2800-year-old Olmec relief of Nibblonians found

Archaeologists working on the ancient Olmec site of Chalcatzingo in the Central Highlands of Mexico have discovered a 2800-year-old, 1.5-ton stone bas-relief of three felines that bear a notable resemblance to Nibbler from Futurama. The archaeological team was building retaining walls and protective roofs for the existing monolithic bas-reliefs in the Olmec center when they found this one broken into 11 pieces.

That was in April. Restorers spent May and June putting the three felines back together again. Now it has gone on display on the north slope of Cerro Chalcatzingo along with the other Olmec monumental carvings of reptiles, felines and human figures.

Sculpted on the stone are three cats sitting in profile, looking west and surrounded by great scroll decorations. […]

Since the first explorations there in the 1930s, some 41 monuments have been discovered in Chalcatzingo up to now, four of which have cat figures, animals feared and venerated by the Olmecs, who inhabited the area between the years 800-500 B.C., a period known as the Middle Pre-Classical.

Experts believe that the Olmecs, the first civilization in the Americas to leave monumental architecture and sculptures, built a frieze all along the Chalcatzingo hill.

To restore such a large piece — it’s 5 feet high, 3.6 feet wide and 1 foot, 4 inches deep — archaeologists had to devise a system of pins that was strong enough to sustain the 1.5 ton weight. They then attached the pieces to each other using a special resin then resurfaced the face using stone dust and lime. It worked, too. You can barely tell from the picture that it was ever cracked, never mind broken into 11 pieces.

Despite its rich, still unplumbed depths of ancient Mesoamerican art and artifacts, Chalcatzingo archaeological site still hasn’t been fully documented. Archaeologist Mario Cordova, head of the National Institute of Archaeology and History’s Morelos regional center, notes that there is a paucity of iconographic studies of the Olmec carvings of Chalcatzingo because of this lack of documentation, so INAH, with the support of researchers from the University of South Florida will soon begin a registration program to index all the three-dimensional reliefs in Chalcatzingo.

Win a private soiree in the ruins of Tintagel Castle

The dramatic coastal clifftop setting of the 13th century Tintagel Castle in Cornwall was the setting for one of the most legendary acts of debauchery: Uther Pendragon’s sneak seduction of Ygerna (aka Igraine) while magically disguised as her husband Gorlois, Duke of Cornwall. That heated night of rape-by-fraud at Tintagel resulted nine months later in the birth of the Once and Future King, Arthur. What would you do if you got to spend an evening at Tintagel with five of your closest friends?

Think about it carefully and then post your answer on English Heritage’s Tintagel Castle Facebook wall. If your idea has a mass appeal, you get to make it happen. The entrant who gets the most ‘likes’ by August 1st (subject to English Heritage’s discretion, so, like, peeing your name on the ramparts probably won’t cut it even though you’d get plenty of likes) will win private access to the ruins on an evening of your choice between August 6th and August 20th.

Matt Ward, site supervisor at the castle explains: “Tintagel is such a beautiful and atmospheric place, as well as being steeped in history and folklore it has some of the most spectacular views along the English coastline. Never before have we been able to hand over the castle for someone to enjoy exclusively so we’re really excited to see what ideas people will come up with to make the most of it.”

I’m afraid if I were honest in my entry, I’d be sure not to win since I’d just spend the evening nerding out over the ruins and the view and that’s not really a crowd-pleasing concept. Just as well I can’t make it to Cornwall next month. Still, if one of y’all submits an entry please link to it in the comments and you’ll at least get yourself a like or two from other readers.

Although the Tintagel peninsula was in use from Roman Times through the early Middle Ages as an easily defensible location for the peripatetic courts of local kings and chieftains, Tintagel Castle as we know it today began as a Norman stronghold built by Reginald, Earl of Cornwall, in 1145. That was six years after Geoffrey of Monmouth wrote his account of Arthur’s conception in his Historia Regum Britanniae but there’s no evidence of an earlier structure on the spot that Geoffrey could have known as Tintagel Castle. Most of the ruins we see today date from 1233 when Richard, Earl of Cornwall and Henry III’s younger brother, built the main part of the castle. He could well have picked the spot to associate himself with Arthurian legend.

The Castle fell into disuse after the death of Edward, the Black Prince, son of King Edward III and Duke of Cornwall, in 1376. The county sheriffs took it over, using the building as a prison and letting the land to shepherds for pasture. With the revival of interest in Arthurian legend during the mid-19th century, the romantic windswept outcroppings of Tintagel became a tourist attraction.

As Monmouth describes it:

A whole week was now past, when, retaining in mind his love to Igerna, [King Uther] said to one of his confidants, named Ulfin de Ricaradoch: “My passion for Igerna is such, that I can neither have ease of mind, nor health of body, till I obtain her: and if you cannot assist me with your advice how to accomplish my desire, the inward torments I endure will kill me.”– “Who can advise you in this matter,” said Ulfin, “when no force will enable us to have access to her in the town of Tintagel? For it is situated upon the sea, and on every side surrounded by it; and there is but one entrance into it, and that through a straight rock, which three men shall be able to defend against the whole power of the kingdom.

Qui exequitur carnifex?

Archaeologists excavating the thousand-year-old temple complex of Chotuna Chornancap in Lambayeque, northern Peru, have discovered the tomb of an important lord thought to have been an executioner. The tomb was found two weeks ago and contained human remains, ceremonial knives, ceramic pots, a dress made from native cotton and a series of rolled copper discs. It’s the grave goods that mark the burial as belonging to someone with a key ceremonial role in Lambayeque human sacrifice rituals.

Carlos Wester, director of the Bruning Museum in Lambayeque and one of the tomb’s discoverers. Wester told AFP the person buried there was most likely in charge of human sacrifice.

“We found the perfectly preserved tomb of a sacrificer of the Lambayeque culture, with copper machetes and human offerings laid around them,” Wester told the news agency. […]

The 20 to 30 year old resident of the tomb “played an important role in the ceremonies of human sacrifice” for the ancient culture, which flourished from 700 to 1375 AD. Sicán or Lambayeque culture emerged around the eighth century, lasted until 1375 and peaked between 900 and 1100.

The adobe pyramids, temples and tombs were built by the Lambayeque culture around 900 A.D., but they remained in use by later cultures until the arrival of the Spanish. The temple complex was discovered in January of 2010, but even before that the Chotuna Chornancap archaeological site produced copious evidence of extensive Lambayeque and Inca human sacrifice.

In September of 2008, archaeologists discovered two Lambayeque tombs that contained the remains of seven sacrificed women between the ages of 15 and 25, as well as several sacrificed llamas. All of the skeletons showed signs of having been cut at the throat, and one of the women was pregnant. Sacrificing pregnant women was not a common occurence. It’s an extremely rare find, in fact, and indicates that an important religious ritual took place, perhaps the death of an important personage or the sanctification of a newly built temple.

Just a few months later archaeologists found a large Inca sacrificial pit containing 33 bodies, this time dating to approximately 600 years ago, just before the Spanish conquest.

“Weary Herakles” to be reunited with his legs

In a reversal of a decades-long position, the Boston Museum of Fine Arts has agreed to return the torso and head of a 2nd century A.D. statue of Herakles to Turkey so that it may be reunited with its hips and legs in the Antalya Museum. The statue, a Roman copy of a 4th century B.C. bronze by the Greek master Lysippos of Sikyon, depicts the aged hero tiredly leaning on his club draped with the skin of the Nemean lion. The bottom half was unearthed in 1980 during an excavation in Perge (the ancient Greek city of Perga) on the southwestern Mediterranean coast of Turkey. The top half appeared seemingly out of nowhere on the US market in 1981.

The MFA bought the piece from Mohammad Yeganeh, a German antiquities dealer who claimed that it was his mother’s and that she had bought it in Germany in 1950. Despite the fact that the legs had been found the year before and that there wasn’t a whisper of documentation for this ridiculous “my mom ate my homework” excuse, the MFA and New York collectors Leon Levy and Shelby White would split the cost and purchase the statue (with the museum’s half coming from a Shelby foundation grant), with the stipulation that Levy’s 50% ownership stake would go to the museum after his death.

It wasn’t until 1990 when the MFA loaned the top half for an exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art that the remarkable coincidence of how well the torso matched the legs in Turkey made the news. Cornelius C. Vermeule III, the MFA’s curator of classical art, dismissed the connection between the two parts. “Weary Herakles” was a popular subject — there are at least a hundred later copies of Lysippos’ original in museums and collections — so the top and bottom could belong to any number of iterations.

He was so insistent that they were from different statues that Vermeule proposed the two museums take plaster casts of the parts and see if they fit together. In 1992 the casts were brought together and they did fit. Perfectly. After that, the MFA changed its argument. Now they were keeping the top half because it could have been excavated “any time since the Italian Renaissance” instead of after 1906, the year Turkish law established state ownership of archaeological finds thus making export of ancient artifacts illegal. Their official position was that they had acquired the statue legally and that Turkey couldn’t prove otherwise.

Turkey continued to ask for restitution. The display of the legs in the Antalya Museum included a collage of newspaper stories about the controversy and placed a picture of the MFA’s top half above the bottom half, but even after Leon Levy died in 2003, making the museum the sole owner of the statue, another four years would pass before MFA deputy director Katherine Getchell would initiate talks with Turkey.

During these meetings the Turkish representatives provided evidence that the Perge site had been looted during the initial excavation. That evidence is the official reason the Museum of Fine Arts has agreed to return Herakles’ chest and head to Turkey.

Osman Murat Suslu, Turkey’s general director of museums and cultural heritage, said that he’s thrilled that after so many years, the “Weary Herakles” is coming home. He is even willing to give the MFA a short-term loan of the unified piece for an exhibition. Getchell had requested that during negotiations.

The MFA can’t predict when the reunited statue might go on display, but Getchell said that the MFA hoped the unified piece would be seen first in Boston. If Turkey agrees to lend the bottom half to the MFA, it would take several months for the piece to be put together and conserved. That would leave the MFA with a rough target of 2012 for unveiling the two halves, Getchell said. Ultimately, the unified piece would return to Turkey.

Oh for crying out loud

Zahi Hawass is like Napoleon only he escapes from Saint Helena not just Elba. Yet again, Hawass has managed to hold on to his job even after being fired a second time. (Okay technically he resigned the first time, but let’s just say that was a decision made under considerable political pressure.)

The prime minister announced earlier in the week that Zahi Hawass, the archaeologist known for his National Geographic documentaries and close ties to the Mubarak family, was to be replaced by Abdel Fattah el Banna as minister of antiquities. But Sharaf reversed himself and decided to temporarily keep Hawass in his post.

“Dr. El Banna has accused several of the antiquities employees of corruption and thus triggered much rejection against him holding the position. Essam Sharaf consequently believed that it wouldn’t be appropriate atmosphere for him to work,” the government announced in a statement.

Hawass told MENA on Wednesday that he was asked by Sharaf to carry on his duties but wasn’t mentioned in Thursday’s list of ministers. A Cabinet spokesman later announced that the ministry of antiquities would be downgraded to a Cabinet-affiliated office and not be its own ministry.

The new office will be the same as the old office before Mubarak made it a ministry during a reshuffle during the January turmoil that brought down his regime. So it’s the Supreme Council of Antiquities again now and it reports to the prime minister.

Hawass told the New York Times that he’s only hanging around for a few days until a suitable replacement can be found. He said he’s looking forward to retiring to write books and “living quietly as a private person, away from politics.” Yes I’m sure. Very likely.