Yew don’t look a day over 619

Wakehurst Place yew, b. 1391A handsome but unassuming yew tree (Taxus baccata) near the mansion at Wakehurst Place, the Kew Botanical Garden’s country estate in West Sussex, turns out to be 620 years old. Twenty feet in diameter, it’s not the largest yew, never mind the largest tree, nor the most impressive (there are 100-year-old yews at Wakehurst that have grown up naturally on stones which are far splashier and more often painted/pictured/talked about than our medieval tree friend). Nobody at Wakehurst had any idea that particular yew was so ancient.

The tree was examined by a dendrochronologist as part of research for a long-term conservation management plan for the Wakehurst gardens. He took a core sample from the tree — you don’t need to cut the whole thing down to count its rings anymore — and found that the yew was planted in 1391, ten years after the Peasants’ Revolt and eight years before King Richard II was deposed.

Andy Jackson, the head of Wakehurst, said: “I am shocked and amazed. I thought I knew almost all there was to know about Wakehurst’s landscape, but it has unveiled a new layer to me. I’ve walked past this remarkably humble tree almost every day without realising just how old it is.

The yew is like an ancient key, unlocking information about the past and suggesting there was a much older designed landscape at Wakehurst that we didn’t know was there.”

The de Wakehurst family owned the land that would become the country estate starting in 1205. There’s a man-made terrace under the 1391 yew, so Jackson thinks the yew may be evidence of the earliest formal garden designed for the de Wakehursts. Last year archaeologists found remains of a 14th century house that was built near the current mansion (constructed in the 16th century) which is where the yew currently stands, so it may have been part of a line of landscaped trees planted to grace that first house.

(Sorry about the groaner in the title. I’m such a cheap date. :no: )

No frankincense or myrrh, but here’s some gold

National Geographic has a fascinating feature story on an excavation that has literally struck gold, and huge amounts, in a 1200-year-old cemetery of the Sitio Conte peoples in Panama. Led by archaeologist Julia Mayo of the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama City, the team began excavating the El Caño site in 2005 and by 2010 had found the gold-packed burial of a chieftain. That was just the beginning.

The team returned last year during the January-to-April dry season and unearthed a second burial every bit as rich as the first. Bearing two gold breastplates in front, two in back, four arm cuffs, and a luminous emerald, the deceased was surely another supreme chief. Near him lay a baby similarly adorned in gold, most likely his son. Beneath both of them stretched a layer of tangled human skeletons, possibly sacrificed slaves or war captives. Radiocarbon tests would date the burials to about A.D. 900—the era when the Maya civilization, some 800 miles to the northwest, was beginning to unravel.

Mayo barely had time to catalog the new finds before her team uncovered more gold. Glinting from the walls of the pit, the artifacts marked the edges of four more tombs. As she surveyed the scene, she couldn’t help but feel stunned. “I was just speechless—fascinated, but also worried,” she remembers. The rains had already begun, and she was now in a race to retrieve all the treasure before the neighboring river flooded the site. Also, she knew looters were sure to come if news of the discoveries got out. She swore her team to silence and prayed for clear skies.

The conquistadores encountered the Sitio Conte people in the 1500s and described their astounding array of gold armature and jewelry (while slaughtering them and taking said gold, of course). It appears that the culture changed very little between the time of the burials Mayo discovered and their descendants’ encounters with the pointy side of the Spanish invaders 700-500 years later. With the exception of some carved stone monoliths, the Sitio Conte didn’t build monumental or even modest but enduring architecture like other Mesoamerican peoples. They lived in bamboo huts and used stone tools, and annual floods have laid waste to organic remains.

At the same time, they had goldsmiths with an exceptional level of skill. This is why earlier archaeologists who studied the Sitio Conte sites in the 1930s and later thought that the gold artifacts must have been imports from more sophisticated neighboring cultures. Mayo’s team has proven definitely that this is not the case.

Specialists at the Smithsonian Institution are analyzing the array of materials Mayo’s team has unearthed and have already made a major discovery. Natural impurities in the gold indicate that the metal was mined and worked in the region. This firmly puts to rest any debate about whether Panama’s treasures were imported from farther south, where cultures were supposedly older and more advanced. The native people in this area may have lived in simple huts, but they were rich enough to support master craftsmen and sophisticated enough to appreciate fine art.

And how:

Yahweh invoked in ancient Antioch curse tablet

Lead curse tablet invoking "Iao," Antioch, 4th c. A.D.A recently deciphered lead curse tablet discovered in a well in Antioch (modern Antakya, Turkey, just north of the Syrian border) invokes Iao, the Greek name for Yahweh, asking that he turn his terrible power onto a local greengrocer named Babylas.

“O thunder-and-lightning-hurling Iao, strike, bind, bind together Babylas the greengrocer,” reads the beginning of one side of the curse tablet. “As you struck the chariot of Pharaoh, so strike his [Babylas’] offensiveness.” […]

In addition to the use of Iao (Yahweh), and reference to the story of the Exodus, the curse tablet also mentions the story of Egypt’s firstborn.

“O thunder—and-lightning-hurling Iao, as you cut down the firstborn of Egypt, cut down his [livestock?] as much as…” (The next part is lost.)

Back side of the curse tablet which summarizes the main points of the full curseThe curse was inscribed in Greek 1700 years ago by an unnamed person. There’s no way of knowing what religion he may have been. Antioch in the 4th century had large Christian, Jewish, Jewish Christian (the latter two inspired the future saint John Chrysostom to write some opprobrious homilies that wouldn’t have been out of place engraved on lead and thrown down a well) and polytheistic communities. It’s possible that the unfortunate target of the curse was Christian, as the name Babylas was also the name of a third-century bishop of Antioch and martyr who died in prison during the suppression of Christianity under the emperor Decius (253 A.D.).

Babylas’ putative Christianity could have inspired his hater to ask Yahweh to hit him with the full thunder-and-lightning treatment, or the curser might simply have picked the deity that most suited him for his own reasons. University of Washington professor Alexander Hollmann who translated the tablet at first thought that the use of “Iao” suggested the curse writer was Jewish, but after examining comparable magic invocations Hollman realized Yahweh was deployed in spells cast by polytheists as well.

“I don’t think there’s necessarily any connection with the Jewish community,” [Hollman] said. “Greek and Roman magic did incorporate Jewish texts sometimes without understanding them very well.”

The curse was discovered in the 1930s during an excavation by Princeton University. They found many curse tablets from hundreds of years of Antiochans (one from the late 5th, early 6th century A.D. asks Kronos to bring down the horses of the Green and White chariot factions), so many that scholars are still translating them. The collection, including this most recently translated “Iao” curse, is kept in the Princeton University Art Museum.

Since curses were often rolled or folded up and then dropped in wells or drains to do their otherworldly damage unimpeded, it takes considerable conservation effort and care to open them up to the point where they can be read and translated, hence the deliberate pace.

An embarrassment of digitized riches

The most ambitious digitization project I’ve ever heard of is halfway to its goal of putting every single publicly owned oil painting (plus tempera and acrylic) in the United Kingdom online. A joint effort of the Public Catalogue Foundation and the BBC, Your Paintings now has 104,000 artworks by the likes of Degas and Rubens uploaded to the website out of an estimated 200,000. It’s the first national online art museum ever attempted. Just to give you a sense of the scale, there are only 3,000 paintings in the immense National Gallery.

You’d have to visit over 3,000 art galleries, museums, libraries, etc. to see the Your Paintings collection in person, and even that wouldn’t be enough. Some of the paintings are in private institutions like Bishop’s palaces and Oxford and Cambridge (they were deemed important national patrimony despite their technical private ownership) and aren’t on display. Even the ones in public museums are often in storage or being conserved. An estimated 80% of the 200,000 oil paintings in the national collection are not available for public viewing at any given time. Besides, even if you could access all of the paintings, it’s unlikely you’d get well-known actors and artists to take you on a guided tour of their favorite pieces and themes.

You can already search the website by artist, collection, location and thanks to the 5,000 members of the public (plus curators and experts) who have signed up to tag each painting with relevant subjects, soon you’ll be able to search the entire database by keyword as well. There are over a million tags already in the system. If you’d like to be a tagger too, sign up here.

If your interests lie more on the history of science spectrum, Cambridge University Library has digitized and uploaded 4,000 pages of works by Sir Isaac Newton, including a fully annotated copy of the Principia Mathematica, drafts of his book on optics, his college notebooks and the “Waste Book,” a large volume filled with Newton’s notes and calculations, including some important work in the development of calculus, that he used when he had to leave Cambridge during the Great Plague of 1664.

Each page has been scanned individually in high resolution. You can zoom in on the smallest detail, or you can zoom out and read the transcription of the sometimes challenging handwriting. (Not all pages have transcriptions.) You can also download images of every page.

The Cambridge Digital Library, in collaboration with the Newton Project at the University of Sussex, has been digitizing their Newton manuscripts since June 2010. They had to take their time with it because many of the works were in need of conservation before they could be scanned. These 4000 pages are just the beginning. Thousands more pages will be uploaded in the coming year. The ultimate goal is to have Cambridge’s full Newton collection online.

Once that’s done, they’ll move on to digitize their collection of works by Charles Darwin and the archive of the Board of Longitude.

Should “the Irish giant” finally be buried at sea?

Charles Byrne (in the middle), the Knipe twins (also Irish giants) flank himCharles Byrne was an 18th century Irishman of extraordinary stature who became famous as “the Irish Giant” in London’s Cox’s Museum (a sideshow/museum of oddities similar to P.T. Barnum’s American Museum in New York City). Born in 1761, Byrne was already abnormally tall in childhood, and by the time he was a teenager his height had made him a popular local sideshow attraction. When he was 21, he left Ireland to seek fame and fortune in London. His 7’7″ height garnered him the giant gig at Cox’s Museum and he was instantly a huge hit. Unfortunately it was a short-lived success. Under the strain of his deteriorating health and the pressures of celebrity, barely more than a year after his move to London, the Irish Giant drank himself to death.

After a lifetime spent on display, Byrne’s deepest fear was that his body would be stolen by “resurrection men” in the employ of eminent Scottish anatomist John Hunter who was famous for his collection of anatomical specimens and oddities. Byrne told his friends that when he died he wanted to be sealed in a lead coffin and buried at sea to avoid this horror. One of those friends turned coat in the most despicable way: he became the resurrection man Byrne feared. Hunter paid him 500 pounds (almost $80,000 in today’s money) to steal the body when the burial party stopped overnight on their way to the English Channel. He put heavy stones in the casket and gave Hunter his friend’s body.

John Hunter, portrait by John JacksonHunter boiled it immediately, probably in fear of imminent discovery, and hid the skeleton for four years. Once he figured the coast was clear, he put the giant’s skeleton on display in his museum. After Hunter’s death, his collection was bought by the British government and became the core of the Hunterian Museum at the Royal College of Surgeons in London which to this day has Charles Byrne’s body on display.

Professor of medical ethics Len Doyal and lawyer Thomas Muinzer argue in the latest issue of the British Medical Journal that it’s high time Charles’ wishes were respected and his remains buried at sea.

The fact is that Hunter knew of Byrne’s terror of him and ignored his wishes for the disposal of his body. What has been done cannot be undone but it can be morally rectified. Surely it is time to respect the memory and reputation of Byrne: the narrative of his life, including the circumstances surrounding his death.

The Hunterian Museum and the Royal College of Surgeons’ possession of Byrne’s skeleton may have led to beneficial medical outcomes. However, as a justification for not burying his skeleton, that case is no longer tenable. Past research on Byrne did not require the display of his skeleton; merely medical access to it. Moreover, now that Byrne’s DNA has been extracted, it can be used in further research. Equally, it is likely that if given the opportunity to make an informed choice, living people with acromegaly will leave their bodies to research or participate in it while alive, or both. Finally, for the purposes of public education, a synthetic archetypical model of an acromegalic skeleton could be made and displayed. Indeed, such skeletons are now used in medical education throughout the world.

The Royal College of Surgeons disagrees. Their position is that the skeleton is still a unique source of important medical research.

Skeleton of Charles Byrne on displayDr. Sam Alberti, director of the Hunterian Museum at the Royal College of Surgeons, said: “The Royal College of Surgeons believes that the value of Charles Byrne’s remains, to living and future communities, currently outweighs the benefits of carrying out Byrne’s apparent request to dispose of his remains at sea.

“A vivid example of the value of having access to the skeleton is the current research into Familial Isolated Pituitary Adenoma (FIPA).

“This genetically links Byrne to living communities, including individuals who have requested that the skeleton should remain on display in the museum.

“At the present time, the museum’s Trustees consider that the educational and research benefits merit retaining the remains.”

I can’t say I find the utilitarian argument tremendously persuasive. It seems to me Charles Byrne has given far more than his fair share of himself to science already. Time for what’s left of him to rest in peace and, for the first time, in privacy.