Archive for April, 2011

Roman art seized from looters on display in Sofia

Sunday, April 10th, 2011

The ancient Roman site of Colonia Ulpia Traiana Ratiaria in northwestern Bulgaria has been thoroughly looted for the past 20 years. Huge holes pit its surface. Unemployed and with few other opportunities to make a living since the fall of Communism, people from nearby towns use the ancient site as their personal piggy bank, supported by an apathetic populace, a fatalistic (at best) police force and active organized crime rackets who bring in heavy machinery to dig up artifacts for sale on the black market. Experts estimate the profits derived from the underground trade in antiquities as equal to those derived from the illegal drug trade, and the antiquities business is far less dangerous to the criminals.

Roman sarcophagus in Ruptsi back yardSadly, there is virtually no police protection of Ratiaria and many other ancient Bulgarian sites; however, police have ramped up efforts to intercept looted artifacts before they disappear into private collections. This past February, an anti-organized crime raid in the town of Ruptsi found a mini-museum of Roman antiquities in the back yard of a local businessman, hidden behind a concrete privacy fence. He was widely known as someone who would buy from looters.

1st c. A.D. carving of Romulus and RemusAmong the finds were an almost complete, richly decorated Roman sarcophagus, columns, a carved altar stone, rare Roman glassware and a relief of the she-wolf suckling Romulus and Remus. These artifacts are now on display at the National Museum of History in Sofia. This will be the first time a representation of the founding myth of Rome goes on display at a Bulgarian museum.

The highlight of the collection, containing some 100 pieces including exquisite examples of Roman sculpture and ceramics, is a marble sarcophagus from the first century AD, richly carved with garlands, floral ornaments, women’s faces and figures of death.

“The sarcophagus, with an early Roman inscription, is the most beautiful of its kind found in Bulgaria,” archaeologist Elka Penkova said.

Archaeologists have dated the rest of the seized items as from around the first century A.D. as well.

Workers unload 1st c. A.D. Roman sarcophagus at National Museum in Sofia

Learn more about Ratiaria and its near-destruction by looters on the Bulgarian Archaeological Association’s website. You can see actual looters in action raping the land in a story that aired on an Australian newsmagazine in 2009: Plundering the Past. Watch the whole thing.


Bones of leper warrior found in Lombard cemetery

Saturday, April 9th, 2011

Skull of warrior with Hansen's disease, characteristic wasting of bone visible in nose, upper jaw areaArchaeological excavations of the early medieval necropolis in Morrione, in the central Italian region of Molise, have uncovered the bones of a warrior with leprosy. He was approximately 50 years old, and appears to have died from one sword blow to the head. Since lepers were treated like, well, lepers (i.e., societal outcasts separated in life and death from the “clean” population), it’s a surprising discovery to find someone with Hansen’s disease who lived, fought, died and was buried with his comrades.

The skeleton of a female between 40 and 46 years old was also found in the necropolis. There is very little osteological data about leprosy in the archaeological record of Italy. The two skeletons discovered might be able to provide a great deal of new information about the pathological and sociological history of the disease in Italy.

The cemetery was in use between the sixth and eighth centuries. There was no permanent settlement at that time, so the burial ground had to have been used by the Lombards, a Germanic people who invaded Italy in 568 along with their allies the Avars, a Eurasian confederation of nomadic warriors, who had a military outpost in the area.

[The warrior’s] bones show the telltale wasting and mutilation of leprosy, now known as Hansen’s disease. In ancient times, leprosy sufferers were often banished from society. Apparently the Lombards and Avars took a more tolerant approach, Rubini said, because this man, who died around age 50, was buried in the cemetery along with the other dead. […]

“The Avar society was very inflexible militarily, and in particular situations all are called to contribute to the cause of survival, healthy and sick,” [Foggia University anthropologist Mauro Rubini] said. “Probably this individual was really a leper warrior who died in combat to defend his people against the Byzantinian soldiers.”

Horse and rider buried togetherSo far 234 graves have been excavated. We can learn a great deal more we don’t know about Lombard and Avar cultures from their buried dead. There is evidence of successful battlefield surgery, for example. One skull has a 2-inch hole in it, probably made by a Byzantine mace, whose edges were cleaned and abraded until smooth. Regrowth of bone indicates that the surgery was successful. Another skull with a wedge-shaped dent, possibly made by a Byzantine battle-axe, also shows signs that the recipient of the blow survived it and lived for some time after.

Many of the warriors were found buried with their horses, a common practice among nomadic Asian peoples that must have continued to be practiced by the Avars in Italy.


Bedlam gives up hundreds of long-dead lunatics

Friday, April 8th, 2011

Bedlam skeletons found under Liverpool Street stationArchaeologists surveying a future site of the massive Crossrail project next to the Liverpool Street railway station have uncovered over a hundred skeletons in a burial ground that was used to inter patients from the infamous St. Bethlehem Hospital, aka Bedlam, starting in 1569.

So far they’ve only dug a trial pit and found over a hundred skeletons starting just five feet below street level. Since the site is far larger than the small exploratory trench, lead archaeologist Jay Carver calculates that they will find hundreds more once the entire site is excavated, maybe even thousands.

This isn’t the first time the area has burst forth a glorious danse macabre courtesy of Bedlam’s hundreds of years of continuous use, first as a priory for the religious of the Order of the Star of Bethlehem in the 13th century, until the insane asylum that would become synonymous with a maddening racket moved to that location in the late 17th century. Four hundred skeletons were found next door when the office pedestrian complex Broadgate Centre was built during the 1980s.

The burial ground continued to be used until the 19th century for local residents when other intown cemeteries ran out of space, so not all of these skeletons are mental patients who died in the famously deplorable conditions of Bedlam; however, the huge numbers involved means there will be a high concentration of 16th century remains, both of the hospitalized and of the city poor.

‘It’s interesting on the archaeological side because the 16th century is a time of immense poverty really in the outer areas of the city of London. Sites of this type haven’t always been fully investigated,’ Carver said.

The team also uncovered pottery fragments, clay pipes, animal bone artefacts, including knife handles, and, as yet, unidentified implements in association with the burials.

The bodies will be studied at the Museum of London prior to reburial. Researchers will examine the gender distribution, their ages, and signs of chronic and terminal illness. The remains will then be re-interred locally, as per government regulations, but where exactly hasn’t been determined yet. Most of the bodies found in the ’80s were reburied under Broadgate Centre itself. East London Cemetery has accommodated past archaeological remains, but even they may not have the space for the numbers of skeletons expected to be found over the next two years of excavation.

St. Bethlehem Hospital was the world’s first hospital dedicated to the treatment of mental illness. I use the word “treatment” loosely, however, since mainly patients were kept in a chaotic, filthy, prison-like environment. They weren’t even called patients until 1700. Before that they were all “inmates” and there was no distinction made between curable and incurable cases.

In the 18th century, rich people would pay to visit the crazies and hoot at the spectacle behind their fans. Satirist William Hogarth depicted just such a scene in the last painting from his A Rake’s Progress series, where the titular rake’s moral degradation leads him from foppery to gambling to whoremongering to debtor’s prison to an ignominious naked finale as a shackled madman among the madmen of Bedlam, their wretchedness providing entertainment for his one-time society equals.

"A Rake's Progress," by William Hogarth, 1733


Shackleton’s whisky lives again and it’s delicious

Thursday, April 7th, 2011

Last summer, researchers from the Canterbury Museum in Christchurch, New Zealand thawed a crate of whisky found frozen solid under the floorboards of explorer Ernest Shackleton’s hut on Ross Island, Antarctica, in 2006. Whisky experts were all agog over the prospect of being able to analyze these spirits purchased for the expedition in 1907 because the original recipe for this brand, Mackinlay’s Rare Old Highland Malt Whisky, was long since lost. The bottles had been preserved in the deepest of deep freezes for a century and thus might provide all kinds of information about historical blends and distillation methods that you can’t get from whisky of the same age but that has lived a more active life.

Master Blender Richard Paterson looks at a bottle of Shackleton's whisky like he's about to make sweet, sweet love to itIn January of this year, Richard Paterson and Dr. Vijay Mallya, respectively the master blender and owner of Whyte & Mackay, the company that owns the former Mackinlay’s distillery, flew to New Zealand on a private jet, picked up three bottles of Shackleton’s whisky then flew back with them to Scotland on the private jet. The cargo hold of a commercial plane would not have been able to provide the proper conditions for the safety and conservation of these precious, rare bottles, and obviously there are more than 3 ounces of liquid in the bottles, so they couldn’t fly in the passenger cabin either. Mallya volunteered his private plane for the task.

Paterson literally handcuffed himself to the protective cases the bottles were kept in for the duration of the voyage. He only detached himself from them under duress when customs made him. As a master blender and a nose, Paterson has an emotional bond to these bottles from a bygone era and the mysterious blend they contain. He’s the one who got to sample the whisky as part of the analytical process. The only other person allowed to taste it was whisky writer Dave Broom.

Here he is being adorably passionate about the whisky in a video from when it first arrived in Scotland. You can see the safety crates and the handcuffs in it:


After that video was filmed, the bottles were taken to Whyte & Mackay’s laboratories in Invergordon where samples were extracted from each bottle by a syringe inserted through the stopper. Eight weeks of chemical and palate analysis ensued. The bottles were not opened or tampered with in any way, and they will be returned to the Antarctic Heritage Trust to be preserved along with their unsampled brothers.

Now Whyte & Mackay have announced the results of their study and their recreation of a replica of the Shackleton whisky. In two to eight weeks, 50,000 bottles of the replica whisky will be sold, starting in the UK then on to mainland Europe, the US, Australia and New Zealand.

Paterson expected the whisky to have a heavy, peaty flavor, which was the fashion at the time. Instead, according to his tasting notes, he discovered a Scotch with “delicate aromas of crushed apple, pear and fresh pineapple. It has a whisper of marmalade, cinnamon and a tease of smoke, ginger and muscovado sugar.”

[Rob Bruce, Whyte & Mackay’s head of global public relations] wouldn’t say much about the process Paterson used to create the replica.

“He used existing single malts, including liquid from the original Mackinlays distillery,” Bruce wrote in an email, referring to the company that made Shackleton’s stash. “We are not revealing any more than that at this stage.”[…]

Paterson’s tests revealed that the forsaken whisky has a 47.3 percent alcohol content, which is high. He believes this was to help prevent the liquid from freezing. The result, he said in his notes, is that it “gives plenty of impact, but in a mild and warming way. It has whispers of gentle bonfire smoke slowly giving way to spicy rich toffee, treacle and pecan nuts.”

The bottles will cost about $160 each, and 5% of the proceeds will be donated to the Antarctic Heritage Trust. If, as expected, the full run sells, the Trust will receive almost $400,000.

You can hear Dave Broom’s glowing review in this interview with Radio New Zealand. I’m not a whisky person but I have to admit it sounds delicious (although of course I wouldn’t care at all if it hadn’t come from Ernest Shackelton’s ice cellar).

Bottle of Shackleton's Mackinlay's Replica Mackinlay's made by Whyte & Mackay


Oldest Tomb of Maya Ruler Found in Guatemala

Wednesday, April 6th, 2011

Archaeologists excavating the ancient Maya site of K’o in northeast Guatemala have found the earliest known burial of Maya royalty. It was an unexpected find. The dwelling above the burial was owned by a wealthy individual, but it wasn’t a palace. It was the grave goods that indicated the skeleton buried among them was a member of the ruling elite.

Ceramic grave goods, jester god incense burner centerThere were seven ceramic vessels in the grave, including jars, bowls, and one black incense burner depicting a figure wearing a headdress known by archaeologists as the Maya jester god. The jester god headdress is one of the earliest symbols of Maya royalty. It has previously been found on murals, carvings and pottery going back to 100 B.C.

Drawing of the parts of the jester god incense burnerMesoamerican historians have dubbed the figure the jester god because his headdress bears a three-leafed design with the stems spread out like a jester’s cap with those little bells on the end. It’s a representation of an ear of corn, possibly a carry-over from an Olmec corn deity the Maya adopted as a patron god of royalty.

The pottery and a bone from the skeleton have been dated to 350 B.C. There are earlier Maya burials, but none of them include a symbol of royalty among the grave goods, and this is by far the new record for the oldest representation of the jester god ever found.

Skeleton of ancient Maya ruler, 350 B.C.“This is rare, this is old. We don’t find this every day,” says archaeologist Andrew Kinkella of Moorpark (Calif.) College, who was not part of the research. Jester god images were inevitably connected with inherited political power among the ancient Maya, he says. “So, I think we could safely say this is one of the oldest burials known of a Maya ruler.”

But what really matters about the find, Tomasic says, is that it shows the ancient Maya ideas about rulers were in place long before Maya kings declared themselves divine. That trend emerged in the later “Classic” period that saw the full flowering of ancient Maya writing and pyramid building. The so-called “Pre-Classic” era of the ancient Maya featured some of the same gods and notions of leadership that their descendants held until the time of the famed Maya collapse.

This link established between the very early Pre-Classic era and the late Maya civilization suggests that the Maya ruled for even longer than we realized. The archaeological team plans to excavate more homes in K’o and the larger site of Holmul. They hope to find more early royal burials, perhaps even earlier ones than this, that will give us more information about the way Pre-Classic Maya culture evolved and the strength of its ties to the pyramid-builders that followed.


MI5 report reveals stupidity of Nazi saboteurs in U.S.

Tuesday, April 5th, 2011

Bomb disguised as a lump of coalIn June of 1942, two teams of Nazis were dropped off the coast of Long Island and Florida by U-boats. Dubbed Operation Pastorius after Francis Daniel Pastorius, Quaker, anti-slavery activist and founder of Germantown, Pennsylvania in 1683 (now a neighborhood of Philadelphia), the saboteurs’ mission was to damage US industrial and transportation infrastructure by planting bombs in aluminum and magnesium plants, railways, major canals, waterways and locks. While they were at it, they were to blow up Jewish-owned stores too, because it’s just not a Nazi party if you don’t target some Jews.

We’ve known about the plan since the saboteurs were caught within weeks of their arrival, but a newly declassified MI5 report reveals new information about just how incompetent these clowns were, despite their months of training at a sabotage school outside of Berlin. They supposedly were taught everything from bomb-making to secret writing to how to use disguises to blend in like chameleons. The saboteurs also memorized a long list of target locations, their vulnerabilities and detailed instructions on how to damage them.

John Dasch, incredibly crappy Nazi saboteurThe operation failed almost immediately, mainly because the would-be spies were just awful at it. The leader of the Long Island team, George John Dasch, had gotten drunk in a Paris bar and boasted that he was a secret agent before even stepping foot on the submarine that would transport him to the US. Then when they landed on a beach near Amagansett, Long Island, June 13, 1942, they barely had time to strip off their German uniforms and bury them in the sand along with all their sabotage equipment (bombs, detonators, weapons, ammo) before a Coast Guardsman found them. One of the guys hadn’t even had time to put on his civilian clothing; he was still in his bathing suit.

Dasch offered to pay the Coast Guardsman $300 if he forgot he’d ever seen them, which of course only made him more suspicious. He was unarmed and outnumbered, so he seemingly accepted the bribe but then hightailed it to headquarters to report the shady activity. By the time the Coast Guard got back to the spot, the saboteurs had taken a train into the city.

Four days later, the Florida team managed to land south of Jacksonville and disperse according to plan without bumping into any Coast Guard patrols, but neither of the two teams ever accomplished a single destructive act. Dasch was so scared he couldn’t pull this cockamamie scheme off and that one of his colleagues would turn them all in to get a deal, he decided to do it first. One day after landing, he phoned the FBI.

Both teams were eventually arrested after the team leader, George John Dasch, called up the FBI from a New York hotel “saying that he was a saboteur and wished to tell his story to [FBI chief J. Edgar] Hoover.” His request was refused, but Dasch did come to an FBI building where he told the whole story — a confession that took five 10-hour days.

Peter Burger, another incredibly crappy Nazi saboteurOne of the men in the Florida team [, Peter Burger,] “assisted authorities in causing his own arrest by going into a FBI office when ‘Wanted’ notices were already out for him, pretending that he had just arrived from Mexico and wanted to clear up his military service papers,” the report said.

The MI5 author of the report said it was possible Dasch had planned his surrender as soon as he was given the assignment in Germany and used the operation as his personal escape route from Germany. Each saboteur was caught and sentenced to death, except for Dasch and another operative who had turned on the team. Both were later deported back to Germany, the file said.

When they were arrested, the FBI found $174,588 on them, which means that these eight saboteurs with their months of training in chemistry and timing devices and maps had spent exactly $612 among them, most of it on clothes, food, lodging, travel, and $260 bribing the Coast Guard. Despite the evidence of his cravenness and incompetence, when Dasch died in 1992 he still claimed that he was a hero who had deliberately defied Hitler’s dastardly orders to save American lives.

You can download the entire report from the National Archives website for the next 28 days free of charge. There were scores of other MI5 records released along with this one. There’s an interesting podcast about the release on the National Archives website as well.


Crazy person attacks Gauguin painting for being evil

Monday, April 4th, 2011

"Two Tahitian Women" by Paul Gauguin, 1899A crazy woman assaulted “Two Tahitian Women” by Paul Gauguin at the National Gallery of Art last week. Yelling and shouting, she pummeled the painting with her fists, grabbed it by the frame and tried to wrench it off the wall. A social worker from the Bronx tackled her, stopping the assault. Federal security officers attached to the museum immediately handcuffed and detained her.

The painting was protected by a plexiglass covering which she wasn’t able to penetrate, so there was no immediately visible damage to the art work. Curators took it off display to examine it thoroughly. Today they announced that the canvas is unharmed. There was some damage to the frame and the fittings that secured the painting to the wall, but according to Washington, D.C. Superior Court filings, it’s minor.

The court documents identify the attacker as Susan Burns, 53, of Alexandria, Virginia. She has been charged with attempted theft in the second degree and destruction of property, misdemeanor offenses to which she pleaded not guilty on Saturday.

According to court papers, Burns told an investigator: “I feel that Gauguin is evil. He has nudity and is bad for the children. He has two women in the painting and it’s very homosex­ual. I was trying to remove it. I think it should be burned. I am from the American CIA and I have a radio in my head. I am going to kill you.”

Not surprisingly, she’ll be getting a mental observation hearing Tuesday. This isn’t her first brush with the law. Her arrest record goes back to 1998, and she served time for assaulting a police officer and for conspiring to commit a carjacking.

The painting is on loan from the Metropolitan Museum of Art as part of the large 120-piece Gauguin exhibit that opened at the National Gallery in February. It’s a good thing she chose that particular painting because the Met requires that all their loaned out pieces be protected with the plexi shield. Neither of the paintings to the right and left of “Two Tahitian Women” have a protective covering.

The “Gauguin: Maker of Myth” exhibit will be at the National Gallery through June 5.


Oldest writing in Europe found in Greek palace

Sunday, April 3rd, 2011

Archaeologists excavating a palace thought to be one of King Nestor’s in Iklaina, Greece have discovered a clay tablet inscribed with Linear B characters. They weren’t expecting to find any writing at all on the site, and they certainly didn’t expect to find writing that is 3,350 years old, 150 years older than any other found in Europe.

Excavations at the site have been ongoing for 11 years. Researchers have found an elaborate palace decorated with murals and featuring a clay pipe drainage system that was very advanced for the period. The tablet was discovered last summer.

The tablet measures 2 inches by 3 inches and has writing on both sides in the Linear B system, which is older than the alphabet. It consists of about 87 signs and was used primarily for keeping track of property. On the front of the tablet is a verb that relates to some sort of manufacturing. On the back are what appear to be men’s names alongside numbers.

Iklaina Linear B tablet, 3500 years old

Because they were made out of brittle sun-baked clay and kept only for the duration of the fiscal year, usually tablets fell apart and were recycled after a year of use. This tablet survived because someone threw it in a garbage pit which later caught fire, thus inadvertently firing the clay.

It’s also surprising to find a writing tablet on a site not considered to be a major ruling center of the Mycenean period. Writing from this era so far has been found only on sites of prominent political importance, because the Mycenaeans appear to have used Linear B writing only to record economic matters of the ruling elites.

Iklaina was an independent city-state until it was conquered by King Nestor in 1400 BC. He absorbed it into his kingdom, but it wasn’t his ruling capital, just a secondary district capital. Another of Nestor’s conquered city-states, Nichoria, was in a similar political position and researchers found no writing there. The discovery of the tablet, a formal government record from a formative period in the state’s ruling history, might provide valuable information about governmental administration in the Mycenean era.

The presence of the tablet at Iklaina, Palaima said, suggests two possibilities. It may indicate that Iklaina was once a major center of its own and had the potential to become a dominant center until it was crushed and absorbed by Pylos.

But it could also be that, even after Iklaina became part of Nestor’s kingdom, it was allowed to retain a significant amount of administrative freedom. That would be surprising, Palaima said, because most historians believe that virtually all record-keeping was centralized in the major centers. If the city was allowed to retain record-keeping, it would suggest that Pylos maintained a benevolent rule over its domain.

Reading and writing were restricted to the wealthy elites. It was generally considered a magical art, and would retain its mystique until the Greek alphabet of 26 letters overtook Linear B 400 to 600 years after this tablet was carved.


Update: Ancient Chinese bone soup was made of dog

Saturday, April 2nd, 2011

Archaeologists have analyzed the bones from the 2400-year-old pot of soup found in a tomb near the ancient capital of Xian, and despite how painfully stereotypical this is, it turns out those bones belonged to a dog. A puppy, no less.

Hu Songmei, a researcher who did most of the lab work to identify the bones, said they found the bones were “strikingly similar” to four complete sets of canine skeletons preserved at the institute’s lab.

The newly found bones, however, were smaller, indicating the dog was just a pup, said Hu.

Hu said further lab work was needed to tell the exact species of the canine. “Dogs were domesticated by humans at least 10,000 years ago, but the early dog species that evolved from wild wolves could be very different from today’s pet dogs.”

There were 37 bones found in the bronze vessel from the Warring States Period (475 – 221 BC), and another bronze container held the remains of what appears to be wine. The food and drink were offerings made to the deceased and his ancestors by his surviving family.

Researchers will continue to analyze the remains of the stew and the beverage in hopes of discovering what else was in there besides Fido.


All-night scavenger hunt at the NY Public Library!

Friday, April 1st, 2011

This is so cool that calling it so cool doesn’t do it justice. Just when you think “okay, it couldn’t possibly get any cooler than this,” it gets even cooler.

On May 20, 2011, five hundred pre-registered people will get to spend the whole night in the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building of the New York Public Library, the newly restored 1911 Beaux Arts masterpiece that was supposed to be the glamorous venue for Carrie Bradshaw’s aborted wedding to Mr. Big and is the main branch of the NYPL system. From dusk until dawn (8 PM to 6 AM), players will explore 70 miles of stacks, including 40 miles of underground stacks that are normally closed to the public, and use their laptops and smartphones to find historical objects from the NYPL’s collection that have been secreted all over the library.

Among the historical objects are a copy of the Declaration of Independence written in Thomas Jefferson’s hand, an ancient menu, and Charles Dickens’ letter opener whose handle was made from the taxidermified paw of his beloved cat Bob. Players will be divided into teams of eight. They will be sent on quests to find specific objects via their smartphones. Once they find an item, they use a custom designed iPhone/Android app to scan its QR code on their phones to prove they’ve found it.

That would be cool enough right there, but wait, there’s more! The scavenger hunt is part of a game called “Find the Future.” Every time players find an object, they’ll be assigned a writing task inspired by the item. For instance, when they find Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence, they’ll be asked how they would write a few sections of a Declaration of Independence today. Then, at the end of the night, all 500 players will combine their writings to create a collaborative book which will be published and added to the Library’s book collection! That’s how the game is won.

Can you even stand that?! There are so many levels of nerd paradise here that I can’t even stand it.

Here’s another level: The game is designed by Jane McGonical, whose brilliant TED talk on how video games can help build a better world provided invaluable input to my essay on how to make history appeal to these gaming kids today. In a Q&A about her work and “Find the Future,” she describes her wonderfully immodest aim thusly:

The game is designed to empower young people to find their own futures by bringing them face-to-face with the writings and objects of people who made an extraordinary difference. Like every game I make, it has one goal: to turn players into superempowered, hopeful individuals with real skills and ideas to help them change the world.

It won’t just be the lucky 500 who get to play. On May 21st, once the quests have been completed and all the essays uploaded to the game’s website, the game will be unlocked, people in New York will be able to play at all NYPL locations, and all the rest of us schmoes will get to play online and create our own book of answers.

If you’re 18 and older, and in New York or plan to make your way there at the end of May, submit your entry by April 21st. Entries must be no more than 140 characters in reply to the question “In the year 2021, I will become the first person to ______.” The 500 players will be selected from all the entrants by a panel of judges.







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