Archive for January, 2013

1000-year-old Sri Lankan temple step found in Devon garden

Saturday, January 12th, 2013

A Sandakada pahana, a beautifully carved semi-circular granite slab which a thousand years ago graced the entrance to a temple in Anuradhapura, a sacred Buddhist city and a capital of Sri Lanka from the 4th century B.C. to the 11th century A.D., has been found in the garden of a modest bungalow in Devon. Sam Tuke, an appraiser at Bonhams, happened to hear about it from a woman who was in the office picking up something else. When she mentioned the elaborate carvings of animals which she had loved tracing with her fingers since she was a small child, the expert was intrigued. The client brought him a picture of it the next day and he realized it was something special.

It is so special, in fact, that it’s one of only seven of its kind. The other six are all still the first steps to stupas (spired dome temples representing the enlightened mind of the Buddha) in Anuradhapura. The tradition of the elaborately carved first step goes all the way to the dawn of Buddhism. According to tradition, the practice began in India when the Buddha was still alive. A devotee had covered the floors of the temple he had built with expensive, richly patterned cloths. When another devotee wanted to do the same, Ananda, the Buddha’s personal attendant and first cousin, suggested she place them at the base of the temple steps. From then on, the first step would be a beautiful art work.

In Anuradhapura, this tradition took the form of carved stones. Sandakada pahana means half-moon stone in the Sinhala language and indeed all the steps are semi-circular in shape. The designs carved within the half-moon are laden in Buddhist symbolism, representing the life of the Buddha and the cycle of Samsara (birth, life, death and reincarnation). Within the half-moon are concentric half-circles carved with Buddhist symbols. In the center is a half lotus in bloom. The lotus represents purity of spirit as it floats unblemished above the mud of earthly attachment. When the Buddha was born, he took seven steps and at each step a lotus flower blossomed.

The next band is a line of geese (some call them swans, but swans aren’t native to the region and the creatures don’t have long necks). Geese are considered examples of ideal qualities — they aren’t vainly adorned like peacocks but they can fly to much greater heights, their migration shows a lack of attachment to home, they make pleasing sounds — and the Abhiniṣkramaṇa Sūtra tells the tale of a young Prince Siddhartha saving a goose which had been shot with an arrow by his cousin and nursing it back to health.

After the geese is a band of foliage called a liyavel, a stylized design symbolizing worldly desires, and after that is a parade of four animals: elephant, horse, lion and bull. They follow each other in that order representing the four phases of Buddha’s life.

The elephant represents the Buddha’s birth and growth. One night before he was a twinkle in her eye, his mother Queen Maya dreamed that a white elephant holding a lotus flower in its trunk walked around her three times then entered her womb. The white elephant, symbol of mental strength greatness, was the Buddha himself returning to life in his final incarnation as Prince Siddhartha. The horse represents energy and effort in the practice of dharma. Buddha rode his horse, Kanthaka, when he left the palace for good to live as an ascetic begging for alms. The lion symbolizes power and the teachings of the mature Buddha which are also known as “the Lion’s Roar.” The bull represents forbearance and the acceptance of death. An alternate interpretation of the four animals is that they represent the four mortal perils: birth (elephant), disease (lion), decay (bull) and death (horse).

The outermost band is a carving of stylized flames representing the fire of worldly existence.

The Sandakada pahanas were created towards the end of the Anuradhapura Kingdom. Sri Lanka was invaded by the Tamil Chola Empire of India in 993. Anuradhapura king Mahinda V, a weak ruler who made the fatal mistake of not paying his army, was finally captured in 1017. He was kept prisoner in India while the Chola army sacked the sacred city of Anuradhapura. They then moved the capital of Sri Lanka to Polonnaruwa tolling the final death knell of the Anuradhapura Kingdom. The city was abandoned and the jungle reclaimed the ruins.

It wasn’t forgotten, however. It had been written about extensively by ancient Roman (Pliny the Elder in Book VI, Chapter 24 of Natural History refers to the travelogue of Annius Plocamus whose servant was blown off course to Sri Lanka) and Chinese sources. In the 1820s and 30s, British colonial administrator Sir William Colebrooke describes the art and architecture of Anuradhapura, and a Sandakada pahana in particular, in glowing if Eurocentric terms.

“I saw here ornamented capitals and balustrades, and bas reliefs of animals and foliage. I cannot better express my opinion of their elegance than by saying that, had I seen them in a museum, I should, without hesitation, have pronounced them to be Grecian or of Grecian descent. One semicircular slab, at the foot of a staircase, is carved in a pattern of foliage which I have repeatedly seen in works of Greek and Roman origin.”

So how did this masterpiece of immense cultural importance find its way to a Devon bungalow? It was in the garden of the current owner’s childhood home in Sussex. Her parents had purchased the house from a tea planter in the 1950s, a tea planter would certainly have good reason to visit Sri Lanka, or Ceylon as it was then called, and in those days could easily have purchased some loot from Anuradhapura and brought it home.

When her parents died, the Sussex house was sold, but the owner of the stone couldn’t bear to leave behind a piece that had given her so much delight in the happy days of her youth. She took it with her. “The Pebble,” as the three-quarter ton, eight-foot by four-foot, six-inch-thick granite slab is known in the family, has moved with her five times since then. Now she’s parting with it for good, sadly. It will be sold at Bonham’s Indian and Islamic sale in London on April 23rd. They expect it will sell for at least £30,000 ($48,000), which seems very low to me considering its beauty and incalculable historic and cultural value.

I wish she’d donate it to a museum. It’s in such impeccable condition, which makes it even rarer than the six which remain in place since they’ve been stepped on by so many thousands of pilgrims and tourists.


Two hoards found buried in Black Sea citadel

Friday, January 11th, 2013

A team of Russo-Ukrainian archaeologists have unearthed two buried hoards in the citadel of Artezian, an ancient town in the Crimean Peninsula of southeastern Ukraine on the coast of the Black Sea. The hoards contain 244 copper coins from the second half of the 1st century B.C., 10 silver denarii from the reigns of Roman emperors Augustus and Tiberius, glass vessels and jewelry made out of gold, silver, bronze and gemstones. The discovery was made during the dig season of 2009 but is being published in this month’s Ancient Civilizations from Scythia to Siberia (article not available online yet).

Archaeologists and a constantly refreshed team of volunteers have been excavating Artezian for more than 20 years and it has yet to disappoint. There is evidence of settlement going back to the Neolithic, but it was with the dawn of the Bosporan kingdom in the 5th century B.C. that the town became a military and economic center. Its location on the Black Sea on the Kerch Straight connecting the Black Sea to the Sea of Azov and its high elevation surrounded by a forbidding terrain made it easy to defend.

The hoards were found underneath a burnt layer which was left when the settlement was almost completely destroyed by fire during the war between the Bosporan kingdom and the Roman Empire in 44-45 A.D.

Bosporus and Rome had a long history of clientage and warfare by the first century A.D. The Spartocid dynasty that had ruled Bosporus since 438 B.C. ended in 110 B.C. The last Spartocid king left Bosporus to King Mithridates VI of Pontus, one of the greatest thorns in Rome’s side who fought against some of its greatest military leaders including Sulla and Pompey. It was Pompey who defeated him in 63 B.C., after which Mithridates fled to Bosporus where his sons ruled in his name. When his eldest son refused to help him raise yet another army to fight Rome, Mithridates had him killed. His youngest son Pharnaces then rebelled against his father. Mithridates the Great holed himself up in a citadel right next to Artezian and committed suicide.

After his father’s death, Pharnaces II begged Pompey to let him keep his kingdom and Pompey allowed it. Pharnaces had something of his father in him, though, so when he saw a chance to snatch some of Rome’s territory during Julius Caesar’s Civil War (that crossing of the Rubicon had a wide-ranging consequences) in 49 B.C., he took it. He invaded Pontus, and at first it seemed to go well. In 48 B.C. he defeated Caesar’s general Gnaeus Domitius Calvinus at the battle of Nicopolis. Then Caesar himself intervened and decisively defeated Pharnaces at Zela in 47 B.C., after which his son-in-law Asander killed him and claimed the throne. Caesar got Pharnaces’s brother Mithridates to make a counterclaim on the throne and fight his nephew for it. Mithridates won and Asander was exiled but this victory was short-lived. After Caesar’s assassination in 44 B.C., Octavian restored Asander as king.

Asander ruled until he was 93 years old and even then he had to starve himself to death to shuffle off the mortal coil. After some back and forth with Roman-backed usurpers, Asander’s son Aspurgus took the throne. Under Aspurgus’ rule starting in 8 B.C., Bosporus was a full client state of Rome. Aspurgus became a Roman citizen and added “Tiberius Julius” to his name after his patrons Augustus and Tiberius. His son Tiberius Julius Mithridates Philogermanicus Philopatris, a descendant of Mark Antony’s on his mother’s side, succeeded him in 38 A.D.

For reasons not entirely clear today, the emperor Claudius, who had supported Mithridates kingship after the death of his father, replaced him with his younger brother Tiberius Julius Cotys I in 45 A.D.. Claudius also recalled one of the Bosporan garrisons. Mithridates raised an army to fight his brother and the remaining Roman garrison, a war he promptly lost. Cotys I and Rome beat him like a drum.

All this chaos made for a dangerous living situation even in hilltop fortresses like Artezian. The Bosporan-Roman war layer is four feet below the surface and it’s packed full of artifacts from the most valuable — coins, jewelry — to the most quotidian — domestic tools — to the remains of weapons used to defend the citadel.

“The fortress had been besieged. Wealthy people from the settlement and the neighborhood had tried to hide there from the Romans. They had buried their hoards inside the citadel,” Nikolaï Vinokurov, a professor at Moscow State Pedagogical University, explained. […]

People huddled in the fortress for protection as the Romans attacked, but Vinokurov said they knew they were doomed. “We can say that these hoards were funeral sacrifices. It was obvious for the people that they were going to die shortly,” he wrote in an email to LiveScience. The siege and fall of the fortress occurred in AD 45.

Curiously, each hoard included exactly 55 coins minted by Mithridates VIII. “This is possibly just a simple coincidence, or perhaps these were equal sums received by the owners of these caskets from the supporters of Mithridates,” the team wrote in its paper.

I’m not sure why Vinokurov is so certain the citadel’s inhabitants knew they were doomed to die. Cotys could have spared the town from total annihilation, it seems to me, even if they had sided with his brother. Claudius spared Mithridates, after all.


Rare pic of split mushroom cloud found in Hiroshima

Thursday, January 10th, 2013

A rare picture of the mushroom cloud over Hiroshima split into two distinct parts, one on top of the other, has been discovered at Honkawa Elementary School in Hiroshima city. According to a notation on the back of the print, the photograph was shot from the town of Kaitaichi (today part of the town of Kaita), six miles east of ground zero two minutes after the bomb was dropped on August 6th, 1945. The picture was known to a few historians but only through copies; its only recent publication was in the 1988 book Hiroshima-ken Sensai-shi (Chronicle of War Damage in Hiroshima Prefecture).

This is the first original print of this photograph discovered, and the information on the back contradicts what historians have thought about the picture. Hiroshima-ken Sensai-shi described the picture as having been taken 20-30 minutes after the bomb was dropped, not immediately after detonation.

The only other image of the split cloud over Hiroshima was taken from the air by U.S. military photographers accompanying bomber Enola Gay in a B-29 Superfortress later named Necessary Evil. If it’s the picture I think it is (see left), then the cloud wasn’t quite split. There’s still a filament connecting top and bottom. The newly discovered print shows the two parts of the cloud completely separated.

The print is six inches high and four and a half inches wide. It was found in a collection of materials, mainly press articles, about the bombing of Hiroshima. The collection was donated to the school by Yosaburo Yamasaki, a local resident who survived the bombing, in or just after 1953.

That’s a significant year because the Allied Occupation of Japan officially ended April 28th, 1952. Before then, Occupation authorities censored images that were considered potentially subversive. Pictures of the atomic bombs and of the cities they had leveled were not allowed in the Japanese press. In fact, as soon as they took over in 1945 the U.S. Occupation forces seized printed photographs of the bombings from press agencies. Two thousand prints of war damage seized during the occupation were returned to Japan in 1973.

The picture will go on display at a museum next to the school starting this spring. Hongawa Elementary School was the school closest to ground zero (around 380 yards away from the epicenter). The structure was burned in the firestorm that followed the blast. Ten faculty members and 400 children were killed instantly. The peace museum was built next to the reconstructed school to document the devastation. Artifacts from the school and photographs of the damage are on display.


Seven Augustan era statues found in Ciampino

Wednesday, January 9th, 2013

Archaeologists with the regional superintendence of Lazio have unearthed seven statues from the 1st century B.C. on the site of the villa of Marcus Valerius Messalla Corvinus, consul of Rome and patron of the poet of Ovid. The statues are larger than life at around 2 meters (6.5 feet) high and they represent characters from the myth of Niobe, a story Ovid told in Book VI of Metamorphoses.

Niobe’s story is a classic cautionary tale about hubris. She was the daughter of Tantalus, wife of Amphion, ruler of Thebes, and mother of 14 children known as the Niobids. She unwisely bragged about her fertility at a festival in Thebes celebrating Latona, mother of Apollo and Artemis, questioning why the assembled were worshiping a woman they had never seen who had only two measly offspring when she had seven sons and seven daughters. To punish her pride, Artemis killed her daughters and Apollo killed all her sons. Niobe returned to her birthplace on Mount Sipylus (now in Turkey), turned to stone and wept rivers. There’s a rock formation on Mount Sipylus known as the Weeping Rock which has been identified as the crying Niobe since at least the 3rd century.

This was a popular literary theme in antiquity, mentioned in Greek texts from Homer to Sophocles. Niobid groups were also popular sculptural figures. Although several Roman ones have survived, this is the first relatively intact group that has been discovered in situ during a proper archaeological excavation.

The discovery was actually made last summer but is only being announced now. In June and July 2012, archaeologists from the superintendence were surveying the site in the town of Ciampino on the outskirts of Rome in anticipation of new construction. They unearthed a thermal bath complex whose pipes were stamped “Valerii Messallae,” identifying the villa as Messalla’s. It also matches the location of the consul’s country estate mentioned in ancient sources.

Next to the baths was a swimming pool that could be as long as 20 meters (around 66 feet). The statues were found inside the swimming pool, probably toppled by an earthquake in the 2nd century A.D. Experts believe they once decorated the four sides of the pool and possibly a centerpiece in the middle of the pool. They have survived in impressively complete condition considering they were knocked into a pool with a herringbone brick floor by an earthquake. There are detached heads and some evidence of earlier repairs, but seven statues are basically intact. A number of fragments of other pieces were also discovered, and archaeologists believe they can be reassembled.

The richness of the find will add to the known iconography of the Niobe story. According to Alessandro Betori, director of the excavation, there are two male youths in the group who are aghast watching the massacre of their brothers. These figures haven’t been seen before in any previously discovered Niobid groups.

There’s also all kinds of excitement about Messalla’s link to Ovid. The poet would have spent time at that villa. Perhaps the statues inspired his version of the tale, or perhaps his patron commissioned the statues after Ovid’s story. That’s purely a speculative romp, however. There’s no reason to assume a connection between Ovid and these statues. Niobe’s long artistic history was reason enough from Messalla to commission the group and for Ovid to write his version of it entirely independent of each other.

Messalla was a staunch republican who because of his republican ideals found himself on the wrong side of Octavian after the assassination of Julius Caesar. He fled Rome and followed the army of Brutus and Cassius. After their defeat in the Battle of Philippi and subsequent suicide in 42 B.C., Messalla at first switched his allegiance to Mark Antony and then to Octavian. He took Antony’s place as co-consul in 31 B.C. when Antony was stripped of the title and war broke out between Octavian one one side and Antony and Cleopatra on the other. Messalla fought for Octavian at the Battle of Actium, Antony and Cleopatra’s final defeat.

There’s a decent slideshow of the statues, mosaics and site here, and a couple of other pictures worth seeing in this slideshow.


This man’s death inspired the first rules of boxing

Tuesday, January 8th, 2013

Bonham’s is selling a portrait of an 18th century bare-knuckle boxer named George Stevenson. Although the artist is unknown and it looks a lot like half of a 1760s painting by John Hamilton Mortimer (see below), the pre-sale estimate is $16,000 – $24,000, because it’s rare to find 18th century paintings depicting boxing and because George Stevenson played an important role in the history of the sport, although sadly not through his victories. It was his death in the ring in 1741 at the ends of champion Jack Broughton that changed boxing forever, inspiring the first rules that would transform the free-for-all practices of fisticuffs into a more structured sport with clear boundaries of fair play.

Although fist-fighting as a sport was popular in the ancient world from Sumer to Ancient Greece, after the fall of Rome bare knuckles gave way to weapons in the martial arts. There were still forms of spectator fist-fighting to be found, particularly in Italy and Russia, but it was in England where boxing was revived in the 16th century. The first recorded modern prizefight happened in January, 1681. We don’t know the fighters’ names, just their employer because it was a very Upstairs-Downstairs sort of thing. Here is the description of the event written up in The London Protestant Mercury:

“Yesterday a match of boxing was performed before his Grace, the Duke of Albemarle, between the Duke’s footman and a butcher. The latter won the prize, as he hath done many others before, being account, though but a small man, the best at that exercise in England.”

Aristocratic patronage would remain a constant as the sport rose to prominence although thankfully not in the direct service relationship of the Duke’s footman and butcher. The first heavyweight boxing champion, backed by the Earl of Peterborough, would make a name for himself 20 years after that first recorded bout. James Figg was an accomplished martial artist who was as adept with the sword and cudgel as he was with his bare fists. He reigned as undefeated champion from 1719 to 1730 (at least; records from this time are sparse and less than reliable) and started a school where he taught boxing, fencing with the small backsword and quarterstaff fighting.

He also built an amphitheater for prizefights which helped popularize the sport. It had the first raised platform ring. Aristocrats and famous people took classes at Figg’s school and flocked to his arena to watch the fights. Satirist printmaker William Hogarth was a great friend and fan. He designed Figg’s business card, painted a portrait of Figg staring boldly at the viewer with his fists clenched in front of him and included images of Figg in several of his famous prints, although he’s holding swords and staffs in those rather than posed for boxing.

One of Figg’s students was Jack Broughton, a waterman whose well-muscled physique was first built rowing paying passengers across the Thames. Broughton beat all comers and claimed the title of Champion of England at the Heavyweight from 1738, when he defeated Figg’s successor George Taylor, to 1750. One of those comers was George “The Coachman” Stevenson, who went up against Broughton on February 17th, 1741, in a fairground booth on Tottenham Court Road. Here’s how Captain John Godfrey, a former student of James Figg’s who in 1747 published his recollections of the early days of boxing in the Treatise Upon the Useful Science of Defence, describes the match:

I saw [George Stevenson] fight BROUGHTON, for forty Minutes. BROUGHTON I knew to be ill at that Time; besides it was a hasty made Match, and he had not that Regard for his Preparation, as he afterwards found he should have. But here his true Bottom was proved, and his Conduct shone. They fought in one of the Fair-Booths at Tottenham Court, railed at the End toward the Pit. After about thirty-five Minutes, being both against the Rails, and scrambling for a Fall, BROUGHTON got such a Lock upon him as no Mathematician could have devised a better. There he held him by this artificial Lock, depriving him of all Power of Rising or Falling, till resting his Head for about three or four Minutes on his Back, he found himself recovering. Then loosed the Hold, and on setting to again, he hit the Coachman as hard a Blow as any he had given him in the whole Battle; that he could no longer stand, and his brave contending Heart, though with Reluctance, was forced to yield. The Coachman is a most beautiful Hitter; he put in his Blows faster than BROUGHTON, but then one of the latter’s told for three of the former’s. Pity – so much Spirit should not inhabit a stronger Body!

A few days later Stevenson was dead. Funded by the Duke of Cumberland, Broughton opened a new amphitheater on March 10, 1743. The tragedy of Stevenson’s death by his hand inspired him to promulgate a code of behavior in his new arena “for the better regulation of the amphitheater, and approved of by the gentle men, and agreed to by the pugilists.” These were the first restrictions placed upon prizefighters. Broughton’s Rules were minimal compared to the rules today, but they introduced key concepts of fair play still in use.

I. That a square of a yard be chalked in the middle of the stage, and on every fresh set-to after a fall, or being parted form the rails, each Second is to bring his Man to the side of the square, and place him opposite to the other, and till they are fairly set-to at the Lines, it shall not be lawful for one to strike at the other.

II. That, in order to prevent any Disputes, the time a Man lies after a fall, if the Second does not bring his Man to the side of the square, within the space of half a minute, he shall be deemed a beaten Man.

III. That in every main Battle, no person whatever shall be upon the Stage, except the Principals and their Seconds, the same rule to be observed in bye-battles, except that in the latter, Mr. Broughton is allowed to be upon the Stage to keep decorum, and to assist Gentlemen in getting to their places, provided always he does not interfere in the Battle; and whoever pretends to infringe these Rules to be turned immediately out of the house. Every body is to quit the Stage as soon as the Champions are stripped, before the set-to.

IV. That no Champion be deemed beaten, unless he fails coming up to the line in the limited time, or that his own Second declares him beaten. No Second is to be allowed to ask his man’s Adversary any questions, or advise him to give out.

V. That in bye-battles, the winning man to have two-thirds of the Money given, which shall be publicly divided upon the Stage, notwithstanding any private agreements to the contrary.

VI. That to prevent Disputes, in every main Battle the Principals shall, on coming on the Stage, choose from among the gentlemen present two Umpires, who shall absolutely decide all Disputes that may arise about the Battle; and if the two Umpires cannot agree, the said Umpires to choose a third, who is to determine it.

VII. That no person is to hit his Adversary when he is down, or seize him by the ham, the breeches, or any part below the waist: a man on his knees to be reckoned down.

That rule number VII has two concepts that have become idioms for fair play: don’t hit a man when he’s down and no hitting below the belt. Broughton’s Rules would remain the operating rules of boxing until they were expanded into the London Prize Ring Rules in 1838. Those were then superseded by the Marquess of Queensberry rules in 1867.


2000-year-old shipwreck pills were an eyewash

Monday, January 7th, 2013

A shipwreck from 140 – 130 B.C. first discovered in 1974 off the coast of Tuscany near the Etruscan town of Populonia was found upon later excavation to contain a vast collection of trade goods from around the Mediterranean. Packed in the small ship (it’s at most 60 feet long and 10 feet wide) were Syrian glass bowls found still in stacks, pottery from Pergamon, wine amphorae from Rhodes, lamps from Ephesus, coins, lead vessels and other consumer goods. The most intriguing find, however, was a large cache of medical equipment. Tin cylinders called pyxides, 136 boxwood vials, a stone mortar, an iron probe and a bronze cupping vessel of a type used for bloodletting or for applying hot air to aching body parts, were discovered next to an iron lock that once belonged to a wooden box long since rotten away.

Inside one tin pyxis was a rare archaeological treasure: five grey disc-shaped tablets stacked on top of each other like Mentos. Despite having spent 2120 or so years wrapped in dense marine flora on the seabed of the Baratti Gulf, the pyxis had remained water tight and the tablets were still intact. In 2010, scientists published the first DNA analysis on the tablets. They found evidence of a wide variety of plant matter — carrot, radish, parsley, celery, wild onion, cabbage, alfalfa, yarrow, hibiscus — in the pills, plants known from ancient sources to have been used for medicinal purposes. The still weren’t sure exactly what ailments the tablets would have been prescribed to cure, nor how they would have been taken by patients.

Now a team of Italian researchers has thinks they’ve found the answer: they were probably used as an eyewash. Archaeologists from the Archaeological Superintendence of Tuscany, chemists from the University of Pisa and evolutionary biologists from the University of Florence examined the components of samples taken from a broken tablet with a scanning electron microscope, X-ray spectroscopy, infrared spectroscopy, X-ray powder diffraction and gas chromatography/mass spectrometry. They found that the main inorganic element was zinc. Zinc compounds like hydrozincite (zinc hydroxycarbonate) and smithsonite (zin carbonate) make up 75% of the tablet. Silicon and iron are second and third with 9% and 5% respectively.

Organic components identified include starches that show evidence of having been cooked, animal lipids, vegetal lipids, beeswax, pine resin, 53 kinds of pollen and trace amounts of vegetal charcoal. Most of the pollen, 40%, was olive pollen. The runner-up with 13% was wheat. There were also some linen fibers, more of them on the outer part of the sample than the inner which could be the remnants of fabric used to wrap the pills. Any fabric that might have been cradling the tablets has decayed, but you can still see a texture on the outside of one that looks like the imprint of a textile.

The high zinc content suggests an ocular purpose for this remarkably complex medicine. Pliny the Elder and Greek physician Pedanius Dioscorides both mention that zinc oxide was collected from the walls of furnaces used during copper casting and then used in medication for the eyes and skin. The large, round shape of the tablets — they’re 3-4 centimeters in diameter and half a centimeter thick — also indicate they were used for eye treatment. The Latin word for eyewash is collyrium, derived from the Greek word κoλλυρα which means “small round loaves,” a pretty dead-on accurate description of the shipwreck tablets.

As for how these pastilles would have been applied to the eye, that’s where the beeswax comes in. The pills were probably melted and the resulting unguent applied to the ailing eye.


Return to Antikythera

Sunday, January 6th, 2013

The Roman shipwreck off the coast of the Greek island of Antikythera, famous as the source of the bronze gear device of incredible complexity known as the Antikythera mechanism, hasn’t been surveyed since Jacques Costeau led an expedition to the wreck in 1976. The wreck was first discovered in 1900 by sponge divers using those old timey diving suits with metal helmets which allowed them to go 200 feet down to the steep Aegean slope where artifacts from a first century B.C. wreck were piled on the floor. Over the next two years, divers recovered bronze and marble sculptures and one thickly encrusted bronze artifact of nebulous use that would take decades to be recognized as an astronomical calculator and the world’s oldest surviving analog computer.

Although the wreck was thoroughly mined for archaeological gold, the turn of the century divers didn’t have the technology to properly survey the site. This made dating the wreck difficult since the artifacts dated from different eras of Greek history. They wreck itself was Roman, a ship crammed full of loot from Greece in the wake of a military victory, probably. The pottery types suggested dates ranging between 80 and 50 B.C. Cousteau’s team found a coin that dates between 76 and 67 B.C.

The challenges of diving to the wreck spot have kept people from returning to perform a modern survey. In October of 2012, archaeologist Brendan P. Foley of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution a small team of experts with specialized technology that allowed for extended dives as deep as 230 feet returned to Antikythera. They studied the Cousteau expedition logs and film as a starting point, because the artifacts have pretty much been picked clean, so they needed to identify by matching the underwater geology.

Information is limited, however. Cousteau was only there two days and his team could only spend a few minutes at a time diving to keep from getting the bends. Also, Cousteau staged some of the shoots for drama purposes, they can’t be sure they’re exploring the same wreck site he explored. The debris field could be part of the original wreck. It could have shifted over the millennia — the sponge divers told tales of colossal statues rolling down the slope to depths where they could not follow — or it could be another ship that went down in the deep shoals off Antikythera.

In October, diving with technical scuba gear and diver propulsion vehicles that look like underwater fans, the team found the sweet spot, marked by a scattering of amphora, or large curved jars.

Intact artifacts from the wreck were spread over a huge area, about 197 feet (60 meters) long at depths ranging from 114 feet to 197 feet (35 to 60 m), Foley said. That’s large for an ancient shipwreck, Foley said, suggesting either a huge ship or perhaps more than one wreck. The findings are preliminary, Foley said, but the team may have ultimately been excavating 984 feet (300 m) away from the site explored by Cousteau. If that’s the case, he said, they may have found a separate wreck — likely part of the same fleet as the original wreck that went down in the same storm.

A massive debris field that hasn’t been interfered with is an archaeological gold mine. One amphora has been recovered. It will be DNA tested so the contents can be identified. Dozens of heavily concreted artifacts litter the sea floor, which is what the Antikythera mechanism looked just like that when it was first discovered. There could be any metallic fragment underneath all that calcification so let’s not get too hopped up, but the Romans had good taste in pillage so it’s hard not to be excited at what might be.

A lead anchor was also discovered on top of other artifacts indicating it was stowed on the deck when the ship went down. The position of the artifacts suggest the ship sank suddenly when a storm crashed it against an underwater cliff. According to marine archaeologist Theotokis Theodoulou of Greece’s Ephorate of Underwater Antiquities, the wreck “settled facing backwards with its stern at the deepest point.” The stern was so deep that the sponge divers were never able to reach it.

This survey was a preliminary three-week expedition which will be followed up with more extensive surveys over the next two years. Divers will bring metal detectors with them when they return which will allow them to look for artifacts that are not visible under the sand.



Vintage postcards, the Michelin Man & fighting TB

Saturday, January 5th, 2013

It all started with an exhibition at the Boston Museum of Fine Art. I’ve mentioned before that I am an avid lover and collector of postcards, so whenever a museum puts on a show of vintage postcards, I go full obsessive and try to hunt down as many pictures of it as humanly possible. The Postcard Age at the MFA looks like a particularly great display of hundreds of carefully selected gems from the massive collection of Leonard A. Lauder, the billionaire chairman emeritus of Estée Lauder Companies, Inc., and son of legendary cosmetics entrepreneur Estée.

Lauder has been collecting postcards since he was six years old when he fell in love with an Art Deco postcard of the Empire State Building. It cost a penny. He spent his entire nickel allowance buying five of those postcards. Thus began a love affair that continues to this day. His collection of cubist masterpieces is worth hundreds of millions of dollars and known worldwide, but it was the humble postcard that made a collector out of him. His postcard collection today numbers around 125,000 pieces, and that’s after he donated 20,000 early 20th century Japanese postcards to the MFA some years ago.

He has pledged to donate another 100,000 to the museum. Out of that hundred thousand, Lauder and MFA curators Lynda Klich and Benjamin Weiss selected almost 700 postcards from the decades around the turn of the 20th century to put on display in The Postcard Age. This was the time when picture postcards, first sold in the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1869, became all the rage. By 1900, billions of postcards of advertising graphics, travel photographs, famous people, famous buildings, sports events, conventions, World’s Fairs, the latest technology, were sent all over the world. At a penny per stamp, they were cheaper than phone calls, fast and pretty. They were also purchased and kept in scrapbooks. In an era before cameras were readily available and easy to use, you could document your trip to exotic locales with postcards.

The postcard craze was such a huge thing that there are even postcards about postcards, some advertising postcards as a means to stay in touch with friends, others dedicated to the worldwide phenomenon of the postcard craze itself. You can see some of the highlights of the exhibit in this MFA slideshow and in this one on the Huffington Post. Imprint has some superb pictures from the exhibit accompanying this article about the exhibit that also includes a fascinating interview about the history of postcards with pop culture historian and graphic designer Jim Heimann. A book of the exhibition with many more pictures is available here.

One postcard in the slideshows particularly caught my eye. It’s a photograph of two enormous Michelin Men riding a horse-drawn cart through the streets of Houston, Texas, around 1904. The Michelin Man was just six years old in 1904. The idea of an anthropomorphic tire pile came to Edouard and André Michelin in 1894 and when in 1898 the French cartoonist Marius Rossillon, aka O’Galop, showed André an image he had drawn for a brewery of a Falstaffian figure toasting “Nunc est bibendum” (“Now is the time to drink,” a quote from one of Horace’s odes), Michelin suggested the figure be made to resemble a human tire pile. The first Michelin Man thus became known as Bibendum after the slogan. It’s that early character with his pince-nez glasses you see advertising Michelin tires in person in Houston.

His creation of one of the world’s most enduring and recognizable trademarks is what O’Galop is mostly known for today, but what I just found out while obsessing over that picture is that O’Galop was also a pioneer of film animation. Starting in 1910, he and biologist Dr. Jean Comandon, a pioneer in his own right of slow motion and microcinematography (filming through a microscope), worked together to create films on good hygiene and disease prevention. A disturbingly awesome example of their oeuvre is On Doit Le Dire, a 1918 short about the dangers of syphilis which combines animation, pictures of real people’s syphilis lesions and film of spirochetes under the microscope.

O’Galop also lent his animation talents to the Commission for the Prevention of Tuberculosis in France, an agency of the Rockefeller Foundation which worked closely with French national and regional governments and the Red Cross to reduce the rates of tuberculosis which had been driven sky-high by the deprivations of World War I. Precise mortality statistics are hard to come by during wartime, but we do know that 291,412 people died of tuberculosis between 1915 and 1918 in 77 of France’s 87 departments. The proportion of deaths was higher in occupied areas.

The Rockefeller Foundation had been involved in disease prevention, primarily the eradication of hookworm disease, for many years. In 1917, it created the Commission to combat the increase of tuberculosis in France. The Commission took a comprehensive approach to the fight against TB, starting with the collection of reliable statistics to define the extent and range of the problem, then establishing a system of anti-tuberculosis dispensaries, clinics all over the country with modern equipment and highly trained staff to treat tuberculosis cases. Each dispensary had a thoroughly equipped mobile dispensary that would bring a doctor and assistants to centrally located villages where all applicants would be tested, diagnosed and treated. It also trained nurses who headquartered in the dispensaries and did house calls to test and treat. Because of their peripatetic duties, the nurses, all women, were called Visiteuses d’Hygiene (visiting hygiene ladies).

A public education campaign was the fourth prong of the Commission’s efforts. During the war, striking propaganda posters defined tuberculosis as an enemy to be battled just like Germany out of patriotism. There were also educational posters which used simple cartoons and drawings to explain how to prevent tuberculosis (sleep with windows open, no public spitting or sharing bottles) and if you have it, how to keep from spreading it (sleep alone, spit into containers and destroy the contents).

The education campaign also had a traveling component. The Mobile Tuberculosis Exhibit, a truck filled with pamphlets and posters that could be set up in a public space, 42 films and a projector, drove around the country to spread the word on stopping the spread of TB. Many of these exhibitions were targeted towards children for whom O’Galop’s animated films were a major draw. The were cartoons, but they certainly didn’t treat the subject gingerly.

They also didn’t just stick to TB. Medical opinion at the turn of century asserted that alcoholism, both acquired and hereditary, was a major cause of TB. Thus the fight against tuberculosis also required a fight against alcoholism — and not just alcoholism as we define it now; even one spiritous beverage a day was alcoholism for their purposes.

Hence the following triad of O’Galop films: Small Causes, Big Effects, Resisting Tuberculosis and The Alcohol Cycle. (You can watch a version subtitled in your choice of English, Italian, German and Spanish on the excellent Europa Film Treasures website.) Resisting Tuberculosis is my favorite. It starts at 1:50 and features some outstanding animated skeleton work.



Staffordshire Hoard officially 81 pieces larger

Friday, January 4th, 2013

Eighty-one pieces of gold and silver discovered by archaeologists this past November in the same field where the Staffordshire Hoard was found in 2009 have officially been declared treasure. The South Staffordshire Coroner Andrew Haigh ruled that out of the 91 recently discovered pieces, 8 were modern “waste”, 2 were found far enough away that they should not be considered part of the original hoard. The remaining 81 he ruled to be 7th century Anglo-Saxon pieces buried along with the more than 3,900 pieces of the Staffordshire Hoard.

The next step is for the 81 pieces to be valued by a committee of experts at the British Museum. Once a market value is assessed, the county authorities and local museums will raise the money so they can purchase the recent discoveries and add them to the mother hoard. There are no estimates of value out as of yet, but it’s certain to be far lower than the £3.3 million ($5.5 million) the initial find cost. None of the 81 pieces are as large and elaborate. One potential cheek guard from a helmet is the largest piece and is particularly exciting because it could prove to be the match of one found the first time around.

Still, the Staffordshire County Council is excited about the new finds and is already planning to raise the funds.

Philip Atkins, leader of Staffordshire council, said it and the owners of the original hoard, Stoke-on-Trent and Birmingham councils, would now have to look at raising money to buy the new items.

“Last time we raised £1m in public donations in just 12 weeks. This time we won’t need nearly as much money, but I would encourage people to donate. It’s important for our region that the hoard stays together. Just as York is associated with the Vikings and Bath with the Romans, so too will Lichfield be connected to the Anglo-Saxons,” he said.

The moneys raised will be split between Terry Herbert, the metal detectorist who made the original discovery, and Fred Johnson, the landowner. They will also receive the 10 pieces declared non-treasure, which might be tricky given that they fought over the money after the initial discovery and haven’t spoken since.

The new pieces will then move to a permanent home in the Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery and the Potteries Museum & Art Gallery in Stoke-On-Trent. where the original hoard is on display. As challenging as it was for these small regional museums to raise the money, the hoard has turned out to be a financial boon to the region, drawing more than one million visitors since 2009. Loans of some of the artifacts to Washington, D.C., and a Discovery Channel documentary also brought in money.


Zapotec effigy pot may reveal name of buried noble

Thursday, January 3rd, 2013

The Zapotec anthropomorphic clay pot that was discovered in the third chamber of the vertical tomb in the Atzompa Archaeological Zone in Oaxaca last August has now been fully excavated and may prove to be a vital clue to the identity of the nobleman buried in the chamber. It’s also incredibly beautiful. In addition to the brilliant red pigment on the face which was immediately visible when it was first discovered, rich ochre and grayish green pigments remain intact on other parts of the vessel.

According to Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH), the ceramic pot is about 1200 years old (the three tombs collectively date to 650 – 850 A.D.) and may be an effigy of the person buried in the tomb. The skeletal remains of an adult male and of a teenager, probably female, were discovered in the chamber. The male burial was covered in the same red pigment that dominates the anthropomorphic vessel. That’s why archaeologists think the figure may be a specific representation of the interred male.

The location of the tomb right next to the House of the Altars — real estate so valuable that Chamber Three was closed up and two more chambers built above it for later big shots — and the quality of grave goods indicate that the resident was someone of high status in Atzompa society. The effigy’s elaborate clothing and decoration may therefore have been duplicating the finery of the man it was buried with.

The character on the pot is wearing large inlaid, flower-shaped earrings, a wide semi-circular necklace with tassels hanging off the border, a feather cloak and an elaborate headdress. The headdress is more than 13 inches tall and depicts a feathered reptile with its jaws agape. The Feathered Serpent was an important deity in many Mesoamerican civilizations, including the Zapotecs. As one of the most powerful figures in the pantheon, and any person who donned its symbols would have held considerable political power in the society.

The effigy is also wearing a sash or girdle on which are displayed the iconography and glyphs that identify one person, presumably the male skeleton. One of the glyphs translates to “Tremor” or “Quake” and another is the numeral eight. Archaeologists think the two combined are his name: Tremor Eight. Sounds like a sequel to a Kevin Bacon movie. There are also several repeating Greek key-style shapes and the upside-down symbol of a hill.

A second clay vessel was also discovered in the chamber. It’s a smaller female figure, probably representing a goddess. It too is brightly painted in red and has fancy accessories like a headpiece and necklace. Both vases have been tested in the attempt to determine how the pigments were made.

INAH archaeologists are in the process of radiocarbon dating the artifacts and remains in the tomb to pin down the construction and burial dates. They’ve also taken collagen samples from the skeletons for chemical analysis which might provide us with information about their diets, lifestyles and deaths.






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