Archive for May, 2012

First Babe Ruth Yankees jersey sells for $4.4 million

Monday, May 21st, 2012

Babe Ruth Yankees jersey, 1920The wool jersey Babe Ruth wore the first year he played for the New York Yankees sold at auction today for $4,415,658, the highest price ever paid for a piece of sports memorabilia. The previous record was set in December of 2010 when James Naismith’s founding rules of basketball sold for $4,338,500. It was sold by online auction specialists SCP Auctions to sports memorabilia specialists who plan to resell it privately.

Doubtless several of their deep pocketed clients will be keen to spend even more millions to secure the jersey. Babe Ruth memorabilia is the Holy Grail of sports collecting, and Babe Ruth jerseys are the Holy Grails of the Holy Grail. There are only four unrestored jerseys extant that are known to have been worn by the Sultan of Swat, and this one is the earliest of them all. Manufactured by Spalding, the jersey is in exceptionally good condition, complete with all the details of the 1920 style, like the “Y” in New York embroidered on the button placket between the second and third buttons and the “sun collar” that slopes up the side of the neck and around the back. Inside the collar is the name “Ruth G.H.” (for George Herman Ruth) stitched in what was once red thread but which has now faded to a lovely shade of raspberry.

"Ruth G.H." stitched into the collarThe only change made to the jersey after its manufacture was its sleeves were cut shorter. This isn’t a negative, however, because there are pictures of Ruth wearing the jersey in 1920 and the sleeves are already short. It’s therefore likely that he had them altered to his preference, which makes the cut sleeves a point in favor of the jersey’s authenticity.

Its provenance is impeccable. It’s been in the possession of a northeastern private collector for decades. He loaned it to the Babe Ruth Birthplace Museum in Baltimore where it was on display from 2004 to 2009. It has never before been offered for public sale.

Babe Ruth wearing the jersey at the Yankees' spring training, March 1920Then there’s the year, a momentous, even legendary year in baseball history whose repercussions were still being keenly felt as recently as 2004. On December 26, 1919, Harry Frazee, theatrical impresario and owner of the Boston Red Sox, sold Babe Ruth to the New York Yankees for $125,000. According to the urban legend that grew around this disastrous trade, Frazee made the sale to finance the Broadway musical No, No, Nanette, but that show debuted in 1925. He did use money from the Ruth sale to finance a play called My Lady Friends from which Nanette was later derived, but that’s not why he sold Ruth, or at least it’s not the sole reason.

Ruth was a giant pain in his ass, not to put too fine a point on it. His salary demands were outrageous (after the 1919 season he refused to play again unless his salary was doubled to $20,000), he partied all the time, sometimes showing up at the field on game day still drunk, and he was a no-show at important games. Ruth was delighted to be sold to the Yankees. He got what he wanted salary-wise — a two-year $41,000 contract — and he became the toast of the town.

The Boston Red Sox did not fare so well. Before the sale they had won a third of all the World Series, five out of 15. After the sale they wouldn’t win a pennant again until 1946, and they wouldn’t win a World Series again until 2004. The Yankees, on the other hand, would play in 39 World Series and win 26 of them after they bought Babe Ruth.

So this jersey isn’t just the first shirt Babe Ruth wore as a New York Yankee when he showed up for spring training in March of 1920; it’s also the jersey that inaugurated the Curse of the Bambino. Given that, it’s actually rather surprising that it made less than a hundred thousand more dollars than Naismith’s basketball rules.


Ancient curse/cure stone found on Hebrides island

Sunday, May 20th, 2012

Top stone of Canna bullaunAn early Christian bullaun and turn stone have been discovered on the Scottish Inner Hebrides island of Canna. A bullaun is a large rock that has one or more depressions into which stones were turned as part of a folk ritual that started in prehistory and continued well into the Christian era. Bullauns are common in Ireland, but rarer in Scotland, and this is the first Scottish one that has been found complete with its matching top stone.

Carved Celtic cross on Canna; pieces have broken off and are now in the island museumThe island was bequeathed to the National Trust for Scotland by Gaelic folklorist John Lorne Campbell in 1981, and the organization maintains it as a conservation area. NTS ranger and Canna native Geraldine MacKinnon found the turn stone first in Canna’s graveyard. The round stone is approximately 10 inches in diameter and engraved with an early Christian cross. The NTS head of archaeology alerted manager Stewart Connor to the find and that it might be linked to a stone with the characteristic bullaun depression next to Canna’s Celtic Cross, an unusually carved stone cross that dates to the 9th or 10th century.

top stone and socketToo excited to wait until the next morning, Connor went out at 9:00 PM and found that the stone fits perfectly into the depression. Bullaun, despite their pre-Christian heritage, are often found next to early Christian churches, monasteries and artifacts like the Celtic Cross. Canna was owned by the monastery of Iona by 1203, and historians believe it may have belonged to Iona as early as the 7th century.

In Ireland, folklore attached magical significance to bullaun stones, such as the belief that rainwater collected in the stone’s hollow could have healing properties. The St Brigit’s Stone in County Cavan in Ireland was used as a “cursing stone”, and locals would turn the stone while cursing a sworn enemy.

Katherine Forsyth, based at the University of Glasgow and a leading expert in the history and culture of the Celtic-speaking peoples in the first millennium AD, said: “I couldn’t believe my eyes when I saw the first pictures of this beautiful stone. Stones like this are found in Ireland, where they are known as ‘cursing stones’, but this is the first to be discovered in Scotland. […] This exciting find provides important new insight into religious art and practice in early Scotland and demonstrates just how much there is still to be discovered out there.”

There are a number of archaeological remains on the island dating from this period, including a series of highly decorated cross shafts and the hermitage site Sgor Nam Ban-Naomha, or Skerry of the Holy Women, a remote location hidden below steep cliffs which was discovered in 1994.


The Fraterville Mine disaster of 1902

Saturday, May 19th, 2012

The entrance to the Fraterville Mine, 5/23/1902On May 19th, 1902, an explosion in the coal mine at Fraterville in Tennessee’s Coal Creek Valley claimed the lives of 216 men and boys. Only 184 of them were ever identified. It is the worst mining disaster in Tennessee history and one of the top five worst in the nation’s history.

Before that fateful day, the Fraterville Mine had been operating without incident for over 30 years. Its owner, former Union Major Eldad Cicero Camp, had been a U.S. District Attorney for Eastern Tennessee and was widely respected as someone who treated his employees fairly and ran as safe a shop as possible considering the inherent dangers of the job.

Major E.C. CampMajor Camp was one of the only industrialists who refused to utilize the state’s appalling convict leasing system, a post-Civil War pretext for Southern states to re-enslave African-Americans using the 13th Amendment which outlawed involuntary servitude except as punishment for crime. When the war was over, black men became targets of law enforcement, arrested for petty/fictional crimes so that they could be leased to private industry for a small fee and the cost of their upkeep. The latter was insignificant because the leased convicts were often starved to death when they weren’t beaten or worked to death, and the former was far cheaper than free workers.

Instead, Camp hired expert miners, most of them Welsh immigrants, and paid them in cash per tonnage, not company scrip, and never scammed them with credit schemes and company stores. Fraterville miners were members of the United Mine Workers of America within years of its creation in 1890. Excited by the opportunity to make real money and own their own homes, the miners often encouraged their family members to join them.

Camp’s son George had learned the mining trade by going down the shafts himself, so he knew the miners and the work intimately. He had been promoted to supervisor by the time of the explosion but was very much hands-on. Had he not returned home to get a coat because it started raining, he would have been in the mine when the explosion occurred.

Bodies of miners being loaded into a trainAccording to the Commissioner of Labor report, at 7:20 AM, no more than an hour after the miners had begun their work day, a thick billow of black smoke and particulate matter poured out of the mine entrance and ventilation shaft. Although the mine was reputed to be generally free of methane, some may have leaked from an abandoned, unventilated nearby mine which the Fraterville miners had recently tunneled into. (Perhaps not coincidentally, that mine had been worked by leased convicts.) Another possibility suggested at the time was that the Fraterville mine’s ventilation system had been negligently shut down over the weekend by the ventilation furnace operator, Tipton Hightower, allowing toxic gases to build up in the shafts. (George Camp vouched for his diligence and Hightower was later tried and acquitted of this charge.)

West Virginia coal miners and mules with open flame lamps, 1908Whatever the source of the gas, the miners’ oil wick lamps — open flames hooked into their hats — ignited it causing a massive explosion. That in turn ignited the coal dust, spreading the fire throughout the mine. George Camp organized a rescue party. They tried to go down the main shaft to find any survivors, but they only made it 200 feet when the afterdamp, a toxic mixture of gases produced by the explosion, forced them to turn back. It wasn’t until 4:00 that the rescue party was able to jury-rig a venting system and reach the main site of the explosion.

They found total devastation.

Brattices [(wood partitions erected in mines to help ventilate the shafts)] had been destroyed, and along the main entry the force of the explosion was terrific, [sic] timbers and cogs placed to hold a squeeze were blown out, mine cars, wheels, and doors were shattered, and bodies were dismembered. In other parts of the mine no heat or violence was shown, and suffocation had brought death to those whose bodies were found there.

Twenty-six miners survived the blast and immediate choking aftermath. They barricaded themselves in a side passage where the afterdamp and lack of oxygen slowly suffocated them to death. Some of them lived for at least seven hours. We know this because Jacob Vowell, Powell Harmon, John Hendren, Harry Beech, Scott Chapman, James Brooks, R.S. Brooks, George Hutson, Frank Sharp, and James Elliott all left heart-wrenching notes behind for their loved ones, some of which recorded the time. The letters were found on their bodies when the rescuers finally reached them.

Jacob Vowell with his daughter LillieJacob L. Vowell, husband of Sarah Ellen and father of seven children (one of whom, Eddie, had died in early childhood), penciled several notes as time passed. With him dying slowly was his 14-year-old son Harvey Elbert.

We are shut up in the head of the entry with of little air and the bad air is closing in on us fast and it is now about 12 o’clock. Dear Ellen, I have to leave you in bad condition. But dear wife, set your trust in the Lord to help you raise my little children. Ellen take care of my little darling Lily. Ellen, little Elbert said he had trusted in the Lord. Chas. Wood said he was safe if he never lives to see the outside again, he would meet his mother in heaven. If we never live to get out we are not hurt but only perished for air. There is but a few of us here and I don’t know where the other men is. Elbert said for you all to meet him in heaven, All the children meet with us both.

Ellen, darling Good Bye for us both. Elbert said the lord had saved him. Do the best you can with the children. We are all praying for air to support us but it is getting so bad without any air. Horace, Elbert said for you to wear his shoes and clothing. It is now 1/2 past 1.

Page of Jacob Vowell's notePowell Harmon’s watch is now in Andy Woods hand. Ellen, I want you to live right and come to heaven. Rais the children the best you can. O how I wish to be with you. Good Bye to all of you Good Bye. Burry me and Elbert in the same grave by little Eddy.
Good Bye Ellen
Good bye Lillie
Good bye Jimmie
Good bye Minnie
Good bye Horace

We are together. Is 25 minutes after Two. There is a few of us are alive yet
Good bye

Oh God for one more breath. Ellen, remember me as long as you live. Good Bye Darling

Ellen lost not just her husband and son, but also two brothers in the disaster. The entire community was devastated. Only three adult men were left alive in the town. Hundreds of women were widowed and between 800 and 1,000 children were orphaned.

Fraterville Miners' Circle in Leach CemeteryAll of the recovered bodies were laid out next to the railroad for the families to claim. Eighty-nine of the miners were buried in the Fraterville Miners’ Circle in Leach Cemetery. The obelisk in the center records all 184 names of the identified miners. Some of the other victims were buried at Longfield Cemetery.

The bodies of 30 itinerant miners remained unclaimed and were buried next to the railroad spur line, marked by fieldstones or not at all. That land would eventually become the backyard of Owen Bailey, a retired Briceville miner who is now 96 years old. When the non-profit Coal Creek Watershed Foundation was established in 2000, Bailey told them about the miners buried in his backyard.

On Friday morning, archaeologists from the University of Tennessee, accompanied by students from Briceville Elementary, used ground-penetrating radar to confirm his story.

The foundation has erected a historic marker next to the itinerant miners’ graveyard.

“Early Welch [sic] miners in the area had many superstitions, and spirits of the itinerant miners are said to still be calling for family members to identify them,” the marker reads.

“On a clear night when the wind is blowing and the moon is full, listen carefully and you may hear them whispering their names.”


George Eastman in glorious 1914 color

Friday, May 18th, 2012

There is a beautiful set of early Kodachrome color pictures in the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, including a portrait of George Eastman himself that was taken by photographer Joseph D’Anunzio in 1914 but looks like it could have been taken yesterday.

George Eastman, 1914

Impressive isn’t it? The flesh tones are particularly accurate. That was probably the strongest part of Kodak’s early experiments with the Kodachrome process, which entailed taking two glass plate photographs through green and orange-red filters, then dying the developed images and sandwiching them together with the emulsion sides in the middle. The process resulted in beautifully life-like skin and decent greens and reds, but could not produce a full spectrum of color.

The Eastman Kodak Company was trying with these Kodachrome experiments to create a color process that amateur photographers could master easily with limited equipment. The first attempts at color photography in the late 19th century required that three cameras with different color filters be used to record the identical subject. The three images would then be superimposed upon each other to produce a final picture.

In 1903, French inventors Auguste and Louis Lumière patented the Autochrome process which reduced the number of cameras to one, but it was far from amateur-friendly. Autochrome pictures were created using three batches of potato starch each dyed red-orange, violet or green. The starch was then applied to a newly varnished glass plate which was pressed through steel rollers to embed the colored starch particles into the surface. The gaps were filled with carbon black, the plate varnished again and brushed with a silver bromide emulsion. Once that was done, the photographer could put the plate in the camera and take a color picture. The subject had to sit completely still for 60 seconds, thus ensuring that the subjects were mainly landscapes, architecture and still lives.

Inside the Tower of Jewels at the Panama Pacific Exposition, 1915Despite its complexity, Autochrome appealed to photographers for the beautiful color and painterly look of the finished product. There are some gorgeous examples in the Photographic History Collection at the National Museum of American History. See some otherworldly views of the 1915 San Francisco Panama Pacific International Exposition here. Some of the Kodachrome portraits were on display at that same exposition.

Despite its facility with portraiture and the lack of dyed potato starch, the Kodachrome process with its limited color range couldn’t really compete with the full spectrum Autochrome. Eastman Kodak abandoned the process but kept working to find a new way to bring color to the photographic masses. In 1935 they succeeded, introducing the color Kodachrome film we analog old-timers remember well.

Speaking of groundbreaking old-timey photography, a Leica 0-Series camera, one of only 12 surviving 1923 prototypes of the Leica A, the first commercially successful camera to use 35mm film, sold at auction last Saturday at WestLicht Photographica in Vienna for a world record €2.16 million ($2.75 million).

Invented by optical engineer Oskar Barnack who worked in Leica’s microscope division, the Leica 0-series was the product of 15 years of trial and error. Barnack, an asthmatic and avid amateur photographer, wanted a lightweight camera with a collapsible lens that was easy to wield and could utilize 35mm film. Leica made 25 of them for testing and even though the feedback they got from photographers wasn’t entirely positive, in 1925 they took the plunge and built a first run of 1,000 Leica A cameras. By 1932, there were 90,000 of them sold.

1923 Prototype Leica 0-series sold for $2.8 million


Thousands watch as 19th c. shipwreck found in Gulf of Mexico

Thursday, May 17th, 2012

Copper sheathing from 19th c. shipwreck in the Gulf of MexicoScientists with the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) used remote-operated submersibles to discover a 19th century shipwreck in the northern Gulf of Mexico before an enthralled audience of 2000 watching via online streaming video. The wood of the hull had long since rotted away, but the high definition cameras captured gorgeous images of the surviving copper cladding that once protected the hull under the waterline. Cameras also revealed the anchor and a vast number of artifacts including cannons, boxes of muskets, glass bottles, ceramics and a rare ship’s stove that is one of very few surviving examples worldwide and only the second one ever found in the Gulf of Mexico.

Artifacts from the shipwreckThe ship’s name was not discovered, but the ceramic plates with a green pattern around the edges were popular between 1800 and 1830, and the copper sheathing suggests the ship dates to the first half of the 19th century, a busy time in the region. The War of 1812, the Mexican War for Independence, the Texas Revolution and the Mexican-American War all saw copious naval action in the Gulf during that period. The presence of muskets and cannons on board indicate that the ship was involved in wartime activities.

An anemone makes its home on a musketOne of the things that make this find so spectacularly photogenic is that the artifacts are perched on the sea floor, exposed to submersible view. The shipwreck site is deeper than 4,000 feet; it’s also 200 miles off the United States Gulf coast and the mouth of the Mississippi which is constantly depositing sediment into the Gulf. That not only makes for crisp images and exposed artifacts, but also allows researchers to figure out from the placement of the artifacts how the ship was used.

Until recently, the area has been relatively unexplored. The wreck first pinged in 2011 when the Shell Oil Company surveyed the area for sources of oil and gas. The sonar information was vague, but was of sufficient interest for Shell to alert the Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) of something worth exploring. The BOEM asked NOAA to investigate this site and others during its mapping and diving missions this spring.

Little Hercules spies squids mating on April 21The NOAA ship Okeanos Explorer set out for a 56-day mission in March of this year. They used multi-beam mapping sonar and a remotely operated submersible named “Little Hercules” to explore four potential shipwreck sites in the Gulf of Mexico. Little Hercules made a total of 29 dives, recording the wrecks and a great variety of underwater life, including some corals that the scientists watching on board and online had never seen before. This shipwreck was the last of the four and the most historically significant.

Now the BOEM has to decide whether to give Shell a permit for oil and gas exploration/extraction that will disturb the seafloor. Here’s hoping the natural and historical wealth documented by Little Hercules will remain unmolested.

Below is some of the footage the live viewers witnessed on Little Hercules’ April 26th dive, including the discovery of the anchor. For some truly jaw-dropping HD images of marine biodiversity captured during the mission, see NOAA’s photo and video log page. They are not to be missed, seriously.


Pretty Renaissance censorship

Wednesday, May 16th, 2012

Desiderius Erasmus by Hans Holbein, 1523Two books by Renaissance humanist par excellence Desiderius Erasmus at the University of Toronto provide drastically different and unusual examples of censorship, one of them crude, the other artistic, even beautiful.

Erasmus was a scholar and Roman Catholic priest born in Holland around 1466. Although he was critical of clerical excesses, he considered himself a committed Catholic and aimed to reform the institution from the inside using reason and scholarship. Nonetheless, his work had a powerful influence on the Protestant Reformation. His 1519 edition of the New Testament in Greek was used by Martin Luther for his seminal German translation, and Erasmus had a lively, warm correspondence with Luther for years until Erasmus’ rejection of some of Luther’s arguments and vocal support for doctrines like Church tradition as a source of revelation and the virginity of Mary enraged the choleric cleric.

Erasmus died of dysentery in 1536. His books remained popular with Catholics and Protestants alike, but the ecclesiastical authorities were less enamored of them, especially once the Counter-Reformation of the Church took root after the Council of Trent began in 1545. In 1559, Pope Paul IV took a moment between forcing Jews into ghettos and dying to put all of Erasmus’ books on the Index Librorum Prohibitorum. The censors sharpened their tools and got to work.

1541 "Adagiorum" censoredSaid tools were mainly the simple black pen. The 1541 edition of the Adagiorum (meaning “proverbs”), a collection of Greek and Latin proverbs with annotations by Erasmus cataloged just this month in the University of Toronto’s Thomas Fisher Library, is replete with crossed-out passages. "Adagiorum" title pageThe censor also appears to have written on the title page: “O Erasmus, you were the first to write the praise of folly, indicating the foolishness of your own nature.” That’s a wicked iceburn, you see, because Erasmus’ most famous book is In Praise of Folly, a satire of Church corruption among other follies. (We don’t know for certain that the same person did the censoring and the iceburning, but the ink does match.)

Pages glued together, leftThe censor didn’t stop there, though. He also tore out some pages and glued two other pages together. It was quality glue, too, because hundreds of years later those pages are still stuck together.

Another censor took an entirely different approach to silencing Erasmus. A 1538 edition of Erasmus’ annotated works of Saint Ambrose, Bishop of Milan, in the Centre for Renaissance and Reformation Studies at the University of Toronto, blots out the offending notes with beautiful blocks of watercolor paint decorated along the edges with scrollwork and even a putto, a little boy cherub.

Erasmus prettily erased from Saint Ambrose's writings More of Erasmus prettily erased from Saint Ambrose's writings

Perhaps this censor was a book lover who didn’t want to mar the work with ugly scribbles and missing pages. Perhaps he was more artist than prig. Perhaps he took more care because the book contains the religious writings of a Church father instead of a collection of pagan sayings. Whatever his reasons, he produced something quite lovely, almost making an illuminated manuscript out of a printed text. If censorship is inevitable, at least we can lie back and enjoy it.


‘Beau Sancy’ diamond sells for $9.7 million

Tuesday, May 15th, 2012

The "Beau Sancy" diamondTo nobody’s surprise, the beautiful and historic “Beau Sancy” diamond has sold for more than double the high pre-sale estimate at Sotheby’s Geneva Magnificent Jewels and Noble Jewels sale. The 35-carat modified pear double rose cut gemstone, which since the early 17th century has successively been part of the crown jewels of France, Holland, England, Prussia and the German Empire, was purchased by an anonymous telephone bidder for $9.7 million including buyer’s premium.

The diamond first entered the historical record in 1570 when it was purchased in Constantinople by diplomat, financier and jewel expert Nicolas de Harlay, Lord of Sancy. It was purchased by Henri IV of France for his wife Marie de Medici in 1604. From then until now, the “Beau Sancy” has never been in non-royal hands (as long as you consider the sellers, the House of Hohenzollern, still royal, even though their last scion to sit on a throne was Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany).

Five bidders from North America, Europe and Asia vied for the “Beau Sancy” and one of them won. Sotheby’s won’t disclose any more information than that, so sadly this probably means a stone that has been at the center of European royal history for more than 400 years has now been sucked into the black hole of private collections never to be seen again until the next public sale.

The Louvre's Apollo GalleryPerhaps we’ll get lucky and the buyer will loan it to the Louvre so it can be put on display in the Apollo Gallery along with its cousin the “Sancy” diamond, a 53-carat pale yellow shield-shaped modified brilliant cut that was once the center stone of the fleur-de-lis on top of Louis XV’s coronation crown. The “Sancy” was replaced by a replica in 1729 at the king’s command, and the Revolution and later French Republics looted, dispersed and sold the originals. After many vicissitudes, including decades of being hidden away in anonymous private collections, the “Sancy” found its way back home again when William Waldorf Astor, 4th Viscount Astor, sold it to the Louvre for one million dollars in 1978. So there’s hope that like its cousin, the “Beau Sancy” might end up in a museum, even though it could take a few centuries.

See the catalogue notes on Sotheby’s website for more details about the fascinating history of the “Beau Sancy” diamond. I found the information about the connection between the light-giving symbolism of royalty and the newly-invented cut particularly interesting:

The "Beau Sancy," side viewThe fact that the Beau Sancy was first worn by Marie de Medici in 1610 as the principle [sic] stone and centrepiece of her coronation crown indicates very clearly the importance of the diamond at this time as the supreme emblem of Royalty. On a symbolic level, diamonds are associated with the sun, our “Daystar”, the dynamic centre of our cosmos and thus the source of all life and light. What better stone therefore could be used to illustrate the parallel with the position and central role of the Monarch within his Kingdom? Indeed, later the same century, King Louis XIV would go a step further and call himself “Le Roi Soleil”.

The Beau Sancy, which was cut and polished towards the end of the 16th century, exhibits the first attempts to liberate the ‘fire’ inherent in the stone – a property of diamond so familiar and so admired today, but which, due to the absolute hardness of the crystal which rendered cutting so difficult, had only just begun to be exploited. By the use of the newly-developed ‘rose’ style of cutting, which employed a myriad of triangular facets covering the entire surface of the crystal, the light which entered the stone was reflected and dispersed, broken up on the way into the colours of the rainbow. This was totally new.


Ancient Peruvian skulls found under Florida pool

Monday, May 14th, 2012

Dr. Jan Garavaglia and Dr. John Schultz discuss the two skulls discovered during Winter Garden, Florida pool constructionIn January, a plumber installing pump pipes for an in-ground pool in the backyard of a one-year-old house in Winter Garden, Florida found a piece of bone in the sand. He reported it to the police who brought the fragment to Orange-Osceola County Medical Examiner Dr. Jan Garavaglia. She determined that the bone had come from the face of a child of around 10 years. There was some mummified tissue still attached to the bone, which concerned her because most archaeological remains are devoid of any tissue. She informed police that there might be a recently dead child illegally buried on the work site.

Ancient Peruvian pottery shards found during Winter Garden pool constructionUniversity of Central Florida archaeologist Dr. John Schultz worked with the forensic specialists to ensure the site was handled as an archaeological dig instead of just as a pure crime scene. They didn’t find the remains of a murdered child, but they did find two crania, a dozen shards of pottery, bits of newspaper from 1978, textiles including an embroidered purse still carrying woven slings and a netted bag with a strap made out of non-human hair. When Dr. Garavaglia X-rayed the skulls, she and Dr. Schultz were able to confirm that they were at least hundreds of years old.

Ancient Peruvian purse found during Winter Garden pool constructionThe skulls belonged to an adult male and a child, and they both had “Inca bones,” a triangular interparietal bone that sometimes develops where the posterior fontanelle used to be. It’s not exclusive to them, but it is highly characteristic of Peruvian mummies, particularly Andean Inca tribes between 1200 and 1597 A.D. Researchers identified the style of the pottery and textiles as coming from the Chancay culture of coastal Peru. Their dates are in keeping with the Inca bone period, between 1200 and 1470 A.D.

From front to back: purse, slings, netted bag with hair strap, newspaper fragmentsAt this point it became clear that the Winter Garden swimming pool was a secondary burial site. Someone had placed these artifacts in the ground after March 16, 1978 (the date of the newspaper), but who and exactly when remains a mystery. We do know that the land which is now a subdivision used to be a camp for migrant orange pickers. For thirty years until the mid-1980s, migrants from all over Central America and the Caribbean lived in wooden barracks in the area. It’s possible that the remains and artifacts could have been buried by one of those migrant workers, perhaps as part of a religious ritual, perhaps for safekeeping. It’s also possible that tourists brought them back from a trip to South America, although the purchase and removal of archaeological artifacts has been illegal in Peru since the early 20th century.

Developers bought the land and built it into a subdivision four years ago. They had to grade it extensively in order to build the orderly houses and streets, so it’s an incredible stroke of luck that they missed the spot that happened to contain ancient human remains and incredibly delicate textiles. Then the house was built on the property just a year ago, and they fortuitously missed the spot too.

The bones and artifacts will remain at the Medical Examiner’s office for now. Dr. Schultz intends to study them extensively with an eye to publishing the results so they can be used as examples for future crime scene/archaeological finds. The ultimate goal, however, is to return the pieces to Peru.


Seventh-graders find 900-year-old pot on a field trip

Sunday, May 13th, 2012

A group of seventh graders from Sandia Preparatory School in Albuquerque made the discovery of a lifetime on a field trip to the El Malpais National Conservation Area near Grants, New Mexico. They were exploring the lava tube caves as part of the school’s Outdoor Leadership Program when students spotted a pot underneath a pile of rocks. They didn’t touch it or disturb it, but they could see that it was a cream-colored pot with a complex pattern of black zigzags and dashes all around.

One of the parents was knowledgeable about the laws regarding Native American artifacts, so the group left the pot in place and reported it to the U.S. National Park Service who in turn alerted the New Mexico Bureau of Land Management which protects and manages the 13 million acre conservation zone.

A previously discovered pot from the Mimbres subset of Mogollon culture, Deming Luna Mimbres Museum, Deming, New MexicoBLM archaeologists removed the pot this week. It is 18 inches high and 14 to 16 inches wide, and was discovered almost intact. Because of this stroke of good luck, archaeologists were able to determine from its size, shape and decoration that the pot is between 800 and 1,000 years old, possibly the work of the Mogollon culture which inhabited the area from 150 to 1400 A.D. It is a major find and the first significant piece discovered on New Mexico Bureau of Land Management land in ten years.

Donna Hummel of the BLM said the find could be unique and the students may not fully understand its importance. “This is very significant. We hope they appreciate that this could be a once in a lifetime discovery,” said Humme.

When told that the pot could be around 900-years-old, students expressed amazement.

“That’s crazy. I think we were probably some of the first people to see so that’s really cool,” seventh-grader Cole Schoepke said.

The Bureau has yet to release any photographs of the pot because they want to consult with the surrounding pueblos first, but there’s a charming interview with some of the students who made the discovery in this TV news story.


Rare medieval trepanned skulls found in Spain

Saturday, May 12th, 2012

Trepanned woman's skull found in SoriaTwo skulls from the 13th and 14th centuries have been unearthed in a cemetery in Soria, north-central Spain. The skulls each have a hole in them from trepanation, the oldest surgical procedure known.

Trepanation involves the removal of a piece of skull by scraping or cutting with a sharp tool and has been practiced at least since the early Neolithic 10,000 years ago. It was common in prehistoric and ancient Europe, but there’s considerably less evidence for it in the Middle Ages, possibly due to a philosophical rejection of surgery in favor of “pure medicine” like leeches sucking the bad humours out of people along with their blood. In some parts of Europe, for example modern Hungary, the practice almost entirely disappears from the historical record after the onset of Christianity.

Thus researchers from the Universities of Oviedo and Leon were surprised when they found two trepanned skulls in the medieval San Miguel hermitage cemetery. They were even more surprised when they found that one of the skulls belonged to a woman. Even when trepanation was widely performed, most of the patients were men.

The two skulls found in the cemetery in Soria belong to a male between 50 and 55 years and a woman between 45 and 50 years. The expert points out that “another interesting aspect of this finding is that trepanation in women is considered rare throughout all periods in history. In Spain, only 10% of those trepanned skulls found belonged to women.”

Diagram of the trepanned skullsThe trepanation technique differs in each of the skulls. The skull of the male has been grooved with a sharp object and it is unknown whether trepanation occurred before or after his death. López Martínez confirms that “if the procedure took place whilst still alive, there is no sign of regeneration and the subject did not survive.”

In the woman, a scraping technique was used while she was still alive. According to the researchers, she survived for a “relatively long” amount of time afterwards given that the wound scarring is advanced.

Trepanation was performed to repair skull fractures by removing the fragmented section, and has a solid record of effectiveness as emergency surgery on head wounds. (It is still used today, in fact, to clear bone pieces and relieve subdural hematoma.) It was perhaps less effective as a remedy for a variety of other conditions like seizure disorders and mental illness.






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