Archive for July, 2011

5,000-year-old skeleton found in Italian Alps

Thursday, July 21st, 2011

Archaeologists surveying a site before construction of an addition to the kindergarten in the tiny Alpine village of Introd, Val d’Aosta, have unearthed the well-preserved skeleton of a woman dating to around 3,000 B.C. That’s approximately the same age as Otzi, the famous iceman found in a melting glacier in the Tyrolean Alps, and that’s enough to get her an “Otzi’s girlfriend” monicker even though their final resting places are on separate sides of the Alps, about 300 miles of rough mountain terrain apart.

The skeleton hasn’t been carbon dated yet, but the stratigraphy — analysis of the layers of ground — and the position in which she was found suggest she died in the third millennium B.C. She was found lying on her right side with her head facing west and does not appear to have been moved or messed with at all since burial. There are no grave goods, however. The team will continue excavating the burial to see if they can find any, and soil samples have been taken to see if there were plants interred with her that have long since decayed.

The remains were immediately shipped to the laboratory where they will be examined for osteological evidence of the lady’s history, her age at death, her diet, any diseases or injuries. Forensic archaeologists are particularly excited to compare the isotope analysis of her teeth to Otzi’s. Even though they weren’t exactly neighbors, they lived close enough to each other in time and space that scientists hope there is much to be learned in the comparison of their diets and movements.

According to Kristina Killgrove, a biological anthropologist at the University of North Carolina, further research into the woman’s diet would be particularly interesting.

“Little direct evidence of human diet has been found from this time period. Ötzi’s preservation, of course, provides unparalleled information about his diet, but it would be fascinating to see stable isotope analysis carried out on this skeleton, who lived around the same time and also died in the Alps,” Killgrove told Discovery News.

She believes that the “Lady of Introd” likely tapped different food resources since several hundred miles separated her from Ötzi the Iceman.

“In particular, we still know little about what grains people ate at this time, so the Lady of Introd could provide direct evidence of a diet composed of wheat, barley, or millet,” Killgrove said.

The children at the kindergarten where she was found will get to pick her name.


Conservation begins on Scarlett O’Hara’s dresses

Wednesday, July 20th, 2011

Last fall the Harry Ransom Center at The University of Texas at Austin raised $30,000 in a month from fans of Gone With the Wind to restore five of Scarlett O’Hara’s most memorable dresses. The gowns and robes had been ridden hard and put away wet for decades until the massive David O. Selznick collection of movie memorabilia was donated to the Ransom Center in the 1980s.

Since the fundraiser, the conservation team has been studying the dresses, preparing reports on the most minute details of stitching, color, fabric, repair history so that the dresses can be returned to a condition as close to their appearance in the movie as possible. The aim is to have them ready for display in 2014, the 75th anniversary of Gone With the Wind when the Harry Ransom Center will put on a full exhibition of the Selznick Collection.

Conservation is now beginning. The news thus far is not all good. Firstly there is one piece that cannot be restored. Scarlett’s silk wedding veil was already creased and brittle in the 1980s. It is too fragile to be handled at all and thus will be kept in permanent temperature, climate and light controlled conditions instead of being restored and put on display.

The famous green curtain dress has also been damaged past the point of restoration to its original color. There are long streaks where the green has faded to brown, and there’s no turning back the clock on that. Textile conservator Cara Varnell notes that you can’t just dye it or color it to match how it looked in the movie; the whole idea is to keep the dress as original as possible, not to add more stuff which could have unforeseen consequences. In fact the fading may have been caused by the use of questionable products. It wasn’t exposure to light because that makes the fibers dry out but the faded areas show no sign of drying. At some point someone added a label to the dress that says it was “Sprayed with Sudol.” That turns out to be a disinfectant similar to Lysol, so perhaps it might have caused the streaking.

To pinpoint the cause of the streaks, the conservation team will be using a non-invasive technology called Fiber Image Analysis System (FIAS) from the University of Texas at Austin’s Textiles and Apparel Technology Lab. FIAS will allow conservators to test the fabric thoroughly without destroying any fibers. This is a great addition to the conservator’s arsenal because usually at least a small amount of fabric is destroyed when performing in-depth fiber analysis.

The Ransom Center is keen to hear from the public to aid in the conservation effort. Conservators would like to have more information about the post-film history of the dresses, particularly any color photographs of the dresses when they were on display from the 40s to the 70s. If you happen to have any pictures of Scarlett O’Hara’s green curtain dress, burgundy ball gown, wedding dress, blue velvet peignoir and green velvet dressing gown before 1970, or even just if you remember details or stories about the displays, please email

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Burkle buys Frank Lloyd Wright’s Ennis House cheap

Tuesday, July 19th, 2011

Billionaire supermarket magnate Ron Burkle has bought Los Angeles’ Ennis House, the historic concrete block home Frank Lloyd Wright built in 1924, for the bargain basement price of $4.5 million. The non-profit Ennis House Foundation initially put the house on the market in 2009 for $15 million, but the horrible real estate market and the vast restoration and upkeep requirements (it would cost estimated $7 million to restore the house fully) of this architectural gem kept it from selling.

The 6,000-square-foot Ennis House, named after its original owners Charles and Mabel Ennis, was one of the first private residences built out of concrete, and the largest of four in Southern California constructed in what would become known as “textile-block” style after the way the concrete blocks, decorated and plain, were woven together for decorative purposes and for structural strength. Frank Lloyd Wright was inspired by Maya Puuc architecture, as seen at the Maya site of Uxmal in Mexico. Puuc style combines blank rectangular stone blocks on the bottom of buildings with intricately carved ones decorating the top. The symmetrical reliefs on the Ennis House blocks were inspired by Uxmal designs.

Unfortunately, Wright’s experimental approach caused structural problems from the start. He used granite powder to color the concrete and the impurities from the granite combined with air pollution to degrade the concrete. Before the house was even finished concrete blocks began to crack and walls buckled. Its eighth and last private owner was Augustus O. Brown who bought the house for $119,000 in 1968 and made extensive repairs. In 1980 he donated it to the Trust for Preservation of Cultural Heritage, the non-profit that would change its name to the Ennis House Foundation in 2005.

Despite having spent $6.5 million on shoring up the structure, replacing damaged concrete blocks and windows and building a new roof in 2007, the foundation turned down large offers from corporations waiting for an offer that would come with a commitment from the buyer to act as a responsible conservator of the historical landmark. A member of the board of the Frank Lloyd Wright Building Conservancy, Ron Burkle has loved Ennis House since he was a boy dreaming of being an architect. He also has guaranteed the construction loan that allowed the foundation to restore the house.

As time passed and no other big money history buff appeared with a silver valise full of thousand dollar bills, the foundation took the $4.5 million offer, secure in the knowledge that Burkle is dedicated to the house’s conservation. There’s good news for Lloyd Wright fans who haven’t had a chance to see inside the house because its been closed to visitors due to the potential danger: one of the conditions of the sale is that the public must be allowed to view the home at least 12 days per year, and the condition is binding on any future buyers as well.


Zahi Hawass Fired

Monday, July 18th, 2011

It seems like it might even stick this time. Under pressure from continuing protests, Prime Minister Essam Sharaf announced Sunday that 12 ministers with ties to the Mubarak regime would be replaced, among them Minister for Antiquities Zahi Hawass.

For more than a decade, he has been the international face of Egypt’s archaeology, with his trademark “Indiana Jones” hat that turned him into an instantly recognizable global icon. Hawass, however, has been the target of a series of heavily publicized protests by archaeology graduates who accused him of corruption and seeking publicity for himself.

He has been accused of being too close to Mubarak and his family, along with former culture minister Farouq Hosni, himself a protege of the Mubaraks who had served in the Cabinet for 25 years until he was pushed out after the revolution.

Hawass confirmed the truth of this report to the New York Times, and there’s extraordinary footage of him getting mobbed by angry protesters as he attempted to leave the ministry on Sunday.

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Archaeologists have long grumbled under their breaths about Hawass’ stranglehold on every aspect of Egyptian archaeology. Egyptian blogger 3arabaway explains the anti-Hawass case well in this post. I wasn’t aware of how Hawass’ indefatigable pursuit of foreign tourism translated into a repellent kind of mini-Jim Crow.

It is common practice for him to look down on Egyptians. During Egyptian public holidays, he bans Egyptians from visiting the pyramids and other historic sites, saying they harm Egypt’s antiquities. At the opening of the new Museum gift shop, when asked about the cafeteria and how it was too expensive for the average Egyptian, he said Egyptians can go eat at el-Gahsh (a popular foul place in a low-income neighborhood) – this cafe is for tourists only.

Ancient sites as Sun City. Charming.

Hawass’ replacement is still unknown at this time. The Prime Minister first appointed Abdel-Fattah el-Banna, a professor of restoration who has been an active participant in the Tahrir Square protests, but he was roundly criticized for lacking the archaeological credentials to be antiquities minister. Mohamed Abdel-Maksoud, secretary-general of the Supreme Council of Antiquities, made a beeline for the prime minister’s office to argue that it would be a grave error to appoint a non-archaeologist like Banna. Museum employees all over Egypt went on strike Monday to protest the appointment, so by the end of today Banna had handed in his resignation.


Robocop’s Brutus Coin for sale

Sunday, July 17th, 2011

One of the first entries I ever wrote for this here blog back in June of 2006 was about an EID MAR denarius, a silver coin commemorating the murder of Julius Caesar on the Ides of March, 44 B.C., struck by assassin Marcus Junius Brutus. That particular Brutus coin had been returned to Greece by a British coin dealer who had purchased it from two Greek looters.

Now a different EID MAR coin is coming up for sale at Heritage Auction’s Long Beach Signature World & Ancient Coins auction the second week of September. This one is in far better condition, a glossy extremely fine, and has the best metal quality of all known EID MARs. The others were struck from slightly base silver which is porous and thus highly susceptible to deterioration. This denarius was struck from sound silver.

Even more important from my perspective, once belonged to the one, the only Peter Weller, immortal Robocop, Classics professor and host of the best show the History Channel ever stumbled on, Engineering an Empire. He’s not its only illustrious owner even though he is its awesomest. The coin has been in a number of widely-published collections with clear auction records all the way back to the 1930s, so unlike the Brutus coin that British dealer owned for such a short time, this one has an iron-clad ownership history and won’t end up confiscated by an irate government.

The EID MAR coin has been voted the greatest of ancient coins by numismatists because of its rarity and immense historical significance. The coin was struck by a moving mint that traveled with Brutus’ and Cassius’ army in northern Greece in late summer of 42 B.C., just a month or two from Brutus final defeat and suicide at the Battle of Philippi. The obverse features a profile of Brutus after he was acclaimed “imperator” by his troops.

The reverse depicts the pileus, the freedman’s cap indicating a manumitted slave, with a dagger on each side representing Brutus and Cassius as the liberators who freed the Republic from Caesar’s tyrrany with their knives. It is incribed “EID MAR” for the Ides of March. Director of Ancient Coins for Heritage David S. Michaels notes that this is the only Roman coin which mentions a specific date and the only one to commemorate a murder. This was so remarkable a minting that ancient historian Cassius Dio mentioned it in his Roman History.

“Brutus stamped upon the coins which were being minted his own likeness and a cap and two daggers, indicating by this and by the inscription that he and Cassius had liberated the fatherland.”

There are only 75 EID MARs left that we know of, probably because they were rounded up and melted down by Augustus and Marc Anthony after the final defeat of the conspirators.


BL raising funds to buy earliest intact European book

Saturday, July 16th, 2011

The British Library needs to raise £9 million ($14.5 million) over the next eight months to buy the 7th century St. Cuthbert Gospel, aka the Stonyhurst Gospel, the earliest book made in Europe to have survived intact. The pocket-sized copy of the Gospel of John was written and bound in finely tooled red goatskin at Monkwearmouth-Jarrow Abbey some time between 680 and 687, the year St. Cuthbert, Bishop of Lindisfarne, died. The gospel was placed in his casket when he was buried on Lindisfarne island.

Three years later, the seven-year-old Bede would become the pupil of the Ceolfrid, the abbot of Monkwearmouth-Jarrow who had been in charge when the St. Cuthbert Gospel was made. Thirty years after that, in 721, inspired by the recent discovery that Cuthbert’s body was uncorrupt, the Venerable Bede would write a hagiography of the saint: The Life and Miracles of St. Cuthbert.

In 793, the Vikings raided Lindesfarne for the first time, destroying the church at Lindisfarne. After the second Viking raid in 875, the monks of Lindisfarne fled and took the remains of their patron saint with them, first to various places in Northumbria and then to Durham. In 1104, Cuthbert’s coffin was opened once again so his remains could be moved to a new shrine behind the altar of Durham cathedral. Again his body was found to be uncorrupt, still flexible and smelling like a rose. The gospel was next to his head.

That’s where it remained until 1537 when Henry VIII sent emissaries to loot and destroy the saint’s tomb. They too found his body uncorrupt, but that didn’t deter them from making off with the jewels and ornaments buried with him, including the gospel. The book, now over 850 years old, passed into private hands.

In 1769 it was given to the English Jesuit College at Liège. The Jesuits packed the book in a small oak box and placed it in the library, bringing it with them to England when the Liège college was moved and renamed Stonyhurst College. In 1979, the Society of Jesus loaned the gospel to the British Library, where it has been on display ever since.

The Jesuits have been privately offered large sums for the gospel which they’ve thus far turned down, but now they have decided to sell and use the profits to repair church buildings. Because they don’t suck, they offered the British Library the chance to buy it for £9 million before putting it up for auction. That’s a good price, too, because of the incredible condition the St. Cuthbert Gospel is in and what a Zelig-like fulcrum of British history it is.

The BL responded with alacrity, first securing a £4.5 million ($7.2 million) award from the National Heritage Memorial Fund. The British Library trusts chipped in £1.25 million ($2 million), the Art Fund and Garfield Weston Foundation £250,000 ($400,000) each. That leaves just £2.75 million to be secured. The British Library is optimistic that it will be raised in time, especially since they’ve signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the Durham World Heritage Site that they will share the book, and Durham is thrilled at the prospect of its homecoming.

“This wonderful book links us directly to Saxon Christianity of the north of England, and to the north’s best-loved saint, Cuthbert himself,” explained Reverend Michael Sadgrove, the Dean of Durham.

“Durham Cathedral owes its very existence to him, and we prize not only his memory, but also the treasures associated with him here at the Cathedral such as his pectoral cross and portable altar.

“It is a vital part of our cultural and spiritual heritage. The Gospel speaks powerfully about Northumbria’s golden age, whose spiritual vision, intellectual energy and artistic achievement continue to inspire us today.

“We are in the British Library’s debt for having taken this initiative and must make sure it succeeds.”


Second lead sarcophagus found at Gabii

Friday, July 15th, 2011

The word on whether this one was folded over into a burrito as well, but it was discovered just meters away from the 800-pound lead sarcophagus unearthed in 2009.

According to the Gabii Project blog, the human remains inside the 2009 coffin were roughly dated to the 3rd century A.D. According to this most recent article, both the 2009 coffin and its newly discovered double date to the 1st or 2nd century A.D.

Whatever the date, finding just one lead coffin is rare; two is downright uncanny. Lead was extremely expensive and as such not a commonly used burial medium.

According the site director, archaeologist Anna Gallone, the two sarcophagi are examples of a unique local burial custom found in Gabii.

“The massive use of lead in the tombs is unique, it has never been seen before in central Italy,” Gallone told Adnkronos International (AKI).

The same archaeological team discovered both coffins. Directed by Nicola Terrenato of the University of Michigan, the Gabii Project has been ongoing since 2007, starting with an extensive geophysical survey of the 40 hectares of Gabii’s urban center which, along with a magnetometry survey, took the first two years. Those surveys uncovered the urban grid of the city within the old walls. The team used the city grid to figure out where they should be digging. Time well spent, obviously.

Eleven miles east of Rome, the city-state of Gabii was prominent in the first millennium B.C., a rival of early Rome under the kings, but an official ally of the Republic by 493 B.C. It was on the decline in the 1st century B.C., in part thanks to the overquarrying of a valuable stone that was underneath the city, but it was still inhabited and getting infrastructure built during the reign of Hadrian (117–138 A.D.). References to the town disappear from the ancient sources after the 3rd century.

Although there was some later building in the area — a medieval tower was built on the site of Gabii’s acropolis — much of the land was left undeveloped, make Gabii an excellent source of archaeological information about first millennium B.C. life in the Latin states.


Egypt’s oldest pyramid saved by airbags

Thursday, July 14th, 2011

The 4700-year-old Pyramid of Djoser, the step pyramid in Saqqara, Egypt, is not just the first pyramid in Egypt but is also the first monumental cut stone structure that we know of, has been on the verge of collapse since an earthquake in 1992. It was in such precarious condition that no attempts were made to stabilize it over the past 19 years out of fear that any movement at all could bring the whole thing down. Now a Welsh structural engineering company, Cintec, has installed large inflatable airbags to prop up the stone roof and they’re working.

Cintec has worked on important historical buildings before. They restored Windsor Castle after the devastating 1993 fire, and have worked on Buckingham Palace, the White House, and more pertinently, the Red Pyramid near Giza as well. Peter James, the former Royal Navy lieutenant-commander who founded Cintec 25 years ago, created the airbag technology to safely detonate improvised explosive devices in Afghanistan. The bags were filled with water and set up around an explosive to cushion the blast. When used as structural engineering tools, the airbags are filled with compressed air instead.

Mr James said: “[The pyramid] was very unstable when we got in there.

“The earthquake in 1992 had shifted everything sideways and it was a massive task trying to hold everything up without dislodging anything further.

“Until we got the scaffolding in place, we had no idea what was holding up the remaining stone.”

“It was a lethal and massive game of Ker-Plunk – trying to hold everything up, without dislodging anything further.”

They had planned at first to use the water-filled airbags, but as soon as they got a look at the inside of the pyramid, they knew that wasn’t going to work. The rocks in the ceiling that the airbags would be propping up weren’t smooth-sided; they were jagged and pointing every which way. They would in all likelihood have pierced the bags and doused the interior with water, an incalculable danger to a structure that has been baking in the desert for nearly 4700 years. Compressed air was the solution.

Now that the roof won’t come crashing down on them, the team can get to work repairing the pyramid. They plan to install thermo-dynamic steel rods diagonally through the pyramid’s steps so that all six step floors will be knitted together. They need to do it without marring the external view of the pyramid, however, which is going to be a challenge. For repair work to the outside, Cintec will only use materials that would have been available to ancient Egyptians.


Colossal looted statue, maybe of Caligula, unveiled

Wednesday, July 13th, 2011

On January 13 of this year, the Italian Guardia di Finanza, a police that focuses on financial crimes and smuggling, stopped a truck in Ostia Antica, the ancient port town just south of Rome, and found pieces of an ancient statue of colossal dimension (an estimated 2.5 meters, over 8 feet, high) hidden under rubble. Although the pieces were incomplete, you could identify a larger-than-life togate male figure seated on an elaborately decorated throne with his left foot forward. The foot is wearing a “caliga,” the hobnailed lightweight boot of the Roman legionary.

The looters had broken the statue into smaller, more manageable pieces and were headed to a warehouse nearby. From there the pieces would probably have been smuggled into Switzerland. Two men were arrested and they revealed the excavation place where the statue had been unearthed by looters: the countryside of Lake Nemi, the lake where Emperor Caligula’s gigantic floating palace pleasure barges were found.

The Ministry for Cultural Heritage had the area sealed off and deployed an archaeological team to excavate the exact spot where the looters had discovered the statue. Excavations began on April 11th and immediately returned the vestiges of a large thermal complex, probably a nympheum, a large water monument dedicated to the nymphs. It had a fan-shaped floor plan surrounded by a colonnade that would have been 23 feet high in its day.

At first they thought it might be a mausoleum just because colossal statues like the one discovered there weren’t usually kept in a nymphaea, not even the private ones of the ruling class, but then they found pools with glass mosaic floors, a vast hydraulic system and a lead stamp with the name “Gaius Julius Silanus,” a family of prominence during the 1st century A.D. who had ties to the Julio-Claudian dynasty.

Archaeologists also found over one hundred fragments of the colossal statue. The scepter held in the left hand, drapery on the left shoulder, what might have been a round globe held in the figure’s right hand, pieces of the pedestal, and most excitingly, the head. The back of the head was unsculpted suggesting the statue was meant for a niche in the grotto. The head had been decapitated from the statue in antiquity and defaced. You can barely make out features, certainly not enough to say it’s Caligula for sure, but there’s definitely a diadem, and a where there’s a diadem there’s a deity or deified royalty. The fact that the statue was defaced, decapitated and toppled over in antiquity also supports it being a Caligula effigy. The identification is thoroughly speculative, though, no matter what the headlines say.

The statue has had a preliminary cleaning so it could be displayed at the press conference yesterday. It will remain in Rome for the time being, where it is being restored in the laboratories of the Palazzo Massimo. Once the colossus is ready to move, he will be returned to Nemi for permanently study and display at the Museo delle Navi Romane, the museum built by Mussolini to host Caligula’s ships. There are more pictures in this La Repubblica slideshow, and footage of the statue and excavation from the Guarda di Finanzia below.

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16th c. Chinese bronze found on Mexico coast

Tuesday, July 12th, 2011

A team of U.S. researchers and marine archaeologists from Mexico’s National Anthropology and History Institute (INAH) found a Chinese bronze sculpture from the 16th century on the Pacific coast of Baja California, a peninsula south of the US state of California. At just under five inches square, the statue is either a censer or a candlestick. It is decorated with a Chinese “Dog of Fo,” a lion figure that protected Buddhist temples.

It was discovered under water using a metal detector two weeks ago as part of the ongoing 12-year Manila Galleon Project which surveys 7 miles along the Baja coast for the remains of Spanish ships known as the Manila Galleons, ships that carried trade cargo from the Philippines to Acapulco. The trade began in 1565 when Andrés de Urdaneta, explorer, Augustinian friar and the second man to circumnavigate the globe, discovered that if ships departing from Cebu City went north first, the Pacific trade winds would carry them east to the coast of California.

It was a punishingly long trip. Urdaneta lost most of his crew the first time, and even once the trade got going in earnest, the galleons took four months to sail from Manila to Acapulco. From there the cargo of spices, porcelain, ivory, silk and bronze devotional statues, etc., was transported overland to the Gulf of Mexico where it was added to the Spanish treasure ships heading back to the motherland. Tedious, long and dangerous as it was, this trip allowed Spanish ships to avoid using unfriendly foreign ports and the Portuguese routes in the Indian Ocean and around the Cape of Good Hope.

The find comes from one of the first galleons of the 16th century to set sail from Manila in the Philippines en route to Acapulco in the Viceroyalty of New Spain, INAH marine archaeology unit member Roberto Junco said.

The route “was the longest on the high seas…in this case the ship could have been carried off by the various currents along the coast of the Californias, with no survivors to continue the crossing,” Junco said.

The remains of the goods found probably belonged to the San Felipe galleon, which sailed carrying a large cargo of Chinese porcelain from the Ming Dynasty and which disappeared without a trace in 1576, maritime historian Edward Von der Porten said.

The Manila Galleon Project began when some of that Ming porcelain was discovered on a Baja beach in 1999. The surveys have found thousands of pieces of porcelain, chunks of beeswax, lead sheathing from the ship and other artifacts, but this is the first bronze “Dog of Fo” sculpture they’ve discovered. Jesuit missionary chronicles from the 18th century note on more than one occasion Indians having bronze candlesticks shaped like dogs. Perhaps they were describing something like this object traded from China off a Manila galleon.

It was an enormous market, starting with American silver which the Spanish shipped to the Far East. Historians estimate that as much as a third of all the silver mined in the Spanish colonies of America ended up in Asia. With that silver the traders bought goods to fill up their huge ships — the Manila galleons were built particularly large for cargo and so the crew could actually survive once in a while — and headed back to Mexico. On its way from Baja to the Gulf, some of the cargo would be sold and traded locally. You can see the influence of Asian porcelain and ivory in Mexican ceramics.

The Manila galleons finally stopped sailing in 1815 when the Mexican War of Independence against Spain broke the cycle.






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