Stamps designed by Lawrence of Arabia found

A proof sheet of stamps designed by T.E. Lawrence, aka Lawrence of Arabia, has been found folded over and forgotten in the Royal Philatelic Collection in St. James’ Palace, London. Lawrence designed the stamps for the Kingdom of Hijaz, a coastal area in the west of what is now Saudi Arabia, which existed only from 1916 to 1924.

Ruled by Sharif Hussein ibn Ali, father of Lawrence associate Prince Faisal, later King Faisal I of Iraq, Hijaz included the Islamic holy cities of Mecca and Medina. In 1924 it was annexed by the Saud family and eventually folded into what would become the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

Lawrence had famously helped fight for Arabian independence from the Ottoman Empire during World War I, and would be a member of Faisal’s Arab delegation to the Paris Peace Conference in 1919, so when the Kingdom of Hijaz was created in 1916, Lawrence was asked to design its first three stamps. He later claimed to have used strawberry-flavored glue which drove people to buy the stamps just to lick them instead of using them.

First stamps of the Kingdom of Hijaz, designed by T.E. LawrenceA proof sheet of his 3 designs — no word on whether they taste like strawberry — along with a handwritten letter by T.E. Lawrence made it into the extensive philatelic collection of George V.

The original sheet of 50 stamps had been folded over so that it could not be seen in one of the 328 albums of the collection, started in the 1890s.

It was found by a member of staff at the Royal Philatelic Collection. Lawrence’s three designs were all decorative, as Islam frowned on figurative images of humans or animals.

George V’s enthusiasm for stamps was equalled only by his love of shooting pheasants. He is thought to have spent about three afternoons a week arranging the stamps and it is believed there are enough loose items to fill another 2,000 albums.

Which explains how such a remarkable piece could have gone unnoticed all these years. Hijaz stamps are all extremely rare and valuable today, even the ones not designed by the legendary Lawrence of Arabia.

The proof sheet and the stamps will go on display at the Guildhall Art Gallery in London starting on May 7th.

Roman altar stones found in Scottish cricket ground

A cricket pavilion in Musselburgh, East Lothian, is undergoing renovations. Because Lewisvale Park, where the pavilion currently stands, is in a Scheduled Ancient Monument area, the developers hired an archaeology firm to survey the site before pouring new foundations.

Roman altar stones on cricket groundsThe archaeologists have uncovered two Roman-era altar stones, one dating to the 2nd century A.D. and dedicated to the god Jupiter. The other has yet to be dated. They both have intricate carving around the edges and on one side, and show signs of having been toppled over at some point. We won’t know what the inscriptions say until the dirt that has accumulated from that toppling is removed.

Some postholes, a lead bowl and both fine and handmade pottery were also found along with the stones, but the latter are the big news because they’re a rare find as far north as Scotland.

Councillor Paul McLennan, cabinet member for community wellbeing at East Lothian Council, said: “The discovery of these remains is particularly exciting, as it is not often that Roman altar stones are discovered during an archaeological excavation in Scotland.

This helps with the emerging picture of life in and around the Roman fort at Inveresk during the 2nd century.”

Inveresk was first settled by Romans after they invaded Scotland in 80 A.D. In addition to the fort, they also built a bridge that is still in use (with some rebuilding over the centuries) by pedestrians today. The civilian settlement included an amphitheater and a bathhouse.

The altar stones and the other artifacts found on site have been removed for conservation and study, so now the construction on the cricket pavilion can proceed apace. I guess the postholes are out of luck. πŸ™

Baboon mummies solve mystery of ‘Land of Punt’

We know pharaohs sent trading expeditions to a mysterious place they called the “Land of Punt” but until now we didn’t really know where that was. Thanks to oxygen isotope analysis and 3 baboon mummies in the British Museum, scientists think they’ve pinpointed the location of Punt: it was in an area that is now Eritrea and East Ethiopia.

Ancient Egyptians recorded travels to Punt where they got many exotic animals, including live baboons. There were no native Egyptian baboons, so we know the New Kingdom baboon mummies in the British Museum originated in the Land of Punt.

The team had permission to use baboon hairs from two of the mummies, and have just finished analyzing hairs from these baboons by using oxygen isotope analysis. Oxygen isotopes act as a ‘signal’ that can let scientists know where they came from.

It works this way because, depending on the environment an animal lived in, the ratio of different isotopes of oxygen will be different. β€œOxygen tends to vary as a function of rainfall and the water composition of plants and seed,” said Professor Nathaniel Dominy of UC Santa Cruz, who is on the team.

The researchers compared the oxygen isotope values in the ancient baboons to those found in their modern day brethren.

Map of Eritrea and East Ethiopia β€œAll of our specimens in Eritrea and a certain number of our specimens from Ethiopia – that are basically due west from Eritrea – those are good matches,” said Professor Dominy.

β€œWe think Punt is a sort of circumscribed region that includes eastern Ethiopia and all of Eritrea.”

Some of the other possible Punt candidates — Somalia, Yemen and Mozambique — do not match the specimens.

The team can’t narrow the location down any further with oxygen isotope analysis, but one of the modern specimens from the Eritrean harbour city of Massawa is an excellent match for the mummy specimens.

The results came from a very limited sample, however, so grains of salt are necessary. Next up: strontium isotope tests on a pea-sized section of baboon bone. They don’t have the British Museum’s permission to take this larger sample yet, and there’s some export red tape to overcome.

Hoard of 2300-year-old coins found in Egypt

Archaeologists excavating the Fayoum Oasis in Egypt have uncovered a large hoard of 383 bronze coins from the reign of Ptolemy III Euergetes in the 3rd century B.C.

The coins have the combined Greek-Egyptian deity Zeus-Amun on the obverse and the Ptolemaic eagle on the reverse with “Ptolemy” and “king” inscribed around it. Ptolemy III did not issue any coins with his own face on them, although his son stamped some commemorative ones after his father died.

The coins are in good condition and are the first large stash of Ptolemaic coins found. Archaeologists also found three necklaces made of ostrich eggshells at the site, a pot of kohl eyeliner from the Ottoman era, and, in randomly awesome news, the remains of an ancient prehistoric whale.

Obverse of Amun-Zeus on 3rd century bronze coins Some of the 383 3rd c. bronze coins

Happy 2763rd Birthday, Rome!

Today is the day we celebrate the traditional founding of Rome in 753 B.C. That’s not to say that Romulus actually drove his ox team around the boundaries of what would become the capital of the world in 753 B.C., but it’s been the traditionally accepted the date since it was first calculated by historian and all-around erudite man of letters Marcus Terentius Varro (116 B.C. – 27 B.C.).

He figured it out by counting back through the list of counsuls — there were two elected each year since the overthrow of the kings — then adding 244 years for the time between the founding and the last king. He probably took that number whole cloth from Greek historian Dionysius of Halicarnassus.

The Emperor Claudius was the first to throw huge anniversary festivities in honor of Rome’s 800th birthday in 47 A.D. Emperor Marcus Julius Philippus, aka Philip the Arab, threw the rager to end all ragers in 248 A.D. to celebrate the first millennium of Rome’s founding. He cast a special coin commemorating the Saeculum Novum, held the ludi saeculares (century games), commissioned books and plays. Over 1,000 gladiators and hundreds of animals were killed in the ludi.

That same year would-be usurper Pacatianus cast a coin of his own celebrating himself as undefeated on one side and the 1001st birthday of Rome on the other.

Antoninianus Pacatianus coin, obverse inscribed 'ROMAE AETER AN MIL ET PRIMO', 'Eternal Rome Year One Thousand and One'

Once the Empire went Christian and the A.D. system kicked in, Roman birthdays no longer got the attention they deserved. But Romans still celebrate, of course, only with considerably less bloodshed. These days it’s more like mayoral ceremonies at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, masses, musical recitals, lectures, museum events, sounds and lights shows and a re-enactment of the battle between the Horatii and the Curiatii at the Circus Maximus.

Modern-day Horatii and Curatii celebrate Rome's birthday