Bronze Age axe hoard found on Channel Island Jersey

Bronze Age socketed axe head found on Jersey, made ca. 1000 B.C.This has been a banner year for Jersey Island archaeology. This summer metal detectorists discovered a massive hoard of approximately 70,000 Celtic coins weighing three quarters of a ton, and now another metal detector enthusiast has discovered a hoard of a different color: a pottery vessel from the late Bronze Age (ca. 1000 B.C.) containing metal tools in excellent condition.

Metal detectorist Ken Rive with his find behind him in the Jersey Heritage conservation laboratoryKen Rive, a member of the Jersey Metal Detecting Society, has been scouting the island for 20 years. He’s found small pieces of gold and silver, the occasional coin, but nothing of historical import. This time he was exploring a field in the northeastern parish of Trinity when his metal detector alerted. Less than a foot under the surface, he unearthed two bronze axe heads in pristine condition. Underneath the axe heads there was a pottery vessel. Rive realized the axe heads were once inside the vessel up near the lip and had been dislodged at some point.

Conservator Neil Mahrer carefully excavates the hoardIt was clear to him that this could be a find of historical significance, so he contacted Jersey Heritage and the Société Jersiaise. They dispatched Jersey Heritage’s Curator of Archaeology Olga Finch, conservator Neil Mahrer (who actually commented on the earlier post about the Celtic hoard, so if he’s reading this one too, hi Neil!), and Robert Waterhouse of the Société Jersiaise to excavate the pottery vessel in the trench. Ken Rive also got to help dig, lucky duck.

The excavation found that the top of the pot had been damaged by a plough, which is why the axe heads were loose while the rest of the pot contents are compacted with mud. A large number of pottery fragments not belonging to this hoard vessel were also found in the trench, suggesting that perhaps there’s more to be discovered in this spot.

Vessel wrapped in bandages, plastic wrap, aluminum foil and polyurethane foamTo ensure that they would be able to remove the delicate vessel intact from the earth, as more of it was exposed in the digging, the team wrapped a bandage around it until at the end the entire thing was swaddled like the head of a mummy, as Neil Mahrer puts it. Once the vessel was fully exposed and mummy-wrapped, they wrapped it in a layer of plastic wrap, then in a layer of aluminum foil and finally sprayed a foaming polyurethane all over it. That hardened into a thick insulating cocoon which kept the pot intact and tightly in place so the team could lift it safely and take it to the conservation lab.

Contents of vessel begin to be exposedThe vessel is now in the Jersey Heritage lab where Neil Mahrer is carefully excavating the contents. It’s about a foot in diameter and the size of a football (as in soccer). The axe heads have been identified as socketed axe heads, meaning they were cast with loops near the back of the head to provide a more secure means of fixing them to a wooden handle. This technology was developed around 1000 B.C., a thousand years into the history of Bronze Age metallurgy. Researchers believe there are more of them inside the pot. Some bronze pieces are beginning to show, but none have been fully uncovered or identified yet.

The second bronze axe headAccording to Olga Finch, late Bronze Age hoards have been found before in Jersey, among them founder’s hoards, collections of scrap metal pieces that were destined to be melted down and recast. This hoard is highly unusual, however, because the axes are in like-new condition, suggesting that this pot may not have been the possession of a farmer buried for safekeeping from marauders, but rather the merchandise of a traveling salesman. Bronze was extremely valuable, and this much high quality bronze in one container would have been prohibitively expensive for most people to own outright.

Since they’ve been fortunate enough to find the vessel intact and excavate it in situ, researchers hope their careful, thorough cleaning and opening of the vessel and its contents will give them some answers about the hoard, its role and why it was buried. It will be months before they’re done removing, recording and analyzing the contents of the pot. Once they’re out and cleaned, Jersey Heritage hopes they’ll be able to put the hoard on display as soon as next summer.

Click here to see video of the find as it was excavated, including the mummy wrapping of the pot, the application of the hardening polyurethane foam and the whole shebang at the lab complete with bags and bags of pottery fragments. It’s amazing how much they found in such a small excavation trench.

100-million-year-old spider attack captured in amber

A hundred million years ago, back in the Early Cretaceous when dinosaurs still roamed the earth, a tiny male parasitic wasp was going about his business when he flew into the web of an orb spider. Stuck in the silken strands of death, the wasp could only stare at his impending doom as the juvenile arachnid descended upon him to sup heartily on his mortal shell. He felt the hairy touch of the spider’s legs, one, then two, then three, and knew the fatal assault was finally upon him.

A tree, witness to this most primal of scenes, saw again how death is but nourishment of life and wept a single resinous tear of joy or sorrow, we cannot know today which, at nature’s remorseless cycle. As the resin flowed from the tree’s ducts, its path intersected predator and prey. The former found his role suddenly reversed. Now he too was immovably stuck, entombed forever with the dinner he would never enjoy still in his grasp, an arthropod Tantalus.

Orb spider attack on parasitic wasp captured in amber 97-100 million years ago, leg of adult spider right

But he was not destined to spend eternity alone with the creature he had come so close to feasting upon. There was another witness to this small but great event, another orb spider sharing the web, an adult, an older brother to the youthful hunter in bond if not in genetics. It is a rare sight to behold, this social relationship between the mature and the callow, in the solitary world of the spider. Far more common would be the adult male spider making a meal of both the younger one and the hapless wasp. This scene frozen in time is the first instance of an arachnid social relationship and the first ancient spider attack on prey in his web ever found.

And thus the essential moment was captured, the predator and his prey, 15 unbroken silk strands of the one’s home and the other’s fatal trap, the father and son or big brother and little brother or just plain friends, locked together in a translucent golden coffin even while the world around it boiled and froze and tore itself apart, even while all others of their genera died away never to return. Ten million years passed ten times.

The resin and its occupants, now hardened and fossilized, were buried deep under the soil of the Hukawng Valley in Kachin state, the northernmost region of Burma. When the humans came, they would see those chunks of hardened resin as objects of great beauty, of mystical significance, of medical importance. For generations they would dig deep and shallow with wooden shovels and sharpened bamboo to mine the valley’s amber wealth. It became known as a source of prized amber from China’s Han Dynasty (206 B.C.–220 A.D.) onward and remained fabled for it even during and after World War II when production was stopped as the region was roiled by conflict.

The amber fields would lie fallow until Canadian mining company Leeward Capital Corp. trod the treacherous diplomatic and regulatory terrain to restart production in 2000. They planned to sell it for its gem value, but first they needed to know its age. Paleo-entomologist Dr. David Grimaldi of the American Museum of Natural History in New York examined the first batch. He found that Hukawng Valley amber, known as Burmite, dated to the Cretaceous and was thus some of oldest gem-quality amber in the world.

The prevalence of Baltic amber on the gem market saved these marvels for science. The value to researchers of such ancient amber rich with insect and plant inclusions exceeded its value to jewelers. When Dr. Grimaldi had purchased enough stock to keep him busy for years, Leeward struck up a resale arrangement with Kentucky collector Ron Buckley who had been locked in a fascinated embrace with amber since 1972.

Buckley photographed more than 3000 Burmite specimens as much as 100 times each. He selected 150 pieces of amber with particularly spectacular denizens and made them available to researchers. Dr. George Poinar from the Department of Zoology at Oregon State University in Corvallis is one of them. Together he and Ron have published multiple papers on the flora and fauna trapped in the amber of Hukawng Valley. The unprecedented significance of the orb spiders and the parasite wasp may make their most recent paper perhaps the greatest of them all.

The last will and testament of Alfred Nobel

The Nobel Assembly at the Karolinska Institutet is awarding the Nobel Prizes this week. Yesterday the prize for Medicine went jointly to John B. Gurdon and Shinya Yamanaka for their discoveries, Gurdon’s in 1962, Yamanaka’s in 2006, that mature cells dedicated to one specific tissue can be reprogrammed into unspecialized stem cells. This morning the winners of the Physics Prize were announced (Serge Haroche and David J. Wineland “for ground-breaking experimental methods that enable measuring and manipulation of individual quantum systems”), followed by Chemistry on the 10th, Literature on the 11th, Peace on the 12th and Economics on the 15th. You can watch live webcasts of the announcements on the Nobel Prize website, assuming it doesn’t crash from the traffic like it did for me.

It’s widely known that the Nobel Prizes were founded by wealthy Swedish industrialist Alfred Nobel, inventor of dynamite. He stipulated in his 1895 will that the bulk of his fortune (31.5 million Swedish kronor then, about 1.5 billion kronor today or $225 million) be invested in “safe securities” and the interest on the fund given away annually as prizes

to those who, during the preceding year, shall have conferred the greatest benefit to mankind. The said interest shall be divided into five equal parts, which shall be apportioned as follows: one part to the person who shall have made the most important discovery or invention within the field of physics; one part to the person who shall have made the most important chemical discovery or improvement; one part to the person who shall have made the most important discovery within the domain of physiology or medicine; one part to the person who shall have produced in the field of literature the most outstanding work in an ideal direction; and one part to the person who shall have done the most or the best work for fraternity between nations, for the abolition or reduction of standing armies and for the holding and promotion of peace congresses.

An erroneous report of his death seven years earlier may have set him on this course. His brother Ludvig, an innovator in oil production and distribution with some extraordinarily progressive labor views, died of a cardiac condition in Cannes in 1888. Alfred and Ludvig had had an ugly falling out over money years before but were reconciled shortly before his death and Alfred was by his side in Cannes when he died. As the story goes, a French newspaper mistook Ludvig for Alfred and published an obituary entitled “The merchant of death is dead.” The lede was no less hard-hitting: “Dr. Alfred Nobel, who made his fortune by finding a way to kill the most people as ever before in the shortest time possible, died yesterday.”

I can’t confirm that this story is true, however. There is no reference I was able to find to the actual newspaper in question, and at least one biographer was unable to find any such mistaken obituary in any French newspaper of the time. The Encyclopaedia Britannica includes the obituary story as factual but notes that there’s no evidence it played a part in Nobel’s thought process. The Nobel Foundation doesn’t mention the obituary story at all.

According to the Foundation, Nobel developed the prize idea gradually over the years, inspired by his own varied interests. An excellent student, he was fluent in six languages, adept at chemistry and a lover of literature, especially the Romantic poets Byron and Shelley. He wrote poetry and a scandalous play that was almost entirely destroyed but recently rediscovered, even for a short while considering a career as a writer. He went with his strengths in the sciences instead, by all accounts a wise choice, and in the end secured 350 patents in various countries to inventions ranging from the dynamite to artificial silk. He also had an interest in medicine, founding a medical lab to research blood and transfusions.

Although it’s often said that Alfred Nobel invented dynamite for industrial applications and was horrified to see it used as a weapon of war, by the last decade of his life, he had turned increasingly to the production of arms and munitions. His AB Bofors company in Sweden was a weapons manufacturing concern where his innovations in artillery and war material were produced.

At the same time, he carried on an avid correspondence with Austrian pacifist Bertha von Suttner whom he had met in Paris in 1876 when he hired her as his secretary. She left the job after one week to run off to Vienna and marry her lover, Baron Arthur Gundaccar von Suttner, in secret without the approval of his family. Bertha von Suttner would become famous in 1889 with the publication of her anti-war novel Lay Down Your Arms, a polemical melodrama that popularized the peace movement much like Uncle Tom’s Cabin did for the abolition of slavery.

Bertha and Alfred often discussed war and peace in their correspondence. In an 1891 letter he told her “Perhaps my factories will put an end to war sooner than your congresses: on the day that two army corps can mutually annihilate each other in a second, all civilized nations will surely recoil with horror and disband their troops.” We all know how that panned out. Bertha would become one of the earliest recipients of the Nobel Peace Prize, receiving it in 1905.

In November of 1895, Alfred Nobel composed his last will and testament. It was his third iteration. He had changed the wording of the major bequest twice before, finally sticking with this last one. He did not employ a lawyer, a decision that would cause considerable headaches in the implementation of his wishes after his death. He left some moneys to his nieces and nephews, employees, a guy in Texas I was unable to find out anything about, then 94% of his fortune to the prize foundation. As executors he appointed his personal assistant, chemical engineer Ragnar Sohlman, and Rudolf Lilljequist, a civil engineer who had started an electrochemical business with Nobel’s support.

Alfred Nobel died in his villa at San Remo, Italy, on December 10, 1896, from a cerebral hemorrhage. When his will was read, it shocked his family and the world. Giant bequests for the advancement of science, literature and peace were not exactly common. The international press was positive, especially since Nobel had made a point of saying the awards should be made without considering country of origin. Initial reactions in the Swedish press were positive too, but King Oscar II was horrified. He saw the will as unpatriotic, as bypassing Swedish interests, and the Peace Prize in particular as a major political hornet’s nest since it was to be awarded by the Norwegian parliament while Sweden and Norway were in the process of getting a national divorce.

His relatives expected a more traditional approach to his legacy. They resented getting peanuts while random writers and lab rats got the bulk. From a business perspective, there were grave concerns that in order to go through with this crazy prize scheme, they’d be forced to sell Alfred’s stock in Branobel, his brothers’ hugely oil company in Russia, to outsiders. Not only would this introduce non-family into the ruling structure of the business, but the mass stock sale could depress the company’s worth and ruin its finances. The heirs of Alfred’s brother Robert’s filed suit to contest the will. Robert’s son Ludvig initiated sequestration procedures against Alfred’s properties.

The academies Nobel had named as awarding bodies were also not too thrilled. The will was vague on details, with little information on how the prizes were to be awarded. With so many influential people dead set against the scheme and the will in legal limbo, the Swedish Academy of Sciences, the Caroline Institute in Stockholm and the Academy in Stockholm hesitated for years before accepting their duties.

Then there were the tax issues, primarily in France which considered Nobel a resident even though he had homes all over Europe and had died in Italy. Ragnar Sohlman had to pull some serious cloak-and-dagger to get Nobel’s stocks and financial papers out of various French banks and into safe hands in Sweden. That wasn’t the only giant pain Sohlman had to suffer to fulfill Alfred’s last wishes. He co-executor was too busy running his factory to be fully involved, so he just acted in an advisory capacity. It was Sohlman who fought the governments of France, Sweden and Norway, the prize-giving institutions and the Nobels themselves non-stop for five years to make it all happen.

Finally the family was appeased with the help of Emanuel, the son of Alfred’s brother Ludvig of fake obituary fame. He didn’t want to contest the foundation; he just wanted to ensure the shares of Branobel stayed in the family. King Oscar II himself tried to browbeat him into breaking the will, summoning him to an audience and lecturing him on the problems the Peace Prize would cause. Emanuel stood firm, even shoring up Sohlman’s spirits when they flagged, telling him that the word for executor in Russian means “vicar of the soul.”

Emanuel helped broker amendments to the will to satisfy his cousins. In addition to the modest bequests of a few hundred thousand kronor, they would receive 1,000,000 kronor more. The Nobel heirs would also be involved in the development of the statutes common to all awarding bodies, so they’d have a say in the standards and execution of the prizes. Emanuel also raised money to buy out his uncle’s stock himself to keep it all in the family.

The remaining issues were resolved when Sohlman enlisted the aid of an actual lawyer. The new legal adviser wrote to Swedish attorney general asking him to weigh in on the case, and the AG came down on their side saying that even though no direct interests of the crown were involved, it was right that the government “assist in putting the testator’s wishes into effect.” With that decision on their side, King Oscar II went off to suck an egg and all the prize-awarding bodies accepted their duties by late 1898.

The government formally endorsed the creation of the Nobel Foundation on September 9th, 1899. One more year was spent in negotiations between the awarding institutions and the Nobel family over the statutes of the Foundation. On June 29th, 1900 a royal ordinance established the statutes of the Nobel Foundation and special regulations governing all the Swedish prize-giving committees. On December 10th, 1901, the first Nobel Prizes were awarded in Stockholm and Oslo.

The Great Chicago Fire started 141 years ago today


Chicago History Museum diorama of the Great Fire of 1871


Around 9:00 PM on Sunday, October 8th, 1871, a barn on the corner of DeKoven and Twelfth Streets that housed Mrs. Catherine O’Leary’s five dairy cows began to burn. Despite the legend that would later envelop Mrs. O’Leary and her bovines in eternal ignominy, it’s not clear that the fire started exactly in her barn. It was either there or in the alley right behind it, however, and the O’Leary barn was the first building to burn in the conflagration that would kill 300 people, level 2,000 acres between Lake Michigan and the Chicago River and leave 100,000 people, a third of the city population, homeless.

It was Krypto the Superdog in disguise as a supercow who really did itThe story that she was milking an ornery cow that kicked over a gas lantern igniting the fateful blaze was a fiction dreamed up by journalists to give the story anecdotal specificity. It’s like when you tell a joke in the first person as if it happened to you; it makes the punch line hit harder. According to Catherine O’Leary’s testimony at the Board of Police and Fire Commissioners’ inquiry into the fire, she was asleep when the barn went up in flames. Her husband Patrick realized the barn was burning first. He woke her up, but by the time they got outside several houses near the barn were already on fire. Neighbors tried to douse the flames with buckets of water drawn from fire hydrants. They were unsuccessful.

Map of Chicago with fire zone in pinkThe summer of 1871 had been a scorcher. The high temperatures and drought conditions extended into the fall, and wood predominated in city construction. As every large city has found out, both before and after Nero sang the Sack of Ilium accompanying himself on the lyre, dry wood structures placed close together = raging conflagrations that cannot be contained by human effort. Add to that a strong wind out of the southwest, almost an hour’s delay before the first fire alarm was pulled, fire brigades slow to respond because they were exhausted from having fought a fire all day in Saturday, and human error in dispatching the firefighters to the wrong places, and any opportunity to control the flames before they spread was lost.

The fire split repeatedly, leaping in all directions, driven to terrifying heights by convection whirls that are basically tornadoes of flame caused by the clash of hot air meeting cooler air above and to the side. Witnesses reported seeing walls of flame 100 feet high devouring the city in sheets. So-called “fireproof” buildings like the building housing the Chicago Tribune were consumed as readily and thoroughly as working class cottages and tony north side mansions. The superheated winds alone set structures on fire even before the originating fire reached them.

"Chicago in Flames," Currier & Ives lithographWhen the Pumping Station on Chicago Avenue was flattened by flame at 3:30 AM, the firefighters lost their sole means of defense. The river and lake were no help. Even if access to them wasn’t blocked by fire tornadoes, they were bristling with flammable materials like wooden boats, debris and grease on the surface. The people, who had initially rubbernecked the spectacle of fire consuming downtown buildings like the opera house and the court house, began to panic once the fire leaped over the fork of the Chicago River to the north side. There were stampedes as people flocked to bridges and roads leading west towards Lincoln Park, the main gathering area on the shores of Lake Michigan for the homeless of all walks of life.

The fire kept burning through Monday. In the wee hours of Tuesday morning, it began to drizzle. The light rain aided by weakening winds finally put out the Great Chicago Fire. This is what the city looked like when it was all over:


Panorama of Chicago after the fire


The O’Leary’s cottage on DeKoven Street never burned. They lived there until 1879 when they sold it and moved elsewhere. They moved again repeatedly, forever dogged by their association with the fire. Mrs. O’Leary died of pneumonia in 1895, to the last haunted by the unfair blame placed on her and her poor animals, all of which were burned to death in the fire except for one calf, an immense financial and personal blow to any working class family.

O'Leary cottage on DeKoven Street after the fireThe story had taken immovable root in popular culture in large part thanks to nativist bigotry fanned by a press that gloried in depicting her either as a clumsy, drunken Irish oaf or as a bitter parasite who lashed out at society when her benefits were cut off. Every year in October, reporters would track her down and harass her for interviews. When she chased them off without a word, they would publish scurrilous lies that her house smelled like a distillery and cow manure and that it had no front door and clothes stuffed in holes where windows should be. She never released a public statement and never had a single portrait done or photograph taken of herself.

The city of Chicago, on the other hand, rebounded with astonishing alacrity. Donations poured in from all over the country and abroad, and land speculators took advantage of the opportunity, much like Nero did, to snap up land and build grander, safer structures. Fire codes were rewritten to ensure the city would never be so vulnerable again.

1924 Chicago Day celebration featuring descendant of Mrs. O'Leary's cowEventually the story of Mrs. O’Leary and her cow lost the ugly anti-Irish sentiment that had underpinned it for decades. She became an innocuous mascot of sorts, represented by jovial impersonators in parades and floats. The location of the barn and cottage would become something of a shrine for Chicagoans. In 1960 a new fire academy was built on the spot, and the next year a bronze sculpture called “Pillar of Fire” by Egon Weiner was installed at its entrance.

To read much more about the Great Fire and the aftermath, including some truly gripping first-person witness accounts, see the Chicago Historical Society’s website dedicated to the fire. If you’re not in a reading mood, you can browse their excellent image gallery. The Library of Congress has a good collection of stereoscopic pictures of the city in ruins here.

I’ll leave you with Gilda exonerating Mrs. O’Leary and putting the blame on Mame where it doubtless belongs.

50 skulls, 200 jaws found at Mexico’s Templo Mayor

Archaeologists excavate pit filled with 45 skulls and 200 mandibles in Mexico City's Templo MayorArchaeologists have unearthed 50 skulls and more than 200 lower mandibles in the Sacred Precinct of Mexico City’s Templo Mayor, the National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH) announced Friday. The bones are estimated to be around 500 years old and are the largest single collection ever discovered in the Templo Mayor.

The skulls were found in mid-August in the course of construction work to create a new lobby entrance to the Templo Mayor museum. Archaeologists surveying the site before construction detected the skeletal remains behind a ceremonial structure called a cuauhxicalco. Further excavation revealed a cache of 45 skulls and 200-plus jawbones piled on top of a sacrificial stone. They were not carefully laid but rather appeared to have been thrown there in a haphazard manner. The border of the skull deposit area was lined with stones, then filled with earth. The layer dates to the Temple IV construction stage, between 1440 and 1469.

Skulls and mandibles in the pitSome of the skulls have cut marks indicating abortive attempts to create skull masks. The Aztecs made masks out of the front part of human skulls. They would adorn them with jade eyes and accessories like necklaces, rattles and obsidian knives. The skulls were not worn as masks. The eye sockets were blocked with decorative stones, so anybody attempting to wear one would not have been able to see. As representations of the death god Mictlantecuhtli, the masks were put on display as ornaments or used as offerings in rituals. Day of the Dead skull masks and sugar skulls in modern Mexico are the descendants of this tradition.

The skulls may have been exhumed before their ritual use rather than having been freshly killed. Preliminary analysis found that most of the skulls belonged to women and men between 20 and 35 years old at the time of their death. They were in relatively good condition thanks to the high moisture content of the soil, but the pressure of the earth fill and later construction on the site did fragment some of the skulls. Still, a good many of them are still whole and archaeologists are optimistic that they will be able to restore the ones that aren’t.

Five pierced skulls found under sacrifice stoneUnderneath the sacrificial stone another five skulls were found, all of them with large holes in both temples. These were likely pierced by a wooden stake and strung together on a rack, a monument called a tzompantli made out of the skulls of the sacrificed. Archaeologist Raul Barrera believes the tzompantli were buried beneath the sacrificial stone as an offering to consecrate the stone itself. Aztecs often used skulls in the consecration of newly-built sacred spaces, particularly ones relating to Mictlantecuhtli.

Sacrificial stoneThe sacrificial stone, against which sacrificial victims would be made to lean for the priest to open their ribcages and remove the heart, is 17 inches high, 14 to 17 inches long and 4 inches thick. The skulls would serve a symbolic communicative role between the world of living men, the dead and the gods.

Skulls from the tzompantli in the labUniversity of Florida archaeologist Susan Gillespie, who was not involved in the excavation, said it caught her attention that the skulls that had been on the rack, called tzompantli, were buried separately.

“It provides rather novel information on the use and reuse of skulls for ritual events at the Templo Mayor,” Gillespie said in an email. […]

“We normally associate [the sacrificial stone] with heart removal rather than decapitation,” she said. “It ultimately gives us a better understanding of how the Aztecs used the human body in various ways in their ritual practices.”