Archive for February, 2013

Traprain Law silver dish digitally reconstructed

Friday, February 8th, 2013

Traprain Law, a hill of volcanic rock in East Lothian, Scotland, looms ferociously over the surrounding plain making it an ideal location for a fort. Excavations have found evidence of dense settlement and defensive ramparts going back to 1000 B.C. In the first century A.D. it was occupied by a tribe the Romans called the Votadini (Gododdin in ancient British) who used it from about 40 A.D. certainly until about 400 A.D., with a short break around the end of the 2nd century when Romans went deeper into Scotland and built the Antonine Wall only to pull back to Hadrian’s Wall a few decades later.

Some time around 410 to 425 A.D. or possibly even later, somebody buried a large quantity of Roman silver on Traprain Law. Fifteen centuries later, on May 12th, 1919, the hoard was unearthed on the western shelf of the hill by workmen excavating under the absentee direction of Alexander Curle, a lawyer who was also Director of the National Museum of Antiquities of Scotland, and James Cree who was usually the hands-on supervisor but had the unfortunate timing to have been in the States during the 1919 dig season.

It was a massive find, weighing over 53 lbs composed of 250 fragments from about 150 objects of high quality silver in different styles and motifs that indicate they were manufactured in various workshops around the Roman Empire. There are a few complete pieces, but most of it is what is known as hacksilver, larger silver objects that have been cut into bits. Table silver — flasks, goblets, bowls, plates, spoons, ladles, serving dishes — make up the bulk of the hoard, with some objects from a lady’s dressing table, buckles and strap fittings from an officer’s uniform, early Christian items that may have been part of a church service or belonged to a wealthy Christian family, and four clipped coins from the emperors Valens (Eastern Roman emperor from 364 to 378), Arcadius (Eastern Roman emperor from 395 to 408) and Honorius (Western Roman emperor from 395 to 423).

It’s largest hoard of Roman silver ever discovered outside the borders of the empire and the largest hoard of hacksilver ever found anywhere.

The initial assumption was that this silver was loot, the spoils of barbarian incursions into Britannia during or just after Rome’s departure. By this theory, the barbarians hacked up the artifacts after they pillaged them because, you know, barbarians. That’s not much of an explanation, though, and archaeological evidence uncovered at Traprain Law shows that the Votadini had a productive relationship with Rome. The settlement is littered with Roman artifacts like brooches, glass, pottery, tweezers and ear scoops that indicate regular trade and the influence of Roman culture over several centuries.

Recent research has suggested a more plausible explanation, that the hoard was payment for mercenary services rendered or a diplomatic gift to ensure the loyalty of a friendly chieftain. With currency hard to come by in the waning days of Roman Britain, cut up precious metal objects acted as bullion. By this theory, the objects were cut and flattened within Roman territory, measured, weighed and sent over the border. Some of the pieces were crushed into scale-sized packets weighing up to three-quarters of a Roman pound which fits nicely with the payment idea.

Two of the fragments are all that remains of a large silver dish decorated with a beaded rim and a geometric border with floral accents and portrait busts. The border is gilded and inlaid with a mixture of copper, silver and lead that produces a black enamel-like material called niello. They weigh almost exactly eight Roman ounces which suggests a deliberate cutting so they could be used as bullion for their metal weight.

From the curve of the edges it’s clear that the pieces are quite small relative to the overall size of the platter but we didn’t know just how small they were until laser scanning allowed experts at the National Museums of Scotland to create a digital reconstruction. The complete dish was an impressive 70 centimeters (27.56 inches) in diameter making it one of the largest dishes known from the Roman world. It would have been used to carry food on the most important occasions.

That floral decoration in the middle of the platter is speculative since the surviving fragments are both edge pieces. A similar dish found in Switzerland had an engraved medallion in the middle which served as the model.

Here’s video of the digital reconstruction:


Napoleon’s sister’s tiny shoes found in Aberdeen

Thursday, February 7th, 2013

Louise Wilkie’s first major project as a curatorial assistant in the University of Aberdeen’s museums collections department was sorting through the extensive collection of objects donated to the university by alumnus and world traveler Doctor Robert Wilson (1787 – 1871). In a large travelling case filled with men’s clothes (presumably Robert’s), a beautiful wee pair of leather and silk women’s shoes caught her eye. On the sole of one of them was handwritten: “Pauline, Rome January 20th 1824.”

Intrigued, Wilkie checked the inventory of the Wilson collection and found them listed with no more information than was already written on the shoe itself. They were described simply as “A pair of slippers – Pauline, Rome Jan 20th 1824.” Further research into the Wilson archives revealed that the good doctor had been a close personal friend of Princess Pauline Borghese, née Bonaparte, the younger sister of Napoleon who was famous for her beauty and notorious for her vast array of lovers.

One entry in Wilson’s diary alludes to just how close they were: “I passed a fortnight in the vicinity of Pisa with the Princess Borgese [sic] in a state of almost perfect seclusion and afterwards accompanied her to the Baths of Lucca.” She gave him many presents, among them a ring of the Napoleonic N topped with the imperial crown all set in diamonds atop a locket containing Napoleon’s hair, and more intimately, a pair of her shoes.

They are 21 centimeters (eight inches) long, 5.5 centimeters (2 inches) wide at the ankle and 4 centimeters (1.6 inches) across the square toe. That’s a child size 2 in the UK, 3 in the US. The outer shoe is leather with embroidered strips of mauve silk inlaid at the toe and a light pink ruffle bordering the tongue. The inside of the slipper is lined in raspberry silk. They look like they were made yesterday, the leather shiny and unscuffed, the dyes still brilliant. Being stashed in the dark, untouched, for a century and a half has kept them in very close to original condition.

The luxurious indolence of the feet they once adorned doubtless played an important role in keeping the shoes so pristine. Pauline was often indisposed or ill. Her family and friends thought her a hopeless hypochondriac although she certainly did have genuine physical ailments on occasion. (When she went to French Colony of Saint Domingue with her first husband General Leclerc during the Haitian Revolution she got Yellow fever. When she returned to Paris after his death from the fever, she had a sore on her hand that wouldn’t heal.) Her fragility, real or imagined, often prevented her from walking. Instead, she was carried by servants or kept to her bed/chair/divan.

Laure Junot, Duchesse d’Abrantès, describes such a scene in her Memoirs of Napoleon, his court and family, Volume 2. During a party at the Napoleon and Josephine’s country home, the Château de Malmaison, the guests were enjoined to put on a diverting amateur theatrical. Pauline tried to beg off on the grounds that she was, as ever, indisposed, but Napoleon wouldn’t hear of it.

The Princess Pauline, as an actress, acquitted herself tolerably well, but her singing was so outrageously out of tune that it was scarcely endurable. It was, besides, sufficiently ridiculous to see her carried into the middle of the theatre (for the state of her health prevented her walking), and there, in her arm-chair, rehearsing the part of a young affianced bride.

Another memoir, this one by the Baronness of Montet, describes Pauline holding state in her invalid’s chair while getting a pedicure from a page boy before stunned noblewomen.

I am thinking, I know not why, of the beautiful Princess Pauline Borghese, Napoleon’s sister. Our dear Wilhelmina Hoehenegg, lady-in-waiting to the Empress [of Austria] was telling us one evening how, when at Rome with Princess Ruspoli who had given her a home after the death of her mother, the conversation turned on pretty feminine feet. Princess Ruspoli knew how frivolously vain the Imperial princess was, and did not forget to go into raptures over her foot. “Would you like to see it?” said Princess Borghese quietly. “Come tomorrow at twelve.” Great was Princess Ruspoli’s astonishment, but there was no means of escaping this peculiar invitation.

She presented herself at the Palazzo Borghese with Mme. de Hoehenegg, and was ushered into an exquisite boudoir. The Princess was reclining at her ease in an invalid’s chair, her little feet well in view; but that was not the treat in store. A page, pretty as a Cupid, and dressed as pages are in medieval paintings, entered, bearing a costly ewer, a silver-gilt basin, a napkin of fine cambric, perfumes, and other cosmetics. He drew a velvet hassock up to the chair, the Princess graciously put forth one of her legs, the page took off the stocking, the garter, too, I think, and began to massage, to rub, to wipe, to perfume this beautiful foot, which really was incomparable.

The operation was a lengthy one, and the astonishment of the lookers-on so great that they lost the faculty of enthusiastic praise which was doubtless expected of them. […] While the little page drew off, and drew on, her stockings, perfumed her beautiful feet, filed and refined the nails, she was chatting and, to all appearances, quite devoid of self-consciousness as regards her toilet.

If she was devoid of self-consciousness in front of proper aristocratic ladies, you can see why there would be no difficulty at all in her making a gift of her slippers to a close male friend and probable lover.

Robert Wilson had attended what was then Aberdeen College in the early 19th century before going to med school in Edinburgh. After graduation, he joined the East India Company as a ship’s surgeon and made a substantial amount of money on their trade voyages. When he left the service, he gave free rein to his wanderlust, traveling to, among other places, Greece, Egypt, Turkey, Palestine, Syria, India, Ceylon, China, Persia, Russia, Portugal, Spain, England, Malta, France and Italy. Along the way he made friends with famous and well-connected people like Lord Byron fighting for Greek independence, the Marquis of Hastings when he was governor of Malta, the Emperor of Russia’s personal physician and a certain Princess Borghese.

Pauline Borghese was still married to Prince Camillo Borghese when she and Wilson met in the early 1820s. They had been estranged for years by then, but the bitterness which drove them to seek a divorce after the defeat of Napoleon at Waterloo when the Prince no longer had an imperial ass to kiss had dissipated. From 1816 to her death in 1825, they lived entirely separate lives but no longer actively pursued legal separation and divorce in the Roman Rota, an appellate court mainly for civil cases brought before the Holy See for adjudication in the Papal States. Pauline lived in Rome under the protection of the Pope; Camillo moved to Florence and lived with his mistress.

When that shoe that was labeled in 1824, she was 43 years old and genuinely ailing. Her trips to health spas like the one she went to with Wilson, a frequent occurrence in her eternally-indisposed youth, took on a new meaning now. A year and a half later tuberculosis would claim her life.

Pauline Borghese’s elegant little slippers and the ring have gone on public display for the first time in the 100 Curiosities exhibit at the University of Aberdeen’s King’s Museum.


Lion Man figurine gets new pieces, older date

Wednesday, February 6th, 2013

Ulm Lion Man, now estimated to be about 40,000 years oldIn late August 1939, geologist Otto Völzing was digging in the Stadel cave on Hohlenstein Mountain in the Swabian Alps when he found hundreds of fragments of a mammoth ivory statuette. He packed them hastily into a box but had no time to examine them. The excavation, funded by the SS, ended that very day because World War II was about to begin. The box went to the University of Tübingen and eventually found its way to the Ulm Museum. Thirty years would pass before anyone paid them any mind.

The first attempts at reconstruction in 1970 revealed a headless standing anthropomorphic figurine. During a more thorough attempt in 1988, researchers were able to glue together 220 pieces along with beeswax and chalk filler material, resulting in a lion-headed sculpture just under a foot high, 2.2 inches wide and 2.3 inches thick. Seven parallel lines are carved onto its left arm. A good thirty percent of the body was still missing, though, including a large part of the back and the entire right arm.

Early estimates put its date at around 32,000 years old, which made it one of the earliest figural sculptures ever found. It was carved with a flint stone knife out of a single mammoth tusk, then polished with leather and saliva. Recent research shows that it would have taken 400 hours to create this piece, a concentration of time that suggests this was someone’s job rather than a casual whittle after the day’s hunting and gathering. If so, that means that this Cro-Magnon community was willing to provide for artists, perhaps for religious reasons.

It’s unclear what religious role if any the figurine may have played. It might represent a mythical half-man, half-lion creature, but it could also represent a shaman wearing the hide of a cave lion for ritual purposes. It was found buried in a space deep at the back of the cave, 89 feet from the mouth. After 400 hours of work, why hide it away unless it was part of a religious practice? Many cave paintings like the ones at Lascaux and Chauvet were done in the darkest, most dangerous recesses of a cave where it would have been difficult to work. There must have been an important reason for it.

Cave paintings have also been found in France depicting animal-human hybrids and men wearing animal hides. Maybe not just men either. There has been a great deal of debate about this statuette’s gender. In the 1980s, paleontologist Elisabeth Schmid theorized that Lion Man was actually Lion Woman, that a plate below the abdomen that had been interpreted as a stylized flaccid penis is actually a pubic triangle. The Lion sculpture also has a transverse abdominal crease commonly found in female figures from the Ice Age.

Newly discovered pieces that will fit into the backIn 2009, a team of archaeologists led by Claus-Joachim Kind returned to the Stadel cave and re-excavated the find site. They sifted through all the 1939 backfill and found an additional 1,000 fragments. Some of them are minute, just a few millimeters in size, but some are substantial chips as large as a finger. They found the remains of a fire, a decorated deer tooth, an arctic fox’s tooth and some ivory beads. These could have been decorative elements from a robe, perhaps even a shaman’s animal hide outfit.

More concretely, researchers were able to radiocarbon-date bones found in Lion Man’s layer, and they are significantly older than previously thought, bringing the sculpture’s estimated age up to 40,000 years old. There are very few figural sculptures around that age known, and they are small pieces. This is the largest, most elaborate and possibly the oldest of them all. A few of the smaller unusable ivory fragments from the statue are in the process of being dated to confirm the stratigraphic results.

Lion Man 3D computer model, new pieces in pinkWith the new pieces to add and new technology at their disposal, in 2011 researchers at the State Conservation Office in Esslingen, near Stuttgart, began working on reconstructing the reconstruction. The glue from earlier attempts was dissolved and the old filler material removed. Using 3D computer modeling as a guide, the figurine is being reassembled piece by piece. The finished product will be taller, with a more complete back and some of the missing right arm in place.

The plan was for Lion Man to be reconstructed in time to be the centerpiece of the British Museum’s Ice Age Art: Arrival of the Modern Mind, which opens on February 7th, but it’s taking longer than expected so the British Museum is having to make do with a replica. Instead the revamped figurine will debut at its home base, the Ulm Museum, in November. The Return of the Lion Man: History, Myth, Magic will tell the story of its discovery, the research around it, the reconstruction process and the role technology plays in modern Ice Age archaeology.


Details from the Richard III press conference

Tuesday, February 5th, 2013

Pardon my ongoing obsession, but yesterday’s press conference went by so quickly and the materials flashed on the screen for a second at most. I missed a lot of the details while typing furiously, and even if I hadn’t been multitasking it still would have been too fleeting to satisfy my craving for details on the archaeology, history, genealogy and science. Thankfully, the University of Leicester has put much of the materials and speakers’ notes from the press conference online.

They go through the presenters pretty much as they appeared, starting with lead archaeologist Richard Buckley’s evidence from dig site. The PowerPoint presentation that was on the screen behind him during the press conference is linked at the top of the page, but it was too big for Chrome to launch it online so I made a pdf version you can see here.

Next comes osteoarchaeologist Dr. Jo Appleby’s evidence on forensic analysis of the bones. Her supporting presentation can be downloaded here.

Then Professor Lin Foxhall discusses the historical sources for Richard III’s appearance and character. PowerPoint slides from her presentation are here, but they’re basically a title slide and a blurred pullquote from a medieval source. Not tremendously illuminating.

On to genealogist Professor Kevin Schürer and geneticist Dr. Turi King who explain the importance of locating modern descendants of Richard’s family in order to confirm the identity of the skeleton through DNA testing, the process of sample extraction and the results. Dr. King’s PowerPoint presentation can be viewed here, Professor Schürer’s here.

Those are the presentations I particularly wanted to see because even though they’re only a couple of slides each, they’re packed with information that I couldn’t even begin to read on the live video feed. The comparison of all three mtDNA samples and the list of female descendants from Richard’s sister Anne of York to Michael Ibsen are delicious. EDIT: Professor Schürer’s list of female descendants has a typo. The year of Anne of York’s death was 1476, not 1467. She died in childbirth.

The entire collection of PowerPoint presentations from intro to conclusion is available for download here. I’ve also made a pdf version you can use if your browser balks and you don’t have PowerPoint.

The Channel 4 documentary, The King in the Car Park, will be made available online soon. Keep your eye on this page to find out when. For irritating licensing reasons, the video will only play for viewers in the UK and Ireland. *cough*unlock*cough*

It’s not much to tide you over, but this article from the BBC at least provides a little glimpse at the plastic model of Richard’s face reconstructed from the 3D CT scans of his sculls that was revealed in the documentary. He looks pretty much like he looks in his portraits, perhaps a little younger, with a prominent chin and nose. The model has been unveiled this morning at London’s Society of Antiquaries where it will presumably go on public display.

Far more satisfying is the collection of videos on the University of Leicester’s brand new Richard III site. This is the money video, in which Dr. Jo Appleby walks us through the osteological evidence pointing to Richard and Dr. Turi King explains the process of extracting and comparing the mtDNA:


The science pages are also not to be missed. There are details about the CT scanning, which turns out to have been micro-CT, a far more high resolution technology than the standard CT scan, and about the radiocarbon dating process and results. The osteology pages take you through every part of the skeleton and what the forensics say about it. Be sure to click on all the blue buttons at the top of the page to suck all the marrow, if you’ll pardon the phrase, out of the science. The spine page is my favorite.

Lastly, there are many lovely photos to peruse in the University’s Dropbox account:


Liveblogging the Richard III announcement

Monday, February 4th, 2013

Dearly beloved, we are gathered here at this ungodly hour to find out as soon as humanly possible whether the skeleton discovered underneath a Leicester parking lot can be conclusively identified by a combination of DNA analysis, radiocarbon dating and forensic analysis as the remains of King Richard III.

The University of Leicester is livetweeting the press conference. This Is Leicestershire will be posting live updates and pictures on this page. BBC News will have live video feed of the press conference but I don’t have that link yet. EDIT: Here it is! BBC Radio Leicester is carrying the press conference live at 5:00 AM EST and is already on site.

They’ve been broadcasting all their regular programming from the University of Leicester since 1:00 AM EST. Along with the usual weather and traffic updates, there have been live reports from the now-famous parking lot, excited speculation on what this discovery might mean for the city, a retrospective on how the dig came about and progressed, interviews with people involved in the project, capsule histories of the Wars of the Roses with dorky sound effects, “news broadcasts” from the 15th century about pigs being loose and a new passion play being staged at Jewry Wall Roman Ruins, plus lots of songs with “king” in the title. The correspondents and hosts are giddy from excitement and lack of sleep. It’s all so charmingly nerdy, especially when compared to our media outlets which only do pre-shows of sports events, award show red carpets and elections.

Meanwhile, the University of Leicester has released the first picture of the skull found under the parking lot. They’re still not saying whether this is the skull of Richard III, but at this point the hype is so huge if the results are inconclusive they are the cruelest of teases. Also, as soon as the press conference is over they’ll be launching a new website at which URL is a rather large hint. So here is the skull belonging to an unknown person who for want of a better name we’ll call Mr. X III:


4:21 – Each of the researchers will be explaining the results of their examinations and tests, with Dr. Turi King from UL’s Department of Genetics up last. The final conclusion will be announced by Richard Buckley, co-director of University of Leicester Archaeological Services and dig leader.

4:42 – There’s quite a bit of talk about how Richard III will be Leicester’s Robin Hood. “Nottingham, eat your heart out,” that sort of thing.

4:47 – The panel:
Richard Taylor (RST), Deputy Registrar at the University of Leicester
Richard Buckley (RB), Lead archaeologist
Dr. Jo Appleby (JA), Osteology expert
Professor Lin Foxhall (LF), History expert
Professor Kevin Schürer (KS), Genealogy expert
Dr. Turi King (TK), Genetics expert

4:51 – Experts at the lead table are beginning to take their seats.

4:55 – BBC News video live feed will start in 4 minutes.

5:01 – And we’re on! Professor Sir Robert Burgess starts with an introduction about the research process and how the experts have to lay it all out for us so we can understand the findings.

5:03 – RST: what we’re about to tell you is astonishing. Will be published in academic journals.

5:04 – RB: David Baldwin, a local historian wrote more than two decades ago that he thought the remains of Richard were still buried rather than having been thrown in the Soar.

5:07 – They found evidence of an articulated skeleton almost immediately, within hours of beginning the dig! They just covered it up and kept going because they expected to find multiple human burials and they were trying to find structural evidence of Greyfriars so they knew where they were.

They kept going until they got their bearings and then excavated the skeleton they had found in what they now realized was under the choir stalls.

5:12 First picture of in situ skeleton:

The barbed arrowhead they thought they had found resting between vertebrae is probably an earlier Roman nail.

Body still articulated, but the torso was twisted and the head propped up on top. The hands were crossed at the hip, possibly tied.

Two labs radiocarbon dated samples from rib bones. Found that the individual ate a high protein diet and that he died between 1455 and 1540. Richard III died at the Battle of Bosworth on August 22nd, 1485.

5:15 JA: Individual aged between late 20s and early 30s. Richard III was 32 when he died.

Without scoliosis, he would have been 5’8″ tall, but the curvature of the spine would have shortened him considerably, they can’t be sure how much. He had idiopathic adolescent-onset scoliosis which developed after the age of 10.

The complete spine with clearly visible curvature:

They found 10 wounds to the skeleton, 8 of them on the skull. The large slice on the back of the skull is consistent with a wound inflicted by a halberd. Smaller wounds on the skull shaved off pieces of the skull. They were not fatal and would not have knocked him out, but blood loss could have been considerable. Another wound in the cheek is consistent with a dagger stab wound, not fatal.

It’s unlikely that a person wearing a helmet could have suffered these wounds. The helmet may have been lost, or they may have been inflicted after death as humiliation wounds.

A blade wound to the pelvis, the result of a sword penetrating through the buttocks all the way to the bone.

5:24 – Jo Appelby’s conclusion is that the skeletal evidence as a whole provides a highly convincing case for identification as Richard III

5:26 – LF: reading contemporary sources on Richard’s looks. He’s described as slight but strong.

5:30 – KS: Three main goals: 1) identify group of living male relatives, 2) verify in documents the maternal line from Anne of York to Michael Ibsen and siblings, 3) identify if possible a second maternal line descent.

5:31 – 1) succeeded, finding three male descendants.

5:32 – 2) were able to find documentary evidence supporting the Anne of York – Ibsen maternal line.

5:33 – 3) succeeded again, finding a second maternal line which allows them to triangulate the mtDNA evidence with the DNA samples from the skeleton. This descendant wishes to remain anonymous.


Too early to confirm the Y-chromosome DNA from the male line of descent.

The mtDNA analysis of both female lines matched each other AND THE SKELETON AND THE SKELETON AND THE SKELETON!


5:38 – RB: Sound academic conclusion from cross-disciplinary research:


5:42 – Sir Peter Soulsby, Mayor of Leicester, thanks the team for their work. Thanks to Phillipa Langley and the Richard III Society without whose vision this would never have happened.


February 8th, a new exhibit will open next to the cathedral telling the story of the search for Richard III.

New guest center at the Victorian school adjacent to the parking lot will be opened next year, coinciding with the re-interment.

5:47 – David Monteith, Canon Chancellor of Leicester Cathedral, says they will begin immediately to plan the reburial of King Richard III.

5:48 – Ralph Lee from Channel 4 promoting the documentary airing tonight at 9:00 GMT. Their cameras were there from the beginning. They recorded the discovery of the skeleton, the dig, the lab research. They filmed the DNA results last night. The last scene will be a reconstruction of the skull.

The documentary will not available on Channel 4’s website, at least not yet. :(

5:54 – Philippa Langley of the Richard III Society, driving force behind this project from 2009, says at the last minute funding was pulled. A worldwide call for donations stepped in to provide the necessary funds.

She sees this as a vindication of the real Richard III rather than the post-Bosworth smears.

In 2010, the Looking for Richard project commissioned the design of a tomb based on what he would have liked. The Cathedral has accepted the design.

Thanks everyone on the research team and on the Leicester Council who gave up their parking lot to the cause. Sarah Leavitt from Leicester City Council has been a champion of the project. Without her we would not be here today.

6:01 – Q&A from journalists now. The BBC video feed is closed so I’m back on the radio and they’ve stopped covering it for a quick headline newsflash. Annoying.

The body will be buried by the end of August 2014 as required by the Ministry of Justice.

Okay, the radio isn’t really covering this part, so I’m going to sign off. The University of Leicester’s Richard III website is now live. Also, the BBC has an excellent pictorial guide to the bones of the king.


Puzzling sacrificial remains found in Mexico lake bed

Sunday, February 3rd, 2013

In winter of 2007, Dr. Christopher Morehart, assistant professor of anthropology at Georgia State University, was examining the dry bed of the former Lake Xaltocan as part of project on pre-Hispanic chinampa agriculture (a method that used small rectangular islands in shallow lakes to grow crops). The team first surveyed the area remotely with likely chinampas identified on satellite imagery and aerial photos. They then walked the site to collect samples and select places for further excavation only to find that looters had beaten them to the punch. The ground was disturbed and artifacts and bones scattered around. Moreheart realized that these remains had ritual significance, that they weren’t just the evidence of habitation.

The excavations that followed unearthed 31 skulls many of them discovered in lines facing east. Artifacts found included seashell pendants, greenstone beads, figurines of deities, ceramic effigies, obsidian knives, corn cobs and chile peppers, some of which were parts of incense burners. Pollen from ritually significant flowers, like from the Tagetes genus which contains the cempoalxochitl marigold, a flower that as late as the 16th century was central Mexican rituals every month of the year, was discovered on the site. The remains of pine charcoal and burned maize cobs were also found. Pine wood was probably used as kindling for the braziers and also burned as incense or for ritual torches. The maize cobs could have been burned as offerings of food.

The burned organic material was radiocarbon dated pinpointing the date of the sacrifices to between 660 and 890 A.D., during or just after the collapse of Teotihuacan. The ceramic finds support the date range. This was a period known as the Epiclassic, between the fall of Teotihuacan and the rise of smaller city-states before the Aztec empire took them all over in the 15th century.

A 2012 follow-up excavation funded by National Geographic revealed even more skulls; the numbers right now total between 150 and 200 skulls or cranial pieces making up skulls. Although large numbers of skulls deposited during ritual sacrifices have been found in pre-Hispanic temples, this is the first time a collection of sacrificial skulls has been found outside of a major religious structure in a city settlement. About 130 skulls have been assembled, cleaned and cataloged thus far. They all appear to be from adult males, some with artificial cranial deformation and incised teeth, some without. This heterogeneity is another unusual characteristic of the find.

Then there were the fingers in the eyes. Some of the skulls were discovered with phalanges of the hand inserted into the eye sockets. According to Morehart, this was unlikely to be a coincidence or the result of disruption of the burials by looters or animals. The fingers were found in enough eye sockets that they had to have been deliberately placed there for an unknown ritual purpose.

The area itself was a raised platform, a shrine constructed in the shallow lake by building up three feet of chalky material like crushed limestone. It’s highly uncharacteristic of Mesoamerican platform shrines in that it has no facing stones, adobe bricks or masonry elements. It’s also in the middle of nowhere, relatively speaking, about 10 miles from the pre-Aztec city-state of Teotihuacan. Yet, if the numbers hold up, this minor bump on the landscape in the middle of a farming community may be one of the largest mass sacrifice sites ever discovered.

Its rural location and agricultural surroundings may explain the nature of the shrine. Carvings of Tlaloc, god of rain and water, the sacrifice of maize, the ceramic maize cobs and chiles suggest the sacrifices were in aid of local farming. On the other hand, human sacrifice in Mesoamerica was usually linked to warfare and the expression of state power. Perhaps the uncertainty and chaos in the wake of the decline of the great regional power and the long period of drought that kept lake waters low drove rural peoples to devise new rituals.

Arizona State University Dr. Michael E. Smith, who was not involved in the project, said “this is certainly an impressive and very puzzling find,” adding, “I am not aware of any other finds of mass burials or mass sacrifices outside of major settlements.” […]

Smith said it is possible that, as archaeologists start excavating more ancient farm sites, they might discover more evidence of large-scale rural sacrifices. “Very few rural areas or rural shrines have ever been located, so it is hard to say that this site represents an unusual find. It certainly is unusual for being the first such feature excavated by archaeologists, but it is possible that such shrines were more common in ancient times; we simply have no idea.”

Pictures of the skulls have not been officially released out of respect for the current inhabitants of the region, but you can see some small black and white images of them in the paper published on the 2007 excavation.


Precious history in Timbuktu library saved from fire

Saturday, February 2nd, 2013

I haven’t had the stomach to post about the sickening destruction of cultural heritage that has plagued Mali’s historic city of Timbuktu since it was occupied by the extremist Salafist Ansar Dine (Defenders of the Faith) group last spring. It’s been a nightmare, an orgy of demolition akin to the Taliban in Afghanistan, only these guys were targeting Islamic archaeological sites from a different denomination rather than Buddhist ones.

Located at a crossroads of trade, during the Middle Ages, Mali (in particular Timbuktu) was a center of scholarship, art and science, attracting the greatest intellects of the era from all over Africa. Sufi Islam was the dominant branch, and very much unlike today’s Salafist, it took an open-minded approach to pre-Islamic faiths and embraced the variety of cultures – Arabic, African, Berber, Tuareg – that mingled in the cosmopolitan country. Sufi luminaries were buried in mud-brick tombs which gave Timbuktu the moniker “the city of 333 saints.”

Still from video showing Ansar Dine extremists destroying a Sufi shrine in Timbuktu on July 1st, 2012Ansar Dine considers these Sufi shrines idolatrous. As part of its effort to impost strict Sharia law by force, as soon as they took over Timbuktu they started tearing the tombs apart with guns, shovels and pickaxes. At least eight of them were demolished or burned. When the world protested the destruction of these UNESCO World Heritage sites, Ansar Dine made a statement telling them exactly how much they gave a rat’s ass: “We are subject to religion and not to international opinion. Building on graves is contrary to Islam. We are destroying the mausoleums because it is ordained by our religion.”

There was a great fear that their next target would be the approximately 300,000 manuscripts in an old library building and in the newly built Ahmed Baba Centre for Documentation and Research in Timbuktu, a storied collection of manuscripts going back to the 12th century written in Arabic and African languages on every topic you can think of from astronomy to math to botany to geography to theology and ever so much more. Even though precious copies of the Koran and other one-of-a-kind Islamic manuscripts were kept in the library, the fate of the Sufi sites proved conclusively that religious scruples wouldn’t stop them from destroying that history either.

Burned manuscripts at Ahmed Baba Centre for Documentation and Research in Timbuktu, January 29thWhen the French military operation to wrest northern Mali out of Ansar Dine’s control got close to Timbuktu at the end of January, it seemed like the library’s fate was sealed. Ansar Dine forces torched the Ahmed Baba Centre on their way out. News stories reported that hundreds of thousands of irreplaceable manuscripts were in ashes, an incalculable blow to the history of Timbuktu, Mali, Africa and the world.

It turns out, however, that the librarians and curators were too smart for those barbarians. By the time Ansar Dine beat their hasty and fiery retreat, most of the manuscripts were safely hidden away.

The two sources said that soon after Tuareg rebels swept into Timbuktu on April 1 in a revolt later hijacked by sharia-observing Islamist radicals, curators and collectors of the manuscripts had started hiding the texts away for safety.

“They shipped them out and distributed them around,” Jeppie said. The Malian source said the manuscripts were concealed “a little bit everywhere,” but he declined to give details.

It would not be the first time that Timbuktu’s inhabitants have had to protect their city’s manuscripts from intruders.

Some texts were stashed for generations under mud homes and in desert caves by families who feared they would be stolen by Moroccan invaders, European explorers and French colonialists.

Ahmed Baba Centre for Documentation and Research in TimbuktuConsidering that Ansar Dine enforcers went door-to-door to threaten Timbuktu residents that Sharia was now in effect, keeping their heritage safe and secret was an act of immense collective courage. This Wall Street Journal article has some more details about the cloak and dagger operations to save the precious manuscripts.

There are still some terrible losses. Many bills of sale and other documents from the slave trade were burned, and even the documents that were not burned are so fragile they’re bound to have been damaged by their hasty transportation.

UNESCO is planning to send a mission to document conditions and determine which crises require the most urgent attention. UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova visited Mali on Saturday and met with Malian authorities and French President François Hollande who was also visiting. In collaboration with local experts and community leaders, UNESCO will help rebuild what was damaged and conserve endangered documents.


Mark your calendars: Richard III results on Feb. 4th

Friday, February 1st, 2013

Remember back in the salad days of late August 2012 when a team of archaeologists from the University of Leicester began digging a couple of trenches to see if they could locate the Greyfriars church where King Richard III was buried after his defeat and death at the Battle of Bosworth? Sure, there was some talk of looking for the remains of the king, but it was a goof almost, since nobody in their right mind would believe that the king whose body had reputedly been dragged through the town and thrown into the Soar River during the dissolution of the monasteries 475 years ago was even there to be found, never mind that his location could be pinpointed in a two-week two-trench dig.

Then weird stuff started happening. Everything went right. Things got found, things leading to other things being found and locations pinpointed so that a third trench was dug and the excavation time extended. On September 12th it all came to a (cleaved) head. A press conference was called to announce the discovery of human remains: a male skeleton with scoliosis, perimortem slicing to the back of the head and a barbed arrowhead between two vertebrae of his spine.

The evidence strongly suggested that these were indeed the mortal remains of the last Plantagenet king and the last king of England to die in battle, but despite its strength it was still circumstantial. Only DNA can prove beyond any doubt that this is the skeleton of King Richard III, and extracting DNA from archaeological remains is a tricky business. DNA molecules degrade over time, nuclear DNA at twice the rate of mitochondrial DNA, so getting testable samples from a skeleton that has been buried for almost 530 years is not always possible. Even if DNA can be retrieved from protected areas like inside the teeth or the bone, just breathing on it can be enough to contaminate a sample with modern DNA.

Genealogical researchers located someone they think is a direct descendant of Richard III’s sister Anne through the female line. Assuming they’re right, if a clean sample of mtDNA were extracted from the skeleton it could be compared to that of Michael Ibsen, 17th generation nephew of Richard III. To ensure the best possible conditions, the University of Leicester lab is testing the modern DNA while a laboratory that specializes in sampling and testing ancient DNA is extracting the DNA from the skeleton.

That’s not all. The skeleton has also been given a CT scan so that a 3D digital image of the man can be constructed similar to the one that produced the face of King Tut in this post. Researchers have collected samples of the dental calculus from his teeth to find out more about his diet and health, as per the technique described in this post with the extremely gross picture. The skeleton is being radiocarbon dated in two separate labs. Forensic pathologists are examining the bones to hopefully determine the cause of death, and experts in medieval weaponry are lending their expertise to narrow down what sharp implement might have caused the damage to the back of the skull.

At the September press conference, the team estimated that the DNA results could take as long as 12 weeks. Twelve weeks ended on December 5th, but no results were forthcoming. There were rumors swirling about that the University of Leicester was deliberately holding back evidence so that they could release it in conjunction with an upcoming documentary on the discovery to air on Britain’s Channel 4, rumors the University strenuously denied.

Well, the wait is almost over now. On Monday, February 4th, at 10:00 AM GMT, the University of Leicester will reveal the results of their tests and investigation at a press conference. The University won’t be streaming it live, but press outlets will be present and cameras will be rolling, so we’ll probably be able to follow via BBC livestream like last time.

I was up at the crack of dawn, high on nerdrenaline, to liveblog the last press conference, so as long as there’s video to follow, you know I will be this time too. Meanwhile, there’s a Google + group you can join to keep abreast of all Richard III-related news.

Oh, and that documentary which the University of Leicester was definitely not holding back information to be in sync with just happens to be airing on Monday evening. Richard III: The King in the Car Park debuts on Channel 4 at 9:00 PM GMT.






February 2013
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