Archive for September, 2010

Apologies and a shout out to Turkey

Monday, September 20th, 2010

I apologize for what seemed like an endless day of History Bloglessness. A Turkish hacker took down the host server and it took all day to get the site restored.

8000 year old sealIn honor of the pirate who took us down, here’s a story about an 8,000-year-old seal found in the province of Izmir, in western Turkey. Archaeologists discovered the seal while excavating the Yesilova Tumulus, one of the oldest settlements in that part of the country.

“The seal is dated back to 6,200 B.C. It is evident that the seal belonged to an administrator. This bull-shaped seal is one of the oldest seals ever unearthed in Anatolia. We’ve unearthed many important findings during the excavations at this site since 2005. Some 700 pieces have been sent to museums for display. We give 150 pieces every year. This region is very important in terms of both tourism and science,” [Associate Professor Zafer Derin] said.



Nefertiti bust was airbrushed

Sunday, September 19th, 2010

NefertitiThe famed bust of Nefertiti now in the Neues Museum in Berlin has long been considered an icon of beauty. It turns out to be very similar to contemporary images of beauty: nipped, tucked, botoxed and airbushed.

Historian Bettany Hughes was part of a team of researchers who took a CT scan of the Neues Nefertiti last week and she announced yesterday that the inner limestone template upon which the stucco outer shell was built presents a less idealized version of the queen. She’s still a great beauty, but the first face seems to have been a more realistic rendering, complete with crows’ feet and nose bumps.

This confirms the CT scan results German researchers got last year. They found the limestone face has less prominent cheekbones, a bump on the bridge of the nose, smile lines around the mouth and cheeks, and less depth at the corners of the eyelids. The sculptor Thutmose, in whose workshop it was found and to whom it is attributed, may have done the limestone carving from life and then built up the stucco to be more in accordance with their cultural notions of ideal beauty.

“That statue is still very beautiful,” [Hughes] said, “but not as beautiful. It showed her nose was bent, and that she had wrinkles around her eyes. It’s a real portrait of a real woman. We’re now going to a tomb in the Valley of the Kings where we think Nefertiti’s sister is to see if the dynasty has the same features.”

Ms Hughes, who flew out to Egypt immediately after yesterday’s event, said the Nefertiti scan was likely to reveal much more about the dynasty, of whom Tutenkhamen is the most famous member.

It may even help lead archaeologists to Nefertiti’s remains. Her tomb has never been found, but there are a number of identified mummies that are believed to be part of her family. The new information about her looks might provide more data to find a match.

I don’t know if that’s really likely, however. I mean, did anyone really expect the Nefertiti bust to be an exact replica of the queen, to the point where a potential mummy would be ruled out on the grounds of it not precisely matching the sculpted version of her? It’s hardly shocking news that portraiture and propaganda have gone hand in hand for millennia.


37 more ancient Macedonian tombs found in Pella

Saturday, September 18th, 2010

Bronze helmet with gold mouth protector, 6th c. B.C.Excavations of the Iron Age cemetery in Pella keep turning up huge numbers of finds. Thursday archaeologists announced that they’ve found another 37 tombs dating from 650 to 280 B.C. One of the tombs was the final resting place of a warrior from the 6th century B.C. and it held a bronze helmet with a gold mouthplate, weapons and jewelry.

These treasures aren’t quite as elaborate as the accouterments found in 43 graves last year, but these tombs too are an incredibly rich source of ancient Macedonian artifacts ranging from ceramics to precious metals. Overall, archaeologists have uncovered an astonishing 1,000 tombs since excavations of the site began 10 years ago, and they’ve only excavated an estimated 5% of the site.

They’ve found so many ancient artifacts that Greek Ministry of Culture and Tourism spent 1.6 million euros building a new Archaeological Museum of Pella. The old museum was built in 1960 to store the finds. It was quite teeny — it only had 3 rooms — but it had had to function as the sole archaeological museum since 1973. The new museum has 6,000 square meters (a whopping 65,000 square feet) of display space, all of it packed with archaeological wonders.

Among the most important exhibits are six mosaics from houses (depicting Dionysus riding a panther, a lion-hunt, a griffin attacking a deer, a pair of centaurs, and vegetal ornaments), an interior wall of a house decorated with coloured plaster in the first Pompeian style (2nd century BC), a marble portrait head of Alexander the Great and a marble statuette of Alexander as Pan of the Hellenistic period, a small bronze statue of Poseidon attributed to the sculptor Lysippos, also of the Hellenistic period, hoards of silver coins of the Macedonian kings (5th century BC) and of the Hellenistic period, a red-figure hydria decorated with a representation of Poseidon’s duel with Athena, dated to the late fifth or early fourth century BC, and a headless statue of a youth on horseback.

Lion hunt mosaic Bronze of Poseidon Wall decorated with coloured plaster in the first Pompeian style

Pella was the second ancient capital of Macedonia (Aigai, another rich source of archaeological finds, was the first). Archelaus (413–399 BC) made it his capital and it remained so through Philip II’s and Alexander’s times. It was sacked by Roman troops in 168 B.C., when the last Antigonid king, Perseus of Macedon, was deposed and killed. Shortly thereafter an earthquake silted the harbor and the city’s decline was sealed.


The Colosseum on Fire

Friday, September 17th, 2010

Don’t freak out! It’s just virtual flames. They look totally cool, though.

Danish artist Thyra Hilden and her partner Pio Diaz have been setting famous historical monuments on virtual fire all over Europe for years. They use large scale video projection installations to make a point about the significance and fragility of Europe’s cultural heritage.

After several years of preparation, they’ve finally set up their vision of arson in a place where you can still see melted copper coins embedded in the pavement from the fires that blazed through the city 2,000 years ago.

Creating the flames inside the historical building had been demanding of the couple, said Hilden, but added that they had not allowed the technicalities to distract them from the main purpose of the installation.

“As far as I know it’s half a kilometre just to walk around the building so to set it on fire was a really, really huge effort but to us all the technical things are not important, we want to focus mainly and only on the content and the expression and why we want to do it,” she said.

Even the challenges were essentially part of the message of the display, Diaz added.

“I think that the most challenging is to go from and idea to something that is concrete and sometimes it’s pretty difficult, not just to burn the Colosseum but in every day life for everybody so I think that just to do it, in a way symbolises that, that you know, to have the idea and put it in realisation,” he said.

The timing just happens to suit the city’s plans as well. Rome is in the process of raising $32 million from private donors for a full restoration of the Colosseum, so curator Gianni Mercurio sees the fire as symbolizing the phoenix rising from the ashes.

(I haven’t blogged about this restoration project yet because there’s a strong chance it will involve advertising on the Colosseum and the thought makes me physically ill. They say it won’t be hideous billboards or anything like that, but rather some tasteful sky-projected laser logos. I am skeptical and I am grumpy.)

And now, without further ado, fire up your fiddle and clear your throat for a rousing rendition of the Sack of Illium.



Gorgeously illustrated WWI diary found after 90 years

Thursday, September 16th, 2010

Lieutenant Kenneth Edwin Wootton, 1/21 Battn London Regt Tank CorpsLieutenant Kenneth Edwin Wootton was a tank operator in the trenches of the Western Front during World War I. He operated the lead tank in his section and was on the front lines of many battles, taking out machine gun emplacements.

He also happened to be an exceptional artist with pen and ink and watercolors who kept a journal of what he experienced and saw in battle between 1915 and 1917. He fought in the notorious third Battle of Ypres (aka the Battle of Passchendaele) which killed half a million soldiers on both sides for a few miles gained by Allied forces.

His writing is as vivid and powerful as his art. Here’s part of his entry on Third Ypres:

My driver Fagg could be seen anxiously peering through the half open window in July 1917 at the Third Battle of Ypres. I lit a cigarette as my mouth became quite dry, I lit another, it tasted rotten but I smoked it somehow as we got nearer the lines of burning shells.

We escaped with nothing more than lumps of earth falling around us. The German front line had been smashed almost out of recognition as we passed through shell holes and most were filled with filthy water and bodies.

Up the hill Fagg and I felt we were in for it as the Germans still held Westhoek and Gelncorse wood. I was kept busy dodging from side to side on my tank as a great many shells fell around us. I should have got inside but I hate being boxed up in the stifling heat of a tank. I felt safer in the open.

Christmas Truce 1916 entryHe also records a Christmas Truce in 1916, which is notable because after the first and most famous Christmas Truce of 1914, the commands on both sides did everything they could to discourage such spontaneous eruptions of humanity, including resorting to threats of hard punishment for any soldier engaging in fraternization with the enemy.

Christmas Day 1916, Ypres: Distance between the line was 100 yards. Had an excellent Christmas dinner in a dug out, turkey, Christmas pudding, mine pies, fruit and champagne. Both sides stopped. Did patrol from midnight till 3am and felt very merry.

So there were no twinkling lights, no hanging out, sharing food, cutting each others’ hair like there had been in 1914, but at least they stopped shooting at each other long enough to enjoy a decent Christmas meal.

The last entries in the diary describe his time in a hospital in Rouen after an explosion almost killed him. He was discharged from the military due to the injury, receiving a Military Cross for conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty upon his return. He stashed the diary at that point and it remained incognito until his great granddaughter inherited some old books and papers and found the diary among them.

She’s selling it (sigh) at a Hansons Auctioneers sale at the end of September. The estimated sale price is £3000 ($4700), a steal considering its far greater historical value.

Pen and ink drawing of the ruins of YpresWatercolor of Renault FT17 tank in battle


2000-year-old pills from shipwreck DNA tested

Wednesday, September 15th, 2010

Shipwreck with lamp from asia minorSome time between 140 and 120 B.C., a Roman ship sank off the coast of what is now Tuscany. It was crammed full of goods from different ports of call — wine amphorae from Rhodes, glass cups from Syria, ceramics from Athens and Pergamon, a pitcher from Cyprus, and lamps from Asia Minor — making it possible to trace the movements of the ship before it met its unfortunate demise. The variety alone would make it an exceptional find, but underwater archaeologists also found a medical chest, probably belonging to a doctor on the ship rather than being a product for sale.

Inside the chest were various scary implements of the trade, including a bleeding cup and surgery hook, 136 boxwood drug vials and most importantly, several tins of green pills. Despite having been sitting on the sea floor for 2000+ years where sea plants grew thickly up and around the wreck, the tins were still sealed and the pills completely dry and intact.

The wreck was discovered in 1974, explored by archaeologists in 1982 and excavated starting in 1989. Underwater archaeologists from the Archeological Superintendency of Tuscany excavated the ship for two years, but it wasn’t until recently that genetic sequencing technology has made possible detailed DNA analysis of the pills.

Geneticist Robert Fleischer of the Smithsonian’s National Zoological Park, who presented the findings last week at the Fourth International Symposium on Biomolecular Archaeology in Copenhagen, Denmark, was able to analyze DNA fragments in two of the pills.

After comparing the sequences to the GenBank genetic database maintained by the US National Institutes of Health, he identified many plants typical of a vegetable garden, including carrot, radish, parsley, celery, wild onion and cabbage. Alfalfa, yarrow and the more exotic hibiscus were also part of the mix.

“The plants match those described in ancient texts such as those by the ancient Greek physicians Dioscorides and Galen. However, more work has to be done since we do not have the complete sequence for each plant, but only fragments which could belong to other species as well,” Touwaide said.

Yarrow was known to have been used as a coagulant, staunching the flow of blood from wounds. Pedanius Dioscorides, a physician who practiced in Rome in the 1st century A.D., was a big proponent of carrots as a reptile bite preventative and as aids in conception.

There were also some big surprises. Analysis of the pills returned the presence of sunflower, a New World plant. It could have been a recent contaminant, so further study must be done, but if it’s confirmed that there were sunflowers in the ancient Mediterranean some botanical history is going to have to be rewritten.

Touwaide is also hoping further analysis will find theriac, a medicine Galen, the 2nd c. A.D. Father of Pharmacology, described in his writings that contains more than 80 different plant extracts. Pinpointing the exact measurements ancient doctors used to manufacture the pills would not only be just plain cool from a historical perspective, but might open new avenues of pharmacological research.

Another question yet to be answered is how these tablets were used. They’re 3 centimeters (1″) wide and half a centimeter thick, so they wouldn’t have been terribly comfy for a patient to ingest. They might have been dissolved in water and wine to make a tussin-like beverage, or they could have been melted and applied topically like an ointment. The Archeological Superintendency of Tuscany hopes to publish their final results by next year.


Rare, unpublished pictures of Lascaux cave paintings

Tuesday, September 14th, 2010

Two days ago was the 70th anniversary of the discovery of the Lascaux Paleolithic cave paintings. On September 12, 1940, four local teenagers (and a dog) were hunting rabbits when the dog, Robot, followed a hare down a hole. The boys pulled up some rocks and trees and followed Robot down the rabbit hole. They didn’t find a Mad Hatter or a Red Queen, but they did find a series of caves decorated with beautifully vivid paintings up to 18,000 years old.

Seven years later, LIFE magazine photographer Ralph Morse took the first pictures of the cave paintings ever taken. The Paris bureau of LIFE had just re-opened after the end of World War II, and the New York office sent Morse to photograph the art which had been much buzzed about but never pictured. It wasn’t an easy site to photograph, what with them being caves and all. Only adventurous spelunking types had seen the paintings, and obviously there was no electricity to light the walls.

Generators were hard to come by in postwar France. Morse had to have one shipped from London. He and his crew, including his wife, Ruth, piled the generator and equipment into a van and trundled off to make history. They would be the first people to see the paintings fully lit. The locals helped; they were just as excited as the photographers to get a chance to see the art in all its rich color and detail.

In honor of the anniversary, LIFE magazine has released a series of rarely and never published pictures Morse took over the next two weeks. Morse is still alive and kicking at 93, and he writes about his experiences in the captions. There weren’t even any steps in the beginning. He and his team had to slide into the cave down a piece of wood, lowering the equipment and generator cables down on ropes.

Lascaux horse

“The first sight of those paintings was simply unbelievable,” Morse says. “I was amazed at how the colors held up after thousands and thousands of years — like they were just painted the day before! Most people don’t realize how huge some of the paintings are. There are pictures of animals there that are ten, fifteen feet long, and more.” Above: An unpublished Ralph Morse photograph of what he described, in his notes on the assignment, as a “very important horse” that may well be “the first example anywhere of drawing in modern perspective. Regard the turn of the head, placing of ears, and shading to [suggest three dimensions]. Neck appears exaggerated because it conforms to contour of rock, which is impossible to show in photo.”

The year after Morse’s pictures showed the world the wonders of Lascaux, the caves were opened to tourists. Fifteen years later, in 1963, the French government closed the caves. Carbon dioxide exhaled by all those open-mouthed tourists and the variety of contaminants they unwittingly carried were damaging the paintings. Today the caves are opened a few days a years for just a handful of experts to assess the condition of the art.


Rare Roman cavalry helmet slips through loophole

Monday, September 13th, 2010

Roman bronze cavalry helmet and mask, 1st - 2nd c. A.D.In May of this year, an unnamed metal detectorist found an extremely rare bronze Roman cavalry helmet complete with face mask in Crosby Garrett, Cumbria, UK.

It would have been used in cavalry sports events — shows done in honor of religious festivals or visiting dignitaries — not during battle, which is why it’s so beautifully decorated. The face was originally plated in tin, so it would have shone brightly and contrasted with the gold bronze color of the curls. There are rings along the back and on the griffin crest which may have had streamers tied to them during the display.

It is one of only three complete helmets with face masks ever found in Britain. The other two are in museums. This one will be sold to the highest bidder in a Christie’s auction October 7th.

Tullie House in Carlisle, which has an important Roman collection, is desperate to acquire the helmet with the backing of the British Museum, but faces an uphill battle to match bidders at next month’s sale. One expert believes the helmet could go for £500,000 or more. […]

If Tullie House is outbid, as seems inevitable, export of the helmet is likely to be temporarily barred by the government to give a British museum the chance to match an overseas buyer’s bid.

Here’s hoping. Christie’s estimate is £300,000, but that strikes me as an absurd lowball figure. In fact, it’s almost weird how low the estimate is given the exquisite beauty and rarity of the piece. I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see the final purchase price be out of museum range.

When members of the public find antique objects in the UK, they can voluntarily report them to a local archaeological authority. If the objects are judged treasure, a fair market value is determined and museums given the opportunity to pay the finder and landowner the assessed amount. There’s a yawning loophole, however, through which this remarkable helmet has fallen: treasure is defined as gold and silver, or bronze if part of a hoard. A single bronze object, no matter how rare, how special, how much UK museums would fall over themselves to get it, does not count as treasure, so the finder can just hand it over to Christie’s for his and their profit.

There are other shadinesses involved in this deal. Neither the treasure hunter nor Christie’s has reported the exact location of the find. The helmet was found in pieces and Christie’s put it back together for the sale. No archaeological study of the fragments was done before restoration, and we don’t even know how exactly Christie’s put humpty dumpty back together again. The age estimates have varied from 1st through 3rd century A.D. (they’re sticking with 1st-2nd c. in the auction catalogue) but that’s all from Christie’s experts. Nobody knows what kind, if any, scientific analysis has been done. Therefore, as beautiful and precious as this piece is, it is now a contextless piece of ancient art, just like so many looted objects.

Paul Barford, archaeologist and writer of the exceptional Portable Antiquity Collecting and Heritage Issues blog, lays out many of the issues in this entry. He also gives great rant in this more recent entry.

I say let the Crosby Garrett helmet go abroad. Let it be an easily understood symbol for the people of the British Isles just how their archaeological heritage is being squandered by those who should be protecting it. Furthermore, I hope it goes to the furthest ends of the Earth so that any Brits who want to see it can put themselves for a moment in the place of all those citizens from “antiquities’ source countries” who have difficulty seeing their own region’s archaeological heritage because it is hoarded away as (oh-so-culchural) trophies in western museums and personal collections.

Testify, Brother Barford. :notworthy:


10-year restoration of Acropolis’ Nike temple ends

Sunday, September 12th, 2010

After 10 years of unsightly scaffolding and reconstruction, the 5th century B.C. temple of Athena Nike on the Acropolis is finally restored. It had to be taken down piece by piece and rebuilt, this time not because of the ravages of war, pollution and age, but because 2 previous restorations caused more problems than they solved.

The first restoration in 1834 was a rebuild. Under siege by the Republic of Venice during the Morean War, the Ottomans had dismantled the temple in 1687, using the marble to build a gun embankment next to the monumental gateway to the Acropolis. When the Venetians broke through after 8 days of heavy bombardment, the bastion was still standing. It remained a bastion for 150 years until Greek independence (1829), after which Ludwig Ross, administrator of antiquities, had it dismantled and the temple rebuilt. It was incomplete, however, with blocks of marble stored inside the building.

During the 1935 restoration dismantled the temple again and found massive structural damage. Restorers used concrete and iron beams in the substructure and to keep the marble blocks together. Unfortunately, in the decades since then the iron rusted and the concrete degraded, causing cracks in the marble. The foundations and the upper structure were both in dire condition.

Enter the 21st century. When the Monuments Preservation Service examined it, they found that most of the blocks had been wrongly placed, that the west side listed by 4.5 centimeters and that rust had penetrated through the sub-structure all the way down into the archaic-era temple.

“We have used the latest technology, following successful experimentation with stress and aging,” project head Dionysia Mihalopoulou told The Associated Press on the Acropolis on Tuesday. “The choice and use of materials was the best possible, they will not corrode.” […]

Starting in 2000, workers took down 315 marble sections weighing up to 2–1/2 tons, laying bare a concrete foundation slab that was replaced by a stainless steel grid. Crews replaced the concrete additions with sections of new marble from ancient quarry sites — whose brilliant white contrasts with the old stone’s patina in places like the walls and columns to make clear they are modern additions.

Every block was returned to the original position selected by the temple’s ancient architects.

The friezes depicting Nike in various active postures have been removed permanently. They are now in the beautiful new Acropolis Museum while reproductions are in place on the temple itself. The temple is also a foot taller now.

Temple of Athena Nike, 1978 Temple of Athena Nike under scaffolding, 2007 Temple of Athena Nike today


The REAL first billion dollar athlete

Saturday, September 11th, 2010

Last year, before a certain late night car accident in Florida, Forbes Magazine declared Tiger Woods the first athlete to make over 1 billion dollars. That’s just modernocentrism, though, because Tiger Woods at his peak earning power was a shiftless hobo compared to Gaius Appuleius Diocles.

Gaius Appuleius Diocles was an illiterate 2nd century Lusitanian who made the biggest of the big time on the hugely popular chariot-racing circuit in Rome. Romans took their chariot races very, very seriously. There were 4 stables called factiones — the Reds, Blues, Whites, and Greens — identified by the colors of their jerseys, and riots between faction fans were a regular occurrence. The Circus Maximus sat 250,000 rabid fans and the stands were always packed.

Victorious Red charioteer, 3rd c. mosaicDiocles started off racing for the Whites in 122 A.D. He then moved to the Greens and finally ended up with the Reds, where he spent the rest of his career winning like crazy. When he died in 146 A.D. at age “42 years, 7 months, and 23 days” his colleagues and fans erected a monumental inscription acclaiming him the “champion of all charioteers” and describing in obsessive-sports-fan-stat detail his races, records, victories and purses.

Grand totals: He drove chariots for 24 years, ran 4,257 starts and won 1,462 victories, 110 in opening races. In single entry races he won 1,064 victories, winning 92 major purses, 32 of them (including 3 with six-horse teams) at 30,000 serstertii, 28 (including 2 with six-horse teams) at 40,000 sestertii, 29 (including 1 with a seven horse team) at 50,000 sestertii and 3 at 60,000 sestertii. […] He won a total of 35,863,120 sestertii.

We can’t convert ancient currency to contemporary figures mathematically because there’s just too much water under the bridge to generate significant figures. What we can do, however, is compare buying power. We know that 35,863,120 sestertii, his total career winnings, was 5 times what the highest paid provincial governor would have made during that same time period. It was also enough to buy grain for the entire city of Rome for a year, or to pay the salary of the entire Roman army at the height of empire for a fifth of the year.

If we compare that buying power to the cost of fielding the U.S. Army today for a fifth of the year, 35,863,120 sestertii amounts to $15 billion. And this is just in purse money. No tens/hundreds of millions in endorsement cash. I don’t think any athlete today could come remotely close to that figure.

Half-relief with a quadriga race in the Circus Maximus, Rome (2-3rd century); Trinci Palace, Foligno, Italy





September 2010


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