Infant mass burial in Roman villa in England

Yewden villa excavation in 1912The Yewden Villa in the Thames Valley was extensively excavated in 1912. Archaeologists at the time determined that it was a high status Roman villa occupied during the 3rd and 4th centuries A.D. The artifacts, pottery and human remains uncovered at the site were packed into 300 boxes and stored at Buckinghamshire County Museum, then the site was reburied and allowed to revert to a wheat field.

Although the site remains a field today with no visible Roman structures, the stored boxes and the detailed field reports of head archaeologist Alfred Cocks have recently been rediscovered. Archaeologists today, however, are interested in an aspect that aroused little comment a hundred years ago: the skeletons of 97 infants found buried on the grounds of the villa.

Infant skeleton found at Yewden villaIt’s common to find a few burials at villas, and since infant mortality was so high, children are often among them. But to have nearly a hundred bodies in a residential area is unheard of, especially when all of them are around the same age: neonates. The best way to tell how old an infant was when he died is to measure the bones, which can pinpoint the age of the baby to within 2 weeks. All of these babies died at around 40 weeks gestation, so right at birth.

If they had died of natural causes, it stands to reason there would be a variety of ages among the remains. The sameness strongly suggests mass infanticide. Archaeologists now think that all these babies may have been the children of a workforce on the site and thus deliberately killed.

Archaeologist Dr Jill Eyers said: “The only explanation you keep coming back to is that it’s got to be a brothel.”

With little or no effective contraception, unwanted pregnancies could have been common at Roman brothels, explained Dr Eyers, who works for Chiltern Archaeology. […]

“There is no other site that would yield anything like the 97 infant burials,” said Dr Simon Mays, a skeletal biologist at English Heritage’s Centre for Archaeology, who has been investigating the finds.

Prostitutes in Roman brothels were often slaves, so by law their children would also have belonged to the master, and given the business model, they would be very likely to get pregnant on a regular basis. Another less likely theory is that the building was used as a imperial supply depot. Many writing implements were found on the site indicating a literate workforce, and there were a large number of kilns used for drying corn. If many of those workers were female, they might have had to kill their babies to keep their jobs.

Cock’s 1921 report (World War I interrupted its publishing) described the grounds as “littered” with the remains of babies, but no markers seem to have been left for them.

“A few were laid at length, but the majority were evidently carried and buried wrapped in a cloth or garment, huddled in a little bundle, so that the head was almost central, and the knees above it,” the report said.

“As nothing marked the position of these tiny graves, a second little corpse was sometimes deposited on one already in occupation of a spot, apparently showing that these interments took place secretly, after dark.”

Oldest known images of two apostles found in Roman catacomb

Richly decorated burial chamber of St. Tecla catacombThe oldest known images of apostles Andrew and John have been found under layers of white calcium deposits in the 4th century catacombs of St. Tecla in Rome.

That’s the same catacomb where wall paintings of Saints Peter and Paul were discovered last year. There are earlier images of Peter and Paul extant, but only as part of group paintings. These are the earliest known solo portraits of Peter and Paul, and the portraits of Andrew and John predate the previous oldest-known representations by a century.

“John’s young face is familiar, but this is the most youthful portrayal of Andrew ever seen, very different from the old man with grey hair and wrinkles we know from medieval painting,” said project leader Barbara Mazzei.

Discovered in the 1950s and as yet unseen by the public, the St Tecla catacomb is accessed through the unmarked basement door of a drab office building, beyond which dim corridors packed with burial spots wind off through damp tufa stone.

They’re part of a group of elaborate, richly colored paintings which suggest the catacomb housed a noblewoman. The image of a bejeweled woman dressed in elegant clothing standing with her daughter between two saints is painted in one of the arches. Archaeologists believes she was the owner of the catacomb and patron of its arts.

Roof painting of Christ the Good Shepherd with corner icons of four apostlesBesides the apostles, there are paintings of Christ as the Good Shepherd, a nude Daniel with lions at his feet, and Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead, Peter drawing water in the Mamertine prison, Mary and the three Wise Men, Abraham sacrificing Isaac, and more. The paintings are set against saturated red and black backgrounds, colors often associated with imperial Roman art.

We wouldn’t know these colors existed if it weren’t for a new restoration technology. When archaeologists first opened the catacomb in 2008, the walls and ceilings were all covered in white. The closed and moist environment inside the catacomb created thick deposits of white calcium carbonate inches thick in some places. The incrustations were removed by a laser which can be calibrated by color, so archaeologists programmed it to remove only the white calcium carbonate. The laser stopped precisely at the colored paints which revealed the magnificent richness of the work without any fear of damaging it.

In the past restorers had to scrape the calcium off with brushes and scalpels. To ensure that they didn’t scrape off any of the paint, they had to keep a layer of white film obscuring the art. The laser procedure is just as painstaking, mind you, because they have to do it one pinpoint at a time, but the precision of the tool opens a whole new world of possibilities for restorers.

The four apostles are an unusual combination. Peter and Paul are together a lot, of course, especially in Rome where they both died, but Peter, Paul, Andrew and John don’t often get depicted together. The fact that all four were depicted in individual medallions around the central figure of Christ the Good Shepherd suggests that they were devotional icons, not just narratives, of the four most important apostles of the era. These paintings could well have been models for later representations; they lend insight into the dawn of apostle worship in early Christianity.

The catacombs will not be opened to the public — they are too delicate to cram hundreds of moist, secreting, respiring bodies into — but some the pontifical commission may allow the occasional small group to get a private tour.

St. Peter icon on the ceiling of catacomb of St. Tecla St. Paul icon on the ceiling of catacomb of St. Tecla St. Andrew medallion on the ceiling of catacomb of St. Tecla St. John icon on the ceiling of catacomb of St. Tecla

Historical grotesque and anatomical model show

Model showing structure and tissue of human headThe Wellcome Museum in London is putting on an exhibit of historical anatomical models used to teach in the days before actual human bodies for dissection became legal, widely available and refrigerated, and titillate crowds at carnivals and grotesque museums. Exquisite Bodies features rare pieces in ivory and wood from the 17th and 18th centuries, and layered paper models from anatomy books of that period, but the primary focus are the wax dissection models that became all the rage in the 19th century. Victorian audiences loved them some guts, lumps, lesions and naked ladies, and if they could get all of them in one then that was certainly worth the price of admission.

Many of these museums and their exhibits were destroyed by police and the suddenly appalled, so many of the pieces on display are extremely rare. Some of them were collected in the early 20th century by Henry Wellcome, founder of the trust that operates the museum; some of them come from private collections around Europe. Many of the most fabulously lurid pieces are from the Roca Museum in Barcelona which survived in the red-light district of that city until 1935.

Anatomical Venus, late 19th c.Especially arresting are supine naked women, known as “anatomical Venuses”, made from the 18th century onwards. They were constructed of wax, wood or ivory so that their stomachs could be opened and internal organs displayed, usually including a pregnant uterus. Most have beautiful faces resembling traditional images of the Madonna, and luxuriant real hair. Although originally modelled for private collections, when any scholarly gentleman’s study would include scientific instruments and anatomical treatises, some were also made to educate medical students. […]

Draw aside the crimson velvet curtains of the side alcoves, and you expose ever more striking things: human genitalia in extreme stages of disease modelled in flesh-coloured wax featuring real pubic hair, for instance. Whether these are intended to terrify the viewer into virtuous living or offer a curious form of titillation is open to debate.

Dissection of babies heads by Joseph TowneOh, I’m quite sure we’re capable of both at the same time. There’s a great deal of artistry involved in some of these models. Joseph Towne was a famous model maker who created highly detailed wax dissection models for Guy’s Hospital his whole life. He won awards for his remarkably realistic, genuinely tragic characters — see the dissected baby brains on the right, for example — and his paranoia was legendary. He stuffed wax in the keyhole of his basement workshop so nobody could steal his prize wax coloring technique.

For a anatomically correct and disturbingly graphic (syphilis lesions eating away at people’s faces, for instance) slideshow of the exhibit, click here. For a curator-guided tour of the exhibit, watch the video below.

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Stolen Descartes letter returns home to Paris

Stolen Descartes letter, dated May 27, 1641In January of this year, Erik-Jan Bos, a Dutch scholar working on a book of famed French philosopher and mathematician René Descartes’ correspondence was surfing the web when he found a reference to Descartes in a manuscript collection at Haverford College. He contacted John Anderies, the Head of Special Collections at Haverford, and after putting their heads together they realized that Haverford had an authentic unknown letter in Descartes’ own hand, and not just any letter, but a pivotal letter he wrote to close friend Father Marin Mersenne about his soon-to-be-published Meditations on First Philosophy.

The letter had been donated to the college in 1902 by Lucy Branson Roberts, widow of Charles Roberts, Haverford Class of 1864 and avid autograph collector. What Roberts didn’t know when he bought it (nor did his widow know when she donated it) was that the letter had been stolen by Italian nobleman, scholar and notorious, shameless thief Count Guglielmo Libri Carucci dalla Sommaja when he served as secretary of the Committee for the General Catalog of Manuscripts in French Public Libraries at some point during the 1840s.

When Haverford president Stephen G. Emerson was told about the purloined Descartes letter, he didn’t even hesitate. On February 11th, coincidentally the anniversary of Descartes’ death 360 years earlier, he called Gabriel de Broglie, Chancellor of the Institut de France, and offered to return the precious artifact. Broglie accepted with alacrity, invited Emerson to Paris to return the letter in person and receive a 15,000 euro prize on behalf of the Institut, which has been trying with limited success to reclaim the 72 Descartes letters Libri stole from its collection for a century and a half.

Today, Emerson returned the letter to the Institut and Broglie gave him a check.

In a formal ceremony in the Institute’s timbered library, Chancellor Gabriel de Broglie thanked Haverford’s president Stephen Emerson for the “integrity and honesty” of his gesture, which will bring to 17 the number of Descartes letters held by the Institute. The letter was apparently stolen by Guglielmo Libri, an Italian count and mathematician who amassed a huge collection of purloined manuscripts in the mid-19th century.

“Your university will eradicate the bad memories that Libri left in our institution,” Mr de Broglie said at the ceremony.

Haverford has decided to use the award money to purchase new historical documents and finance future studies in France by college students and faculty.

This story put a lump in my throat when I first read about it a few months ago (thank you, Clutch) and it still does now. It also puts a fog of rage in my head over what a rat bastard that Libri son of a bitch was. The Guardian has an article about the swath he cut through French literary collections and how high on the hog he lived from the profits of his iniquity.

Count Guglielmo Libri, scholar and rat bastardHis love and knowledge of books were recognised when he was appointed Inspector of Libraries, tasked with cataloguing valuable works. Instead of documenting them, however, he began stealing them.

Tipped off about his imminent arrest, Libri fled once more – to England, bringing with him around 30,000 books and manuscripts in 18 large trunks, including works by Galileo and Copernicus. Although found guilty of theft by a French court and sentenced in absentia to 10 years’ in jail in 1850, Libri enjoyed the high life in London, funded by selling the stolen tomes.

He returned to Italy to die in 1868. Learning of his death, the French government requested the return of some of the manuscripts and offered to buy back those that had been sold. Some were returned, but tens of thousands of other precious stolen works simply disappeared.

Eighteen trunks of manuscripts blatantly stolen from public institutions and still being sold at auction and secreted away in collections all over the world to this day.

Ooh! Pope Joan movie!

Pope Joan as the Whore of Babylon, from an anti-Catholic tarot setOne of my favorite tales about the medieval Church tells of a woman who disguised herself as a man and rose through the ecclesiastical ranks to become Pope, only to be exposed when she gave birth in the middle of a public procession on the Via Sacra in Rome. How’s that for drama? In yo face, Yentl!1

The Church of course denies this ever happened and consider it Protestant Reformation slander. Although the Protestants certainly jumped all over the story with enormous gusto, the earliest source long predates them. Dominican friar Jean de Mailly first mentioned a female Pope in his 1254 Chronica Universalis Mettensis. Set in 1099, this ladyPope story didn’t have the high drama of the Via Sacra birth, just that she dropped a baby while mounting a horse and was promptly tied to said horse and dragged to her death.

It wasn’t until Martin of Opava picked up the tale and ran with it in the third iteration of his 1278 Chronicon Pontificum et Imperatorum that we get the fully flushed public labor element and the name: Pope John, known as Joan once all is revealed. He also places the story earlier in the 9th century.

John Anglicus, born at Mainz, was Pope for two years, seven months and four days, and died in Rome, after which there was a vacancy in the Papacy of one month. It is claimed that this John was a woman, who as a girl had been led to Athens dressed in the clothes of a man by a certain lover of hers . There she became proficient in a diversity of branches of knowledge, until she had no equal, and afterwards in Rome, she taught the liberal arts and had great masters among her students and audience. A high opinion of her life and learning arose in the city, and she was chosen for Pope. While Pope, however, she became pregnant by her companion. Through ignorance of the exact time when the birth was expected, she was delivered of a child while in procession from St Peter’s to the Lateran, in a lane once named Via Sacra (the sacred way) but now known as the “shunned street” between the Colisseum and St Clement’s church. After her death, it is said she was buried in that same place. The Lord Pope always turns aside from the street and it is believed by many that this is done because of abhorrence of the event. Nor is she placed on the list of the Holy Pontiffs, both because of her female sex and on account of the foulness of the matter. (Martin of Opava, Chronicon Pontificum et Imperatorum)

Such juiciness would not be denied and authors from Vatican librarians to Giovanni Boccaccio wrote about her. Once the Reformation kicked in, the story was used as a convenient symbol of Church corruption and as evidence that the papacy wasn’t really necessary at all since Christendom survived the foulness of her lady parts smeared all over the throne of Peter.

The best title in this anti-Catholic vein was from a book published in England in 1675 by an anonymous author who the preface assures us was a most impeccable insider Vatican source. It’s called A Present for a Papist: Or the Life and Death of Pope Joan, Plainly Proving Out of the Printed Copies, and Manscriptes of Popish Writers and Others, That a Woman called JOAN, Was Really POPE of ROME, and Was There Deliver’d of a Bastard Son in the Open Street as She Went in Solemn Procession.

Johanna Wokalek as Pope JoanAnd now, there’s a movie about her based on the biographical novel by Donna Woolfolk Cross. The Church is less than enthused about it, surprise, surprise, but it’s in the top 10 box office hits in Italy. (Italians love them a good historical Church scandal.) Pope Joan is played by Johanna Wokalek, a German actress I’m not familiar with, but John Goodman plays Pope Sergius and that just rules. Also, the cute guy who was Faramir in Lord of the Rings plays her boyfriend.

IMDB tells me it was released in October 2009, but this is the first I’ve heard of it. I swear I will hunt down the sole dingy art movie house it’s playing in, so help me Joan.