First Dynasty solar boat found outside Cairo

A team from the French Institute of Oriental Archaeology excavating the ancient site of Abu Rawash 15 miles northwest of Cairo has unearthed the remains of a solar boat dating to the reign of the First Dynasty pharaoh Den (ca. 2975–2935 B.C.). The boat is nearly intact, composed of 11 planks of local wood 20 feet long and five feet wide. The wood is in good condition, thanks to the preservation power of the dry desert environment.

Pharaoh Den was not actually buried at Abu Rawash. His tomb is in the royal necropolis of Early Dynastic kings at Abydos in Upper Egypt. His seal has been discovered at Abu Rawash, however, which may be how archaeologists were able to date the solar boat to his reign. Abu Rawash is best known as the site of the ruined pyramid of the pharaoh Djedefre, son of and successor to Khufu, builder of the great pyramid at Giza. Djedefre was a king of the Fourth Dynasty who reigned from about 2566 to 2558 B.C., 400 years after Den.

His pyramid complex at Abu Rawash actually includes a solar boat pit, a ditch 115 feet long cut out of the living limestone next to the pyramid, which was intended to hold his solar boat. No boat was found within. Instead, archaeologists recovered thousands of fragments of statues from the pit, which when put together turned out to be sculpted heads of Djedefre, now in the Louvre.

Although none of the articles I’ve found explicitly state this, I think the boat was probably found in the protodynastic cemetery on a rocky outcropping above the Abu Rawash pyramid site. Called “M” after archaeologist Pierre Montet who first discovered it in 1913, the necropolis contains 25 mid-First Dynasty tombs made out of mud bricks. These tombs belonged to elite members of early Old Kingdom society and have been a rich source of information about the development of monumental pharaonic funerary architecture, artifacts and practices in Lower Egypt. Finding a virtually intact solar boat is therefore extremely significant.

Solar boats were ritual vessels that were buried near kings to carry their souls to the heavens where their father, the sun god Ra, awaited them. Ra traveled on two boats during the course of his daily duties, the morning boat that carried him across the heavens during the day, and the evening boat that carried him through the underworld at night. There is some debate among Egyptologists as to whether the solar boats were used to carry the pharaoh’s body over water during the funerary procession or whether they were made just to be buried for the pharaoh’s posthumous use. The most glamorous of solar ships, Pharaoh Khufu’s 140-feet-long and 20-feet-wide cedar yacht discovered in a pit at the foot of the Great Pyramid of Giza in 1954, shows some signs of having been in contact with water, but cedar shavings found in the pit suggest that it was built on site.

The Abu Rawash boat has been removed to the Egyptian Museum in Cairo for conservation. Once it’s in stable condition, it will go on display at the National Museum for Egyptian Civilization which is still under construction. The solar boat is expected to be ready for public display sometime next year.

Medieval Laws of Hywel Dda on display in Wales

In a delightful change of pace from the way these stories usually go, a rare 14th century Welsh manuscript of enormous historical import was sold at auction earlier this month and purchased not by an anonymous private collector, but by a public institution in its country of origin where it is now on display for all to see. The manuscript is a pocket-sized bound volume of the Laws of Hywel Dda, a 10th century compendium of laws codified by Welsh King Hywel Dda, a.k.a. Hywel the Good, and it was purchased by the National Library of Wales in Aberystwyth for $840,000 at a Sotheby’s auction in London on July 10th. The seller was the Massachusetts Historical Society in Boston.

The earliest surviving manuscripts of the Laws of Hywel Dda date to the mid-13th century, so this particular copy is just 100 years newer than the oldest ones in existence. The language itself is also extremely rare. There are only 80 manuscripts written in medieval Welsh known to survive. It’s been nearly a century since a medieval Welsh language manuscript was offered for public sale, and this one is the earliest ever sold.

Experts believe the manuscript was written by a professional scribe for an itinerant lawyer to carry with him and use in his practice. There are handwritten notes indicating the books’ practical use as a reference and living document. Somehow, from 14th century Wales, the manuscript wound up in the hands of the Massachusetts Historical Society of Boston. Researchers have an idea of its winding path, but no explicit evidence.

The first appearance of the manuscript in the historical record is a reference by antiquarian Edward Llwyd in his 1707 book Archaeologia Britannica. He says the manuscript was discovered in Brecon, South Wales, in the library of town official and barrister William Phillips. William Wotton, the first editor and translator of Welsh laws, used it as a source for his work in 1721. That same year, Phillips died, leaving his library to his daughter Anne and her husband William Scourfield of New Moat, Pembrokeshire.

A Morris Scourfield from Narbeth, Pembrokeshire, just eight miles from New Moat, was one of the first people to buy land in the Pennsylvania Welsh community. The last name is rare and his point of origin strongly suggests that Morris was a descendant of William. He or one of his relations most likely brought the manuscript of the Laws of Hywel Dda with them to America in the second half of the 18th century. The Massachusetts Historical Society thinks they received it as a gift in the 19th century, but they don’t have a complete record on the donation.

The Laws were Wales’ first codified uniform legal system. Many of them focus on restorative principles, establishing monetary values for everything from property to household pets to body parts so that any damage or theft would be resolved by payment. Some of them are somewhat progressive in their approach towards women’s rights, in marked contrast to contemporary laws in Anglo-Saxon and Norman England. For instance, the dowry was the amount of a married couple’s communal property which would belong only to the wife should the couple break up before seven years. The amount was determined solely by her social status. Should they break up after seven years, she was entitled to half of their communal property. Women could own, buy and sell property. Women could not be forced to remain in a marriage they wished to leave.

On the other hand, women were not allowed to be enlisted as witnesses for or against a man, and they could be legally beaten by their husbands for three reasons: 1) for giving away something that they did not exclusively own, 2) for being caught in adulterous embraces, 3) for wishing a blemish on her husband’s beard. Beards were a big thing with them. They come up repeatedly.

This unique and fascinating legal system is a key element in Welsh identity, culture and history. Before Hywel’s time, Wales was divided and ruled by a number of kings at a time. Hywel ruled almost the entirety of Wales excepting solely the southeastern regions of Morgannwg and Gwent. His laws were an important unifying factor bringing the country under a single set of administrative rules. When King Edward I of England conquered Wales in 1283, he attempted to eradicate most native legal practices to make the Welsh subject to English law. That this manuscript was commissioned and put to active use 70 years later shows that the Welsh still practiced their way, Longshanks and his heirs be damned.

You see why, therefore, it was of particular importance that this manuscript not wind up in some anonymous collection — especially a British one — never to be seen again. The National Library of Wales secured a grant of $723,000 from the Heritage Lottery Fund to buy the manuscript, and the rest of the money came from the library’s own budget and the Welsh government.

The Laws of Hywel Dda are on public view at the National Library of Wales’ Hengwrt Room from July 23rd until August 31st. After that, the manuscript will be removed for study, conservation and digitization. It will make an excellent companion to a whimsically illustrated Latin manuscript of the Laws they’ve already digitized. The library expects they’ll be done by the end of 2012, whereupon the digitized manuscript will be uploaded to their website and the original manuscript will go on permanent display in the rare book gallery.

No wreckage found in latest Amelia Earhart search

On July 3rd, 2012, 75 years after the news broke worldwide that Amelia Earhart, her navigator Fred Noonan and her Lockheed Model 10E Electra had disappeared over the Pacific the day before, a team from The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery (TIGHAR) departed Honolulu on the University of Hawaii oceanographic research ship R/V Ka Imikai-O-Kanaloa destined for the island of Nikumaroro in the southwestern Pacific Republic of Kiribati. Their goal was to search the deep waters around the uninhabited island for fragments of Earhart’s plane.

Artifacts, like a jar that may have once contained a popular 1930s anti-freckle cream, have been discovered on Nikumaroro before that could suggest the presence of a woman on the island before it was settled for a brief period starting in World War II. Also, a recent examination of a grainy picture of the western end of Nikumaroro taken by British Colonial Service officer Eric Bevington in October of 1937 noted a speck that could be nothing at all or it could be a chunk of Lockheed Installation 40650, a landing gear assembly used on the Lockheed Electra Model 10E.

TIGHAR raised $2.2 million from big ticket sponsors like Lockheed Martin, FedEx and the Discovery Channel (who sent a film crew to document the search for a special that will air on the Discovery Channel August 19th) and from many small donors to fund a deep sea search of the reef slopes of west Nikumaroro. They contracted deep ocean search and recovery specialists Phoenix International to conduct the difficult underwater searches, and the State Department helped facilitate an Antiquities Management Agreement granting TIGHAR an exclusive license to search and recover anything pertaining to the Earhart disappearance within the boundaries of the Republic of Kiribati.

The expedition was supposed to spend 10 days searching the mile-deep waters around Nikumaroro, but the technology they brought to accomplish the feat — including remote operated vehicles, autonomous underwater vehicles and multi-beam sonar — malfunctioned, and the precipitous vertical cliffs full of nooks and crannies that characterize the underwater environment to be explored proved even more of a challenge than expected. After five days, they decided to cut their losses and head back to Hawaii carrying a boat full of sonar data and high definition video but nary a single fragment of a Lockheed Electra Model 10E. The daily report from July 19th describes the team’s plight:

After discussion and analysis of the results so far, they have decided that there is very little point in extending the trip. The problem is the nature of the reef slope: a vertical cliff from 110 feet down to 250 feet, with a shelf that runs along that contour from Nessie to Norwich City. [Nessie is the name they gave to a certain location on Nikumaroro’s reef. The SS Norwich City is a British steamer which ran aground on the reef in 1929.] The airplane could have come to rest there briefly and lost pieces, but they have not found anything at all on that ledge.

From there the cliff goes almost vertically down to 1,000 – 1,200 feet, with another ledge. They will spend the rest of today searching that area. That is where the Norwich City wreckage came to rest, so maybe that’s where the airplane stopped.

But the question of searching for an airplane in this environment is even more basic than “what ledge” or “how far down.” Given what we now know about this place, is it reasonable to think that an airplane which sank here 75 years ago is findable? The environment is incredibly difficult, with nooks and crannies and caves and projections; it would be easy to go over and over and over the same territory for weeks and still not really cover it all. The aircraft could have floated away, as well.

So for the time they have left, they will focus on the ledges. Nothing could stick to the cliff walls, they are far too steep for anything to stick; and besides, if you get something (like a tether) caught, you can cause an avalanche (they did) and lose your ROV (they almost did).

Once the research vessel gets back to Hawaii, TIGHAR will go through the masses of data they’ve assembled. There’s still a chance they might find something pertinent somewhere in the sonar and video information even if they haven’t found the smoking Lockheed gun they were hoping to find. Keep your eye on the TIGHAR website for future announcements about the collected data, and tune to the Discovery Channel August 19th for the documentary.

To close on less of a bummer note, Google celebrated Amelia’s 115th birthday Tuesday with a neat Doodle and a lovely tribute written by Mark Roesler, the attorney for the Earhart estate.

Even as an adventurous dreamer, Amelia still knew that making a lasting legacy involved an element of risk. In a letter to her husband, George Putnam, she wrote, “Please know I am quite aware of the hazards. I want to do it because I want to do it. Women must try to do things as men have tried. When they fail, their failure must be but a challenge to others.” The message she leaves behind is especially evident to me: start living your life. Start setting aside your fears. Start believing it is acceptable to fail, knowing if you did not fail, you did not try. Without a doubt, her philosophy and lifetime accomplishments transcend time.

Chief Joseph war shirt sells for $877,500

Today in depressing auction news, a beaded, quilled hide shirt with white weasel fur fringe and human hair decoration worn by Nez Perce leader Chief Joseph sold at the Coeur d’Alene Art Auction in Reno, Nevada on July 21st for $877,500 to yet another anonymous private collector. This particular garment is of major historical significance. Chief Joseph was wearing it in the first photograph ever taken of him and in a painting by Cyrenius Hall that is now in the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery. The Hall portrait was also used in 1968 to make a postage stamp dedicated to the great chief.

The shirt was dispersed with the rest of his belongings at a potlatch — a ceremonial gift-giving feast in which goods both material and spiritual are redistributed and/or traded — hosted by Chief Joseph’s widow the summer after his death in September of 1904. He had been buried immediately after his death, but in June of 1905, a white marble monument was erected to his memory in the historic Nez Perce cemetery in Nespelem, Washington. He was reburied under the new monument with great ceremony on June 20, 1905.

An article in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer newspaper of June 25, 1905 describes the event:

The Chief Joseph potlatch took place Friday. It was one of the greatest affairs of the kind we have any record of. The huge council lodge was filled. At the head of the lodge were gathered heaps of the worldly possessions of the late Chief Joseph. … After dinner speeches were made, the crowning of which was made by Chief Yellow Bull. The speech was made on horseback while the old chief rode slowly three times around the outside of the big council lodge. He rode Chief Joseph’s faithful old horse and besides that dignity he wore all of Chief Joseph’s war clothes, including the famous eagle feather war bonnet. His speech related almost wholly to the greatness of the man whose clothes he was wearing. …

The great war bonnets and war clothing went to the three nephews. A dozen watches were among the gifts, three fine guns and an endless array of blankets. One of the three buffalo robes was given to Three Knives, or Professor Meany.

So presumably this shirt passed into the hands of one of Chief Joseph’s nephews in 1905, but there is no record of it after that for another 90 years. Its prominent presence in national iconography notwithstanding, the shirt disappeared into the market and was purchased by a collector at an Indian relic show some time in the 1990s. Neither the seller nor buyer had any idea of who had worn this shirt and when. It was sold purely as an exquisite Native American craft in excellent condition. That collector then sold it to another collector who researched the piece thoroughly and was able to identify it as the shirt worn by Chief Joseph in the 1877 picture and the 1878 oil painting. Experts confirmed that it could not have been a later forgery based on the images. The crafts and materials simply cannot be duplicated.

Pictorial evidence is the best evidence there is for the provenance of an object like this. Another war shirt attributed to Chief Joseph sold at Sotheby’s this May for $482,500 because even though there was an impressive paper trail and oral history linking the shirt step by step to Chief Joseph’s cousin Peo-Peo-Tholekt who is said to have received it at the 1905 potlatch, there is no direct evidence that it was ever worn by the chief. One picture is worth a thousand words and $400,000, I suppose.

The picture in question marks an incredibly sad period in Chief Joseph’s life and in the miserably awful history of the United States’ dealings with the Native Americans.

In 1855, Joseph’s father known as Chief Joseph the Elder and a council of other Nez Perce chiefs signed a treaty with the US establishing a 7.7 million acre reservation covering traditional tribal lands in Idaho, Washington, and Oregon. Among them was the Wallowa Valley, the ancestral land of Joseph’s tribe. In 1863, under pressure from settlers and gold rushers, some of the Nez Perce tribes signed a new treaty establishing a 780,000 acre reservation which did not include the Wallowa Valley. Joseph the Elder refused to sign, as did other chiefs, this creating a rift between the “treaty” and “non-treaty” Nez Perce peoples.

On his deathbed in 1871, Chief Joseph the Elder told his son “This country holds your father’s body. Never sell the bones of your father and your mother.” Chief Joseph promised. He never fought the white settlers or the US government with weapons and bloodshed, but he struggled at council after council to ensure his people remained in the Wallowa Valley. Treaties were made that were of course broken whenever the US felt like it. Finally in 1877, Army General Oliver Howard gave Chief Joseph an ultimatum: move out of the valley to the Idaho reservation or we’ll consider it an act of war.

Then began a massive flight. The Nez Perce, pursued by the US Army, first fled east hoping the Crow nation would allow them to settle on their lands. The Crow did not, so Chief Joseph’s people moved north hoping to cross the border into Canada. They almost made it. Just 40 miles from the border near Snake Creek in the Bear Paw Mountains of Montana Territory, Chief Joseph and the US Army fought a five day battle. Freezing, starving, his warrior ranks decimated, Chief Joseph surrendered to General Howard. Chief Joseph’s speech, ostensibly recorded as is but very possibly embellished by Lieutenant Charles Erskine Scott Wood, has gone down in history:

Tell General Howard I know his heart. What he told me before, I have it in my heart. I am tired of fighting. Our chiefs are killed; Looking Glass is dead, Too-hul-hul-sote is dead. The old men are all dead. It is the young men who say yes or no. He who led on the young men is dead. It is cold, and we have no blankets; the little children are freezing to death. My people, some of them, have run away to the hills, and have no blankets, no food. No one knows where they are—perhaps freezing to death. I want to have time to look for my children, and see how many of them I can find. Maybe I shall find them among the dead. Hear me, my chiefs! I am tired; my heart is sick and sad. From where the sun now stands, I will fight no more forever.

The 600 or so surviving Nez Perce were forced to march 400 miles to Fort Keogh, Montana Territory, where they arrived on October 13th, 1877. It was there that post photographer John F. Fouch took the first picture of Chief Joseph ever taken. He was wearing the war shirt as he sat for the picture. From the auction website:

Joseph is seated in the photo and his hands appear frostbitten. Yet, his hair is pushed up in a proud warrior pompadour and he is dressed resplendent in his shirt. Examination of details in the photo leaves no question that the shirt in the Fouch photo is one and the same as the shirt here under discussion. Note and compare the varying lengths of quill wrappings on the hair locks under the neck flap, the short fringe cuts at the end of the sleeves, and the alignment of bead decoration on the neck flap, shoulder and sleeve strips. (Color values of the orthochromatic film used in the 1870’s do not always appear as they do in the later panchromatic film.) Several of the red wool wrapped ermine skin fringes have been secured with pericardium and match up from photo to shirt, especially on Joseph’s left shoulder.

After their stay in Fort Keogh, General William Tecumseh Sherman sent Joseph and 400 of his people to the prisoner of war camp in Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. At Leavenworth, painter Cyrenius Hall made his portrait of Chief Joseph, again wearing the shirt.

The Nez Perce were kept prisoner at Fort Leavenworth for eight months, then moved to Indian Territory in what is today Oklahoma. They lived there (in a manner of speaking; many died there) for seven years. During this time, Chief Joseph tirelessly fought for them to be allowed to return to their ancestral lands, personally pleading their case before presidents, politicians, intellectuals and in the press. Read his riveting account of the history of his people and the patronizing, stupid introduction to it in “An Indian’s Views of Indian Affairs” from the North American Review of April 1879. It’s enough to make you pop a blood vessel, I swear.

In 1885 Chief Joseph’s Nez Perce tribe was allowed to go back to the Pacific Northwest, but not to the Wallowa Valley. Even once settled in Washington’s Colville Reservation, until the end of his days in 1904 Joseph never stopped advocating for his people to be treated with reason and respect, and for their right to return to their ancestral homelands.

Silver coins found on wreck of 16th c. warship Mars

The wreck of the 16th century Swedish warship Mars was discovered last year after two decades of searching, but divers were only able to make a cursory initial exploration of the site at that time. This year, a team of divers, researchers and a documentary film crew returned to the Mars to explore it in depth during the first two weeks of July. They found three silver coins from 1563, the year before the Mars sank in a naval battle off the northern tip of the island of Oland in the Baltic Sea. The coins are Swedish silver dalers bearing the image of King Eric XIV (reigned 1560-1568) in the royal regalia and his motto “Deus dat cui vult,” meaning God gives to whom He wishes.

The discovery of these particular coins is more evidence that the wreck is of the Mars, not just because the dating is so on point. The daler wasn’t an internal Swedish trade currency. That was the mark, which went into a devaluation spiral during the Nordic Seven Years’ War (1563–70), the war between Sweden-Finland and Denmark-Lübeck that the Mars was fighting in when it went down. The silver daler was an international coin minted in Sweden-Finland from 1534 until 1873. Much like the earlier and more widespread Spanish pieces of eight, the daler retained its silver weight and purity and was thus accepted elsewhere in the world. As the story has it, Admiral Jakob Bagge had 200,000 silver dalers with him on the Mars to use hiring mercenaries.

The diving team expects there are many more dalers on the wreck, but the cold, darkness and depth of the site make exploring it extremely time consuming. Professional divers have to carry a special mixture of gasses in their oxygen tanks to avoid the bends, and it still takes them about two hours to rise the 230 feet from the wreck on the sea floor to the surface. They can’t stay down there for long, even in the peak of the summer, before it gets too cold to stand.

Despite these strictures, researchers have been able to document the general map of the wreck site. Because of the dramatic way the Mars went down — according to contemporary eye-witness reports, the ship exploded, sending the main mast shooting straight up into the sky like an arrow — there are artifacts scattered as far as 500 feet from the central wreck. East of the wreck divers have spotted debris that could be the famous mast, but they haven’t investigated it yet.

Despite the explosion, the Mars is still intact in large parts. The massive wood boards still have visible cut marks left by the axes of the carpenters, and traces of white paint are visible in some places. The port hull is almost entirely intact; heavy cannons still stick out of rows of cannon ports. The starboard side has collapsed outwards, exposing the guts of the ship. Divers have swum into the stern and examined an area they think was the admiral’s quarters.

Some human skeletal remains have also been found. The Mars carried a crew of about 670 people, 350 sailors and the rest soldiers. Most of these were enlisted men rather than mercenaries.

There are cannons all over the sea floor. Documentary sources differ on how many cannons the Mars was equipped with, but the smallest number is 107, most of them muzzle-loading bronze cannons. The largest estimate puts the number at 173. Swedish naval artillery was key to their military strength. They had fewer troops, but their cast bronze cannons shot harder and farther than the Danish chamber-loaded iron cannons. The Danish fleet aimed to board, while the numerically inferior Swedes sought to avoid hand-to-hand combat and focus on distance artillery shelling.

Under Admiral Bagge, these tactics were highly effective. In fact, they were effective on May 30th, 1564, when the battle of Oland began. The Swedish ships showered the Danish-Lübeckian navy with cannon fire. The Danish flagship Fortuna alone was hit by 167 projectiles. After the first day, the Danes decided that the next day, they had to board the Mars at all costs or the battle would be lost.

Come the dawn of May 31st, most of the Swedish ships had dispersed, leaving the Mars with little support. Bagge went on the attack anyway — he was already a legend in his own time for his skill and courage — chasing the Danish fleet north with only the Mars, the Elephant and the Swan. It almost worked, but then the wind turned, giving some of the Lübeckian ships a chance to get close to the Mars.

Initial boarding attempts were repulsed by the Mars’ artillery, but then the ship caught fire, either due to a cannon exploding or from bombs and grenades lobbed by the Lübeckians. In hand-to-hand combat, Bagge’s troops were defeated by the superior numbers of the enemy and the fire on his ship. He and a hundred crew members surrendered and were transferred to a Lübeckian ship. Several hundred Lübeckians swarmed the Mars to plunder it. The fire was still raging, however, and while the boarders were looting, the powder kegs exploded. As many as 1000 men were left on board when the explosion took the Mars to the bottom of the sea.

Admiral Bagge was kept prisoner in Copenhagen from 1564 to 1571. A year after the war was over, he was finally released and returned to Stockholm where he was given a title, an estate and a cushy job at the Royal Palace, a position he held until his death in 1577.

The Deep Sea Productions film crew is capturing 3D and high definition film of the site which will be released as a documentary in the near future. Meanwhile, here is a Swedish news story that includes some beautiful footage of the Mars wreck.


For a beautiful photo gallery, sonar map and infographic of the wreck, see this article in the Svenska Dagbladet newspaper.