Archive for May, 2012

Oldest Maya calendar found in Guatemala

Friday, May 11th, 2012

Conservator Angelyn Bass cleans and stabilizes Maya muralArchaeologists mapping the Classic period (200 to 900 A.D.) Maya city of Xultun in northeast Guatemala have discovered a room painted with murals including hundreds of numbers and astronomical tables that are the oldest Maya calendar calculations ever found. The calendar dates to 813 or 814 A.D., which we know so precisely because the inscribers generously dated their work. Before this discovery, the earliest calendrical calculations known to survive the bonfires of the post-Columbian missionaries were in the 11th-12th century Dresden Codex. There is enough overlap with the calendar texts in the Dresden Codex that it’s likely they both relied on earlier texts that have not survived, or at least not been found yet.

Maya astronomical calendar found at Xultun, GuatemalaThe hieroglyphs include columns of numbers reflecting the 260-day ceremonial calendar, the 365-day solar calendar, the 584-day cycle of Venus and the 780-day cycle of Mars. Tables track the phases of the moon, and some calculations appear to be attempts to reconcile the lunar and solar calendars. In a touching link to educators 1200 years later, there are numbers painted in red that correct the calculations painted in black next to them.

The real headline-grabber is that the calendar counts through 17 Bak’tuns. That’s a total of 7,000 years and takes us far past our current 13th Bak’tun cycle which is scheduled to end on December 23rd of this year in the fiery apocalypse that will destroy us all. How convenient that “scholars” and “experts” who have always claimed that the Maya 2012 apocalypse notion is a ludicrous misinterpretation of Maya calendar cycles find four more cycles JUST IN THE NICK OF TIME.

Entrance to mural-bedecked Xultun dwellingThe calendar is not the only uniquely important aspect of this find. The murals are painted on the walls and ceiling of a small dwelling. It’s a room about six and a half feet wide, six feet long and 10 feet tall. This is the first time murals have been found somewhere that is not a temple or palace. Also, the room was filled in an unusual way, from the inside backing out through the doorway. Usually the Maya just flattened the roof of a building when they were done with it, and then built on top of that. The peculiar filling approach taken with this room ensured that the paintings on three of the four walls plus the ceiling were preserved.

The archaeologists working on the site never expected that. Boston University undergraduate Maxwell Chamberlain was looking into an old looting trench during his lunch break when he saw some faded paint on the wall. BU archaeologist and team leader William Saturno figured it was worth exploring the chamber in case there was any paint left, but he assumed there’d be only traces at best so they’d just map the room and perhaps be able to figure out its dimensions at the time the murals were painted.

Xultun muralInstead they pulled a Howard Carter and found an archaeological treasure trove (minus the gold). In addition to the calendar hieroglyphs on the east and north walls, they found several unusual murals. On the north wall:

An off-center niche in the wall features a painting of a seated king, wearing blue feathers. A long rod made of bone mounted on the wall allowed a curtain to be pulled across the king’s portrait, hiding it and revealing a well-preserved painting of a man whose image is wrapped around the wall; he is depicted in vibrant orange and holds a pen. Maya glyphs near his face call him “Younger Brother Obsidian,” a curious title seldom seen in Maya text. Based on other Maya sites, Saturno theorizes he could be the son or younger brother of the king and possibly the artist-scribe who lived in the house. “The portrait of the king implies a relationship between whoever lived in this space and the royal family,” Saturno said.

On the west wall:

Artist's recreation of the three painted menThree male figures loom on this wall, all of them seated and painted in black, wearing only white loincloths, medallions around their necks and identical single-feathered, miter-style head dresses. “We haven’t seen uniform head dresses like that anywhere before,” Saturno said. “It’s clearly a costume of some kind.” One of the figures is particularly burly, “like a sumo wrestler,” and he is labeled “Older Brother Obsidian.” Another is labeled as a youth.

Saturno thinks the room was a writing room, a study for Maya scribes. The figure holding a pen indicates a connection to scribes and the repetition of hieroglyphs on the east wall complete with corrections in red suggests that the calculations could have been practice for later work in the formal halls of religious and political power.

The discovery has been published in the May issue of the journal Science (subscription only). There’s a fascinating interview with Saturno in the latest Science podcast.

Pictures are courtesy of National Geographic which sponsored the expedition. Their website has an awesome gigapixel zoomable image of the mural here.

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WWII fighter plane found preserved in the Sahara

Thursday, May 10th, 2012

RAF Kittyhawk P-40 in the SaharaA Kittyhawk P-40 that crashed in the Sahara desert on June 28, 1942 has been found in remarkably good condition by Polish oil company employee Jakub Perka. Perka was exploring the desert west of the Nile 200 miles from the nearest city when he found the downed plane. It was damaged from the crash landing and bears scars from flak encounters, but other than that, the single-seater fighter plane appears to have been frozen in time by the desert heat.

Kittyhawk P-40 cockpitThe identification plates were undamaged, so military historians were able to identify it as a Royal Air Force plane piloted by Flight Sergeant Dennis Copping. Copping was part of the RAF’s 260 Squadron fighting German General Erwin Rommel’s forces’ advance towards Egypt. On June 28th, Copping was ordered to fly a damaged but functioning Kittyhawk to another airbase in Egypt for repairs. He went off course and was neither seen nor heard from again.

Military historians are confident the Kittyhawk found in the desert was the one flown by Ft Sgt Copping, based on identification numbers and letters on the plane.

It was documented at the time that there was a fault with its front landing gear which would not retract and the photographic evidence suggests the aircraft had its front wheel down when it crashed.

According to experts, a plane making a controlled crash landing in the desert wouldn’t have its landing gear down and would belly-flop on the sand.

There is also flak damage in the fuselage, which is also consistent with documented evidence of Ft Sgt Copping’s plane.

The removed radioNo human remains were discovered at the crash site. There is evidence that the pilot survived and tried to make a shelter from the baking sun out of his parachute. The radio and battery were also removed from the airplane, suggesting the pilot tried to get it in working order so he could send out an SOS. Had he died in the crash or while working nearby, his body would have been found, so he probably starting walking as a last resort. Kittyhawk bullet magazineHis remains could be anywhere within a 20 mile radius. The British Ministry of Defense plans to search the area, but the odds of finding Flight Sergeant Copping are very slim.

Meanwhile, after 70 years of untouched rest, the wreck itself is now in danger. The Egyptian military has removed all the weapons and bullets for safety reasons, but the real danger is locals peeling parts off to sell as scrap. The wreck is close to a smuggling route between Sudan and Libya, and now that the word is out that the plane is there, some people have taken detours to strip pieces of it.Kittyhawk P-40 tail

The Ministry of Defense is working with the RAF Museum to recover the plane. Because of the location of the wreck, the search and recovery teams will need to be escorted by the Egyptian army. Coordination is a challenge, to say the least, and the clock is ticking.


For more pictures, see the Telegraph’s photo gallery and Jakub Perka’s Picasa album.

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The most brilliant printmaker you’ve never heard of

Wednesday, May 9th, 2012

River valley with a waterfall; second state with landscape burnished and added trial lines. Etching and sugar-lift, printed in blue ink, with grey and brown watercolourThis is the last week of the British Museum’s exhibition of its impressive collection of etchings by Hercules Segers. Hercuwho, you might well ask, as did I when I first encountered him on the British Museum website. Short answer: Hercules Pieterszoon Segers (ca. 1589 – ca. 1638) was an incredibly innovative Dutch printmaker and painter during the Golden Age of Dutch art. He experimented with printing media in such radical ways that he was centuries ahead of his time. His imaginary landscapes of craggy mountains and desolate valleys printed on colored paper in colored ink look like something J.M.W. Turner might have painted two hundred years later, or rather, like texturized, color-washed, inverted negatives of something Turner might have painted two hundred years later.

Tobias and the Angel print by SegersSegers’ prints still look incredibly fresh, possibly because they’ve been so seldom seen since his popularity ebbed shortly after his death around 1638. He was better known by his contemporaries for his paintings which were collected by Dutch masters Rembrandt van Rijn and Jan van de Cappelle. Rembrandt was a particular fan. Only a dozen of Segers’ paintings are known today, and Rembrandt owned eight of them.

Rembrandt also collected Segers’ prints, which inspired his own far more famous etchings. One of Rembrandt’s etchings, in fact, was more than inspired by Segers’ work; it was built on it. Flight into Egypt, Rembrandt reworking of Segers' originalRembrandt acquired one of Segers’ original copper plates, Tobias and the Angel, and reworked the figures into a Flight into Egypt. He made small changes to the landscape (mainly the copse of trees behind the Holy Family), but kept much of it the same, because the greatest of the Dutch Golden Age painters knew that there was no improving on the original.

Distant view with a mossy branch, second state with drypoint hatching, etching, sugar-lift, tinted in dark-blue ink on ochre-tinted paper, brushed with white, blue and pink, touched with red and green watercolourThere are only 183 of Segers’ known prints extant, made from 54 original plates. Unlike Rembrandt, Dürer, Goya and every other printmaker you can name, Segers never made large print runs, and every single impression is different. Some of them are vastly different. He used colored ink printed on paper he dyed himself, sometimes running the paper and plate through the press with fabric to apply texture to the print. Sometimes he printed directly onto fabric. Once the print was pressed, he would hand-paint different details on each piece and often dipped the finished composition in a tint. Nobody else did this. He also experimented with different crops and cuttings, bringing a whole new focus to individual prints.

The results are so unprintlike that art historians have dubbed them “printed paintings,” and indeed his actual paintings are so small that they are about the same size as his large prints, so he blurred the demarcation line between print and paint in more ways than one.

He utilized existing printmaking techniques in new and startling ways, but he also broke entirely new ground. From the British Museum pdf about Segers:

The Two Trees, cropped aquatint in brown ink on paper prepared with pink and broad brushstrokes of blue bodycolourHis greatest invention was undoubtedly the process of lift-ground etching (also known as sugar-lift or sugar-bite etching, sugar aquatint or pen method). Although no accounts by Segers of his working methods have survived, it is assumed that he used a sugar solution to draw a composition on a copper-plate either with a pen or even with a brush, as some of the lines are quite broad. The plate was then probably covered with a thin, resinous ground and bathed in hot water which made the sugar granules swell causing the ground to blister off where the design had been applied. The plate would then have been treated as usual: the exposed copper-plate bitten in an acid bath, inked and subsequently printed. The resulting lines have a granulated surface, similar to aquatint which was a later invention. This technique, allowing the artist to apply defined lines with a brush, was not practiced again until the 18th century.

I checked my copy of H.W. Janson’s classic reference tome History of Art (mine is the Fifth Edition published in 1995) and Segers is not even mentioned in passing in the entire 1000 pages. Alexander Cozens, on the other hand, a fairly conventional British landscape watercolorist and printmaker who gets the credit for inventing aquatint over a century after Segers’ related invention, has six pages in the index.

Segers’ genius began to get recognition again in the 19th century, when major purchases by the British Museum and the Rijksmuseum (click links for pictures of the museums’ Segers collections) put his work before a broader audience. Even so, the current exhibition at the British Museum is the first time all of their Segers etchings have been put on display as a group, and most of them have never been on display at all. If you’re in London, get thee to the BM stat.

Piles of Books; unique composition gives impression of casually arranged books

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Ancient plaque buildup a boon to archaeology

Tuesday, May 8th, 2012

Thick plaque buildup on ancient teeth; photo by G. Richard Scott, University of Nevada, RenoIn the centuries before flossing, fluoride and Waterpiks became standard in human populations, tartar would build up on teeth in layers, sometimes creating dental superstructures of majestically disgusting size; see the technicolor example on the right. Now researchers from the University of Nevada, Reno have discovered that small samples of plaque removed from the teeth of ancient human remains can reveal information about the food they once chewed.

Analysis of stable isotopes like oxygen, strontium, lead, carbon and nitrogen performed on teeth and bone can provide a wealth of detail about ancient diet and migration, but the analysis requires the destruction of the sample. Museum curators are obviously not keen to allow destructive procedures on the remains in their charge, but since dental calculus is technically an accretion on the body, scraping off bits of it and destroying them doesn’t count.

[Researcher G. Richard] Scott obtained samples of dental calculus from 58 skeletons buried in the Cathedral of Santa Maria in northern Spain dating from the 11th to 19th centuries to conduct research on the diet of this ancient population. After his first methodology met with mixed results, he decided to send five samples of dental calculus to Poulson at the University’s Stable Isotope Lab, in the off chance they might contain enough carbon and nitrogen to allow them to estimate stable isotope ratios.

“It’s chemistry and is pretty complex,” Scott explained. “But basically, since only protein has nitrogen, the more nitrogen that is present, the more animal products were consumed as part of the diet. Carbon provides information on the types of plants consumed.”

Scott said that once at the lab, the material was crushed, and then an instrument called a mass spectrometer was used to obtain stable carbon and nitrogen isotope ratios.

“It was a long shot,” he said. “No one really thought there would be enough carbon and nitrogen in these tiny, 5- to 10- milligram samples to be measurable, but Dr. Poulson’s work revealed there was. The lab results yielded stable carbon and nitrogen isotope ratios very similar to studies that used bone collagen, which is the typical material used for this type of analysis.”

Extracting collagen requires dissolving the bone samples in multiple acid baths. It’s time-consuming, dangerous, expensive and highly destructive. Scraping off a small amount of plaque from thousand-year-old dental stalactites is quick and easy. Then all you have to do is grind it up and put it in the mass spectrometer to find the stable isotope ratios. If this procedure turns out to be repeatable and accurate, our long, scabrous history of poor dental hygiene will finally have meaning.

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Glass plates of India under the Raj found in shoebox

Monday, May 7th, 2012

Probable pilgrim with cow and calf, Kolkata ca. 1912A heretofore unknown collection of 178 glass plate negatives taken in India during the heyday of the British Raj were found in a shoebox in the archives of the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland (RCAHMS) in Edinburgh. The negatives were still in their original five-by-eight-inch plate boxes which were wrapped in pages from 1914 issues of the English-language Indian newspaper The Statesman and then placed gingerly in a box that once held a pair of grey, size 9 Peter Lord loafers.

Tintin guy plays tennisThe pictures document daily life in India, mainly Calcutta (today known as Kolkata) in 1912. There are pilgrims at a religious festival, street fairs, riverside villages, portraits of nameless pith-helmeted British types, and spectacular night views of the city lights, among many other subjects. (Doesn’t the sporting gent at right look just like Tintin?) All of the images are in pristine condition. RCAHMS thinks the glass plates remained untouched since they were wrapped in 1914 newspaper (possibly in 1914), thus keeping the delicate negatives from degrading.

Kolkata lit at night for the 1911/1912 Royal visitIn December of 1911, King George V and Queen Mary traveled to India for the Delhi Durbar, an opulent ceremony proclaiming them Emperor and Empress of India. This was the only time a British monarch was actually present at Durbar, and the only time a British monarch visited India as her emperor. After the ceremony, they toured other cities of the subcontinent, including Calcutta right before and after the New Year. Hobbs & Co store, Kolkata, welcomes their majesties, 1911/1912There are some amazing pictures in the collection showing the city decked out in welcome, documentation as historically significant as it is beautiful given that George V had unexpectedly announced at the Durbar that the capital of India would be moved from Calcutta to Delhi.

RCAHMS has no idea where the pictures came from or who the photographer was. They theorize that the pictures could have been taken by a British civil servant stationed in Calcutta, or by a Scotsman involved in the jute trade. In the early part of the 20th century, there was a thriving trade in raw Indian jute fibers between Calcutta and Dundee, Scotland. River or lakeside village, location unknownFactories owned by formidable local industrialists known as the Jute Barons spun the raw jute fibers into a plethora of consumer products like twine and burlap bags. There was enough of a Scottish community in Raj-era Calcutta that they had their own cemetery which has recently been restored and documented.

RCAHMS architectural historian Clare Sorensen said, “We don’t know for sure how the negatives came to be in our collection. We receive archive material from countless different sources, from architectural practices to generous donations from the public, and sometimes take large amounts of material in at once, and often documentation for historical deposits does not exist.

“Over time all this new material will be inspected and catalogued as part of our collection and then made available to the public. It’s fantastic that a small shoe-box contained such a treasure-trove of photographic imagery, but in some ways it’s not unsual [sic]. Our experience as an archive has shown us that some of the most interesting discoveries can be made in the most unlikely of places.”

The entire collection has been digitized and is very much worth a browse. They’ve also put a selection of 40 highlights in this gallery.

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Earliest runes in central Germany found on comb

Sunday, May 6th, 2012

Deer antler comb with runic inscription, ca. 3rd century A.D.Archaeologists excavating the Iron Age site of Frienstedt, near Erfurt in central Germany, discovered a 5-inch wide comb with runes engraved on it. The comb dates to the 3rd century A.D., which makes the runes on it the earliest Germanic writing found in central Germany and the southernmost runes known.

Carved from deer antler, the comb was discovered in a sacrificial pit broken into pieces during an excavation that took place between 2000 and 2003. The pieces were stored for later analysis. Scientists cleaned the fragments then painstakingly put them back together to find a runic inscription spelling “kaba,” pronounced “kamba” and the equivalent of the modern German word for comb, “kamm.”

Rune detail "kama" runes

It’s apparently an important linguistic discovery because it’s an instance of a masculine word ending in “a” very early in the history of Germanic language. It’s a newly discovered step in the evolution from Proto-Germanic (spoken in the first century B.C.) and the West Germanic language family whence sprang today’s German, Dutch and parts of English.

Sacrificial pit, "Kamm" marker where comb was foundArchaeologists have excavated about half of the Friendstedt Iron Age site. The site was occupied from the 1st to the 5th century A.D. Radiocarbon dating of pottery found in the sacrificial pit along with the comb fragments date it to right in the middle of the site’s occupation: the 3rd century A.D.

The remains discovered include inhumation graves, evidence of a center of cult worship and Roman bronze artifacts a full 125 miles from the frontier. It seems likely the bronze objects were obtained north of Roman territory and then recycled by Germanic smiths. A brooch from Gotland was also discovered on the site, testifying to local interaction with Scandinavian traders up north as well as Romano-Germans down south.

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Did Nordic Bronze Age tribes copy Egyptian stools?

Saturday, May 5th, 2012

Folding chair from the Tomb of Kha, Deir el-Medina, Egypt, ca. 1400 B.C.Folding stools built on a cross-frame are depicted on the walls of Egyptian tombs going back 4,000 years, and on Mesopotamian seals 500 years before that. By the time of the New Kingdom (ca. 1550-1070 B.C.), folding chairs were ubiquitous in the upper echelons of Egyptian society. Two were found in Tutankhamun’s tomb, including one with an additional back piece so elaborately decorated and inlaid it is known as his throne, and many others have been discovered in the tombs of officials such as Kha, a foreman of works at Deir El-Medina under the reign of several pharaohs.

Although the x-frame design — a pin acting as a hinge between two crossed slats with animal skin or fabric stretched across the top for a seat — is among the simplest of furniture shapes, they were symbols of status and importance to the Egyptians. They ensured that even while on the move, the big shots got to sit up higher than everyone else who had to stand or sit on the ground. In Egypt women are never depicted sitting on a folding stool (rigid stools and chairs, yes, folding stools, no), although there are murals from around the same time (16th century B.C.) in the Palace of Knossos on Crete depicting aristocratic women sitting on x-frame chairs. Through the centuries, the form continued to be used by the likes of Augustus Caesar, medieval abbesses and Ming emperors.

It’s no surprise that the Egyptian cross-frame design spread far and wide over thousands of years, but what is surprising is that the Germanic and Nordic tribes of Bronze Age Europe were making x-frame folding stools as early as 1400 B.C., in parallel with New Kingdom Egyptians. The remains of at least 20 folding stools from the Bronze Age have been found north of the Elbe River in Germany and what is now Denmark. They are locally produced, so not imports from way down south.

Some historians think the tribal artisans came up with the folding stool form independently, but archaeologists Bettina Pfaff and Barbara Grodde have a different theory: Germanic furniture makers copied Egyptian ones. They posit that the chairs are so similar to each other in design, materials and dimension that the Nordic models must have been copies of Egyptian originals.

There were extensive trade networks supplying the elites with luxury goods from Northern Europe to Greece. Objects and raw materials were transferred from one area to the next by traders through a kind of relay system. The Bronze Age folding chairs, however, don’t follow the usual pattern. You find them in Egypt and you find them in northern Europe, but you don’t find them anywhere in between.

Is it possible, then, that a northern trader made the long journey from the Baltic Sea to Egypt, stole the design and brought it back home? As farfetched as the idea might seem, it is certainly plausible. Archaeologists have recently concluded that there were long-distance scouts more than 3,000 years ago who brought tin from Germany’s Erz Mountains all the way to Sweden. They probably traveled in oxcarts on dirt roads. Such ancient caravans probably also traveled along southern routes heading toward Africa.

Scholars are also determining the dates of such knowledge transfers. Egypt became a major power under Thutmose III (1479 to 1426 B.C.), whose armies reached the borders of modern-day Turkey. This changed the flows of goods. Even the Greek mainland fell under the spell of the pharaohs.

Bronze Age folding chair found in Bechelsdorf, Schleswig-HolsteinIt was precisely at this time that a messenger from the North Sea coast could have been in Egypt and copied the chair’s design onto papyrus. Starting in 1400 B.C., the stools started being made in the far north and abruptly became fashionable. It appears that every prince of the moors was suddenly determined to have one of the new thrones from the south.

Craftsmen copied the exotic chairs down to the last detail. They often used oak or ash for the frame. A particularly fine piece discovered in Bechelsdorf, in the northern German state of Schleswig-Holstein, has elaborate ornamentation, with decorative metal tassels that chime and a deerskin seat.

Artifacts found in the Bronze Age burial at Guldhøj, JutlandThe only complete Nordic Bronze Age folding chair discovered thus far was discovered in 1891 from a barrow named Guldhøj (Gold Hill) near Vamdrup in Southern Jutland. Three oak coffins were found in the barrow, one looted in the Bronze Age, one belonging to a child, and the third holding a man wearing a woven jacket, leather shoes, a hat and the remnant of a mitten. Buried with him were a bronze weapon axe, a bronze dagger in a scabbard, a bronze pin, a turned wooden bowl decorated with hammered tin tacks, a box of bark, a horn spoon, and lying at his feet, a cross-frame folding stool.

The chair is made of ash wood carved with patterns inlaid with black pitch. The seat is otter skin, although only a small part of it has survived. Dendrochronological analysis of the oak coffin dates the burial to 1389 B.C. The folding chair is a little older, from the second half of the 1400s B.C. The chair and the tin-decorated bowl indicate the deceased was a man of wealth and importance.

Pfaff believes that the Egyptian-style folding stools weren’t just for temporal leaders like chieftains and princes. Many of them were discovered in “poorly furnished graves” rather than in the burials of the wealthy political elite. She thinks these people may have been spiritual leaders or medicine men, so invested with social importance but not necessarily riches.

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A lovely little Medieval treasure

Friday, May 4th, 2012

Last June 11th, metal detector enthusiast Stan Cooper was exploring a spot by a stream in a farmer’s field near Sandbach, Cheshire when his machine signaled. He dug four or five inches down and discovered a small object that was so encrusted with dirt he couldn’t identify exactly what it was, but it seemed to him it was made of a precious metal. After ten minutes in an ultrasonic cleaner, the artifact revealed itself to be a small, exquisitely detailed gold brooch.

Medieval brooch next to pound coinCooper has been metal detecting for 20 years, but he’s never found anything like this. It’s an annular (or ring style) brooch just a little bit larger than a pound coin. The outer frame is shaped like a heart and has a gold pin bisecting it vertically. The bottom half of the heart has been crafted in the shape of two be-sleeved lower arms that come together at the point with two clasped hands.

The sleeves are decorated with studs along the edges, possibly meant to suggest buttons, that start larger up top and get smaller toward the wrist, but each sleeve is also different from the other. Looking at the brooch from the front, the left hand has a shorter sleeve that stops at the wrist, while the right sleeve covers the upper hand and is trumpet shaped. The length and style of the sleeves suggest that the right hand is female, the left male. The end of the pin fits in the palm of the male hand.

Medieval gold annular brooch front (right) and back (left)

Cooper had two weeks to kill before having to report it to his local archaeological authority, so he did some research. He thought the workmanship identified it as pre-Victorian and discovered that the clasped hands design has been found from Roman-era pieces right through the medieval period.

He then turned it in to Peter Reavill of the Portable Antiquities Scheme who identified it as a high quality gold jewel from the late Middle Ages (1350-1450 A.D.), probably meant to be a betrothal gift. It is unique. Heart shaped brooches have been found dating to the later Middle Ages. The combination of the heart shape with the clasped hands is most unusual, and no other brooches have been found with the three distinctive elements adorning this one: the heart shape, the hands and the detailed sleeves.

He designated it a find of regional importance and it was sent to the British Museum for examination and authentication. They confirmed its medieval dating and treasure status. At this point, the Crown has the opportunity to claim the piece for the national patrimony. A coroner’s inquest ensues to declare it treasure, determine the market value and offer it for purchase to local and national museums who might want to add it to their collections. In this case, however, the Crown disclaimed it as treasure, probably because no museum vied for the small piece, and thus it has been returned to Stan Cooper.

He is putting it up for auction at Adam Partridge Auctioneers & Valuers in Macclesfield, Cheshire. The pre-sale estimate is £25,000 (ca. $40,000). Cooper will share all proceeds from the sale with the farmer who owns the field in which the lovely little treasure was found.

Medieval gold annular brooch, multiple views

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Ancient blood, muscle, tendons on knives in Mexico

Thursday, May 3rd, 2012

It’s raining ancient blood, Hallelujah! A research team from Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH) and the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM) has found blood cells, muscle tissue, tendons, skin and hair on 31 2000-year-old obsidian knives from the ancient Cantona site in the central Mexico state of Puebla. This is the first definitive proof that human sacrifice was practiced in a Mesoamerican culture 1000 years before the Aztecs.

Ancient images showed priests using knives in blood-letting ceremonies and cuts found on bones suggested ritual dismemberment, but they couldn’t conclusively prove human sacrifice. Finding a large number of ancient knives with a variety of human tissues on them from the Cantona culture is strong evidence that there was a systematic ritualized practice of killing people.

INAH researcher Louisa Mainou first detected traces of human blood on a sacrificial knife from the site of Zethé in the state of Hidalgo, eastern Mexico, back in 1992. She continued to examine pieces archaeologists brought to the INAH lab and found more human remains, but they had to combine results from several different finds to get anything more than tiny trace material.

The set of 31 obsidian knives were found together at Cantona, an important religious center for the local pre-Hispanic culture. Mainou’s team received them from the archaeologists who excavated them two years ago. An initial examination found tiny spots on the obsidian. The knives were scanned inch by inch with a stereo microscope. They found that the spots were composed of what appeared to be blood cells, but they needed stronger technology to be sure.

They removed some test spots with different scalpels for each obsidian knife and made samples for a scanning electron microscope which could see the substances in higher magnification and analyze their chemical makeup.

With help from specialists at Mexico’s National Autonomous University, they were studied under the scanning electronic microscope and found to contain red blood cells, collagen, tendon and muscle fiber fragments.

While historical accounts from Aztec times, as well as drawings and paintings from earlier cultures, had long suggested that priests used knives and other instruments for non-life-threatening bloodletting rituals, the presence of the muscle and tendon traces indicates the cuts were deep and intended to sever portions of the victim’s body.

“These finds confirm that the knives were used for sacrifices,” Mainou said. [...]

Some knives in the test had more traces of red blood cells, while others had more skin, and others more muscle or collagen, “which suggest that each cutting tool was used for a different purpose, according to its form,” Mainou said

Like the Bolzano researchers did with the Iceman, this research team also found fibrin, a blood protein involved in the coagulation process indicating that the cutting was done on either living people or very recently deceased ones. The study also found silica, aluminum, calcium and potassium from the mineralization of the organic matter.

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Oldest human blood found in Otzi

Wednesday, May 2nd, 2012

Researchers examine OtziOtzi the Iceman never stops giving. The 5300-year-old mummy found embedded in the ice of the Ötztal Alps in 1991 has been an endless bounty of information about prehistoric man ever since. His latest gifts are red blood cells preserved in tissue around his arrow wound and hand laceration for more than 5000 years.

Blood cells degrade fairly quickly after death, and previous scans of the Iceman turned up empty. Researchers used state-of-the-art atomic force microscope technology to scan the surface of tissue samples. A tiny metal probe just a few atoms wide is dragged across the sample. Sensors attached to the probe track its movements, detecting even the smallest unevenness in the surface and creating a 3D map of it in enormously high resolution. They found cells the size and classic donut shape of healthy, recently-dried red blood cells.

Red blood cells from recent tissue, top row, Otzi's red blood cells bottom rowThey confirmed that the samples they found were red blood cells using the Raman spectroscopy method in which a laser illuminates the tissue and examination of the spectrum of the resulting scattered light identifies the molecules doing the scattering. Had the cells been pollen or some other substance, researchers would have been able to tell. Instead, the spectra revealed bands characteristic of the protein hemoglobin. They were an order of magnitude weaker than the bands you get with fresh red blood cells indicating a decrease in hemoglobin due to degradation of the cells.

The laser also found fibrin, a protein found in fresh wounds that helps blood to clot, in the sample from the arrow wound. Fibrin is only present in fresh wounds, which confirms that Otzi died shortly after being hit with the arrow instead of several days later as an earlier theory held.

Despite some degradation, the red blood cells were remarkably well-preserved.

“They really looked similar to modern-day blood samples,” said Professor Albert Zink, 46, the German head of the Institute for Mummies and the Iceman at the European Academy in Bolzano, the capital of Italy’s German-speaking Alto-Adige region.

“So far, this is the clearest evidence of the oldest blood cells,” he said by telephone, adding that the new technique might now be used to examine mummies from Egypt. [...]

“It is very interesting to see that the red blood cells can last for such a long time,” he said.

“This will also open up possibilities for forensic science and may help lead to a more precise determination of the age of blood spots in crime investigations,” he added.

Their research has been published in the Journal of the Royal Society and is available to read in full free of charge.

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