Archive for June, 2011

World’s biggest jigsaw puzzle is put back together

Thursday, June 30th, 2011

Baphuon temple todayOn July 3rd, the thousand-year-old Baphuon temple in Cambodia’s Angkor Thom complex will be officially reopened to the public after it was dismantled into its 300,000 component stones in 1960. It has taken a French and Cambodian restoration team 15 years to pick up where the 1960-1970 restoration was forced to leave off by the advancing Khmer Rouge forces and solve the greatest 3D puzzle in the world.

The three-tier pyramidical temple was built by King Udayadityavarman II in around 1060. Dedicated to Siva, it was the largest temple in the country until Angkor Wat was built in the next century, and it was famed for its dramatic central tower. With the tower, it was 164 feet (50 meters) high, and 426 by 340 feet (130 x 104 meters) wide. It was built around a sand core, however, and its massive size, hasty construction and thin walls led to structural problems almost from the beginning.

By the 15th century, large portions of it had collapsed, so when it was converted from a Hindu temple to a Buddhist one, builders had no qualms about removing large chunks of rock from the tower to create an abstract outline of a massive reclining Buddha (30 feet high and 230 feet long) on the second tier, endangering the structure even further.

Numbered blocks in the vast stone fieldCome the 20th century, the temple was in ruins. The Ecole Francaise d’Extreme-Orient (EFEO), the French organization that was in charge of Angkor conservation since 1908, started an ambitious program of restoration in 1960. Based on successful use of anastylosis by Dutch restorers in Java, the restoration of the Baphuon temple called for the ruins to be completely dismantled, the structure shored up, then the temple rebuilt. Each of the 300,000 sandstone blocks were numbered and spread out over 10 hectares of the surrounding area. Careful records were kept so that they could all be put back together again. This was a dry stone construction — no mortar was used to glue stones together — so every stone was individually shaped to fit together.

Soon after the temple was dismantled, the Cambodian civil war broke out. They were working on the second tier when the EFEO restorers were expelled from the country and many of the Cambodian restorers and builders were killed. When the KR took Phnom Penh in 1975, the EFEO offices were ransacked and all the records lost.

In 1995, after the civil war of the 1980s and the political turmoil of the early 1990s settled down, the EFEO restorers were allowed back into the country under the leadership of Pascal Royere. Without the original plans, however, the undertaking was daunting to the point of impossibility.

“It has been said, probably rightly so, that it is the largest-ever 3D puzzle,” Royere told AFP.

The team carefully measured and weighed each block and then relied on archive photos stored in Paris, drawings and the recollections of Cambodian workers to figure out where each part fits.

“We were facing a three-dimensional puzzle, a 300,000-piece puzzle to which we had lost the picture. And that was the main difficulty of this project,” Royere said.

Baphuon temple in 2008Thankfully the EFEO offices in Paris had photographs of the site stretching back to 1910, so the team was able to track certain blocks and figure out where they went based on where they had been. Sometimes they would find the block they were looking for in 10 minutes, sometimes in three weeks. Royere was also fortunate to have the spry mind of Jacques Dumarcay, the architect who had supervised the dismantling in the 1960s, on his side, and about 30 Cambodian workers who had worked on Angkor projects in the 60s and 70s and had survived the genocidal rule of the Khmer Rouge. One of them, Mith Priem, is now a team supervisor at Baphuon. He was able to recognize patterns on the stones based on his decades-old experience and train new workers to do the same.

They attempted computer modelling but it wasn’t as helpful as the experience and knowledge of the people who had been involved in the original project. Ultimately this immense 3D puzzle would be solved by dedicated people with good memories working hard for a decade and a half.

The rebuilding has taken a good seven years longer than the earliest overly optimistic projections, but partial access was allowed to visitors starting in May 2006. There’s a lovely photo gallery of the restored Baphuon temple here, and video accompanying the AFP story here.

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Prehistoric aurochs BBQ leftovers found in Holland

Wednesday, June 29th, 2011

Prehistoric hunters feasted on the bone marrow and juicy ribs of a felled female aurochs on the spot, then butchered the rest and brought it back to the nearby settlement to share with their families. The leftovers of this 7,700-year-old BBQ were discovered in the Tjonger River valley in the Netherlands. Archaeologists from the University of Groningen found the bones and a discarded flint blade.

The valley’s waterlogged, peaty soil is an excellent preserver of bone, antler and plant remains, and many prehistoric hunting sites, particularly from the Late Mesolithic (ca. 8000–5500 B.C.), have been found in the area. This site is unusual, however, because it preserves a single hunting and butchering instance rather than a collection of them spread out over time. The remains of a single hunt aren’t often discovered because they’re so small and hard to find.

What the bones tell us about this hunting event is that the quarry was a small female aurochs, only 134 centimeters (approximately 4 feet 5 inches) tall at the withers. They killed her either by trapping her in a pit and clubbing her on the head, or by shooting her with a flint arrow. There’s a well-preserved Mesolithic aurochs skeleton in the National Museum of Denmark from around that time which was killed by arrows (yellow circle marks a healed arrow wound, red circles mark later fatal arrow wounds), and it was a larger specimen than this comparatively small cow. (Look at them ribs!)

Marks on the bones indicate that after she was brought down, the hunters cut off her legs and ate the marrow. Then they skinned her and carefully removed large sections of meat from the bone.

Burn marks reveal that the hunters cooked the meaty ribs, and probably other smaller parts, over an open fire. They ate them right at the site, “their reward for the successful kill,” Prummel said.

The blade, perhaps worn down from so much cutting, was left behind and wound up slightly scorched in the cooking fire.

Niekus told Discovery News, “The people who killed the animal lived during the Late Mesolithic (the latter part of the middle Stone Age). They were hunter-gatherers and hunting game was an important part of their subsistence activities.”

There is evidence of Mesolithic hunters cooking meat over ground-level fires and in pits. Thousands of these pits, known as hearth-pits, have been found in the Netherlands. Since these communities of hunter-gatherers moved regularly to follow the food sources, they roasted or maybe smoked the meat from their kills to carry with them. Cooked food is easier to preserve and carry, and could be stored for lean times when the hunt was not successful.

The aurochs, a popular albeit challenging target for these peoples due to their delectable size and bad temper, would not survive the habitat loss ushered in by farming and domesticated cattle. They were already scarce in Caesar’s time and the last one died in a Polish zoo in 1627.

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100 natural mummies found piled in church crypt

Tuesday, June 28th, 2011

Church of the Conversion of St. Paolo the Apostle, Roccapelago, Emilia RomagnaArchaeologists from the regional Archaeological Superintendency of Emilia Romagna restoring the fortress-turned-parish church of the Conversion of St. Paul the Apostle in the small and chilly Apennine mountain town of Roccapelago have discovered 281 bodies piled in a pyramid shape under the church floor. One hundred of the bodies were naturally mummified with skin, tendons, hair, and clothes intact. The people weren’t the only creatures in that crypt to find themselves unexpectedly preserved; rats and larvae were too.

Vaulted church cryptThe unusual preservation was due to a confluence of the consistently cold temperature and two slots in the church wall that kept the air constantly circulating. The vaulted crypt — used as an armory when the church was a fortress in the Middle Ages — was first used for traditional inhumation under ground, but the practice later changed to corpses being dropped from a trap door in the church.

Pyramid of mummies and skeletons found in the cryptThere are several initial layers of bodies which were not well-preserved, probably due to the weight of later burials. The final stack of bodies was covered with a thin coating of pebbles then covered, at the apex of the pyramid, with large boulders. The remains must have already been mummified by then because they were not squashed by the closure of the crypt in the 18th century.

Upside down mummyThe 300 bodies were buried in the crypt between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries and probably form the bulk of the population of Roccapelago. Although they were dropped into a mass grave, they weren’t treated disrespectfully. The bodies were all clothed in tunics, hats and heavy socks, some of them wrapped in shrouds, some of them placed in bags. Their heads were wrapped so the jaws wouldn’t gape open, their clothes tied between their legs so their genitals wouldn’t be exposed for all eternity, and their hands folded together as in prayer. Some of them still landed kinda funny, including one fellow who was found doing a headstand with his legs open.

Mummy with hands clasped in prayerMass graves don’t usually survive complete with mummified human remains, clothes, and artifacts like lockets and crosses, even a letter; this discovery will allow archaeologists to trace 300 years of social history in the tiny burg. The human remains will reveal infant and child mortality proportions, what kinds of illnesses were endemic, how they ate, how they worked. Researchers are also hoping to be able to determine degrees of consanguinity, a particular interest with such a small community, and how closely related they are to the modern inhabitants.

Analysis of the body bags, shrouds, clothing fabrics and weaves, plus devotional objects like saint medallions, rosaries and crosses, pollen, animal and vegetable remains will provide an incredibly detailed snapshot of peasant life in the town, their beliefs and traditions, their daily habits, even what the animals ate.

The "lettera componenda"Archaeologists are particularly excited to have recovered a rare “lettera componenda” or “Rivelazione” (aka Revelation), a letter written to God that is basically a contract or deal. They promised prayer in exchange for God’s granting the deceased, in this case a woman, the five graces. These letters were thought to bless the person carrying them in life and when buried with them after death, usually in their hands or in their pockets. This one was found in the false floor of the room, however, so it may have been placed over the lady then covered with earth.

The letter is in need of restoration, but parts of it are already legible. A selection of the readable snippets:

Those who say three Our Fathers and if (…) two Hail Marys every day over the space of 15 years until they finish said number, I will grant them five Graces.

The first I concede them (…) remission of all sins. Second I will not make them submit to the pains of Purgatory.

If the present letter (…) goes to the Holy … Sepulchre in Jerusalem … and he who carries it on him will be free from the Devil and will not die in substance … bad death. Carried it on her the pregnant woman will give birth without danger. In the house where this Revelation lives there will be no illusion of bad things (….) before her death will see the Glorious Virgin Mary Amen.

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Only authenticated pic of Billy the Kid sells for $2.3 million

Monday, June 27th, 2011

The Upham tintype of Henry McCarty, aka William Bonney aka Billy the Kid, the sole authenticated picture of the famous outlaw, sold at Brian Lebel’s Old West Show & Auction in Denver on Saturday for $2.3 million. The pre-sale estimate was $300,000 – $400,000, but Florida billionaire, alternative energy investor and America’s Cup winner William Koch finally took it home for eight times that amount.

According to one of Billy’s old girlfriends, the tintype was taken by a traveling photographer on the street outside Beaver Smith’s saloon in Fort Sumner, New Mexico in 1879 or 1880. One of the things that makes it such an iconic image of Billy and the old West is that it’s not a posed and polished studio portrait, but rather captures the Kid wearing his crumpled hat, thick sweater, thoroughly lived-in boots and baggy pants, with his 1873 Winchester carbine rifle in his left hand and his Colt .45 single action revolver in a holster on his right hip. (This picture is the reason Billy the Kid was widely thought to have been left-handed during much of the 20th century, when in fact tintypes are mirror images so really he was holding the Winchester in his right hand.)

Tintype of Dan Dedrick, ca. 1880, included in the auction lotThe camera used to take the photo was multilense, so four identical pictures were made at the same time. This is the only one known to have survived. Billy gave it to his cattle rustling colleague Dan Dedrick, who claimed he was present when the photo was taken, and who in turn gave it to his nephew Frank L. Upham in the 1930s.

The image was already famous by then. It was first printed in the Boston Illustrated Police News, January 8, 1881, when the Kid was still alive and in the Santa Fe jail that he would break out of, killing two deputies. The year after that Pat Garrett, the sheriff who had shot the Kid dead three months after that jailbreak, published the picture in his biography The Authentic Life of Billy, the Kid.

As famous as it was, within a few decades the original tintype appeared to be lost. It wasn’t until 1986 that the Upham family announced that they had lovingly kept their tintype of Billy the Kid and that they were donating it to the Lincoln County Heritage Trust in New Mexico. That is the only time the tintype was ever on public display.

There was a stipulation, however, that if the Trust ever dissolved, then ownership of the picture would revert to the Upham family. The Trust ceased to exist in 1998 and the tintype went back to the Uphams. They put it up for auction Saturday along with an 1880 tintype of Dan Dedrick, six other pictures of Dedrick and his family, plus letters and documentation, all included in the lot.

Koch intends to loan the iconic picture to several small museums before taking it home to “just enjoy.”

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Civil War sub H. L. Hunley sits upright

Sunday, June 26th, 2011

The H.L. Hunley upright, starboard side showingAfter more than a decade spent trussed in a cradle on her starboard side, the Civil War submarine H.L. Hunley is upright for the first time since she sank under mysterious circumstances off the coast of Charleston, South Carolina on February 17, 1864. She was raised in 2000 from the Atlantic floor at a 45-degree angle, the position in which she was found, and kept in 30 slings at that same angle in a conservation tank ever since.

Engineers were concerned that moving the 7-ton, 40-foot vessel upright would put unbearable stress on the rusted iron keel. They weren’t sure what they’d find on the starboard side which had been buried in the sand for 136 years and then obscured from view by the angle. In order to properly conserve the ship, however, they had to have access to that starboard side. The conservation team thus spent two years planning and testing how best to rotate the vessel without harming it, using 3D computer modelling to simulate the procedure.

The straps that were holding the Hunley in place were replaced one at a time with slings that had hand controls allowing for tiny movement so the team could lower the port side gradually until the sub was upright. On Wednesday, June 22, engineers and conservators began rotating the submarine, adjusting the slings by two millimeter increments to shift it gradually upright.

The process to rotate the sub was at times slow and tedious and others nerve-racking. The painstaking project took three days, with scientists rotating the submarine mere millimeters at a time. After each incremental move, a series of computer monitors were checked to ensure even weight distribution with no major stresses on the submarine.

Two technical issues added hours, and a little tension, to the project. At one point, the bow started to dip too much toward the ground and scientists had to make modifications to get the submarine level again. They had anticipated the potential of this occurring though had hoped it would not affect the rotation.

Also, a laser monitoring system – critical to detecting any potential warping or damage that scientists were desperately trying to avoid – had to be adjusted one morning, causing a delay of a few hours for rotation work to start.

Even with the technical glitches, the laser never strayed more than a millimeter out of its target range, which is a remarkably successful result even for automation, never mind for a rotation process that relied entirely on humans winching 30 slings for three days.

Behold the raising of the Hunley in neat-o time-lapse video:

For the first time scientists are now able to examine the starboard side for indications of why and how the submarine sank right after successfully torpedoing the USS Housatonic, a Union warship enforcing the blockade of Charleston harbor, making the Hunley the first sub to sink an enemy ship in combat. There are large hull breaches on the starboard fin, as expected, and it is smooth-sided and shiny instead of encased in concretions like the port side. We don’t know yet if the breaches are man-made or the result of ocean and sand erosion or a combination of both.

Next week the team will lower the Hunley onto keel blocks on the way to eventual removal of the slings and truss that have kept the sub suspended for 11 years. Once the slings are gone, conservators will be able to remove all the concretions that coat the hull in preparation for a chemical bath that will restore the vessel’s iron hull.

The H.L. Hunley was a hand-powered submarine designed by Horace Lawson Hunley, James R. McClintock and Baxter Watson. Mr. Hunley sponsored her construction in 1863. She sank while moored to a steamer on August 29, 1863, killing five members of her crew, but was salvaged and put back to work on diving trials. This time Horace Lawson Hunley was on board and when she failed to surface after a trial on October 15, 1863, he died along with the rest of the crew.

The tragedies did not deter the Confederate navy. They fished her up again and repaired her, this time ordering the crew to remain on the surface instead of diving. It actually worked, and the Hunley made her historic hit, sinking the USS Housatonic with a spar torpedo. Then something went wrong and the submarine went down for her big sleep. The remains of her crew were recovered and buried in 2004.

Cutaway drawings based on sketches by William A. Alexander who directed her construction

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One of Revere’s last extant bells returns to Boston

Saturday, June 25th, 2011

The 1801 Revere & Sons bell loaded into a truck for transport to BostonOne of 40 or so remaining bells cast by Paul Revere has returned to Boston, the city where it was made by the Revere & Sons foundry in 1801. It has been purchased from the First Baptist Church of Westborough by the Old South Meeting House, a 1729 Puritan meeting house that was Colonial Boston’s largest building and is now a museum and center of spirited civic discussion. The bell has gone on display at the museum and will continue to be open to visitors this summer, included in the price of admission. Residents of Westborough can visit it free of charge. Come September, it will be installed in the Old South Meeting House’s 1766 clock tower.

Closeup of 'Revere & Sons Boston' stamp on the bellThe people of Westborough are bummed to lose such a prominent piece of their history. The bell was commissioned from Revere’s foundry by the Westborough town fathers for the town’s first meeting house. It was later moved to the Congregational meeting house, and then to the First Baptist Church when the new Congregational church was built with too small a belfry to fit the bell. The Baptists rented the bell from the Congregationalists for $2.60 a year before eventually buying it outright.

Westborough First Baptist Church belfry, crane in place to remove bellThe First Baptist Church of Westborough closed its doors in 2007 due to declining attendance and increasing costs. The town tried to scrape up enough money to buy the bell and keep it in town, but were not able to raise sufficient funds. The bell was appraised by Skinners auction house at one million dollars. We don’t know how much the Old South Meeting House paid for it, but the museum’s executive director Emily Curran says it was considerably less than that.

Old South Meeting HouseBut the 876-pound iron bell, which Westborough town fathers purchased for $2.69 in 1801 from Revere’s foundry, might acquire even more historical significance in its new home.

It is one of the oldest Revere bells in existence — older than the bell at the Paul Revere House. It is returning to the birthplace of the 1773 Boston Tea Party.

And once there, it will be linked to the Old South Meeting House’s 1766 tower clock, one of the oldest operating tower clocks in the country.

Horologist David Hochstrasser examines clock before restorationThe Old South Meeting House tower hasn’t had a bell in it since 1876. The steeple was restored in 2009, including a thorough restoration of the clock, made in 1766 by renowned clock and watchmaker Gawen Brown. The historic clock, which after its completion was on display at Faneuil Hall until it was installed at the Old South Meeting House in 1770, was dismantled gear by gear, then taken offsite in painter’s buckets to be cleaned and fixed. Restored clockIt was put back together in the steeple and is now back to its former glory. It’s New England’s oldest tower clock in continuing operation in its original location.

The bell will be polished and its original yoke, wheel and frame restored. Once the bell is mounted in its new home this fall, it will become the third Revere bell on the Freedom Trail, and most delightfully for Bostonians, it will ring again every hour on the hour. It has a lovely tone, too, which you can hear a muted version of in this video:

What you see there are Westborough residents Mallory Shane and her mother Mary Batties ringing the 1801 bell by striking the clapper against the side. The bell was on the back of the truck that brought it to Boston, so the video captures the last time the Paul Revere bell rang in Westborough.

The next time it’s heard again will be in the historic center of Boston. For more pictures of the bell’s dismantling from the Westborough church, plus pictures of the clock restoration and news about events, see the Old South Meeting House Facebook page.

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Tiny camera looks inside Mayan tomb

Friday, June 24th, 2011

Temple XX; the hole the camera dropped down; first glimpse of burial chamber; interior of the burial chamberNational Institute of Anthropology and History lowered a tiny videocamera into a 1,500-year-old Mayan tomb to reveal a riot of color painted on the walls and several funerary vessels in the southern Mexico city of Palenque. Although archaeologists have known the tomb was there since 1999, they haven’t been able to explore it because a later pyramid (called Temple XX) built on top was structurally unsound so any routing around under the foundations could have resulted in cave-ins or worse.

The team ran a two-inch camcorder through a 6-inch square hole on the roof of the vaulted tomb. It dropped 16.4 feet into the funerary chamber and immediately captured a vivid crimson paint on the walls. Further inside the camera revealed murals of nine human figures outlined in black against the blood-red background. The tomb also holds eleven vessels, probably once containing funerary offerings, and fragments of jade and shell that were probably part of the elaborate funeral attire.

There was no sarcophagus. Archaeologists think the body may have been placed directly on the floor.

Features of the funerary chamber, as declared by Dra Martha Cuevas, indicate that the osseous rests could correspond to a sacred ruler of Palenque, probably one of the beginners of the dynasty.

According to the temporality determined by INAH specialists for the mortuary precinct, the osseous remains could correspond to one of these ajau or lords: K’uk’ Bahlam I, first ruler of the city; a lord who’s name has not been translated but some authors call him Ch’away; Butz’ Aj Sak Chiik; Ahkal Mo’ Naab’ I; K’an Joy Chitam I, or Ahkal Mo’ Naab’ II, who was enthroned in 565 AD.

Archaeologist Martha Cuevas mentioned that although the precinct has not been excavated, it can be deduced parting from the type of ceramic and mural painting of the mortuary chamber that Temple 20 was built near 400-550 of the Common Era, at the Early Classic period.

University of Texas at Austin Mayan epigraphy expert David Stuart thinks the date and ancestral figures painted on the wall may be evidence that the tomb belonged to a famous female ruler of Palenque, Ix Yohl Ik’nal.

Here’s the videocamera footage taken inside the tomb. EDIT: Try this link if the embedded video doesn’t work.

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Bodies found in Norwich medieval well are Jewish

Thursday, June 23rd, 2011

Researchers from the Centre for Anatomy and Human Identification at the University of Dundee have discovered that 17 bodies thrown head first into a Norwich well in the 12th or 13th century were Jews, at least five of them from the same family.

Reconstruction of tightly packed skeletons found in Norwich wellThe remains were first discovered in 2004 during the construction of a shopping center. The archaeological survey of the area had been completed months earlier when archaeologist Giles Emery of Norvic Archaeology got a call from one of the backhoe operators saying he’d seen a skull in a foundation hole over 16 feet below ground level, far deeper than normal burials even from the ancient layers. Emery returned to the site and when the machine pushed aside a clump of dirt, they saw a tight mass of human skeletons which had been dumped into the well. They were shoved in so close together that at first Emery thought there were three or four bodies. It was only after further excavation that he realized there were so many more.

Eleven of the 17 bodies were children between the ages of two and 15, five of them below the age of five. The positions in which they were found indicated many of them had been dropped into the well from their ankles, the adults first. There was no obvious cause of death detected in the initial osteological examination, although some of the bones did show signs of malnutrition and non-fatal trauma like healed minor fractures and arthritis. Radiocarbon testing and some pottery sherds found in the well dated the bodies to the 12th or 13th centuries.

It was a mysterious, unique find. No other pile of bodies shoved into a well has ever been found in the UK. There was a consecrated cemetery within view of the well and the Jewish neighborhood a few steps away, so why had these people been thrown away like trash instead of buried according to religious custom? Even common graves and plague pits are at least holes in the ground.

Recently the BBC program History Cold Case became involved, bringing the University of Dundee team on board to perform cutting edge forensic examinations of the bones. They were able to eliminate disease as a cause of death. Bubonic plague was still a hundred years away at the time of death, and there was no evidence of any other fatal illness like leprosy or tuberculosis in the bones.

It was DNA expert Dr. Ian Barnes who found the smoking gun: five of the individuals had retrievable, testable DNA and it indicated that they were Jewish. The mitochondrial DNA — DNA that remains the same transmitted down the female line — of all five people matched, so they were family members. Stable isotope analysis, which uses the trace elements found in the bones to determine diet and migration patterns during their lifetime, indicated that the skeletons were from the Norwich area.

Norwich had a well-established Jewish community from 1135 until King Edward I expelled all the Jews from England in 1290. That’s not to say they were embraced as fellow men and brothers. When 150 Jews were killed in York in 1190, Norwich followed suit with a massacre of its own. Only the Jews who had fled to the castle survived. In the 1230s, there were a number of Jews executed because of a rumored child abduction, your classic blood libel.

Here’s a striking view of how Jews were seen not just by the population of Norwich but by the government, which had no problem at all borrowing money from Jews while also taxing them at sky-high rates and stealing/confiscating their property. It’s a drawing found on an Exchequer Roll, a document that lists tax payments made by the Jews of Norwich in 1233, during the reign of King Henry III.

Anti-Semitic cartoon from Norwich tax record

That three-headed monster with the crown towering over the center of the drawing is Isaac fil Jurnet, a wealthy Jewish moneylender from Norwich who was banker to King Henry, the Abbot and monks of Westminster, the Bishop of Norwich and many, many other movers and shakers. The man and woman facing each other beneath him with Satan between them are Mosse Mokke and his wife Abigail both of whom were employed as debt collectors by Isaac. On the left there’s a poor Christian monk, his scales full of coin that Isaac is trying to wrest from him using one of the many devils at his command. Isaac had sued the Westminster monks to get the interest from money they had borrowed after they refused to pay it.

That’s the level of anti-Semitism found in the tax rolls of 13th century England. You can imagine how much worse it got outside official government documents. Bad enough, certainly, to explain 17 people, 11 of them children, murdered and stuffed in a well.

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First Ice Age engraving of trunked animal found in US

Wednesday, June 22nd, 2011

Mastodon bone inscribed with image of a mastodon, about 13,000 years oldResearchers from the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History and the University of Florida have confirmed in a new study published in the Journal of Archaeological Science that an engraved fossilized bone fragment discovered by an amateur fossil hunter in Vero Beach, Florida four or five years ago is at least 13,000 years old and is thus the first, and so far only, Ice Age image depicting a trunked animal ever found in the United States.

The engraving is of a mastodon or a mammoth and was done on a bone that once belonged to a mammoth, mastodon or giant sloth. There are all kinds of ancient depictions of mastodons and mammoths on cave walls and engraved on bones in Europe, but even though we know from the fossil record that proboscideans (trunked animals) existed in the Americas, this is the first human representation of one found.

Fossil aficionado James Kennedy discovered the bone in 2006 or 2007 (he can’t quite recall) and put it in a cabinet under his sink where it remained until 2009 when he fished it out and dusted it off. It was only after cleaning it that he saw the engraving and contacted scientists at the University of Florida, the Smithsonian’s Museum Conservation Institute and National Museum of Natural History who took custody of the object and began to study. Kennedy told National Geographic in 2009:

“I had no idea it was this big of a fuss. [When I heard] there was nothing else like it in the Western Hemisphere, that’s when my heart kind of stopped.”

Initial analysis performed by the researchers consistently pointed to both fossil and engraving being genuine and ancient, but it has taken a full two years for the team to complete the study and publish the final results. Their initial departure point was skepticism because nothing of its kind had been found before, and even if the fossil was genuine, the engraving could well have been a modern hoax modeled after similar ones in Europe.

Kennedy found the bone near the Old Vero site, the spot where geologist Elias Howard Sellards found human bones lying side-by-side with the bones of extinct Ice Age animals in an excavation between 1913 and 1916. He concluded that humans had hunted animals at Vero Beach during the last Ice Age, but his claims have been disputed ever since.

The team compared the elemental composition of the engraved bone to other comparable fossils discovered at the Old Vero site. Rare earth element analysis indicated the fossil was ancient and originated at or around the Old Vero site. Since mammoths, mastodons and giant sloths died out in the area about 13,000 years ago, the bone must be older than that. Forensic examination of the engraving indicated that it was not recent, but rather aged and mineralized along with the bone.

Optical microscopy results show no discontinuity in coloration between the carved grooves and the surrounding material indicating that both surfaces aged simultaneously. Scanning electron microscopy (SEM) revealed that the edges of the inscription are worn and show no signs of being incised recently or that the grooves were made with metal tools. In addition, the backscattered SEM images suggest there is no discontinuity in the distribution of light and heavy elements between the scribed region and the surrounding bone indicating that both surfaces aged in the same environment. This is very different from an intentional mark made on the bone for comparison. Energy dispersive x-ray spectroscopy (EDXS) shows that the surface contains significant amounts of calcium, phosphorus, oxygen, and carbon typical of a mineralized bone surface. Examination of a cast and mold of the incised bone by Reflectance Transformation Imaging (RTI) also provided no evidence that the engraving was made recently.

The data are thus conclusive enough for the researchers to announce that this is indeed the first mastodon/mammoth representation ever found in the Americas.

The bone is still squirreled away in the lab for now, but you can see a cast of it at the Florida Museum of Natural History in Gainesville. Its future is in question. In 2009, Kennedy said he was undecided about whether to sell it or donate it to the Florida Museum of Natural History. Here’s hoping he’s made up his mind to do the right thing and give it (or sell it, for that matter) to a museum.

Mastodon bone with inscription detail blow out

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Celebrate Solstice with Druids, the Welsh and LIFE

Tuesday, June 21st, 2011

Druid with a monocle at StonehengeLIFE.com has collated yet another excellent gallery dedicated to the celebration of the summer solstice in the UK. Druids: Mystery, Faith, Myth stars some nattily attired modern druids celebrating the solstice at Stonehenge, including one gentleman with a monocle whom I absolutely adore. If anyone can tell me who he is, I’d love to know. He must be a prominent figure in the Neo-Druid movement of the 1950s, because the LIFE gallery has another shot of him shaking hands with a second Druid on the Isle of Mull in Scotland in September of 1954 during what was considered the first gathering of Druids in Scotland since antiquity.

We know very little about actual ancient Druids. They didn’t leave written texts behind, so all we have to go on in terms of contemporary sources are Roman and they are uniformly disparaging. Julius Caesar describes the Druids in his Gallic Wars thus:

The nation of all the Gauls is extremely devoted to superstitious rites; and on that account they who are troubled with unusually severe diseases, and they who are engaged in battles and dangers, either sacrifice men as victims, or vow that they will sacrifice them, and employ the Druids as the performers of those sacrifices; because they think that unless the life of a man be offered for the life of a man, the mind of the immortal gods can not be rendered propitious, and they have sacrifices of that kind ordained for national purposes. Others have figures of vast size, the limbs of which formed of osiers they fill with living men, which being set on fire, the men perish enveloped in the flames. They consider that the oblation of such as have been taken in theft, or in robbery, or any other offense, is more acceptable to the immortal gods; but when a supply of that class is wanting, they have recourse to the oblation of even the innocent.

The Roman sources all indicate that the Druids performed human sacrifices. Again, we have little to no evidence of this, and even if it were true that the invading Romans saw Druidic ritual human sacrifice, they could have been performed in response to the destructive trauma of invasion rather than as a regular part of Druidic practice. Certainly the Druids today reject this characterization as an aspersion cast by ancient enemies.

Princess Elizabeth led into the Sacred Circle of Bards, 1946Modern Druid rituals and beliefs spring from a more recent tradition, the late 18th, early 19th century Romantic fascination with ancient Britain and its mystery religions. It is that tradition we see then-Princess Elizabeth celebrating in the LIFE picture from August 6, 1946 where she is being led into the Sacred Circle of Bards at the national Eisteddfod at Mountain Ash, Glamorgan, Wales. We owe the fantastic spectacle of the future Queen of England and Defender of the Faith donning the green robes of the novitiate and being invested a bard in a Druidic ceremony to one man: Edward Williams, a.k.a. Iolo Morganwg, stonemason, poet, Welsh nationalist, manuscript collector and most able forger.

Born in 1747 in Llancarfan in Glamorgan, southern Wales, Williams was a political radical, religious dissenter and pacifist Jacobin who believed Wales should have its own national institutions celebrating its unique culture and heritage. As a young man working as a stonemason in London, he had seen Welsh culture widely disparaged. He believed the Welsh poets were the direct descendants of the Celtic druids, and he set about writing so glorious a history it would put the English to shame, even if he had to forge it, by gum.

Iolo MorganwgIn support of that vision, in 1789 he published a collection of poems by 14th-century Welsh bard Dafydd ap Gwilym. Included were many newly-discovered poems Morganwg had “found,” i.e., written himself. The book was popular and inspired him to return to London to take the next step in promoting Welsh culture.

On the 21st of June, Summer Solstice, 1792, Iolo Morganwg held a ceremony on Primrose Hill in London founding the Gorsedd of Bards (in Welsh the Gorsedd Beirdd Ynys Prydain), a community of Welsh bards dedicated to preserving Welsh language, poetry and music. He developed the ritual for the ceremony from druidic rites described in ancient manuscripts from his collection that were later found to have been the product of his own very fertile, laudanum-addicted imagination.

It wasn’t just the English disdain that he was combating with his founding of the Gorsedd. There was intra-Welsh snobbery too, courtesy of northern Wales (Gwynedd), which saw itself as the purest expression of the Welsh poetic tradition. Morganwg’s manuscripts were evidence that only in southern Wales, in his own region of Glamorgan, was druidic lore preserved intact from ancient times, through centuries of oppression from Rome, the Christian Church and England.

He kind of pulled it off, too, especially by linking the Gorsedd with what would become the national festival of Wales, the Eisteddfod. The Eisteddfod is a folk festival celebrating Welsh language, music, poetry and literature that traces its lineage back to a grand gathering of musicians and poets held by Lord Rhys of Cardigan in 1176. From that early progenitor, a vast number of provincial gatherings proliferated over the centuries, sponsored by local lords all over Wales.

In 1819 the eisteddfod festivals and the Gorsedd of Bards came together, thanks again to Iolo Morgannwg, now 72 years old and still with a keen eye towards promoting Welsh civilization. He traveled to the eisteddfod being held at the Ivy Bush Inn in Carmarthen and drew a Gorsedd circle — meant to be a sacred circle of standing stones a la Stonehenge — on the lawn using a handful of pebbles. In the circle, he invested the notables present as bards and druids, including the local bishop and festival patron, Bishop Thomas Burgess of St. David’s.

Archdruid crown designed by Hubert von Herkomer for Newport Proclamation Ceremony 1896From then on, the Gorsedd and the eisteddfod continued to develop their relationship, and when the National Eisteddfod was established in 1861, the Gorsedd’s Druidic rituals, now considerably more elaborate than they had been at that first Primrose Hill ceremony of 1792, played a central role, providing high drama and pageantry in the medal ceremonies and in the investiture of important political, religious and cultural figures into the Gorsedd in recognition of their contributions to the nation, language and culture of Wales.

It’s a remarkable feat of cultural transformation Iolo Morganwg accomplished, going from naked English contempt for the Welsh to the future Queen herself donning green robes and joining the Gorsedd Circle in a celebration of Welsh language, culture and civilization. You can see a little more of the Gorsedd’s ceremonial flair in this Pathé footage of Princess Elizabeth’s investiture, complete with sung hymns and Archdruid Crwys Williams drinking from the huge and curvy Horn of Plenty.

For more on Welsh history in general and on the Eisteddfod and Gorsedd in particular, do yourself a favor and browse the excellent website of the National Museum of Wales.

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