Oldest archaeological pearl found in UAE cemetery

Ancient pearls have been discovered in fossil form going back to the Cretaceous Period (145-65 million years ago), but they don’t appear in the archaeological record until fairly recently. Conventional jeweler’s wisdom has it that the oldest archaeological pearl known is the 5000-year-old Jomon pearl, found in Japan and named after the semi-settled hunter-gatherer period of Japanese prehistory (ca. 14,000 B.C.-300 B.C.) to which it dates, but as so often happens, conventional wisdom is wrong. There isn’t much reliable information about the Jomon pearl that I was able to discover online, no academic research, no details about where it was found, just the same two sentences on page after page of “famous pearls” websites, but there are properly documented pearls that are far older than 5000 years.

Persian Gulf archaeological pearl sitesAccording to Pearls: A Natural History, a gorgeously illustrated book written in conjunction with the American Museum of Natural History’s and The Field Museum’s Pearls exhibit that I had the great fortune to see when it was on the road in 2003, the oldest pearls found connected to human habitation have been found in Late Neolithic and Early Bronze Age sites in Mesopotamia and Arabia. Some of them were found in shell midden piles, discards from harvests of freshwater mollusks. Two perforated pearls dating to between 3700 and 3400 B.C. were found grasped in the right hands of one male and one female skeleton buried facing the sea at the Ras al-Hamra site in Oman.

Pierced pearl, As-Sabiyah, Kuwait, ca. 5000 B.C.Excavations in the early 2000s by the British Archaeological Expedition to Kuwait unearthed a pearl dating to around 5000 B.C. at the As-Sabiyah site inland from the northern edge of Kuwait Bay. The pearl is pierced through so clearly its intended use was decorative. A number of mother-of-pearl beads, buttons and other kinds of shell jewelry were also found, evidence of the long tradition of pearling in the Persian Gulf.

Oldest archaeological pearl found in Umm al-Quwain 2 burial, 5500 B.C.A new study has moved the oldest date of archaeological pearls even further back to approximately 5500 B.C. Researchers with the French Foreign Ministry have found 42 burials in the Neolithic site of Umm al-Quwain 2 in the United Arab Emirates. The burials were spread through four shell layers from different periods alternating with layers of sterile sand. In the earliest shell layer, recently radiocarbon dated to 5500 B.C., a small pearl 0.07 inches in diameter was recovered after excavation from sand stuck to the skull of skeleton/burial 4.

Pearl on upper lip (see red arrow), beads on the cheek, from Jebel Buhais cemeteryInterestingly, this pearl was not perforated. It wasn’t worn on a string or embroidered onto clothing. Like more recent archaeological pearls discovered placed on the upper lip of a buried skeleton, it appears to have had a ritual role.

The pearl is remarkably well preserved, its luster dimmed, perhaps, but not destroyed, thanks to the layers of shell which lowered the pH level of the sand layers. That same mechanism preserved an impressive 18 pearls from 4700 – 4100 B.C. found on the UAE island of Akab. The Akab pearls come in white, pink and orange shades and retain their original luster. Almost all of them are round, which are far less frequently found in nature than the baroque shapes.

Pearls from Akab island, 4700 – 4100 BCFrench adventurer Henry de Monfreid described going traditional pearl fishing on the Red Sea with four men in 1935. They worked all day and found only 27 pearls in 1000 oysters. Out of that 27, 20 were baroque and five were round ones the size of a pinhead. That means the Neolithic pearl divers, who already were doing an incredibly dangerous and difficult job, discarded the vast majority of the pearls they found in favor of the ones closest to spherical.

It’s amazing to think of how powerful a role pearls played in Neolithic sea-dependent cultures and how far back that goes. They weren’t just objects of great beauty and fragility, prizes to be kept and to inspire trade with Mesopotamian civilizations. They were also symbols used in the most profound rituals surrounding life and death.

Full fathom five thy father lies;
Of his bones are coral made;
Those are pearls that were his eyes:
Nothing of him that doth fade
But doth suffer a sea-change
Into something rich and strange.
Sea-nymphs hourly ring his knell

Ariel’s song, Act 1, Scene 2, The Tempest

Catherine de Medici’s hairpin found in palace toilet

Catherine de Medici hairpinConservators have discovered a four-inch gold hairpin that once belonged to Catherine de Medici, wife of King Henry II and Queen of France from 1547 until his death in 1559, in a communal latrine at Fontainebleau Palace. Archaeologists were excavating the Henry IV courtyard at the royal palace outside of Paris in preparation for an upcoming restoration project when they found the precious object.

Catherine's monogram before cleaningThe pin is identifiable as Catherine’s because it is decorated with a pair of interlocking C’s that look exactly like the Chanel logo but are actually her monogram from when she was Dauphine of France, i.e., married to the heir presumptive, between 1536 and 1547. When Fontainebleau Palace conservator Vincent Droguet cleaned the encrusted grime off the jewel, he noticed the remnants of a white and green finish in the monogram area. White and green were Catherine’s colors.

Catherine de MediciThis small pin is of outsized historical significance because very little of Catherine de Medici’s jewelry has survived, especially jewels from before she was widowed. Other than what we see in portraits, there are only two jewels known to have belonged to Catherine extant. One is a gold and emerald pendant currently on display in a cabinet of medals in the National Library in Paris. The other is a portrait miniature medallion currently in Vienna. Neither of them have her characteristic monogram design.

The latrine itself was a surprise discovery as well. In 2013, the interior of the Henry IV section will be converted into offices for the tourism bureau of Seine-et-Marne (a French administrative division within the center-north region of Île-de-France). The adjacent courtyard was excavated to ensure they wouldn’t be damaging or disturbing archaeological remains during construction. They expected to find the remains of two long-gone buildings and so they did. They did not expect to find a third building containing the remains of a communal latrine. In the cesspit below, they found ceramics, glassware and three jewels: a cross, a gold Virgin Mary medal, and Catherine de Medici’s hairpin.

How it got there is and will doubtless remain a mystery. She had a royal commode of her own and it’s highly unlikely she would have used a communal latrine even under the direst of excretory pressure. Droguet surmises that the pin was either stolen by or given away to someone who then lost it or dropped it in the toilet.

WWII art from UK National Archives on Wikimedia

"It's up to You (Britannia)" by Tom PurvisMore than 350 original World War II artworks from the National Archives collection have been scanned and uploaded to Wikimedia. Wikimedia UK gave the National Archives a grant to take high resolution pictures of part of their 2000-piece collection of art created for Ministry of Information propaganda during the Second World War. The long-term goal is to scan the entire collection, but they’re starting off with 350 posters, drawings, oil paintings, portraits, and caricatures by well-known artists and talented artists who should be well-known, including famous images and slogans.

The National Archives is hoping the new visibility of their collection will garner additional attention from scholars and the public. They’re also hoping the crowdsourcing power of Wiki will help them identify some of the unknown artists and fill in other informational blanks. Wikimedia is excited to have a whole new source of images to accompany old and new Wikipedia entries. Many of the artists in the collection who already have a Wikipedia page haven’t had any representations of their work on the page until now.

Bombing scene with penciled correction by James GardnerSome of the artworks have been classics of the propaganda poster genre, like the “Careless talk costs lives” posters from the campaign against sharing sensitive information with civilians (especially dangerous blondes). Others are sketches that were submitted to the Ministry but never published. You can see notes penciled in on the borders, among them a pointed critique of artistic license: “Bomb racks open from centre and not from side as in your sketch.”

Portrait of Winston Churchill by William TimymThere is a series of flattering oil portraits of Allied leaders about two-thirds of the way down on the second page by Austrian artist William Timym who moved from Vienna to London in 1938 after the Anschluss. He was naturalized a British citizen in 1949 and would later become known as the creator of the Bleep and Booster series of animated shorts.

"Assassination of Heydrich" by Terence CuneoIt’s the more dramatic war scenes that most catch my eye. Terence Cuneo is widely collected today for his post-war paintings of railways and locomotives. He was also the official artist for the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II. During the war he served as a combat engineer in the British Army and as an artist for the War Artists Advisory Committee. In the Wikimedia collection you can see his paintings of an invasion in the Far East, tanks in production, tanks in battle and most striking of all in subject matter at least, the 1942 assassination of Reinhard Heydrich, one of the main architects of the Final Solution.

"Tower Bridge" by Eve KirkOne of my favorite pieces is an oil painting by Eve Kirk, a landscape painter and graphic designer whose wartime work showed at the Royal Academy in 1945. It depicts Tower Bridge and the Thames harbor protected by a sky full of barrage balloons. Barrage balloons were tethered balloons intended to collide with and damage low-flying, fast-moving aircraft like dive bombers. They were deployed in British cities starting in 1938. By 1940 there were almost 500 of them in the skies over London.

"Stand Firm!" by Tom PurvisThen there are the symbolic illustrations, like the proud Aslan-like lion representing England painted by Tom Purvis, the British pincer cracking the swastika by Frank Newbould, the squirrels lining up to get their ration of coal by Clive Uptton, the British and Soviet arms strangling the German eagle rising from a bombed-out city by an unknown artist, and also by an unknown artist, this sort of dark Pink Floyd vision of a sword impaling a bleeding Germany through to a rainbow and sun behind.

"Give us the tools and..." by Frank Newbould"Order your fuel now" by Clive UpttonSoviet and British unity strangling predatory Germany, by unknown artistSword piercing Germany by unknown artist

1886 one-room schoolhouse moves back home

Ford schoolhouse on the moveA 20- by 36-foot, 22-ton historical building in the town of Algonquin, Illinois was moved a quarter-mile down the road to the village of Lake in the Hills today. Built in 1886 on the Lucy B. Ford Farm in what is now Lake in the Hills, the school had no indoor plumbing and just one room where up to 26 children in first through eighth grades were taught together.

Watching the painstakingly slow movement of the schoolhouse were three Lake in the Hills residents with a particular connection to Ford School: two former students — Albert Ebel Friday (94) and his sister Eunice Andreas (98) — and Duane Andreas (78), the son of Eunice and her husband Weldon Andreas, the last teacher Ford School ever had. People watching the move crowded around them to listen to them reminisce about the old times.

Weldon Andreas teaching the Ford School class of 1931Duane said his dad, the schoolteacher, would take him to Ford School when he was just 4 or 5 so he could see what it was like. At the time, there were only eight kids and it was OK to have a little kid watching them.

“It’s so different now,” he said. Back then, students would listen to the lesson of each grade, and become exposed to higher learning at younger ages, Duane said. “People, they helped each other,” he said. It was a nicer time then, there was no need to compete for the highest grade, or the best classroom scores, he said. The children helped each other succeed.

Eunice was proud of her spelling skills then. She had 100 perfect spelling lessons. “First time they had a spelling bee in McHenry, I won the first time,” she said.

Albert joked about playing hooky and swimming instead. It was just kids being kids. “You were allowed to raise a little hell, people would look the other way,” Duane noted. “Everyone (now) is so afraid of getting in trouble.”

The school closed in 1939 with the advent of graded education. After World War II, a development company bought 800 acres in the area to create a community of affordable housing for returning GIs, and the schoolhouse was slated for demolition. It was saved from that dire fate by George Sticklemeyer, a farmer down the road who in 1945 bought the building for $250 and moved it to his land. He added a kitchen and bathroom and used it as a bunkhouse for migrant workers.

Boarded up schoolhouse in 2011In 1960 it was purchased along with various outbuildings and used as a home. In 2003 the land and buildings were sold again to Stonegate Nursery, a landscaping and plant nursery business. The schoolhouse was used as an office. The nursery went out of business three or so years ago, leaving the schoolhouse and six other outbuildings vacant targets for vandals and thieves. By 2011, the property owner had demolished the other outbuildings, but she knew the schoolhouse was historically significant so she just boarded up the windows hoping that it could be saved.

The Lake in the Hills Historical Society stepped up to the plate. They proposed to move the schoolhouse back to its original location, now a park. Thanks to generous donations from the community and local businesses, they were able to raise sufficient money to take the building off its foundations then move it to Ford School Park, which was named after the school that once stood there. They have $13,000 of the $15,000 cost of the move, so historical society volunteers collected donations from the many people watching the move.

Inside the Ford School in 1937Historical accuracy actually saved them money because they could eliminate sewer and water costs by returning the schoolhouse to its former bathroom-and-kitchenless splendor. They’re hoping that beneath the carpeted walls (yes, carpeting on the walls; I guess that’s as much insulation as the house ever got) they will find the original wood siding. They’ll also recreate the cloak room area and find a period-appropriate teacher’s desk and globe, plus student desks and a potbelly stove.

Restoration will take another two years, depending on how many volunteers and donations they get. The plan is to open the schoolhouse as a museum. If you’d like to chip in, call the Lake in the Hills Historical Society at 847-658-1066, send a check to the address on this page, or click the PayPal Donate button on the same page.

Here’s raw footage of the schoolhouse moving down Algonquin Road, which was closed for the occasion, as people line the streets to watch. I find the slow precision of the movement rather zenlike.

The medieval vampire pirate mayor of Sozopol

Skeleton with iron ploughshare in the chestA couple of weeks ago, news broke that archaeologists in the Bulgarian Black Sea resort town of Sozopol had unearthed the skeletal remains of two men whose corpses had been stabbed with iron rods to prevent them from rising up and feasting upon the blood of the living. An iron ploughshare was still in one grave, piercing the rib cage of the would-be revenant. An iron implement was also left behind in the second skeleton but in his abdomen, which has considerably less lore-appeal, so he hasn’t gotten as much attention as the other one.

They were found buried in the necropolis of the St. Nicolas the Miracleworker monastery. (That’s according to the National Museum of History in Sofia; this article says the necropolis was outside the church of Saints Cyril and Methodius, a church very much in the public eye right now as the host of the purported bones of John the Baptist which were discovered on the island of St. Ivan in 2010. The bones have recently been dated to the first century A.D., and DNA testing confirmed that they’re all from the same Middle Eastern man. Cue the inevitable St. John hysteria.)

The skeletons date to between the 12th and 14th centuries. The fellow with the ploughshare jammed in his chest was buried near the apse of the church, an indication that he was an important figure. Iron was used to pierce the corpses of the wealthiest men while wood was used for the less wealthy, but all the people deemed to be potential vampires were powerful, influential men in life. Clerics, civic leaders, aristocrats, intellectuals: if they were cruel and abusive with their gifts when they were alive, their souls would not ascend to heaven but would remain in their rotting corpses, driving them to rise from the grave to terrorize y’all’s neighborhood.

Archaeologists have a theory about who this particular scoundrel might have been.

Bulgarian historians believe that the vampire grave most likely belong [sic] to one of the medieval mayors of Sozopol. The man’s name was Krivich, and he is known to have had a background as a pirate and bandit who exemplified evil for the town which was part of both the Bulgarian Empire and the Byzantine Empire in the Middle Ages.

“He demonstrated incompetence when defending the town from a siege. As a result, Sozopol was overrun by the Genoese who took everything away from the local residents,” [Professor Bozhidar Dimitrov, head of the Bulgarian National History Museum,] said.

I’m not sure what their grounds are for this speculation, other than the generally appropriate date (Krivich failed to protect the city from Genoese troops in the 14th century) and the plum burial spot indicating he was a man of importance, but still, medieval vampire pirate mayor …. That’s the kind of cool that cannot be denied.

Sozopol "vampire" skeleton at National Museum of History in SofiaThe remains of 100 vampire-treated people, all of them men, all of them prominent citizens, have been found in Bulgaria. These two are the first ever discovered in Sozopol, a tiny fraction of the 700 graves unearthed in the necropolis. Most of them have been reburied, as will the Sozopol skeleton with the iron stomach. The one sporting the ploughshare in his chest, on other hand, has been sent to Sofia to go on display at the National Museum of History. It will become part of a permanent exhibit on medieval Bulgarian folklore.

It’s tourist season, you see, and vampires are big business. Already thousands of people from Germany, Britain, Russia and the US are flocking to Sozopol to catch a glimpse of a vampire skeleton in situ. Souvenir stores are stocking up on truly awful Dracula mugs and t-shirts; “vampire steaks” and “vampire cocktails” have sprung up on menus all over town. Just to pin down the cheeseball tourism trade like it’s a dead evil nobleman, Sozopol also has plans in the works to become twinned with Sighisoara, Romania, the birthplace of Vlad III, Prince of Wallachia, aka Vlad the Impaler, aka Dracula.