Archive for October, 2011

Charmed, I’m sure

Monday, October 31st, 2011

London’s Wellcome Collection has a fascinating collection of charms and amulets on display. The amulets were collected by amateur folklorist Edward Lovett (1852–1943) who had a particular interest in superstitions. Over the years he accumulated 1,400 beautiful, odd, creepy pieces which he first displayed in an exhibition at the Wellcome Historical Medical Museum in 1916. Most of the collection belongs to Oxford University’s Pitt Rivers Museum now but has been loaned to the Wellcome again almost a hundred years later.

Lovett was a cashier at a London bank who lived in Croydon. His real passion, though, was collecting objects people carried for good luck. He would roam the East End slums and docks of London at night looking for interesting specimens to buy off of sailors and hawkers. Because people came from all over the world to London’s docks, he ended up amassing an enormous quantity and variety of charms, so many that his wife walked out on him in 1925.

He wrote a book that year, Magic in Modern London, about his research and collection. He wasn’t an assiduous labeler, I’m afraid, so many of the 1,400 objects have no information about their context — where he got them, from whom, what their magical properties were — which makes the descriptions in the book invaluable.

There’s a selection of some of the most intriguing pieces in the Wellcome’s online gallery, along with some quotes from Magic in Modern London. I was surprised at how few of the charms I recognized as superstitions I’ve personally encountered (or engaged in). Red coral, the number 13, horseshoes, rice at weddings and wishbones are the only ones in the gallery I’m familiar with, and they’re not even the most interesting ones.

How would you like to carry two mole’s feet to keep you safe from the agony of cramps?

“The front feet of a mole are permanently curved for digging, and this curved appearance is so suggestive of cramp that these feet are carried as a cure for cramp.” Edward Lovett, Magic in Modern London, p. 78

Perhaps the lower jaw of an indeterminate small critter with a silver-mounted chain instead?

My favorite, though, looks fresh from the set of Nine Inch Nails’ “Closer” video (NSFW):

“A cow keeper, who was one of the old school and originally came from Devonshire, had the misfortune to incur the intense wrath of a man of vindictive temper. He threatened to bewitch the poor man’s cows, and two of then died. The cow keeper there upon, took the heart of one of the dead animals, stuck it all over with pins and nails and hung it up in the Chimney of his house… such action is supposed to be of such a serious nature that it brought about an arrangement of a more or less satisfactory character.” Edward Lovett, Magic in Modern London, p. 67

I’m impressed by how individual these practices were. Lovett said in his book that many times the owners of the talismans would assure him they weren’t superstitious at all; it’s just that x object genuinely saved their lives this one time. Lovett wasn’t the best at cataloging and documentation, but he was able to collect arresting physical representations of the immense variety of beliefs. His contemporaries recognized that he was doing something special, even new, by studying contemporary folklore.


Bela Lugosi’s original Dracula cape for sale

Sunday, October 30th, 2011

The cape Bela Lugosi wore in the 1931 horror movie classic Dracula will go under the hammer at the Icons of Hollywood Auction in mid-December. The pre-sale estimate is a substantial $1,500,000 – $2,000,000, but given what a cultural icon that cape is, it could easily sell for more.

Bela gave the cape to his ex-wife, Lillian Lugosi, in 1956. They had divorced three years earlier and he had actually married someone else the year before, but he wanted Lillian to have the original cape from the film that made him a star so she could give it to their son, Bela G. Lugosi (aka Bela Lugosi, Jr.). Bela Lugosi died in August of 1956 and was buried in his Dracula costume. Rumor had it that he had requested that personally, but in fact it was Lillian who made the decision because she believed it was what he would have wanted. Since Bela wanted his son to have the original cape, the family buried him in a light-weight cape he used for personal appearances.

Lillian kept the cape her whole life, bequeathing it to Bela, Jr. after her death in 1981. Several other important pieces of Dracula memorabilia that went from Bela to Lillian to Bela, Jr. will be sold at the auction, including Bela’s Dracula jumbo lobby card, title cards from The Return of the Vampire and Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein and a number of pictures from the Lugosi family album.

Also for sale at the three-day auction will be a nude portrait of Marilyn Monroe, her wedding ring to Joe DiMaggio, and the DeLorean time machine from Back to the Future III. The most expensive lot will probably be the last remaining pair of Dorothy’s ruby slippers worn in The Wizard of Oz still on the market. (There are three other known screen-used pairs, one in the Smithsonian, one that was stolen from the Judy Garland Museum in Grand Rapids, Minnesota, one held by memorabilia company Elkouby and Co.)

This pair is known as the “Witch’s slippers” because they are the only ones of the four without orange felt soles so they could be shot on the dead feet of the Wicked Witch of the East. They’re also the pair that Judy Garland wore for their greatest close-up: when she clicked her heels together three times saying “there’s no place like home.” They were purchased by Philip Samuels, a businessman from St. Louis, Missouri, for $165,000 in 1988. Over the years Samuels had used the shoes to raise money for children’s charities and has loaned them to the Smithsonian when their slippers are being cleaned or on tour. The pre-sale estimate is $2 million – $3 million.


EU pledges $145 million to save Pompeii

Saturday, October 29th, 2011

The European Union announced Wednesday that it will give Italy 105 million euros ($145 million) to safeguard Pompeii. The money is part of a larger one billion euro program to support major heritage sites in dire need of conservation and will fund a four-year project to preserve the ancient Roman town.

The news comes in the wake of yet another wall collapse last Friday caused by the heavy rains and mudslides that have devastated Italy over the past week. Last when year torrential rains caused an epidemic of wall collapses, Culture Minister Sandro Bondi narrowly dodged a no confidence vote and promised moneys and personnel devoted to regular maintenance to stem the tide of destruction. Those promises went unkept.

Bondi resigned in March and now there’s a new Culture Minister, Giancarlo Galan. He has stated that Pompeii is a priority for his ministry, but his response to last week’s wall collapse was to say that the damage wasn’t bad and to point to the EU’s coming €105 million as the windfall that will keep things from getting worse. Archaeologists and heritage organizations are concerned that the additional funds may get bogged down in legislative battles, corruption, pork barrel trades and diversions. Pompeii isn’t broke; the archaeological park makes 70 million tourist dollars a year, even in an economic downturn. The problem is in the pipeline.

“Money and people were promised, but despite frequent announcements, neither arrived,” said Maria Pia Guermandi, a council member at Italian heritage organisation Italia Nostra.

“The hiring of new archaeologists to help protect the site was included in a new bill recently but was then omitted from the final text. In the meantime, funds have actually been diverted to support museums in nearby Naples.”

Teresa Elena Cinquantaquattro, superintendent of the site, said she was awaiting the arrival of 25 archaeologists.

Guermandi said the partial collapse of the wall had been caused by water infiltrating the stonework. “All it would have taken to prevent this was some waterproofing on top of the wall – simple, regular maintenance,” she said.

“Instead of waiting for €100m, the government could have freed up €10m to get started immediately.”

At the conference announcing the pledge, EC Regional Affairs Commissioner Johannes Hahn made a point of saying that his office would “constantly monitor” the allocation of the funds. Galan said that now that the money has been allocated, “it’s a matter of spending it in the best way possible, to make a good impression on the EU and to accomplish something important.” This plan, he argues, “will allow Pompeii for the first time to count on a project of great scope.”

The day after that press conference a chunk fell off the House of Diomedes, prompting Italy’s main labor union UIL to urge an immediately archaeological assessment of the entire site so that we have a clear idea of what condition all of the ruins are in. The culture ministry said the Diomedes collapse was a gradual detachment of the wall due to vegetation growth. Opposition political party Italy of Values pointed out that that’s not exactly reassuring since it proves that there’s long-term structural damage in Pompeii the ministry knows nothing about.


New Velázquez discovered in auction consignment

Friday, October 28th, 2011

In August of last year, Bonhams’ Oxford office received a consignment of paintings by 19th century Buckingham Palace artist Matthew Shepperson. The seller is a descendant of Shepperson’s who had recently inherited the art and was hoping to sell the pieces for a few hundred dollars each. One of the paintings, a bust-length portrait of a gentleman wearing a black tunic and a white golilla collar (ie, a ruff), caught the experts’ eyes as significantly superior in quality to the rest of the consignment.

When Andrew McKenzie, director of Bonhams’ Old Master Paintings department in London examined it, he told Oxford to withdraw it from sale pending further investigation. “There’s a very specific modelling to the cheek,” McKenzie explains, “and it has a very cool pigment to it. As soon as I saw that, it was obvious to me that it was by the same hand as others I had seen.”

The Old Master department brought in consultant Brian Koetser to help research the portrait. They contacted Dr. Peter Cherry, Professor of Art History at Trinity College in Dublin and a leading expert on Velázquez. He immediately thought it was a previously unknown work by Diego Rodriguez de Silva y Velázquez.

Bonhams next consulted Carmen Garrido, Head of Technical Services at the Prado Museum in Madrid, also a leading Velázquez expert and author of the definitive work on his painting technique, Velázquez: Technica y Evolución. She too identified it as a work by the master himself. Technical analysis of the paint and X-rays supported the attribution. When Dr. Cherry saw the X-rays, he confirmed his earlier tentative assessment. Velázquez’s portraits have a characteristic ghostly look in X-rays because of his painting technique.

Researchers think Velázquez painted it between 1632 and 1635, after his first trip to Italy. The sitter is unknown, but experts think it could be Juan Mateos, master of the hunt for Philip IV of Spain. It remains a mystery how Matthew Shepperson, a jobbing artist who made minor ducats copying famous paintings at Buckingham Palace, got his hands on a Velázquez. He made a hobby of collecting portraits, and the painting is in excellent condition so he probably had no idea it was even as old as it is. An invoice of seven shillings was found in his papers that could refer to his purchase of the unknown Velázquez portrait.

And so the painting Shepperson bought for shillings and that his descendant expected to sell for between $320 and $480 will now go on the block at Bonhams’ Old Master Paintings auction on December 7th as Portrait of a Gentleman by Diego Velázquez with an estimated sale price of $3.2 million to $4.8 million, 10,000 times the original estimate. There are only 98 other known Velázquez paintings in the world, four of them in private hands. They don’t come up for sale at public auction very often, needless to say, so no doubt that estimate will be blown away.


Linguists crack Copiale Cipher

Thursday, October 27th, 2011

Copiale Cipher, brocade coverA team of linguists from Uppsala University in Sweden and a computer scientist from the University of Southern California have cracked the Copiale Cipher, an 18th century coded manuscript, using statistics-based translation techniques seen in programs like Google Translate.

The Copiale Cipher is a 105-page manuscript written in a code of 90 different characters. The characters include Roman and Greek letters, symbols and diacritical marks and there are approximately 75,000 of them in the book. The paper is high quality and the manuscript is gloriously bound in green and gold brocade. There are two notes that are not in code: “Philipp 1866” on the first page, thought to be an owner’s mark, and “Copiales 3” at the end of the last page. We don’t know what Copiales means but they named the book after it anyway.

Dating back to between 1760 and 1780, the Copiale Cipher was discovered in the archive of the East Berlin Academy in the former East Germany after the Cold War. It’s owned by a private collector now, but the team were given full access to it this year. USC computer scientist Kevin Knight, and Uppsala University linguists Beáta Megyesi and Christiane Schaefer decided to collaborate as a weekend project to see if they could decipher the code.

They began assuming the Roman and Greek letters were the real text. They didn’t know the original language the code would translate to, however, and after trying 80 languages with no luck, they realized that the Roman and Greek letters were NULLS, intended to trick prying eyes and serve as spaces between the real words which were all composed of symbols.

[T]hey figured that the code was what cryptographers call a homophonic cipher — a substitution code that does not have a straightforward correspondence between the original and encoded information. And they decided the original language was probably German. […] Another crucial discovery was that a colon indicated the doubling of the previous consonant.

The researchers used language-translation techniques like expected word frequency to guess what a symbol might equal in German.

“It turned out that we can apply a lot those techniques to code breaking,” Dr. Knight said.

As the symbols revealed themselves as German letter combinations, the researchers found the text peppered with the kind of phrases you hope to find in a coded 18th century manuscript, like “ceremonies of initiation” and “secret section.” The team finished translation the first 16 pages of the manuscript and the Copiale Cipher turns out to be the top secret ritual book of a secret society fixated on ophthalmology and eye surgery.

There are eight characters larger in size than all the others which appear to refer to illustrious personages in the secret society and have no translation. They are double secret, if you will. The team assigned them a transcription scheme (key to the right) which is used in the translation (pdf file).

The conducting *nee* speaks thereupon to the ceremony *nee*: ” Hereby I pass to the brother the candidate in body and soul, so that he sees if “one cannot help his weak face with an operation. He carries him thereafter to a secondary table where, next to a lot of candles, several instruments and eye glasses, microscopic perspective, a cloth and a glass of water must be present. He has to lower himself on to a tabouret and to look upon an unwritten piece of paper for a while. If, after a while, he answers that he cannot see anything written on there, than the master of ceremonies puts him a pair of eye glasses and asks him again if he is not able to read the writing. Answer no. During this time the master of ceremonies comforts him as good as he can, raises his hopes
for improvement washes his eyes with a cloth and if nothing helps, he will announce that they have to proceed with the operation

then all those present members reach for the candles place themselves around the candidate and the master of ceremonies *nee* plucks a hair from the eyebrow with a pair of small tweezers under constant urging, comfort and encouragement and concludes herewith the operation

So it’s sort of social. Demented and sad, but social.

I know it may seem a tad on the lame side as far as secret rituals of secret societies go, but Knight showed the text to Andreas Onnerfors, a Swedish historian who is an expert on secret societies, and he found a reference to the natural rights of man, a recurring theme in the 18th century where secret societies played a significant role in the fraught politics of Revolutionary France and America.

To read about the decryption adventure in detail, see Kevin Knight, Beáta Megyesi and Christiane Schaefer’s paper The Copiale Cipher (also a pdf).


Wreck from Kublai Khan’s lost fleet found off Japan

Wednesday, October 26th, 2011

Marine archaeologists from the University of the Ryukyus in Okinawa have discovered the wreck of a ship from one of Kublai Khan’s invasion fleets off the coast of Nagasaki. Kublai Khan attempted two invasions of Japan, one in 1274 with an estimated 900 ships and 22,000 troops, the other in 1281 with an estimated 4,400 ships and 140,000 troops. Both invasion attempts would quickly end in disaster thanks to two perfectly timed — some would say divinely timed — typhoons, burying the Great Khan’s navies in the Japanese seabed.

A part of the hull was first identified last year, but an in depth archaeological exploration of the site only began last month.

The warship was located with ultrasonic equipment about 3 feet beneath the seabed at a depth of 75 feet. The archeological team, from Okinawa’s University of the Ryukus, had been carrying out a search of the waters around Takashima Island, in Nagasaki Prefecture, because the area had yielded other items from Mongol ships.

Samurai boarding Yuan ships in 1281Historical records suggest that some 4,400 ships carrying 140,000 Mongol soldiers landed in Japan in 1281 and skirmished with samurai in northern Kyushu. But after returning to their boats, the fleet was struck by a devastating typhoon that put an end to the invasion plans – a storm known to all Japanese as “kamizake,” meaning divine wind, and again invoked in the dying days of the Second World War.

The researchers believe the boats tried to find shelter in the coves of northern Kyushu, an assumption borne out by the discovery by Professor Yoshifumi Ikeda’s team.

Anchor stones and cannon balls from the Yuan Dynasty fleets have been found in the area before, but no remains of vessels. This wreck is the first of Kublai Khan’s ships to be discovered, and considering it’s almost 800 years old and sank in a divine wind, it’s in quite good condition. The mast and top structures are gone, but a large section of the ship’s hull, including a keel almost 50 feet long and more than 1.5 feet wide, ribs, bulkheads, and rows of wood planking still nailed to the keel. Preserved by layers of silt, the planks still have some of their original grey paint.

The team also found weapons, ink stones, Yuan Dynasty pottery and hundreds of bricks used as ballast in the immediate vicinity of the shipwreck. It’s the artifacts together with the structure of the vessel that mark the wreck as a 13th century Yuan warship and thus one of Kublai Khan’s invading fleet. The location indicates it was part of the second failed invasion.

Scientists plan to expand the exploration of the area to see if more of the ship can found, with an eye to the possibility of maybe one day lifting the entire vessel and preserving it. As of right now, however, there are no plans to attempt salvage. The wreck will be covered with a protective netting to keep it from further damage. Meanwhile, Ikeda’s team hopes to create a replica of the complete Yuan warship based on the archaeological remains.

Mongol fleet destroyed in a typhoon, by Kikuchi Yōsai, 1847This will answer some important questions about Mongol shipbuilding, and about Kublai Khan’s fleets in particular. Historians and chroniclers have long said that Kublai Khan put together his navies from scratch in less than a year, even the 4,400 ships from the larger second invasion. According to the Goryeosa, a 15th century history of Korea’s Goryeo Dynasty (918–1392), Kublai Khan was in a rush and thus filled his navy with flat-bottomed riverboats instead of taking the time to build proper ocean-going ships. Those traditional boats did not have curved keel so they capsized easily and were extremely hard to manage in high seas. Discovering the first hull and keel of a Yuan warship from the fleet ever found, therefore, is a historical divine wind.

The Kamikaze and Japan’s two-time defeat of the mighty Mongol war machine were nation-defining events. Before the Yuan invasions, the samurai class had never fought together against a foreign invader. They had only fought amongst themselves. Although at first their one-on-one dueling approach to warfare (even large forces arrayed against each other still picked an opponent and duked it out hand to hand) was easily defeated by the Mongol showers of arrows, artillery and coordinated army combat, the Japanese learned the lesson and spent the next seven years fortifying the coastline with stone walls, forts and other defensive structures. Those defenses worked. The outnumbered Japanese were able to repulse Mongol attacks from the fortifications and thus kept the second invasion fleet at sea and smack in the path of the two-day typhoon that would sink 80% of it.

Until War War II, Kublai Khan’s thwarted attempts were the closest Japan would come to invasion in 1500 years.


All of Tolkien’s Hobbit drawings published

Tuesday, October 25th, 2011

JRR Tolkien’s The Hobbit was first published in September 1937. To mark next year’s 75th anniversary, HarperCollins is releasing The Art of the Hobbit, a collection of all the art work Tolkien made to illustrate his first novel.

Only a few of Tolkien’s drawings were published in the first edition of The Hobbit: 10 black and white illustrations, two maps and the dust jacket designs, front and back. Tolkien was already an accomplished artist before his first book was printed. He had drawn many illustrations and sketches to accompany the original manuscript, and although over the years some of them were published in various new editions of The Hobbit and other books, the entire collection wound up in relative obscurity in the Tolkien archive at the Bodleian Library in Oxford.

When HarperCollins publisher David Brawn checked the archive in preparation for a 75th anniversary reprint of The Hobbit, he found much to his surprise that there were 110 illustrations — ink drawings, plans, maps, watercolors, sketches, preliminary and alternate versions of final pieces — made by the author. Two dozen of them have never been published before, others have never been published before in color.

“[The Art of the Hobbit] includes his conceptual sketches for the cover design, a couple of early versions of the maps and pages where he’s experimenting with the runic forms, as well as a couple of manuscript pages,” said Brawn. “It shows that Tolkien’s creativity went beyond the writing, that it was a fully thought out conception. When he writes about the hobbit hole [“In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat: it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort”], he’s designed it as well. And by doing that, it makes his description more vivid … Tolkien was an accomplished amateur artist. He was a great admirer of Arthur Rackham and you can see a little bit of that style coming through.”

The book will be available starting Thursday, October 27. Even though the anniversary of The Hobbit‘s publication is a year away, this month is the 75th anniversary of Tolkien’s handing the manuscript to his publishers.


D-Day vets meet by chance on same Normandy beach

Monday, October 24th, 2011

Bill Betts and Clifford Baker were brothers-in-arms and friends who stormed Gold Beach, the center of the five designated landing beaches (Gold, Sword, Juno, Omaha and Utah) in Normandy, together on D-Day, June 6, 1944. After training together for two years as radio operators, Bill and Clifford were among the first Allied troops to land ashore. Bill was almost immediately shot in the leg by machine-gun fire. The last they saw of each other, Bill was encouraging Clifford to keep going and leave him behind.

Bill remained motionless under sniper fire on that beach for ten hours before US troops airlifted him to a hospital. He recovered and rejoined his regiment, but Clifford was no longer with them. Given the high casualty rate among the D-Day troops Bill assumed Clifford had never made it off the beach. He had, though. He had just been assigned to a new unit and he too believed that his friend had died on Gold Beach.

Fast-forward 67 years to this summer when Bill Betts was visiting the D-Day Museum at Arromanches. He signed the remembrance book and saw right above his signature a blast from the past: the signature of one Clifford Baker.

“I couldn’t believe my eyes when I saw his name but there it was in black and white,’ said Bill, now 88, “I’d just been given a commemorative medal by the Mayor of Arromanches so “I asked her when Mr Baker had been into the museum. She said it was only 20 minutes before and that his coach was now boarding in the car park. I decided I had to take the chance to catch him.”

Bill scoured the car park in search of his missing friend. Meanwhile the mayor frantically gave an order for departing coaches to be stopped.

Then, to cheers and applause, Clifford came down the steps – and into the embrace of his former comrade.

They were part of completely separate groups from different parts of the country. Bill is 88 and that Clifford is a decade older at 98. What are the odds that they would meet again on Gold Beach after three score years of thinking each other killed on that same spot.


Kandinsky painted over his girlfriend’s painting

Sunday, October 23rd, 2011

In preparation for an exhibit dedicated to Wassily Kandinsky’s 1913 oil painting Painting With White Border, the Guggenheim Museum spent several years studying and conserving the painting in its own collection. They collaborated with the Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C., which owns an earlier preparatory oil painting by Kandinsky on the same subject called Sketch I for Painting With White Border (Moscow), and were able to examine both paintings side by side.

The two paintings were examined in the conservation laboratory of the Harvard Art Museum using ultraviolet and infrared scanning, x-ray, microscopy, and cross-sectional and chemical analysis of the paints. Conservators were hoping the unique opportunity to compare the paintings in the most minute detail would expand our knowledge of Kandinsky’s creative process and provide important information to aid in the conservation of his work. Both goals were attained. The examination revealed Kandinsky’s brushwork, paints, his careful and deliberate explorations of the theme and the evolution of his vision. On the conservation side, Painting With White Border is covered in synthetic varnishes which over time alter the color of the paint. Knowing which materials the artist himself used and being able to identify later overlays helps conservators to treat the work without damaging Kandinsky’s work.

The in-depth scientific analysis turned up a surprise, however. Sketch I for Painting With White Border (Moscow) had a completed painting underneath it. Experts have identified it as the work of German artist Gabriele Münter, Kandinsky’s live-in mistress for thirteen years, based on how similar it is to another work of Münter’s, a gouache called Garden Concert (ca. 1912).

There are very few other examples of Kandinsky’s painting over a used canvas at all, and none of them were Münter’s. It’s an intriguing question of gender/social/relationship dynamics even among unconventional turn-of-the-century avant-garde artists. Münter met Kandinsky when he was her art teacher in Munich. They lived together from 1903 to 1916 while Mrs. Kandinsky went about her business in Moscow.

German Münter expert Annegret Hoberg thinks the piece might have been discarded by Münter herself. She apparently renounced a number of works in 1912; this could have been among them. Still, that’s a lot of self to efface.

Bibiana Obler, an art history professor at George Washington University who studies artist couples, said that the discovery offered some nuances to understanding the Blue Rider group’s relatively avant-garde attitudes, as well the timeline of male-female relations in the arts.

“This was at a moment in the early 20th century when more artist couples are trying to work as equals, but it’s not the norm yet,” Ms. Obler said, pointing out that Franz Marc, the most famous painter of the circle besides Kandinsky, was also married to an artist, Maria.

Ms. Obler said that Münter, even while she pursued her own painting, performed various tasks for Kandinsky, including helping him with sketching and record-keeping.

She added that “it was impossible to imagine Kandinsky giving Münter a canvas to paint over.”

“There were subtle ways in which they continued to adhere to their gendered roles,” Ms. Obler said.

Both Kandinsky pieces, the radiograph of the Münter’s painting and the Garden Concert gouache will be on display at the Guggenheim Museum from October 21, 2011, to January 15, 2012.


American hunting is 800 years older than we thought

Saturday, October 22nd, 2011

New research has confirmed that the wound in a 13,800-year-old mastodon skeleton was inflicted by humans. The mastodon skeleton was found in the 1970s with a sharp sliver of bone embedded in one of its rib bones. It was unclear at that time whether the bone sliver was a weapon point fabricated by humans, or if it was a broken piece of the mastodon’s own bone, or perhaps a chip from another animal embedded during a fight.

Michael Waters, an anthropologist at the Center for the Study of the First Americans at Texas A&M University, used modern radiocarbon-dating to confirm that the mastodon was indeed 13,800 years old and thus died 800 years before the Clovis people of North America were thought to have begun hunting on the continent. Then Waters used advanced CT technology to examine the bone point and hit the mother lode.

“We’re all familiar with hospital CT scanners where they can scan your body and look inside to see organs and bones,” Waters said. “This is a high-resolution industrial version that creates digital X-rays spaced every 0.06 millimeters [0.002 inches], about half the thickness of a piece of paper.”

This ultra-sharp look inside the rib revealed the needle-sharp shaft of the projectile point lodged inside the mastodon’s bone. The images suggested the point had been whittled down and sharpened, Waters said, the work of human hands.

To top it off, the researchers extracted bone protein and DNA from the projectile point itself, determining that the weapon had been made from the bones of yet another mastodon.

“That was even more exciting, because what that meant is whoever these hunters were that tracked down and killed the Manis Mastodon were hunting with weapons made from a previous kill,” Waters said.

A weapon as big around as a pencil, no less, which is damn impressive considering the size of the prey. Mind you, it appears this particular mastodon was in the twilight of its life anyway. Its teeth were worn down to nubbins, indicating advanced age. The bone point, either thrown like darts or launched with a small spear-thrower, was driven into the back of the creature, so the poor thing might have already been down when it the point pierced its rib.

This isn’t the first evidence of a pre-Clovis hunter-gatherer culture in the Americas 14,000 years or so ago. There’s even evidence of mastodons and mammoths being butchered and eaten during this period. The bone projectile, however, is the earliest hunting weapon found on the continent.

Here’s video of the CT scan:





October 2011


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