Archive for July, 2012

Unique vertical Zapotec tomb found in Oaxaca

Saturday, July 21st, 2012

Second burial chamber with ballgame muralsA Zapotec tomb with a unique vertical structure has been discovered in the Oaxacan archeological site of Atzompa. The three-chambered funerary complex is 1100 years old and is unlike any other Zapotec tombs discovered thus far. It was built above ground, one chamber on top of the other, whereas all other Zapotec tombs discovered to date have been under the floors of houses and palaces. Also, one of the burial chambers has some richly colored murals that refer to the Mesoamerican ballgame. Zapotec ball courts have been found before, but these are the first wall paintings with a ballgame motif discovered in a Zapotec tomb.

Atzompa was founded in the Late Classic period (650-900 A.D.) as a satellite city of the Zapotec center of Monte Albán. According to the National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH) press release on the find, the unique architecture and artistic motifs of this tomb suggest that Atzompa didn’t just duplicate the culture of Monte Albán, but developed their own forms of cultural expression.

Archeologists working at the entrance of a burial chamber at the archeological site of AtzompaNo human remains have been discovered so far (one of the three chambers has yet to be opened), but archaeologists believe the burial chambers must have been constructed for important personages because the complex is adjacent to the House of the Altars, a home for the town’s elite who probably had connections to the mother city of Monte Albán.

The first chamber is about eight feet wide, six feet high and 15 feet deep with a vaulted ceiling. It was created with large stone slabs placed over stone walls that bear the remains of stucco decoration. It appears to have been deliberately filled in with earth and stone in antiquity.

Detail of ballgame frescoThe second chamber is 15 feet deep and just one square meter tall and wide. The roof is flat, made from stone slabs, and the walls are covered with murals frescoed over a thin stucco layer. These are the paintings depicting the ballgame. They are abstract — no human figures playing ball are depicted — but the yellow shapes that look like a capital I represent the ball court. The small white circles covered with squiggles represent the game in play. The large white circles with the black outline are probably representations of the pelota, i.e., the ball. The smallest back wall — the center when you’re looking at the chamber from the entrance — has been damaged. Archaeologists speculate that area might have contained the name of the person buried in the tomb.

Fresco detailThe ballgame had ritual significance in every Mesoamerican civilization which played it. It was used to solve boundary disputes, as a proxy for war. The Maya linked the game to human sacrifice, playing rigged ritual ballgames where the pre-ordained losers would be sacrificed, sometimes even sacrificing professional players. Ball courts were thus literal portals to the underworld as well as figurative ones, where the eternal cosmological struggle between life and death, dark and light, good and evil, was played out over and over.

It makes sense that the game would appear in a funerary context, therefore, and indeed it has in a number of Mesoamerican cultures. The Oaxacan Zapotecs, however, depicted priests and priestesses performing rituals or people accompanying the deceased to the underworld in their funerary paintings. It’s only this one tomb that features the allegorical ballgame motif.

Pottery vessels, metate, a sea shell fragment in the second burial chamberArchaeologists also found an offering in the second chamber consisting of small pottery vessels, a turtle bone, an engraved turtle shell, a fragment of shell that they think was the eye of a sculpture or death mask, a jade bead and a miniature metate (a mealing stone or mortar). The third chamber has only been observed through a small opening at this point, but archaeologists have seen a partial roof canopy and some murals. Excavation of this chamber is about to begin.

As the first chamber indicates, it seems this tomb complex was intentionally damaged in antiquity. Experts think it was a ritual destruction performed when the city was abandoned at the end of the period, between 850 and 900 A.D. after the collapse of Monte Albán power. The Zapotecs would have seen this as the end of a cycle, and since important buildings were seen as having a life of their own, they would be emptied and cancelled out to properly close the cycle.

So far only INAH experts have worked on the site. Going forward, they will enlist Harvard scientists to analyze the artifacts. The pottery and animal remains will be radiocarbon dated. The paint in the murals will be sampled so the pigments can be identified.


An Iron Age olive pit in England

Friday, July 20th, 2012

One of the neatest aspects of archaeology is how one small, seemingly pedestrian artifact can have a massive impact on our understanding of the past. Take a single olive pit, for example. It would be an entirely unremarkable find in southern Europe, no matter how old the pit was, and almost as unremarkable a find in Roman Britain. An olive pit from first century B.C. Britain, on the other hand, is a revelation.

Iron Age olive pit found in SilchesterArchaeologists from the University of Reading excavating the site of Silchester in Hampshire found a single olive pit in an Iron Age well. The layer it was found in has been firmly dated to before 43 A.D., the year of the Roman invasion of Britain under the Emperor Claudius, which means that the olive made its way to Iron Age England before the Romans did. Celery and coriander seeds were also found in the same well. Taken together they indicate that Britons were enjoying Mediterranean cuisine long before they had a direct link to it.

Professor Michael Fulford, from the University of Reading’s Department of Archaeology, said: “These plant foods were all cultivated in the Mediterranean region and literary evidence shows they were part of Roman cuisine. Whilst the import of olive oil and wine during the Late Iron Age is evidenced at Silchester and elsewhere throughout southern Britain, we were unaware that olive fruits and seasonings were also being imported – until now.

“Topics such as global food trade, food security and self-sufficiency may seem like issues only for the present day, but this unique discovery shows just how sophisticated Britain’s trade in food and global links were, even before the Romans colonised in the first century AD.

“We take these culinary treats for granted but over 2000 years ago trade in these foodstuffs would have been essential, at least for the wealthy tribal aristocracy of Iron Age Britain. A journey to Britain from the Med would have taken several weeks, either by sea around the coasts of Spain, Portugal and France, or overland through France. This is the first olive from Iron Age Britain!”

The olive pit shows signs of charring, which may have helped it survive the next two millennia. Professor Fulford hopes they will find more olive pits indicative of a wider trade in luxury Mediterranean foods, but they could easily have rotted away.

The Silchester Eagle, ca. 1st century A.D.Silchester has been a source of fascinating discoveries since the Victorian era. The site of an important Roman-era town called Calleva Atrebatum, Silchester exploded on the archaeological scene in 1866 when Reverend J.G. Joyce found a cast bronze eagle in the forum basilica between two burnt layers. He thought its exquisite detail marked it as the imperial standard of a Roman legion which had been removed from its staff and hidden in the rafters of the basilica during an attack on the city. When the basilica was burned down, the eagle went down with it. It was this discovery and Joyce’s theory about it that inspired Rosemary Sutcliff’s The Eagle of the Ninth and ever so many sub-par movies.

Professor Fulford thinks Joyce’s interpretation of the archaeological data was incorrect. According to his analysis, the two burnt layers date to the time of the basilica’s construction (early second century A.D.) and from smithing fires once the building was in use. He thinks the eagle dates to the early first century A.D. and was once part of a larger statue, an attribute of the god Jupiter or a Roman emperor. A hundred years later, the eagle, now missing its wings and its deity, was incorporated into the foundations of the basilica as a sacrifice or for good luck.

Silchester dog bonesSpeaking of sacrifices, an unusual number of complete dog skeletons have been found buried in Silchester since Fulford’s University of Reading teams began excavating in 1997. They appear to have been buried deliberately over a span of two centuries, sometimes very carefully positioned. Three of them are of two dogs buried together, one of a dog buried with a human infant, and one of a dog standing up. Earth was packed in around his feet and legs to ensure he remained in that posture in the grave. We don’t know if they were sacrificed or buried after natural death.

Silchester toy dog burialLast year they discovered yet another dog burial, this one of a tiny toy dog only 11 inches (29 centimeters) high at the shoulder. It was not a puppy but a full-grown lapdog, likely another luxury import from the continent. It was discovered buried in a natural resting posture in the foundations of a large Iron Age house, a house that is at least 164 feet long (50 meters) and may turn out to be the largest Iron Age building ever discovered in Britain. The owner must have been a highly prominent citizen, possibly the chief. Again, archaeologists can’t tell if the dog was killed deliberately as a sacrifice or it just died in time to be buried in the foundations of the house.

Another discovery in keeping with the dog theme but with a far more entertaining spin is a folding knife or shaving razor that has an elephant ivory handle carved in the shape of two dogs having sex. It was made in the second century and again was a continental import, possibly from Italy, France or Germany. It is a unique find in the Roman world.

Folding knife or razor with ivory handle in the form of mating dogs, 2nd c. A.D. Detail of the mating dogs from the front

There’s tons of information about the history of Silchester and excavations current and historic on the University of Reading’s website. The excavation blog is excellent. There are many pictures of the Somme-style mud pits the poor archaeologists have to deal with thanks to the crazy rain England has been experiencing this summer. If you’re in the neighborhood, they welcome visitors during the excavation season.


48 tons of silver recovered from WWII shipwreck

Thursday, July 19th, 2012

Silver bars found on the Gairsoppa wreckControversial US treasure hunting company Odyssey Marine Exploration announced Wednesday that it has recovered 48 tons of silver bullion from the wreck of the British cargo steamship SS Gairsoppa. The ship was carrying 2,600 tons of pig iron, 1,765 tons of tea, and 220 tons of silver ingots when it was sunk by a German U-boat torpedo on February 17, 1941. Although it was a merchant ship not a military one, it was transporting some government-owned bullion along with its private cargo, and the latter was insured by the British government under the War Risk Insurance program. The owners received a payout of £325,000 ($510,000) in 1941, which then gave the state rights to the cargo should it ever be recovered.

At the time, nobody knew exactly where the ship went down. Only one of the 85 crewmen survived the disaster, and data was thin. The UK attempted to salvage the cargo once before in 1989, but the contracted company was unable to locate the wreck. In 2010, the UK Department for Transport opened the Gairsoppa salvage contract to a competitive tender process. Odyssey won. Under the terms of the agreement, Odyssey gets to keep 80% of the net value of all the salvaged silver after expenses. That means their expenses are paid from the government’s 20% cut. It’s an incredibly sweet deal, but the UK is up for it because they stand to make tens of millions of pounds on their outlay of £325,000 71 years ago. Adjusted for inflation, that payout would be worth approximately £14,290,250 ($22 million) in today’s money, so the odds are good that they’ll come out well in the black by both relative and absolute standards.

Last summer, Odyssey found the wreck three miles deep in the North Atlantic about 300 miles west of Ireland. Its depth and the treacherous conditions of the ocean posed a significant challenge to recovery efforts. They spent the autumn and winter months assembling specialized equipment for the salvage — they don’t specify what those tools are, probably because they don’t want to make it easy for anyone else to follow in their footsteps — then began recovery operations on May 31st of this year.

So far, they have recovered 1,203 silver bars; that’s approximately 1.4 million troy ounces and about 43% of the insured bars. Adding in the government-owned bullion, the quantity recovered thus far is about 20% of the total silver cargo. The haul has been moved to a secure facility in the UK and JBR Recovery Limited has been contracted to process and monetize the shipwrecked bullion.

Odyssey is also working a second salvage contract for the British government. While looking for the Gairsoppa last year, they found the World War I steamship SS Mantola which was sunk by another German U-boat torpedo on February 8th, 1917. It too was carrying silver bars, although considerable fewer of them (600,000 total ounces of silver versus Gairsoppa‘s 7,000,000). The Department for Transport awarded Odyssey the contract to recover the Mantola’s loot as well for the same 80% deal. When they’re done with the Gairsoppa salvage, Odyssey will move on to the Mantola which is about 100 miles away and 1.5 miles deep.

This is footage of the Mantola wreck recorded by Odyssey’s remotely operated underwater vehicles last summer:



15th century bra found in Austrian castle

Wednesday, July 18th, 2012

The bra as we know it today — with cups for each breast and back and/or shoulder straps — was invented in the second half of the 19th century in a number of configurations under different names. The term “brassiere” took off when it got a mention in a 1907 issue of American Vogue, and brassieres themselves were fully established in retail outlets by the end of World War I. Before that, women wore corsets or chemises or, going back into antiquity, tied straps over or under their breasts, to contain them in the former case or enhance them in the latter.

A treasure trove of Medieval garments discovered in Lengberg Castle, East Tyrol, Austria, has advanced the era of the bra 500 years or so. The clothes were discovered during the course of renovations which began in the summer of 2008. In 2009, researchers discovered a vault filled with dry materials behind a wall in a second floor room.

The fill had been packed in layers, among them twigs and straw, 200 coins, 160 cardboard playing cards, metal fragments, bones, glass, pottery sherds, carpentry scraps, writing scraps, leather shoes and fabric, lots and lots of fabric. The final tally was more than 17 boxes filled with 4,000 sundry fragments. From that massive cache, 2,700 of them were fragments of woolen, silk and linen textiles. Archaeologists thought they must have been placed in the wall when a second story was added to the castle in 1485. Radiocarbon dating on some of the fabric fibers confirmed the age: these were extremely rare surviving textiles from the late 15th century.

The surviving fabric was mainly linen, some of it used to make entirely preserved garments like shirts with pleats on the collars and sleeves and fabric buttons. The small cuff circumference suggests those shirts were for children or women. Some of the linen pieces were linings of wool garments, including the crotch of a pair of red and blue men’s pants. A complete pair of linen underpants that look like a string bikini were also menswear. Exceptional examples of needlework lace were found decorating some of the seams, suggesting those garments had been worn by the masters and mistresses of the house before being put to use as a wall filler.

Four pieces out of the 2,700 drew the particular attention of historians because of their cut and sewn cups. Two of them are highly fragmented but appear to have been bustiers of sorts, a bra with visible shirt elements under the breast and providing some cleavage coverage above. The bottom hems are decorated with braided lace stitching which in addition to being pretty also provide additional support under the breasts.

The third “bra” looks a lot more like modern bras with two broad shoulder straps and a possible back strap, not preserved but indicated by partially torn edges of the cups onto which it was attached. The knot in the shoulder straps is secondary. This “bra” is also the most elaborately decorated with needle-lace on the shoulder straps, sprang-work between the two cups and, like the two aforementioned “bras”, a finger-loop-lace and needle-lace at the lower end.

The fourth “bra” is the one that resembles a modern bra the most. At the first assessment this garment was referred to in German as “Mieder” (= corselette in English) by the excavating archaeologists. It can also be described with the term “longline bra”. The cups are each made from two pieces of linen sewn together vertically. The surrounding fabric of somewhat coarser linen extends down to the bottom of the ribcage with a row of six eyelets on the left side of the body for fastening with a lace. The corresponding row of eyelets is missing. Needle-lace is sewn onto the cups and the fabric above thus decorating the cleavage. In the triangular area between the two cups there might have been additional decoration, maybe another sprang-work.

Sprang is needlework construction similar to netting that provides a natural elasticity, an ingenious construction element for a 532-year-old bra.

Doctoral student Beatrix Nutz will be analyzing the textiles in more depth. In addition to microscopic analysis of the fabrics, she also plans to do DNA tests CSI-style to hopefully determine which gender might have worn the garments, and to do chemical analyses of the pigments.

Sealing her awesomeness, Beatrix Nutz has also translated a stanza of Meister Reuauß, a 15th century German satirical poem which is very much on point:

Many a woman makes two bags for the breasts with
it she roams the streets,
so that all the guys look at her,
and see what beautiful breasts she has got;
But whose breasts are too large,
makes tight pouches,
so it is not told in the city,
that she has such big breasts.


Rich tomb of Three Kingdoms warrior found

Tuesday, July 17th, 2012

Three Kingdoms tomb of a warrior, Xiangyang, China, ca. 220 A.D.The richly adorned tomb of a warrior from China’s Three Kingdoms period (ca. 220-280 A.D.) has been discovered in Xiangyang, central China. Archaeologists first unearthed the tomb in 2008, but it has only recently been published in the English-language journal Chinese Archaeology which is why we’re hearing about it now.

The warrior was laid to rest alongside his wife in a multi-chambered brick tomb with a domed roof. He and his wife were buried in wooden coffins that have long since rotted away, leaving behind their skeletal remains. Scientists estimate that the warrior was about 45 years old when he died, and the wealth of artifacts left to accompany him in the afterlife indicates that he was a fighting man of considerable status. The artifacts discovered date the tomb to the early Three Kingdoms period, around 220 A.D.

Hollow bronze locks inscribed "Made by Yan"Some historians date the period to the fall of the Han Dynasty in 184 A.D., but its formal start is 220 A.D., the year the last nominal Han Emperor Xian was forced to abdicate and the third kingdom, Wei, was founded by Cao Pi, self-styled emperor and the son of the legendary General Cao Cao. Cao Cao occupied Xiangyang in 208 A.D. and used it as the base of operations for his attempted conquest of former Han territories south of the Yangtze River. His invasion was thwarted at the Battle of Red Cliffs in the winter of 208/209 A.D., but he, and later his son, retained control of Xiangyang which was even more strategically significant once it was right on the border with the enemy kingdom of Wu.

Given the richness of the unnamed warrior’s burial, its early date and the military importance of Xiangyang, he may well have served under Cao Cao or Cao Pi themselves.

The artifacts discovered are not just beautiful, although they certainly are that, but are also of notable historical importance. First and foremost is a life-sized bronze horse. It is 5.3 feet long by 5.3 feet tall making it the largest of its kind ever discovered in China. The detail is exquisite. He is depicted with his mouth open, his ears pricked up and pointed forward, his mane short and upright. It’s possible that the statue depicts an actual horse the warrior rode in life and wanted to have with him in the afterlife.

3.4-foot-tall pottery model of a mansionAnother piece of great interest to historians is a glazed pottery model of a two-story mansion. The model is about 3.4 feet tall and includes details like the knockers on each of the two gate doors. Miniature pottery houses were popular in the Han Dynasty, but this level of detail and multiple stories are very rare even from the more stable earlier period. Since few remains of the buildings from late Han, early Three Kingdoms have been found in the archaeological record, all we have to go on is descriptions in the literature of the era and the pottery miniatures found in tombs. A model of such size and detail is therefore priceless to students of ancient Chinese architecture.

Jade pig falling asleepThe treasures found in this tomb go on and on, gold and silver disks, crystal and agate beads, gold bracelets, just to name a few.

Among the finds is a jade pig figurine, his snout finely detailed, the tiny animal having apparently gone to sleep. Another work of art shows a glazed pottery figurine of a dog barking furiously while standing on all fours.

Yet another piece shows a beastly tomb guardian, his long tongue sticking out and, grossly enough, “a crawling animal is attached onto the tip of the tongue,” [archaeologist Liu] Jiangsheng writes.

Bronze crossbow triggerThere are also bronze and iron weapons, including a bronze crossbow trigger which is in excellent condition despite its advanced age, as well as a bronze mirror decorated on the back with stylized imagery of a phoenix, the one-legged mountain demon/rain god Kui and two inscriptions: “To benefit the descendants forever” and “May the holder get the position of the Three Dukes,” the three most important officials in ancient China, just underneath the emperor. Inscribed bronze mirrorInterestingly, it was Cao Cao who abolished the positions of the Three Dukes (Chancellor, Imperial Secretary, Grand Commandant of the Military) and integrated them all into a single Imperial Chancellor in 208 A.D.

For more pictures of the extraordinary contents of the tomb, see the LiveScience photo gallery.


Lost silent film with all-Native American cast found

Monday, July 16th, 2012

The Daughter of Dawn, an 80-minute feature film, was shot in July of 1920 in the Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge near Lawton, southwest Oklahoma. It was unique in the annals of silent film (or talkies, for that matter) for having a cast of 300 Comanches and Kiowas who brought their own clothes, horses, tipis, everyday props and told one of their traditional stories from when the United States Cavalry wasn’t even a gleam in the British cavalry’s eye. It was a love story, a four-person star-crossed romance that ends with the two main characters together happily ever after. There are two buffalo hunt sequences with actual herds of buffalo being chased down by hunters on bareback just as they had done on the Plains 50 years earlier.

The male lead was played by White Parker; another featured female role was played by Wanada Parker. They were the son and daughter of the powerful Comanche chief Quanah Parker, the last of the free Plains Quahadi Comanche warriors. He never lost a battle to United States forces, but, his people sick and starving, he surrendered at Fort Sill in 1875. Quanah was the son of Comanche chief Peta Nocona and Cynthia Ann Parker, the daughter of Euro-American settlers who had grown up in the tribe after she was kidnapped as a child by the Comanches who killed her parents. She was the model for Stands With a Fist in Dances with Wolves.

Written and directed by Norbert Myles, an opinionated, hot-tempered West Virginian whose conflicts with studio bigwigs led him to seek work outside of Hollywood, the movie was produced by the fledgling Texas Film Company whose founder, Richard E. Banks, had worked and lived with Indians for 25 years. It was Banks who ensured the script told an authentic story from the perspective of the Plains peoples instead of the already clichéd cowboys-vs.-Indians shoot-em-ups.

In one scene a young buffalo bumps into one of the riders. The Kiowa is knocked from his horse to the rocky terrain of the Wichita Mountains area.

“The rider just gets back up, and goes on,” said Matt Reed, a curator at the Oklahoma Museum of History. “You’re like, ‘Wow, you’re in a breechcloth and moccasins and riding at full speed you just fell from a horse and it didn’t even faze you.’ These are some tough, tough people.”

According to the October 17, 1920, issue of the influential industry trade magazine Motion Picture News, an exclusive preview of The Daughter of Dawn had been shown earlier that week at the College Theater in Los Angeles to great critical acclaim. It was an “original and breath-taking adventure” which had “hardly been duplicated before.” Notwithstanding the fine notices, it doesn’t appear to have gone much further than that. There’s no evidence that the movie was ever nationally distributed.

Many silent pictures, even the ones that were immensely popular, were lost over the years, and it seemed that The Daughter of Dawn had suffered that sad fate. The reservation tribes people knew about the movie from word of mouth; there were 36 production stills in the Museum of the Western Prairie and a complete script in the Library of Congress, but that was it.

In 2005, Brian Hearn, the film curator at the Oklahoma City Museum of Art, received a phone call from a private investigator offering to sell him a silver nitrate film that he had received as payment from a client. The PI hadn’t watched it, but he thought it was The Daughter of Dawn. The museum did not have a film collection at that time, so Hearn enlisted the aid of the Oklahoma Historical Society. After copious fundraising, the OHS was able to purchase the reels and restore them so this priceless record of Comanche and Kiowa history, Oklahoma history and early film history could get the audience it never had a chance to get in 1920.

The Daughter of Dawn was screened for the first time in almost a century last month at the deadCENTER Film Festival in Oklahoma City. Future screenings haven’t been scheduled yet, but keep an eye on the website for news. The Oklahoma Historical Society also plans to release the movie on DVD and Blu-Ray, complete with features on the history of the film and one particularly important artifact therefrom.

As staff visited with Kiowa and Comanche friends who identified people in the movie and described some of the objects brought from their homes to the set, one object in particular stood out. It was a tepee with bold horizontal stripes positioned at a key spot in every scene. The Kiowas said it was an especially significant tepee that disappeared in 1928.

Just a few years ago, while one of their curators was going through collections at the Oklahoma History Center, he pulled a canvas tepee off the shelf, unrolled it, and recognized it as the tepee in the movie, Blackburn said.

“If he had never seen ‘Daughter of Dawn,’ the tepee might still be undiscovered,” Blackburn said. “And next year, the tepee will be used in a new museum exhibit.”

That tipi was given to the Kiowas by the Cheyenne in the 1830s as a symbol of peace between the peoples. In 1916, new images were painted on it by artists Silverhorn and Steven Mopope, the latter one of the famous Kiowa Five, a team of artists who became internationally known for their virtuoso skills in the traditional arts. You can see the tipi at the Oklahoma Historical Society in the video at the top of the linked article.

Here are the first ten minutes of The Daughter of Dawn. Dawn is played by Esther LeBarre. Her father the Chief is played by Hunting Horse. Her lover, White, is played by White Parker. Wolf, the man who loves her unrequited, is played by Jack Sankeydoty. Red Wing, who loves Wolf unrequited, is played by Wanada Parker. The score is by controversial Comanche symphonic composer Dr. David Yeagley.



Legendary early center of Viking power found

Sunday, July 15th, 2012

According to the Royal Frankish Annals, the small port town of Sliasthorp by the Baltic Sea bay of Schlei in southern Jutland was expanded into a powerful military center by the early, possibly the first, Viking King Godfred in 808 A.D. Historians have interpreted Sliasthorp as the trading settlement of Hedeby, the largest Scandinavian city of the Viking era, or as a legend with an unknown factual basis.

An archaeological team from Aarhus University in Denmark have found the remains of an elite Viking town near Schlei Bay that they believe is King Godfred’s Sliasthorp. It all began in 2003 when then-student archaeologist Andres Dobat decided to investigate the area near Hedeby by the Danish-German border looking for other Viking settlements. He took a metal detector to locations where Viking artifacts had been discovered before and near the Schlei Bay town Füsing, he found a gold bracelet. Other metal artifacts from the Viking Age followed indicating a possible settlement.

He then had the excellent idea to fly over the area so he might be able to spot signs of Viking homes. The soil is more fertile over Viking walls, apparently, so if you see a checkerboard of taller, fuller, longer-lived crops, you could well be seeing a map of Viking settlement. Dobat took aerial pictures of cornfields which upon examination revealed the outlines of houses, probably Viking pit-houses. Archaeologists from Dobat’s school, the University of Kiel in Germany, confirmed his work using geophysical surveying tools which found there were at least 100 pit-houses under the soil.

In 2010, Dobat, now a prehistoric archaeology professor at Aarhus University, received a grant to excavate the spot. The excavation is now in its third season and has born exceptional fruit. They have found about 200 houses filled with artifacts like beads, glass fragments, amulets, metal riding equipment, knives, axes, arrowheads and caltrops, large pointy jacks-like items that were dropped in fields to stab the feet of enemy forces.

In addition to the pit-homes, they also discovered the remains of ten smaller longhouses and one longhouse 100 feet long and 30 feet wide that had been burned down during the 10th century. The weapons found on the spot indicate it was destroyed in battle.

The attack took place long after King Godfred’s death. But even if he had been alive, it’s still unlikely that he witnessed the attack. Back then, kings were always on the go and rarely spent long periods at Sliasthorp.

As a consequence, the daily running of the town is likely to have been administered by the town chief, who lived in the lavish longhouse. [..]

The king wasn’t the only one travelling in and out of the Viking town. The town’s population figures fluctuated several times within the same year, depending on whether there was a need for craftsmen and soldiers in the area. Only a select group of the absolute elite Vikings lived in Sliasthorp over extended periods.

Based on the industrial design and the building style, Dobat reckons that a majority of the houses in the town were only used a few weeks a year. At times there were 100 people in the town; other times perhaps over 1,000.

The town was in use for about 300 years between approximately 700 and 1000 A.D. Dobat believes the town was an elite power center, populated by religious military leaders who would then found larger trading centers nearby. The dating supports his hypothesis. Sliasthorp was founded 100 years before Hedeby which is about three miles away. At least one other large Viking Age town, Birka, near Stockholm, seems to have been founded and run by small neighboring elite settlements, not by the merchants who would inhabit it.

Andres Dobat believes this means that the entire urban development in the northern German/southern Denmark region began with Sliasthorp.

“This is common European history. We have actually found the origins of what we today call Hamburg,” says Dobat.

“When the Vikings built this town and Hedeby, they were a precursor of Schleswig, which in the early Middle Ages was the great trading city in the region. Schleswig, in turn, was the precursor of Lübeck, which today has given way to Hamburg. We’re digging at the roots of world economy.”


Philly’s Rodin Museum returns to its original glory

Saturday, July 14th, 2012

After a three-year, $9 million renovation of the grounds, museum and sculptures, the Rodin Museum in Philadelphia reopened Friday restored to the original 1929 vision of its architect Paul Crét. The Rodin Museum was founded by movie theater magnate Jules Mastbaum who in 1926 hired the French-born Crét and landscape architect Jacques Gréber to create a sophisticated Beaux Art building with a formal French garden that would showcase, both indoors and out, the sculptures by Auguste Rodin he’d been collecting since he was first introduced to the artist’s work in Paris in September 1924.

Although Mastbaum died that same year, when the museum was completed in 1929, his wife honored his commitment to gift it to the city of Philadelphia. Thus Philadelphia became home to the largest collection of Rodin’s works outside Paris, including more than 140 original marble sculptures, plaster studies and bronze castings made before and after Rodin’s death in 1917. (Most of the extant Rodin bronzes around the world were actually cast from his original stone and plaster work after his death.) There are also original prints, letters, books and over 600 drawings in the collection.

The bronze casting of The Gates of Hell, a set of monumental doors inspired by Dante’s Inferno that Rodin worked on for 37 years and for which he first created some of his most famous figures, like The Thinker, The Kiss, Adam and Eve, is one of three originals cast from Rodin’s plaster model in 1917. It was made specifically for Mastbaum. The Gates hold pride of place in the museum in the entrance gallery, emphasizing the connection between the doors and the later sculptures Rodin derived from them. A bronze of The Thinker stands watch outside the main entry to the museum.

All of the other sculptures that were originally placed on the grounds have been returned to their original spots in the French garden. They had been brought inside in the late 1960s to protect them from the acid rain that had eaten away at their surfaces. Curators were able to restore the original finishes and to apply protective coatings that will keep the sculptures from suffering the same fate again. Only one piece, The Burghers of Calais, is still in need of refurbishment. It’s been put in place outside and conservators will work on it in situ.

The museum building itself was also thoroughly restored to its period condition but with updated systems like brand new air conditioning for the first time in its life, something that will make summer vacation visits far more bearable. Restorers stripped off layers of paint and faux marble that had been applied in previous renovations to the inside walls. They returned the original paint colors and replicated the original linen wall coverings in the museum’s central gallery. They also removed the paint from wood architectural elements and restored them to their original finishes.

Sally Malenka, conservator of decorative arts and sculpture, spearheaded the archaeological dig into the museum’s past, discovering the original painted wall surfaces and other obliterated elements through examination of paint chips, Crét’s drawings and accounts, and contemporary newspaper descriptions.

“It’s interesting that for a building as recent as 1929, some of the history of what the original interior looked like is really not known,” Malenka said. “We had some old black-and-white photographs and some correspondence. So we knew there was fabric on the walls. We didn’t know at that time that the rooms were red, so there was a combination of looking for archival materials and other historical or contemporary accounts, and also investigating what the finishes were by what remained in situ.”

It’s astonishing how quickly current events become nebulous ancient history. Who’d have thought you’d need to do archaeological research to restore a museum that is only 83 years old.

The Rodin’s Museum website is excellent. You can browse pictures of the sculptures in the collection, or explore them grouped together in relevant themes.

For a fascinating voyage through The Gates of Hell, you simply must view this video from the Canal Educatif a la Demande (CED). Registration is free, and trust me, it is more than worth the price of admission. It’s a riveting story exceptionally well told.


Guns taken from Bonnie & Clyde’s bodies for sale

Friday, July 13th, 2012

Clyde Barrow's 1911 Colt .45Two Colt handguns that Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker were carrying when they were ambushed and killed in a hail of bullets on May 23, 1934 are coming up for auction in September. RR Auction in Amherst, New Hampshire has already opened Clyde’s Colt .45 1911 Government Model semi-automatic pistol and Bonnie’s Colt Detective Special .38 revolver to online bidders; the auction closes on Sunday September 30, 2012.

Bonnie Parker's 1933 Colt Detective Special .38Unlike the Winchester shotgun and the Thompson sub-machine gun confiscated from the Barrow gang’s Joplin hideout that were sold at auction earlier this year, these handguns are directly connected to Bonnie and Clyde, and not just directly connected but intimately so. Former Texas Ranger Frank Hamer, the leader of the six-man posse that hunted down and ambushed the infamous outlaws, retrieved Clyde’s Colt .45 from the waistband of his pants after he was felled in rural Bienville Parish, Louisiana.

With the Colt is a notarized letter from former Special Texas Ranger Frank Hamer, Jr., dated December 18, 1973 in which he states that this pistol, #164070, was removed from the “waistband of Clyde Barrow’s trousers the morning that he and Bonnie Parker were killed by my father in Louisiana.” He goes on to say “This pistol is also described and pictured in my father’s book I’m Frank Hamer. He also states that “this pistol was believed to have been stolen from the federal arsenal in Beaumont, Texas,” and that the federal government gave this Colt to his father. Although Clyde Barrow had many guns during his notorious career, there cannot be any with a closer association to him than this one carried at his death.

Bonnie’s Colt .38 is downright salacious. She kept it taped to her inner thigh which is where Hamer found it after she was killed.

A notarized letter from former Special Texas Ranger Frank Hamer, Jr., dated December 10, 1979, identifies this gun and states, “On the morning of May 23, 1934, when my father and the officers with him in Louisiana killed Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker. My father removed this gun from the inside thigh of Bonnie Parker where she had it taped with white, medical, adhesive tape. My father said that one reason she had the gun taped to the inside of her leg was that, in those days, no gentlemen officer would search a woman where she had it taped…Sometime later, my father gave this gun to Buster Davis who had been a Texas Ranger and was, at the time, an FBI Agent.” Included with this gun and mentioned in this letter is a framed handwritten note from Frank Hamer, written on the back of an old Texas Ranger Expense Account form, reads “Aug/1934 Davis hold onto this. Bonnie was ‘squatting’ on it. Frank.”

Texas Ranger Frank Hamer, early 1920sHamer got to keep both weapons as part of his compensation for hunting down Bonnie and Clyde. He had quit the Texas Rangers after 27 years on the force two years earlier and in 1934 was working private security for oil companies, mainly breaking strikes. Texas Department of Corrections Chief Lee Simmons commissioned Hamer to find the Barrow Gang, but he could only offer $180 a month. Hamer was making more than double that doing easier work for the oil companies. To sweeten the pot, Simmons allowed Hamer to keep all the guns recovered from the gang and whatever of their possessions he wanted, in addition to his sixth of the reward money (which turned out to be a meager $200.23).

The weapons are being sold by the estate of Robert E. Davis, a Texas collector who bought them from the Hamer family. The pre-sale estimate for each gun is between $100,000 and $200,000, but it’s highly unlikely they’ll go that cheap. The Winchester shotgun sold for $80,000, the Tommy Gun for $130,000. These pistols are in a whole other category of macabre collectability.

Footage of Bonnie and Clyde’s bullet-riddled car and bodies taken by posse member and Dallas County Deputy Sheriff Ted Hinton five minutes after the ambush.


Rare, pristine whiskey bottles found in Missouri attic

Thursday, July 12th, 2012

Bryan Fite holds Hellman's Celebrated Old Crow WhiskeyWhen Bryan and Emily Fite bought an 1850s home in St. Joseph, Missouri last year, they knew it needed work. One of the first projects they undertook was installing central heat and air, which they had to rewire the house to accomplish. Bryan pried up some floorboards in the attic to lay the new wires and underneath found mysterious tubes wrapped in paper with writing on it. His first thought was they were old steam heat conduits from when the house was first built that were wrapped in paper insulation. When he unwrapped the paper, instead of century-old pipe he found a century-old bottle of whiskey. Then he found 12 more of them.

There are three different brands — Hellman’s Celebrated Old Crow whiskey, Guckenheimer Pennsylvania rye whiskey, W.H. McBrayer’s Cedar Brook whiskey — all of them bottled in 1917 and distilled four or five years earlier. On January 16, 1919, the eighteenth amendment to the US Constitution was ratified and Prohibition became the law of the land, decimating the whiskey distilling business. None of the makers of the Fites’ whiskeys survived.

The 1917 Hellman’s Old Crow might have been some of the last bottles ever sold. Hellman’s was sued for trademark infringement by W.A. Gaines and Company, a Kentucky liquor company which had produced a very famous brand of “Old Crow” whiskey since 1835. It was named for Doctor James C. Crow, a Scottish medical doctor who moved to Kentucky and in the 1830s used his knowledge of chemistry to invent the sour mash process for creating bourbon. The aged runs became known as “Old Crow” and were massively popular. After Dr. Crow’s death in 1856, W.A. Gaines and Co. continued to sell his original stock for as long as they could. When they ran out, they made a replica, although Crow’s exact formula was lost.

Mark Twain in a 1960 Old Crow ad“Old Crow” was the favorite brand of many notable 19th and 20th century figures like President Andrew Jackson, Kentucky Senator Henry Clay, Confederate general John Hunt Morgan, Walt Whitman, Mark Twain and Hunter S. Thompson. It had a huge reputation, a reputation W.A. Gaines and Company was keen not be sullied by the St. Louis blend the Hellman Distilling Company had been selling as “Celebrated Old Crow” since 1863 when the Civil War choked off liquor shipments from the South. Hellman’s countered that they owned the trademark to the name and the case dragged on in the courts for almost a decade until in 1918 the Supreme Court of these United States ruled decisively in Gaines’ favor.

~ Tangent time! ~

Edson Bradley, a New York financier and the son of a prosperous Connecticut shoe manufacturer, invested in the Kentucky whiskey business in the 1880s. When W.A. Gaines and Co. incorporated in 1887, he was appointed vice president. It was he who registered the first company trademark to “Old Crow” in 1887, and all the subsequent trademark registrations done to try to muscle out the many, many copycats.

Bradley House on DuPont Circle, Washington, D.C.Eventually he became president and was widely known in the press as the richest liquor baron in the country. By 1907 he was Scrooge McDuck rich and since this was the Gilded Age, he bought a city block on DuPont Circle in Washington, D.C. and built a French Gothic mansion complete with entire rooms ripped out of actual Gothic mansions in France. It had a chapel that could seat 150 and a complete multi-story 500-seat theater. It was known as Aladdin’s Palace and was the largest, richest home in D.C.

When Prohibition hit, the Gaines Company struggled along for a few more years until it was dissolved in 1922. Bradley was 70 years old by then, so in February of 1923 he decided to retire to Newport, Rhode Island, along with all the other Gilded Age barons. In the epitome of Gilded Age baron style, he brought his palace with him. Over the next two years, the DuPont Circle house was dismantled stone by stone and shipped to Newport.

Seaview Terrace todayHe bought a property along the Cliff Walk which already had an 1885 Elizabethan Revival mansion on it called Sea View. No problem. Architect Howard Greenley just integrated it into the new house. Sea View became Seaview Terrace, with the old mansion now acting as the east wing of the composite mansion. Greenley gave it an integrated look with turrets inspired by the Loire Valley chateau of Chambord. Two years and two million dollars later, Seaview Terrace was completed.

Edson Bradley died 10 years later. In 1930, Bradley deeded Seaview Terrace to his daughter Julie, but she lost it to the City of Newport during World War II when she couldn’t keep up with the taxes. After that it passed through various hands, was used by two different schools, and most famously, between 1966 and 1971 the exterior was used as the outdoor set for Collinwood Mansion in the vampire soap Dark Shadows.

The estate was purchased in 1974 by Martin and Millicent Carey who restored it, but a building like this is constantly in need of more restoration. It is now known as Carey Mansion. Martin and Millicent’s daughter Denise Ann Carey lives there now, and luckily she’s an architect.

~ End Tangent ~

After the Repeal of Prohibition on December 5th, 1933, the Gaines plant in Frankfort, Kentucky and the rights to the Old Crow label were bought by the American Medicinal Spirits Company, who in turn sold them to National Distillers Products Company in 1947. National was bought by Jim Beam in 1985 who still produce an Old Crow label, although not out of the Frankfort plant which they closed.

Bryan Fite thinks the 13 bottles might have been a stash hidden by the first owner of their home. According to a history of the house they received when they bought it, the first owner lost the house after he was put in a sanitarium for alcoholism. Perhaps he was planning a party for his return from rehab, a party he never got to have.

The Fites do not plan to sell the whiskey. They’re history buffs and they love that they’ve found liquid gold under the floorboards of their attic. They might break the label on a bottle or two in 2017 to celebrate the centennial of their purchase, but otherwise, the whiskey is staying in the house where it was first stashed almost a hundred years ago.

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