The Renaissance jean jacket

The origins of denim are cloudy. Both Nîmes, France, and Genoa, Italy, claim to be its birthplace, and they both have solid grounds for the claim. The André family produced the sturdy cotton twill dyed indigo known as serge de Nîmes (hence denim) for generations, but Genoa claims to have produced jeans for sailors and fishermen since the 1500s. Although those jeans started off brown, eventually they switched to that characteristic indigo color and became known as Bleu de Genes (hence blue jeans).

The Genoese material was cheap and popular all over Europe and even in the US. George Washington himself encountered denim production when he toured the largest cotton mill in the country in Beverly, Massachusetts, in 1789. It would only begin to climb the heights of pop culture fame once Levi Strauss started making his riveted 501 jeans in the 1920s. (He claimed in his advertising to have made his first overalls out of denim for California Gold Rush prospectors in 1849, but he was fibbing. His company only started producing denim overalls in the 1870s, after they patented their rivets.)

One thing we know for sure is denim was a working class fabric. It was tough as hell and could be worn for years by people who rode them hard and, especially in the case of the Genoese sailors, put them away wet. Cowboys, railway workers, fishermen, beggars and lumberjacks didn’t often get their daily lives documented for the historical record, and while high-end textiles are sometimes carefully conserved over the centuries, jeans got worn until they fell apart.

Woman Begging with Two ChildrenThat’s why the discovery of an anonymous Northern Italian painter who depicted poor people wearing denim in the mid to late 1600s is such a surprising find. The fact that he painted the poor going about their business is rare enough; the fact in all but one of his recently-discovered works they’re wearing clearly identifiable jeans skirts, trousers and jackets is unheard of. It has earned him a snazzy anachronistic moniker, too: the Master of Blue Jeans.

“This calls into question the entire history we have been telling up until now,” said Francois Girbaud, who partnered with the Paris exhibition. “And that’s what’s fun.”

The Barber Shop“In people’s minds, jeans used to be all about Marilyn Monroe, James Dean, about the United States,” he said. “Nimes or Genoa? I don’t have the answer. But it’s amusing to think that jeans already existed in 1655.”

Ten paintings have been attributed to the Italian artist, eight of which are on show in Paris alongside works by contemporaries such as Michael Sweerts or Giacomo Ceruti, loaned from museums and private collections in Rome and Vienna.

Beggar Boy with a Piece of Pie The paintings are currently on display in the Canesso Gallery in Paris. My favorite is “Beggar Boy with a Piece of Pie” (see picture to the right) because that jacket is so totally a jeans jacket. I seriously had one just like it junior high, only I intentionally put tears in mine to look cool. Abject poverty has made Beggar Boy look cool naturally.

iPads revolutionize field archaeology in Pompeii

As much as technology from DNA testing to satellite imaging has had a profound impact on the practice of archaeology, some of the most basic elements of field work have remained the same for hundreds of years. Recording the excavation site is still primarily a pen-and-paper operation; only later are the handwritten notes entered into software like CAD and Harris Matrix builders.

It’s a huge amount of note-taking. The forms describing soil layers and features can reach into the hundreds for a single trench. Then there are the elevation recordings, scaled drawings of the trench which have to be made every day to show the changes as the excavation proceeds, plus the on-site Harris Matrices that establish the relative ages of the layers. Sharing updated information can be a challenge, needless to say, but even in an era of portable computing, pen-and-paper has persisted as standard practice. Laptops have a lot of moving parts that don’t respond well to trenches full of dirt, and electricity is always a challenge in the field.

Field researcher records observations about well construction on iPadThe iPad solves both of those problems, and has the added boost of lots of apps that fit archaeological needs like a glove. It’s easily portable (even more so than pen and paper because you don’t need a writing surface or a writing implement), has no moving parts to get impacted with dirt, and the battery lasts the whole day. Plus, you have the entire Internet at your fingers for your on-the-spot research needs. The University of Cincinnati’s Pompeii team is putting 6 iPads through their paces in their excavation of a neighborhood off Pompeii’s main street.

“It was the ability to enter so many disparate kinds of information, recording everything from architectural elements to fish scales and bones to the actual sequences of events. That my team could both type and draw on the screen, and also examine all previously entered data, made it an ideal single-device solution.”

With iPad, [University of Cincinnati’s archaeological databases expert John] Wallrodt was able to re-create each of [the pen-and-paper] functions using “off-the-shelf” apps from the App Store. FMTouch replaced paper forms by allowing researchers to make direct entries into their database forms on iPad. The Pages app supplanted paper notebooks, enabling them to not only enter notations on the iPad keyboard but also import drawings and photos. Scaled drawings were made directly on iPad in iDraw. And OmniGraffle handled the intricate matrix illustrations.

“iPad replaced all of these functions and added many others,” says Wallrodt. “In this way, all of our piles of paper were replaced with a single 1.5-pound device.”

Dr. Steven Ellis, director of the University of Cincinnati’s Pompeii excavation, estimates that the 6 onsite iPads have spared him a year of data entry already. He plans to double the number of them so there are 2 per trench. He thinks iPads in the field are going to be as big a leap forward as the introduction of computers to crunch data were 30 years ago.

“The recovery of invaluable information from our Pompeian excavations is now incalculably faster, wonderfully easier, unimaginably more dynamic, precisely more accurate, and robustly secure,” he says.

Titanic sunk by helmsman mistaking right and left?

Titanic Second Officer Charles Lightoller, ca 1912Louise Patten, successful author and businesswoman, has been keeping a secret for 40 years. Her grandfather, Charles Lightoller, in addition to being a decorated hero in both world wars, was also the second officer of the RMS Titanic and although he was the most senior officer to survive the disaster, he only told one person what he knew about the sinking: his wife, Sylvia. Patten’s grandmother told Louise the story in the 1960s but swore her to secrecy.

Lightoller had lied to both the US Senate and the British Board of Trade official inquiries, telling them he knew nothing about how it all went down. White Star Line chairman Bruce Ismay had told him on the rescue ship that if Lightoller told what he knew, White Star’s limited liability insurance wouldn’t pay out due to negligence and the company would go down with all hands. Out of loyalty to his co-workers and crew, Charles Lightoller covered up the truth for the rest of his life.

Sylvia and her daughter (Patten’s mother) were fiercely protective of Lightoller’s heroic reputation, so they maintained the cover up after he died in 1952, keeping this juiciest of all gossip within a tight family circle, even doubting whether they should tell Patten herself. They did, though, and Louise kept the secret too for over 40 years. Her mother and grandmother are dead now and realizing that she is the only living custodian of this holiest of holies, she’s decided to tear the veil.

Here’s what Lightoller told Sylvia really happened. He was in his cabin when Titanic hit the iceberg. After the collision, he was called to the bridge. There he joined the Captain Edward Smith and First Officer William Murdoch and they went to Murdoch’s cabin to arm themselves should violence break out when loading the lifeboats. They told him that steersman Robert Hitchens had panicked and turned the ship to the right instead of the left around the iceberg. How could a steersman mistake something as simple as turning right or left?

Patten explains:

‘Titanic was launched at a time when the world was moving from sailing ships to steam ships. My grandfather. like the other senior officers on Titanic, had started out on sailing ships. And on sailing ships, they steered by what is known as “Tiller Orders” which means that if you want to go one way, you push the tiller the other way. [So if you want to go left, you push right.] It sounds counter-intuitive now, but that is what Tiller Orders were. Whereas with “Rudder Orders” which is what steam ships used, it is like driving a car. You steer the way you want to go. It gets more confusing because, even though Titanic was a steam ship, at that time on the North Atlantic they were still using Tiller Orders. Therefore Murdoch gave the command in Tiller Orders but Hitchins, in a panic, reverted to the Rudder Orders he had been trained in. They only had four minutes to change course and by the time Murdoch spotted Hitchins’ mistake and then tried to rectify it, it was too late.’

Ismay then compounded the error by ordering Titanic go Slow Ahead instead of staying put and waiting for rescue. The forward movement put enormous pressure on the damaged starboard bow. Lightoller thought the ship would have remained afloat for hours if it had been allowed to remain in one place. The Carpathia, the ship that would collect the survivors, was 4 hours away. There could have been no loss of life at all.

Lightoller was a witness to Ismay’s giving the Slow Ahead order. After that, he worked to load and lower the port lifeboats. He was apparently the strictest enforcer of the “women and children first” convention, so much so that he disobeyed a direct order to get in a lifeboat himself and instead dived into the ocean as the ship went down. He was sucked underwater by one of the forward ventilators until a blast of hot air thrust him back up to the surface where he saw an overturned lifeboat with a few dozen people clinging to its sides. He swam over, organized the survivors and taught the men how to counterbalance swells so they wouldn’t be thrown into the freezing water again.

He would be the last survivor of the RMS Titanic taken on board the Carpathia. His recommendations on how to avoid future such disasters — lifeboats based on passenger number instead of tonnage, lifeboat drills for both passengers and crew, manned 24-hour radio communications, mandatory transmission of ice warnings — would become standard practice in the industry.

You can see why his wife and daughter didn’t want so sterling a reputation for courage and sacrifice to be tainted by his one Titanic lie.

Alexander’s armies wore linen armour

Alexander mosaic in the House of the Faun, Pompeii This isn’t breaking news or anything, but it’s news to me and I’ve been obsessing about it for 2 days. Greek armies from at least the 6th century B.C. through the Hellenistic period (the era after Alexander’s conquests when Greek military strength and cultural influence were at their peak) wore an armour made out of linen. It’s called linothorax, a thorax being an armoured chestpiece and lino being, well, linen.

The famous floor mosaic of Alexander found in the House of the Faun in Pompeii depicts him wearing a linothorax. Although the mosaic was made 400 or so years after Alexander died, it is a copy of a Hellenistic original from Alexander’s time. You can’t tell from looking at it what it was made out of, of course, but that kind of armour has been depicted in hundreds of Greek vases, sculptures, reliefs, as well as described in ancient sources.

None of it has survived, however, unlike its metallic brethren, so it’s a bit of a mystery. We know there was tube and yoke armour made out leather as well as metal, but how could linen, a fabric worn in summer because of its easy breezy breathability, provide any kind of protection against arrows and swords?

The trick is layering. Layers of linen were laminated together, glued or stitched in a quilted pattern, creating a remarkably strong barrier against penetration. Of course it wasn’t as strong as metal plate armour, but it had other advantages: light weight, flexibility, comfort, low cost, widely-available, easily crafted materials, and it doesn’t turn into a oven the minute the sun hits it, a major advantage in the scalding Mediterranean summer fighting season. Linen’s unique breathability becomes a laminating advantage, in fact, because once it’s glued together it becomes a solid block.

Linothorax depicted on a vaseProf. Aldrete in his homemade linothoraxUniversity of Wisconsin-Green Bay History professor Gregory S. Aldrete has put the linothorax through a rigorous battery of tests.

This is the mystery that the UWGB Linothorax Project is exploring. Using the available literary and artistic sources, the group has reconstructed several linothoraxes using only the authentic fabrics and glues that would have been available in the ancient Mediterranean. These reconstructions and various sample patches were then subjected to a series of tests to precisely determine how wearable this armor was, and how effective it would have been in protecting its wearer from common battlefield hazards, especially arrows. This involved actually shooting the test patches with arrows and measuring their penetration, as well as hitting them with a variety of weapons including swords, axes, and spears.

The results have so far been impressive. See the UWGB linothorax reconstructions in action:

Linothorax testing (link leads to download of mov file)

Also be sure to check out this sweet poster the UWGB team put together for the 2010 meeting of the Archaeological Institute of America. It won the 2010 Best Poster Award from the AIA, and it’s easy to see why. It covers ancient literary and decorative sources of information about the linothorax, plus the reconstruction process and the test results.

Last but not least, here’s a pattern (pdf) so you make your own ancient Greek armour from the comfort of your own home.

Oil spill reveals Gulf archaeological sites

When BP Deepwater Horizon blew its stack and began spewing millions of gallons of crude oil all over the Gulf Coast, archaeologists from local universities and from the National Park Service sprang into action. Environmental resources can spring back from catastrophe. It takes a lot of work and commitment, but it can and does happen. Archaeological resources, on the other hand, once destroyed are gone forever.

The strong response to the disaster from cleanup crews and the archaeological community has made lemonade out of the sourest of lemons. People working to clean and protect land and sea have uncovered at least 40 previously unknown prehistoric sites along the coast.

Shell midden on a tree island in the EvergladesThere are thousands of shell middens (piles of shells left behind by prehistoric Gulf Coast peoples over generations of seafood meals) along the coast, but they have barely been documented, never mind researched. These peoples didn’t leave behind written records or buildings, so going through their trash is our sole source of information about 10,000 years of early American history before the Spanish landed in the 1500s.

Archeologist Michael Church has been doing a wide survey from the Mississippi state line to the Florida panhandle. […]

Church says very little oil has made it to fragile sites like shell mounds and the amount that has should biodegrade. The oil spill presents a unique opportunity. It’s rare archeologists get to do a study encompassing several miles of coastline.

“I think we’ve discovered 40 undiscovered sites between Mississippi, Alabama and Florida,” says Church. For now, most of what church has found is raw data and pictures, he hopes it can be used by other researchers to aid in further study of prehistoric life on the Gulf Coast.

He may be a tad overly optimistic when it comes to oil contamination of these midden sites. It’s great that only a small amount of oil has reached them, but even just a small amount can stymie archaeological analysis. Radiocarbon dating, for example, will no longer return accurate results when organic materials have been mixed with oil. Fossil fuels are really old, after all (hence the fossil), so radiocarbon dated oily midden shells will show as far older than they actually are.

Still, considering the worst case scenarios that seemed very likely during the long months of cleanup, the news for the Gulf Coast’s rich archaeological sites overall is good so far. It remains to be seen how well artifacts and shipwrecks on the sea floor cope with the oil. It’s much more difficult to monitor, document and protect underwater archaeological sites than it is to scour the coastline.