Archive for August, 2010

Thieves steal Spanish ingot from Key West museum

Saturday, August 21st, 2010

In a brazen smash-and-grab captured on security cameras, 2 thieves stole a 17th century gold ingot from the Mel Fisher Maritime Museum on Key West, Florida. The 11-inch, 74.85-ounce gold bar was kept in a bulletproof polymer case that had a hole in it so visitors to the museum could put their hand in and hold the bar.

“Everybody who comes to the museum is encouraged to lift the gold bar and to have a firsthand experience with history,” said Melissa Kendrick, the museum’s executive director. “This is one of the most iconic and best-known objects in the museum.”

File picture of gold bar stolen from Mel Fisher Maritime Museum

Somehow one of the thieves managed to break through the case, lift out the bar and walk casually out the door with the ingot in his pocket. The security footage (which you can see in this CNN video) doesn’t show how they broke through bulletproof plastic. I can’t detect a weapon or device of any kind. It looks like he just reaches in and pulls out the gold bar, but they had to bust up the case to do it.

The ingot was found in 1980 by famed treasure hunter Mel Fisher. He and his team were looking for the wreck of the Nuestra Senora de Atocha galleon, a treasure ship that left Havana in 1622 along with a fleet of 27 other ships crammed to the rafters with New World booty only to be felled by a hurricane. Instead he found the wreck of one of the other 7 ships from that treasure fleet which went down in the storm: the Santa Margarita.

The gold ingot was one of the more dramatic pieces Fisher recovered from the Santa Margarita. Not only is it a large and handsome, but it has a variety of unique markers including Roman numerals marking it as 16-karat gold, a symbol identifying its owner, and dots indicating the taxes paid on it to the Spanish crown.

Its estimated value is $550,000, but the weight of the gold alone is worth $75,000. The museum is offering a $10,000 reward for its return. Here’s hoping the bastards don’t just melt it down and smoke 70 grand worth of meth.

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2nd century Roman bust found in Albania

Friday, August 20th, 2010

Marble bust of an athlete, Roman, 2nd c. A.D.Archaeologists excavating the ancient city of Apollonia in what is today Albania have uncovered the remarkably intact Roman bust of an athlete. Archaeologists also found the decorated foot of a bronze statue, also an important piece but obviously not complete.

“It is an exceptional discovery, the most important in the last 50 years in Albania because the bust is still intact,” French professor Jean-Luc Lamboley, who led the dig at Apollonia with Albanian archaeologists, told AFP.

The quality of carving, especially of the face and curly hair, marks it as Roman. It may have been buried intentionally to keep it safe during periods of upheaval. The bust has been moved temporarily to the archaeological museum in Tirana since the local museum was plundered after the fall of communism in 1990 and is still closed.

Apollonia was founded in the 6th century B.C. by Greek immigrants in an area populated by Illyrian tribes. It became an important city in the ancient world because of its agricultural exports and a large harbour which was reputed to be able to accomodate 100 ships at a time. Strabo mentions it in his Geographia as a well-governed city (it was an oligarchy, with a Greek ruling class and a majority Illyrian serf population) which also has a rock that shoots out fire because rivers of water and asphalt run underneath it.

It was also an early notch in Rome’s bedpost, a loyal territory under Roman Republican control since 229 B.C. Famous for its philosophical school, Apollonia was hosting the future emperor Augustus when he heard the news of Caesar’s assassination in 44 B.C.

The city began to decline in the 3rd century A.D. after an earthquake silted up the famed harbour and turned the town into a malarial swamp. By the 6th century the city was deserted and fell into obscurity until grand tourists rediscovered it in the 18th century. It was never built over and so far only an estimated 10% of the classical site has been excavated, so there are many more treasures to be found.

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1300-year-old pots found under patio in Argentina

Thursday, August 19th, 2010

Franco and Gonzalo Carrazana were digging up their patio to build a two room addition on their house in Tilcara, Argentina, when they found 8 ancient pots buried one next to the other.

“The first piece appeared when we had dug some 40 centimeters (16 inches). Then another pot appeared that was next to a third,” Roberto Carrazana, the brothers’ uncle, told the daily Clarin.

“When we started to dig up the whole space, the fourth pot appeared. And as we went ahead slowly we realized that more began to appear, unbroken. That’s when we got in touch with the archaeologists,” he said.

The pots are 4 1/4 feet tall and were probably used to store food 1300 years ago. That dates makes them older than the Pucará de Tilcara, a pre-Columbian, pre-Incan fortress which is thought to have been built by the Omaguaca tribe in the 12th century. It’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the only publically accessible archaeological site on the Quebrada de Humahuaca, a 100-mile ravine in north Argentina that has been populated for 10,000 years.

The ceramics are very brittle, so the fact that the posts are still so complete is remarkable. Archaeologists from the Tilcara Interdisciplinary Institute intend to excavate further on the Carrazana property and in the area to see if there are any other such hidden treasures.

As of right now, we don’t know where the pots will end up. The Secretary of Tourism for the province is psyched, needless to say. He mused that some of the pots could remain in the ground where they are to mark the great find, which would give the Carrazanas an open-air museum in their backyard. They’d probably have to forgo building the addition in that case, though. I’d do it in a heartbeat.

Omaguaca pots found under a patio in Tilcara

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Civil War prison and artifacts found in Georgia

Wednesday, August 18th, 2010

Camp Lawton, drawing by Union POW Robert Knox SnedenIn 1864, just a few weeks before Sherman overwhelmed Confederate defenses in Georgia, Confederate authorities built a small prison camp in Millen, Georgia, to house some of the prisoners from the vastly overpopulated Andersonville prison nearby. It only lasted 6 weeks, but in that time Camp Lawton grew to hold 10,000 Union prisoners of war.

When Sherman got there, all the inmates and guards had gone, hastily evacuated in the middle of the night. He burned the stockade and soon a lovely pine forest grew in the spot. Since the prison had been so short-lived and so small compared to ignominy hound Andersonville, nobody bothered to mark it for historical purposes. Archaeologists looked around for the stockade markers every once in a while, but beyond that there really wasn’t much interest in pinning down the camp site.

This year Georgia Southern anthropology professor Dr. Sue Moore and graduate student Kevin Chapman were finally able to pin down the location of the stockade using Civil War-era documents and ground-penetrating radar. Much to their and everyone else’s amazement, they also found a huge wealth of artifacts, some of them unique.

Chapman expected to find some post holes. But during his first day of sifting dirt, he found a Union button, then a musket ball, then a large U.S. cent, the size of a half-dollar. “The results have been stunning,” he said.

As a part of the Bo Ginn National Fish Hatchery, the site has been protected from amateur diggers, which increases its value, said Mark Musaus, deputy regional director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. “It’s one of the most significant finds in recent decades because of its pristine nature.”

Chapman said the stockade and other occupied structures comprise less than 10 percent of the 42-acre camp. Of that stockade area, only 1 percent has been studied, he said.

Soldier's pipe made from melted bullets and clayAmong the artifacts unearthed is an improvised tobacco pipe, with a bowl made from melted lead bullets and a 3-inch clay stem that bears the teeth-marks of the prisoner who used it.

Tourniquet buckle from Camp LawtonThe hasty dead-of-night departure ensured that prisoners left their treasured possessions behind: eating utensils, empty picture frames, even a scary looking tourniquet buckle. The lack of interest from locals and the property’s later status as a government hatchery ensured that those treasures remained untouched for the Georgia Southern team to find. They even kept the find secret until just now to give them time to secure the site from looters and Civil War aficionados.

The government plans to reopen the hatchery, but it won’t interfere with the Civil War portion of the property. That will be fenced off and kept safe for archaeological study. The artifacts have been temporarily put on display at Magnolia Springs State Park. Later they will become part of the permanent collection of the Georgia Southern museum in Statesboro.

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Ancient temple complex found near Le Mans

Tuesday, August 17th, 2010

3rd c. Gallo-Roman wall around Le Mans, cathedral behind itArchaeologists excavating a tract of land outside what is now Le Mans, France, but was once Vindunum, Gaul, in preparation for future construction have discovered a large, rich temple complex dating from the 1st to the 3rd century A.D. Most of the stone structure is long gone, doubtless recycled into a couple thousand years worth of local buildings, but what remains indicates a large site which would have been able to accommodate hundreds, if not thousands, of worshipers.

The shape of the buildings were first spotted from aerial views. Archaeologists followed the shapes with some exploratory digs on the ground. Once they realized there weren’t many in the way of walls to harm, they sent in mechanical diggers to peel off the wheat fields from the sanctuary foundations.

At the entrance to the site, there once stood a large E-shaped building, probably for welcoming the pilgrims, selling religious objects and housing the temple guardians. One wide path littered with iron slag (Vindunum was a major metalworking centre), leads a few hundred metres south to the foundations of a circular fanum (temple) about 12 metres in diameter. That round shape was rare in Gallo-Roman times and there are only a few such examples in France.

In fact, three temples were erected successively during the second and third centuries. Possibly they had to be rebuilt because of the instability of the ground. A pergola and a flight of steps would have led to the temple, which had stone walls around seven metres high covered by a tiled roof. Inside, the cella (central room) housed the statue of the god.

Another fanum stood at the west, the oldest in the sanctuary, dating to the first century. It was square, 15 metres wide and apparently in the Celtic temple tradition. This one was originally built in wood and stone added later, together with a cella surrounded by a gallery for circumambulation and a wall separating the sacred space from the profane. Fragments of coloured plaster show that the walls were once panted. The temple was surrounded by octagonal or square-shaped secondary “chapels”.

This Celtic fanum is where archaeologists found the most artifacts. Most likely offerings made to the deities, the finds include Gallic, Celtic and Roman silver coins, broaches, rings, keys, pottery, weapons and heavy work tools like sledgehammers and hammers. Metal workers and soldiers would have had good reason to offer valuable implements of their trade to the gods, given how dangerous their jobs were.

Archaeologists didn’t find any offerings in the circular temple, but they did find something completely unexpected: graves. Romans didn’t bury the dead on temple grounds. They didn’t even bury them inside the city walls. Dead bodies were not considered pure, and temples had to be.

Vindunum was a major Gallo-Roman city in the first few centuries A.D. It had a large bath complex — demolished in the third century and the stone used to build the walls encircling the city — and an amphitheater built about the same time as the walls. (Fun fact: it’s also where Henry II of England was born. The well-preserved medieval old town is known as Cité Plantagenêt.)

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19th c. Irish immigrant mass grave in Pennsylvania

Monday, August 16th, 2010

Skull with hole found at Duffy's Cut siteIn August of 1832, a group of 57 Irish immigrants started work on a section of the Philadelphia and Columbia railroad known as a cut 20 miles west of Philadelphia. A few weeks later, they were all dead, most probably from cholera. Philip Duffy, the man who hired the Irish workers, had the shanty they slept in burned to keep disease from spreading and the dead buried in the railroad fill. Their families were never notified.

William Watson, chairman of History at Immaculata University, and his brother Frank have been searching for the remains for nigh on a decade. They learned of the story in 2002 from papers their grandfather — a lifelong employee of the railroad — left behind. It wasn’t until March 2009 that they came upon a shin bone, and in the year since then they’ve recovered 7 sets of human remains.

Most surprisingly, the brothers think they’ve actually identified one of the deceased. The manifest of the ship John Stamp, which sailed from Ireland to Philadelphia 4 months before the tragedy, lists 15 possible workers who came from Donegal, Tyrone and Derry counties. One of them was 18-year-old John Ruddy. The Watsons found remains that suited Ruddy’s age, but they also got a hugely lucky break when they found the jaw was missing an upper molar that never formed. This is a rare genetic mutation which members of the Ruddy family in Ireland today share. It will take some months for DNA confirmation, but so far all signs point to Ruddy.

The Watsons and their team think there may have been more than cholera behind all these dead men.

The brothers have long hypothesized that many of the workers succumbed to cholera, a bacterial infection spread by contaminated water or food. The disease was rampant at the time, and had a typical mortality rate of 40 percent to 60 percent.

The other immigrants, they surmise, were killed by vigilantes because of anti-Irish prejudice, tension between affluent residents and poor transient workers, or intense fear of cholera — or a combination of all three.

Now, their theory is supported by the four recovered skulls, which indicate the men probably suffered blows to the head. At least one may have been shot, said Janet Monge, an anthropologist working on the project.

“I don’t think we need to be so hesitant in coming to the conclusion now that violence was the cause of death and not cholera, although these men might have had cholera in addition,” Monge said.

Other artifacts found on the site include working tools, nails, cooking and eating utensils and Irish pipes. Read more about the Duffy’s Cut excavation on the project website.

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More on King Hekatomnus tomb

Sunday, August 15th, 2010

Here’s some more information on the discovery of King Hekatomnus’ tomb in Milas, Turkey. Police searched a home the looters were using and found 2 tunnels leading to the tomb. Inside the tomb they found not only a large and elaborately carved sarcophagus, but also frescoes and possibly more easily portable treasures that they promptly sold on the black market.

A court has arrested and charged five of 10 people detained in the raid, the state-run Anatolia news agency reported.

Anatolia, which was allowed to enter the tomb, said the suspects had dug two tunnels — 6 and 8 yards long — from the house and an adjacent barn, leading to the tomb that is buried about 10 yards deep.

They used sophisticated equipment to drill through the thick marble walls of the tomb and were working to remove the coffin from the underground chamber.

So I gather then that the tomb is a marble structure, not just a grave. Maybe it was an inspiration for his son Mausolos’ famous excess.

Culture Minister Ertugrul Gunay noted that these looters weren’t some fly-by-night amateurs with shovels. They had funding and access to specialized equipment. Turkey intends to follow the money, investigating any potential international links. Gunay has also ordered further digs on the site and in nearby areas.

Turkish Culture Minister Ertugrul Gunay inspects King Hekatomnus' sarcophagus

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‘The March of Time’ newsreel marathon on TCM

Saturday, August 14th, 2010

‘The March of Time’ was a series of ground-breaking short films on current events, sports, politics, society, younameit, which played before movies in theaters nationwide from 1935 to 1967. Produced by Time, Inc., publisher of Time, Life and Fortune magazines, the 20 minute documentaries first aired as radio programs on CBS in 1931. The news was delivered with professional actors impersonating public figures. (Agnes Moorehead, aka Endora on Bewitched, played Eleanor Roosevelt. So cool.)

That dramatic approach to covering events and issues of the day carried through to the film newsreels. It became a trademark, and a source of consternation to critics and journalists who didn’t know what to make of the mixture of fact, fiction and propaganda.

The film’s most unusual feature was its re‐creation or staging of events that had taken place but which had not been photographed by newsreel cameras. De Rochemont argued that he had the same right to interpret and clarify news events with staged scenes as a re‐write man on a newspaper had with words to make sense out of a reporter’s notes. He used both professional and amateur actors to impersonate famous people on the screen, and then blended the staged scenes with real newsreel footage. In time, the series became so celebrated that real celebrities were persuaded to play themselves, re‐enacting events in which they had participated.

For its production of the “Atomic Power” episode in 1946, for example, J. Robert Oppenheimer, Albert Einstein, Enrico Fermi and other leading scientists re‐enacted the roles they had played in the Manhattan Project. In one scene, James Conant and Vannevar Bush are shown lying on the sand in New Mexico, shaking hands after the successful explosion of the first atomic bomb. In reality, they had been photographed lying on the floor of a garage in Boston. The staging of scenes was never acknowledged on the screen although, of course, professional journalists and filmmakers were well aware of the techniques employed. By 1940 the series was so well known that it was parodied by Orson Welles in his production of CITIZEN KANE, including an imitation of the voice of Westbrook Van Voorhis, “The Voice of Time.”

Or for a more recent reference, think South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut with its ‘The March of War’ (Eat Snacky Smores) newsreels covering (and exacerbating) the growing anti-Canadian war fever.

This year to celebrate the 75th anniversary of ‘The March of Time’ series, the HBO Archives, the National Gallery of Art, The Museum of Modern Art and Turner Classic Movies (TCM) are collaborating on showings of the films. MoMA is grouping the newsreels by theme and showing them the first 10 days of September (pdf schedule) followed by panel discussions with experts on the archives.

If that doesn’t happen to be convenient, Sunday, September 5, Turner Classic Movies will air some of the most famous titles between 8:00 PM and midnight. Some of the newsreels aired will be: “Dust Bowl,” “Inside Nazi Germany” (showed in 1937, it was the first anti-Nazi program shown in the isolationist U.S.), “Youth in Crisis,” “Palestine Problem,” and “Problem Drinkers”. This is the first time TCM has ever shown these movies so fire up your DVRs.

You can read more about planned events, view and discuss clips on ‘The March of Time’ Facebook page.

Still of Walter Winchell from 'The March of Time'

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Shackleton’s whiskey thawed after 100 years

Friday, August 13th, 2010

In 2006, a team from the New Zealand Antarctic Heritage Trust found a crate of ‘Mackinlay’s Rare Old Highland Malt Whisky’ under the floorboards of Shackleton’s hut at Cape Royds on Ross Island, Antarctica. The whiskey was buried in solid ice along with 4 crates of brandy. Shackleton had brought the liquor with him on his 1907 Nimrod expedition and left it behind when he went home in 1909.

Case released from ice under hutWhiskey connoisseurs got excited because the original recipe for this particular brew is lost, and given the optimal preservation conditions of Antarctic freeze, this could be the resurrection of a historical liquor. Gratification had to be delayed, however. The crate was frozen solid, embedded in the ice. It wasn’t until just a few months ago that the ice melted just enough for the crate of whiskey, still frozen solid, to be taken out. It was sent to the Canterbury Museum in Christchurch, New Zealand, for very gradual defrosting and very ginger analysis.

It took them a month to fully thaw the crate, and today they finally opened the lid. (There are some fantastic pictures and details about the long thaw on Canterbury Museum’s The Great Whisky Crate Thaw website.)

Straw and paper-wrapped bottlesToday in a painstakingly slow and careful manoeuvre, the crate was opened to reveal not 12 but 11 bottles of Scotch whisky, carefully wrapped in paper and straw to protect them from the rigours of a rough trip to the Southern Ocean in 1907.

One of the 11 bottles was not as full as the other 10 and it was suspected the twelfth bottle might have been drunk by a member of Shackleton’s crew of the Nimrod who could not resist the temptation.

The whisky is unlikely ever to be tasted and once samples have been extracted and sent to the Scottish distillery which took over the Mackinlay’s distillery many years ago, they will go back to their original home under the floor of Shackleton’s hut in Cape Royds on Ross Island near McMurdo Sound.

Whiskey expert Michael Milne was a witness to the opening. He notes that there was not much information on the label, so we don’t know if it’s a single or blended malt. Hopefully when Whyte and Mackay, the company that today owns the Mackinlay brand, get their clammy hands on the samples, they’ll be able to identify not just the basics like that but also recreate the full recipe.

Until then, nobody gets to take a sip, I’m afraid.

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Lucy used tools, ate meat

Thursday, August 12th, 2010

Cut marks on hoofed animals rib, 3.2 - 3.4 million years agoResearchers studying fossilized animal bones from the Dikika region of Ethiopia have found evidence that Lucy’s species, Australopithecus afarensis, used tools to butcher meat. The bones had marks from cuts, scrapes and scratches made when the bones were fresh. Forensic analysis found stone fragments in one of the cuts.

Before this study, paleontologists thought hominids of the Homo species first used tools 2.5 million years ago, but the A. afarensis bones date to 3.2 million and 3.4 million years ago. Lucy and her kin were also previously thought to have eaten a vegetarian diet, but if they were butchering animals to the bone, they were eating the proceeds.

Study co-author Zeresenay Alemseged, the palaeoanthropologist from the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco who leads a large research effort in the region, said that the find overturns much of what was thought about A. afarensis.

“For 30 years, no-one has been able to put stone tools in their hands, and we’ve done that for the first time,” he told BBC News.

“We are showing for the first time that stone tool use is not unique to Homo or Homo-related species – we have A. afarensis now behaving like Homo in a way both by using tools and eating meat. It’s another attribute that could enable us to link A. afarensis to the genus Homo.”

There are still some holes that need filling in, though. The sample of bones was small and no tools were found on the site. We don’t know if A. afarensis picked up convenient stones to use as tools, or if they were advanced to the point of actually crafting cutting tools out of larger stones.

We don’t even really have direct evidence that it was Lucy’s species doing the butchering. The bones were dated by dating the volcanic rock in the area where they were found, and it’s the date that points to A. afarensis because as far as we know there were no other hominid species in the Dikika region 3.2 – 3.4 million years ago.

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