Archive for July, 2010

Swedish Stone Age antler bone dildo?

Wednesday, July 21st, 2010

It could just be a phallic carving tool or some other kind of device, but it certainly looks like a penis. Archaeologists excavating a Mesolithic site in Motala, Sweden, found the suggestively carved antler bone (he he… I said bone) in an area replete with artifacts dating from between 4,000 and 6,000 B.C.

It’s rare that organic material survives over the millennia, but this particular site has ideal conditions for the preservation of bone artifacts: layers of sediment and clay riverbed that keep them safe from the elements. Bone and even wood artifacts have been found at the Motala site.

The dildo-like object is about 4 inches (10.5 cm) long and 0.8 inches (2 cm) in diameter.

It’s not the first time that such a phallic object has been found from the ancient world. Another item strongly resembling a penis was unearthed in Germany in 2005. That one is even older – dating from 28,000 years ago – and made of stone.

Yet the recent discovery was enough to shock the scientists working at the dig, which is led by National Heritage Board archaeologist Fredrik Molin.

“Nobody here, and nobody that we heard of or talked with, had ever seen something like this in northern European or Scandinavian sites,” Gruber said.

Stone Age antler dildo 2

Since the non-penis end of it comes to a curving point, that could well have been the business end, used for carving or chipping flint. The site has revealed many other Stone Age tools with pointy uses, like harpoon and spear tips, so it would make sense that our penile friend would perform a similar function.

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Oldest drinkable champagne found in shipwreck

Tuesday, July 20th, 2010

I don’t know who spiked the water the past few days, but here is yet another story about a historical fermented beverage. This time the tipple of choice is 18th century champagne found by divers in a shipwreck 180 feet under the Baltic sea. On July 6th, Swedish divers were exploring off Aaland Island, midway between Sweden and Finland, looking for a sailing vessel they’d encountered earlier when they found the wreck of a small ship just 20 meters (65.6 feet) long.

Visibility was so bad that they couldn’t find the name of the ship or its bell, so the head of the diving team, Christian Ekstroem, grabbed one of 30 bottles slumbering peacefully in the wreck and brought it to the surface, hoping there would be markings on the bottle that could date the ship. Ekstroem never expected that there would be anything of note inside. He assumed the bottles had long since been invaded by seawater.

Diver Christian Ekstrom with Veuve Cliquot from Baltic wreckHe was wrong. The corks kept their seal and the cold and dark of the deep Baltic preserved the champagne. Inside the bottle they found champagne, and not just champagne but drinkable champagne, complete with fizz. Ekstroem contacted champagne vintners Moet & Chandon, and they identified it with 98% certainty from the anchor marking on the cork as 18th century Veuve Clicquot.

According to records, Veuve Clicquot was first produced in 1772, but the first bottles were laid down for 10 years.

“So it can’t be before 1782, and it can’t be after 1788-89, when the French Revolution disrupted production,” Ekstroem said.

Aaland wine expert Ella Gruessner Cromwell-Morgan, whom Ekstroem asked to taste the find, said it had not lost its fizz and was “absolutely fabulous”. [...]

Cromwell-Morgan described the champagne as dark golden in colour with a very intense aroma.

“There’s a lot of tobacco, but also grape and white fruits, oak and mead,” she said of the wine’s “nose”.

As for the taste, “it’s really surprising, very sweet but still with some acidity,” the expert added, explaining that champagne of that period was much less dry than today and the fermentation process less controllable.

If the dates pan out, these 30 bottles will be the oldest drinkable champagne in the world. The runner-up is a distant 1825 Perrier-Jouet. But the even more exciting prospect is that this champagne may well be part of a shipment of champagne sent by Louis XVI to the imperial court of Catherine the Great in St. Petersburg. Veuve Cliquot have a record of a consignment which was sent but never received, and the small ship was the standard vessel used on the St. Petersburg route.

While historians try to pin down the provenance, authorities on Aaland Island will meet to determine who actually owns the wreck. The islands belong to Finland, but they have political autonomy and are culturally Swedish.

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Mayan king’s tomb found in Guatemala

Monday, July 19th, 2010

Maya pottery, ca 4th c. A.D., picture by Arturo GodoyA team of archaeologists from Brown University has found an incredibly well-preserved Maya royal tomb beneath the El Diablo pyramid in the archaeological site of El Zotz, in northern Guatemala. The tomb dates to between 350 and 400 A.D., but despite its venerable 1600 years of age, it was so well-sealed that when archaeologists opened the tomb it still smelled of decaying bodies.

The tomb was sealed by layers of mud and stone, which kept the tomb safe from human and environmental ravages. The airtight and nearly watertight conditions have preserved the contents, including organic artifacts like carved wood, rope and textiles that rarely survive. There’s also richly decorated pottery and bowls containing finger bones.

It appears the tomb held an adult male, but the bone analyst, Andrew Scherer, assistant professor of anthropology at Brown, has not yet confirmed the finding. So far, it seems likely that there are six children in the tomb, some with whole bodies and probably two solely with skulls.

Maya pottery, ca 4th c. A.D., picture by Arturo GodoyAnd who was this man? Though the findings are still very new, the group believes the tomb is likely from a king they only know about from other hieroglyphic texts — one of [team leader Stephen] Houston’s specialties in Maya archaeology. “These items are artistic riches, extraordinarily preserved from a key time in Maya history,” said Houston. “From the tomb’s position, time, richness, and repeated constructions atop the tomb, we believe this is very likely the founder of a dynasty.”

Houston says the tomb shows that the ruler is going into the tomb as a ritual dancer. He has all the attributes of this role, including many small ‘bells’ of shell with, probably, dog canines as clappers. “There is a chance too, that his body, which rested on a raised bier that collapsed to the floor, had an elaborate headdress with small glyphs on them. One of his hands may have held a sacrificial blade.”

There’s a red organic substance on the blade. It hasn’t been analyzed yet, but the stone expert notes that the style of blade is the kind used to cut through bone and other hard materials, so Houston feels safe in positing that the red substance is blood.

The team made this find early in the expedition — they’ve only been on site a few weeks — and there’s much left to do, especially given the complexity of royal tombs and the particular bounty of this undisturbed one.

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Leonardo’s ‘Virgin of the Rocks’ restored

Sunday, July 18th, 2010

After 18 months of meticulous restoration, Leonardo da Vinci’s Virgin of the Rocks went back on display in London’s National Gallery Wednesday. The painting has been coated in a layer of varnish in 1948 (yeah, go figure) which had become badly discolored, tinting the masterpiece with a yellowish wash. The varnish layer was also cracked and had absorbed dust and dirt, obscuring the subtlety and depth of the design.

Conservators removed the cracked and yellowed varnish, but left a very thin layer so as to protect the top surface of the paint. The change in color is noticeable but not a huge night-and-day alteration. The colors are more saturated, and you can see a lot more detail in the dark areas.

By removing the varnish, restorers revealed not only fresh details but also were able to identify more areas that were likely painted by Leonardo’s hand than they expected. There’s another Virgin of the Rocks in the Louvre that was made earlier, you see, between 1483-1486. That one was thought to be mostly the work of Leonardo himself, whereas the National Gallery version was painted considerably later (some time before 1508) and although it was attributed to the master, because of was considered to have been primarily painted by his assistants.

The conservation work and study of materials and techniques uncovered different parts of the painting reached different stages of completion – the angel’s hand was barely sketched while the heads of the main figures appear completely finished, the gallery says.

“In the past, gallery curators, like many scholars of Renaissance painting elsewhere, have explained the different levels of finish and resolution in the picture by arguing that Leonardo was helped by assistants,” the gallery said.

“It now seems possible that Leonardo painted all the picture himself, leaving some parts just sketched or yet to be completely resolved and others fully worked up.”

Considering that the original commission for the painting was made in 1483 (the commission papers are still extant), and that he finished the first version fairly quickly, it’s interesting that he kept working on the design for another 25 years. Especially since he never actually sold the first one to the people who commissioned it. It was supposed to be central panel of a carved altarpiece for the Confraternity of the Immaculate Conception in Milan, but Leonardo went in another direction and he decided to sell it privately for more money, probably to Ludovico Sforza, the ruler of Milan.

'Virgin of the Rocks' before restoration (left) and after (right)

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In other historical alcoholic beverage news…

Saturday, July 17th, 2010

Neolithical burial site were McGovern found remains of 9,000-year-old beverageA couple of years ago I wrote about Dogfish Brewery recreating an ancient Aztec chocolate beer using a recipe derived from molecular analysis of a Honduran drinking vessel. That inspired me to order their Midas Touch brew, a beery-meady concoction replicated from dregs in cups from Midas’ tomb. (It was a little weird but by the end of the six pack I really liked it, and no, I didn’t drink them all at once.)

Dogfish has another ancient fermented beverage on offer this year, only this one goes further back in time than either Midas or the Aztecs. It’s a Chinese brew derived from 9,000 year-old Neolithic pottery. Dr. Patrick McGovern of the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archeology and Antropology, the same found the vessels 10 years ago. Using infrared spectrometry, gas chromatography and other molecular analysis technology, he figured out what used to be in those pots.

The molecular evidence told McGovern the vessels from China once contained an alcoholic beverage made of rice, grapes, hawthorn berries, honey and chrysanthemum flowers.

“What we found is something that was turning up all over the world from these early periods,” he says. “We don’t have just a wine or a beer or a mead, but we have like a combination of all three.”

McGovern has collaborated with Dogfish Brewery before on both the Aztec chocobeer and the Midas mead. This Chinese wine/beer/mead brew, felicitously named Chateau Jiahu, was first released in a limited run in 2006. Now it’s available again. Dogfish will brew 3000 crates of it.

In keeping with historic evidence, Dogfish brewers used pre-gelatinized rice flakes, Wildflower honey, Muscat grapes, barley malt, hawthorn fruit, and Chrysanthemum flowers. The rice and barley malt were added together to make the mash for starch conversion and degredation. The resulting sweet wort was then run into the kettle. The honey, grapes, Hawthorn fruit, andChrysanthemum flowers were then added. The entire mixture was boiled for 45 minutes, then cooled. The resulting sweet liquid was pitched with a fresh culture of Sake yeast and allowed to ferment a month before the transfer into a chilled secondary tank.

Chateau Jiahu label

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George Washington’s whiskey sells again

Friday, July 16th, 2010

George Washington's Distillery todayWhen George Washington returned to Mount Vernon in 1797 after his second and last term as president, he decided to get into the whiskey business. The first president was an excellent businessman who ran a variety of successful ventures as well as the farm.

In 1771, he built a stone gristmill 3 miles from the main house which produced high quality flour and cornmeal for export to the West Indies and Europe. He had a progressive outlook for the latest technology, and the gristmill was powered by a huge automated waterwheel system called the Oliver Evans Automated Milling System, which was U.S. Patent No. 3. The system worked and Washington’s gristmill business was still going swimmingly 26 years later when he came back from his stint as a civil servant.

His farm manager James Anderson was Scottish, and he suggested Washington build a distillery next to the gristmill. It was an immediate success. By the time George Washington died two years later, the distillery was producing 11,000 gallons of whiskey a year, making it the largest distillery in the country and one the most lucrative endeavors at Mount Vernon.

Now, almost 215 years after the first bottle of Washington’s rye whiskey was first sold, whiskey made from his original recipe in the restored distillery has gone on sale again.

Unlike whiskey made today, however, the general’s batch wasn’t aged. According to historians, the saying goes that Washington’s whiskey was aged from the time it took to get from Mount Vernon to Alexandria for sale, all of a distance of eight miles. [...]

The un-aged spirit calls for a mash of rye, corn and malted barley. After distilling the mash two times it is ready to go. Some have referred to the substance as post revolutionary white lightning. Dennis Pogue says that’s not so far from the truth.

“This is frankly a lot like white lightning,” Pogue said. “Except that unlike moonshine, this of course was legal. Washington, we know, paid his taxes. He paid $300 in taxes in 1799. So, it was very legal.”

Historians spent over a decade restoring the distillery and researching Washington’s recipe. The distillery opened for tours 3 years ago, staffed by knowledgeable distillers in period garb, but it was only this year that the Virginia General Assembly allowed the production of a very small amount of whiskey for sale. Only 471 bottles were produced and despite the hefty price tag of $85 apiece, the run sold out pretty much immediately.

Mount Vernon is hoping to produce a second run next year, so if you’re in the market for some George Washington XXX white lightning, be prepared to get in line nice and early. Meanwhile, the distillery and gristmill are open for visitors during normal business hours between April 1st and October 31st. You can always buy some souvenir cornmeal from the gristmill in lieu of moonshine.

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18th c. ship found at World Trade Center site

Thursday, July 15th, 2010

18th c. ship on World Trade Center siteWorkers digging the site of the future World Trade Center underground parking center uncovered the remains of an 18th century ship. Maps as far back as 1797 show Washington Street on the site, and the area had not been developed in the construction of the original WTC, so the ship has been hidden under there for a couple hundred years at least.

It’s not the first time a ship has been found on what is now dry land on the Manhattan waterfront, but it has been almost 30 years since the last one was uncovered on Water Street.

It’s not the complete ship. It’s a 30-foot section of the keel of a vessel that was probably twice or maybe even 3 times that length whole. Archaeologists think it was deliberately deposited on the site as landfill to expand the island real estate. New Yorkers were known to throw everything and the kitchen sink into these foundation pits, so why not a third of a ship?

Conservation is a major issue. As soon as the timbers were excavated from their comfy muck and exposed to the air, they started to degrade. Meanwhile, construction continues all around, so archaeologists are scrambling to measure and record everything they can for later analysis.

Excavators found several other interesting finds, both on the ship itself and in the area. There was a leather right shoe, an anchor and some spikes that might help narrow down the ship’s age. Dendrochronological analysis (counting tree rings) should also be able to pinpoint the date.

Perhaps the most puzzling and intriguing find was a semicircular metal collar, several feet across, apparently supported on a brick base, built into the hull. Perhaps it was some sort of an oven or steam contraption.

Some of the whaling enthusiasts commenting on the article suggested that it was a fire-powered fixture that helped sailors process blubber. Archaeologists point out that it’s more likely have been a garden variety cooking platform. The blubber processing apparatus would have been larger.

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Happy Bastille Day!

Wednesday, July 14th, 2010

On July 14, 1789, enraged by the firing of finance minister Jacques Necker, the people of Paris stormed the Bastille looking for guns and ammo and to free any political prisoners they might find. (There were actually only 7 prisoners in the Bastille at that point, but plenty of weapons and gunpowder, so it worked out in the end.)

A year later, the people of Paris hauled ass to the Champ de Mars outside the city and prepared the grounds for a grand ceremonial feast, the Fête de la Fédération. There King Louis XVI swore an oath to uphold the constitutional of France, and the centuries of absolute monarchy officially ended. The celebrants considered this the end of the revolution and a huge public feast that lasted for 4 days followed.

Since we’ve all flipped to the end of this book, we know things didn’t go quite that smoothly. It wasn’t until 1880 that France officially passed a law making July 14th the national holiday. For those who were not huge fans of the revolutionary fervor which ran so much blood through the streets, they could consider it a celebration of the Fête de la Fédération, a day which had seen French people from all walks of life united and happy.

And now, because everyone loves an Internet quiz, find out how much you know about Bastille Day as represented in literature: Bastille in Literature quiz. I got 8 out 10, but I must confess that 1 of them I only got because I just saw A Tale of Two Cities which was showing on teevee in honor of the day. (Protip: Basil Rathbone makes ruthless aristocrats look goooood.)

'La prise de la Bastille' by Charles Thévenin, 1793

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Rare bowls found in 17th c. London trash

Tuesday, July 13th, 2010

Three elaborately decorated 17th c. Delftware bowls have been found by archaeologists excavating a period garbage pit on the south bank of Thames. The Southwark area of London was a party neighborhood in the 17th century, with bars, brothels and spectacles galore. The bowls would not have been as valuable then as they are now, but to find them thrown away in the red light district is still a surprising turn.

The pieces are a charger platter from the 1660s painted with tulips, a bowl painted with a boy taunting a dog, and a bowl dated 1674 which commemorates the marriage of Mr. Nathaniel Townsend of the Leathersellers Company. They’re tin-glazed, a ceramic known today as Delftware even when made in Britain rather than in the famous Dutch ceramics center of Delft.

Roy Stephenson, Head of Archaeological Collections at the Museum of London, said the richly decorated bowls should be seen as rare pieces of fine art in their own right today.

“The thing about tin-glazed wear is every piece is unique because it is painted individually by hand,” he told Reuters.

“The analogy I use about 17th century Delftware is: if you were to try and acquire 17th century art today you would have to be a multi millionaire,” said Stephenson, adding that it was the most unusual group find he had seen in the last 20 years.

There are no signatures or artists’ marks, but the ceramics would have been seen as pieces of art for display on tables and mantelpieces, not as food vessels or utilitarian items.

The bowls were found in fragments during preparation for an upcoming rail extension. Archaeologists pieced them back together. There are still a few bits missing, but there’s more than enough left to make a handsome display in the “War, Plague and Fire” gallery of the Museum of London.

17 century Delftware bowls found in Southwark

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Uproar over Italian legislation that would legalize looted antiquities

Monday, July 12th, 2010

Italian legislators attempted to sneak a little nasty into the state budget this year. The “archaeo-remittance” measure would give anyone who possesses antiquities a big ol’ way out of trouble: simply declare you’ve owned it from before December 31, 2009, pay a fee and get a 30 year license. No need to prove a history of ownership, certainly no need to know where it was originally found. This would legalize the ownership of looted goods on a massive scale.

The declared purpose of the law is to recover undocumented patrimony and to allow it to be catalogued. In reality the law will end up being an enormous boon to looters and organized criminals, the so-called “archaeomafia,” involved in illegal digging and international trafficking of antiquities.

We’re not dealing here with the remittance of the common earthenware jar or ceramic pot that a farmer happened to unearth in his field or that an enthusiast has misguidedly acquired, but of an indiscriminate legalization of archaeological antiquities from clandestine excavations, unethically removed from the collective archaeological record with irreparable harm to the finds themselves, especially in terms of provenance. [...]

The antiquities thus “legalized” will also probably be allowed to be bequeathed in wills or even sold. The department of cultural heritage will only have the power to contest the declared value of the artifact and request the difference.

Thus overnight, the law will officially transform looters and the “archaeomafia,” which the current legal system condemns and prosecutes, into collectors and managers of cultural heritage, who with the antiquities they have robbed from the public patrimony, can engage, legally, in commercial activities and with museums and art galleries.

Enjoying that chill running up and down your spine?

Similar laws have come up in the Italian legislature before, but they were always defeated by the subsequent uproar from the archaeological community and supporters. This time things were scarier because instead of being proposed as a law unto itself, it was a measure attached to the budget, and legislators tend to pass budgets no matter what heinousness lies within.

There is good news, however. The Italian National Association of Archaeologists (ANA) has raised hell and the story got traction in the Italian press and all over the Internet. There’s a Facebook group protesting the measure and an online petition. (The text of the Facebook page and the petition is the same as the open letter I link to and quote above, just fyi.)

In the space of just a few days, the ruckus has forced a retreat. The parliamentary majority has said they will not add the archeo-remittance measure to the state budget. Assuming they actually make good on that, the acute danger will settle into a chronic one. The measure will remain in the pipeline as proposed bill, so the ruckus must remain loud to keep the scoundrels from making this monstrosity law.

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