, or hundreds of thousands of dollars] for the sign.”

But after discovering that the money from the sale would fund a violent campaign aimed at disrupting Sweden’s upcoming parliamentary election, Högström said he decided to inform police about the plot. “That was not something I wanted to be involved in or carry out in any way,” said Högström, who quit the far-right movement in 1999.

He had scruples, you see, in the middle of arranging for the “Arbeit Mach Frei” sign to be cut into 3 pieces and sold to some neo-Nazi buddy of his. Ugh.

The Polish police think he was a lot more involved that that. They say Högström’s phone call came while they were already in the process of arresting the thieves. Also, the leader of the thieves has known Högström for 2 years, since he worked on Högström’s estate in southern Sweden. They’ve apparently stayed in touch all this time.

The Polish authorities think Högström commissioned the theft personally, then only called to fess up when his thieves told him the publicity was so huge they were bound to get caught.

Högström has 3 weeks to appealing the court’s ruling. If he doesn’t or his appeal is denied, the authorities have 10 days to come and get him. He’d then be sent to Poland for trial, but any prison time he does will be done in Sweden, as stipulated in the extradition agreement.

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DNA retrieved from fossilized eggshells

Saturday, March 13th, 2010

A team of researchers from Australia and New Zealand universities have successfully extracted DNA from the fossilized eggshells of extinct birds. Don’t fear the devilish, door-opening cunning of the velociraptor quite yet. The oldest eggshell was from an emu that lived 19,000 years ago.

Fossilized elephant bird egg“We were able to obtain DNA from both thin (duck) and thick (elephant bird) eggshells, which suggests that thickness may not play a significant role in the recovery of DNA from eggshells,” lead author Charlotte Oskam told Discovery News.

“Furthermore, we were able to isolate DNA from eggshells from three countries, each with very different climate conditions,” added Oskam, a researcher at Murdoch University’s Ancient DNA Lab.

The 19,000 year-old emu eggshell was from Australia, as was an owl eggshell. They also got DNA from the fossilized eggshells of extinct moas and ducks from New Zealand and extinct elephant birds from Madagascar.

Fossilized moa eggshellsThe combination of calcium carbonate and a strong organix matrix in the eggshells decays very slowly. The strength of the structure protects the embryos from decay after the egg is laid, and keeps on protecting the eggshells long after the nest is empty.

Oskam explained that the “moa eggshell has 125 times lower microbial contamination when compared to moa bone. This highlights eggshells as an attractive substrate for ancient DNA work, especially whole genome studies.”

Successful DNA extraction isn’t going to lead to any cloned giant moas coming back, not this time anyway. Instead the research team is hoping the genetic information will fill out the evolutionary histories of these animals, and also be a useful non-invasive way of examining the genetic profiles of living animals.

Dinosaur eggs are still way off. Eggs that old (dinosaurs went extinct 65 million years ago) have become fully mineralized, so DNA extraction is so far impossible.

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Confirmed: beheaded warriors were Vikings

Friday, March 12th, 2010

Mass grave of decapitated VikingsScientists have confirmed that 54 decapitated bodies found last July in a mass grave near Weymouth, Dorset, were indeed Vikings.

Isotope analysis of their tooth enamel confirmed that they came to Dorset from Scandinavia. At least one of the beheaded men lived most of his years in the Arctic circle, in fact. They probably came to England in a raiding party and encountered Saxon resistance. Effective Saxon resistance.

Archaeologist believe the men were from a captured raiding party and were taken to the site by Anglo-Saxons defending their land for the specific purpose of putting them to death. Ms Boston added: “The location is a typical place for a Saxon execution site, on a main road and a parish boundary and close to prehistoric burrows.”

Teeth from ten individuals were examined by Dr Jane Evans and Carolyn Chenery at NERC Isotope Geosciences Laboratory in Nottingham. Dr Evans said: “Isotopes from drinking water and food are fixed in the enamel and dentine of teeth as the teeth are formed in early life. The isotope data we obtained from the burial pit teeth strongly indicate that the men executed on the Ridgeway originated from a variety of places within the Scandinavian countries.

“These results are fantastic, this is the best example we have ever seen of a group of individuals that clearly have their origins outside Britain.”

Their deaths were not easy ones. Bone evidence indicates that their necks and jaws were hacked at repeatedly, not removed in one clean blow. One body’s hands were cut through, probably a defensive wound incurred while trying to grab the sword that was coming for his neck.

Others were wounded on the pelvis, stomach and chest. There are more bodies than heads, which suggests that 3 heads might have been put on spikes or displayed outside of the grave in some gruesome manner.

The research team also narrowed down the date a death a little more, to from between 910 and 1030 A.D., so towards the end of the Viking raid period. By 1016, Danish King Cnute had conquered most of England and the raids stopped, mainly because he was the boss of the raiders too.

Scientists are hoping to learn from further studies of the remains, like more details about their long-term health issues, diets, general lifestyle.

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