Archive for May, 2013

Ancient decapitated ball game statue found in Mexico

Tuesday, May 21st, 2013

Villagers installing a water pipe a few weeks ago in the town of Piedra Labrada in the southwestern Mexico near the Guatemalan border unearthed a granite stele depicting a player of the Mesoamerican ball game. The figure is 5’4″ high including the head which archaeologists believe was deliberately severed from the body during a ball game ritual. He’s a bow-legged fellow with his arm crossed over his chest. He is accessorized with a helmet, a yoke around his waist and round stones, possibly the precious greenstones known as chalchihuites, hanging from his ears.

The statue was discovered in the north section of the town on the grounds of the biggest ball game pitch, an L-shaped court about 130 feet long. There are five ball courts in Piedra Labrada. Around twenty sculptures of snake heads, shells and anthropomorphic figures were found in three of them, but this is the first sculpture found in the north field and the only one that depicts a ball player.

The Mesoamerican ball game was not simply a sport. The basic game fielded two teams who sought to put a rubber ball through a stone circle by bouncing it off their hips, but it was also an immensely important religious ritual with a number of ceremonial functions. Among these rites was a ritual marking the end of a calendar cycle during which sculptures were painted red and then ceremonially “killed” by having their heads struck off. The decapitated statues would then be buried around the court.

The age of the stele is hard to pinpoint because Piedra Labrada has not been thoroughly excavated. Since the recent digs began a year and a half ago, archaeologists have been mapping the site. The pre-Hispanic town is 1.24 square miles in area. In addition to the five ball fields, almost 50 medium-sized buildings (10-16 feet high) have been identified as well as public plazas and sculptures. The sculptures that have been found thus far appear to be Mixtec (an indigenous ethnic group who have a documented history going back to 940 A.D.) in design, and their placement in the ancient town is in keeping with Epiclassic characteristics which could turn the clock all the way back to 600 A.D.

Given the breadth of these discoveries, the many buildings, the ball courts, the big public squares, and now the unique ball player statue, there’s little doubt that Piedra Labrada was an important Mesoamerican city, a ritual center if not a political and population center. Archaeologists have submitted a proposal to the Archaeology Council of Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH) for an extensive excavation project that might reveal more information about the ancient city, its dates of use, the people who worshiped there. They’re hoping to unearth ceramics that can be dated and analyzed to determine their origin.

If the project is authorized, it will be the first major archaeological exploration in the Costa Chica area of the Guerrero region. Since many of the pre-Hispanic sites in this area are intact, there is a wealth of new information about the Mixtec and other local Mesoamerican groups to be discovered. For now the stele is being kept in the municipal police station, which is probably the safest place. Until someone bribes a cop.


Boy digs up British Civil War cannonball in his yard

Monday, May 20th, 2013

Ten-year-old Jack Sinclair discovered a Civil War cannonball when digging in his back yard in Southwell, Nottinghamshire, England. His father had dug up a tree root and Jack, an avowed digger of things, kept excavating the hole until it was two feet deep. When his spade hit something hard, he thought it was a rock at first but then realized that it was bigger and denser. He got down on the ground to pull it out and retrieved a very heavy, rusty, muddy lump. His mother was concerned that it might be an unexploded bomb from World War II, but when they cleaned off the dirt, they saw it was an iron cannonball.

His grandfather Graham Sinclair researched the nine-pound ball. Together they took to the Newark and Sherwood District Council’s Museum Resource Centre in Newark where experts examined the artifact and verified with 90% certainty that it is a 17th century cannonball used during the Civil War. They were able to compare it to many Civil War cannonballs in the Museum Resource Centre’s collection. Its weight and dimensions suggest it was shot from a saker cannon, a medium-caliber long range cannon that was widely used in the early 16th century and 17th century.

It’s the first Civil War cannonball unearthed in Southwell. Most of the ones in the Museum Resource Centre were found 8 miles away in Newark which was a Royalist city of major strategic importance repeatedly besieged by Parliamentary forces between 1643 and 1646 when King Charles I ordered the city garrison to surrender. Southwell has been overshadowed by its neighbor, but it too played a significant role during the Civil War. Charles I spent his last night of freedom at a pub in Southwell called the King’s Arms.

On May 5th, 1646, Charles arrived in Southwell disguised as a lackey. He had dinner at the King’s Arms with the Scottish Commissioners during which he deployed his awful negotiating skills to sway them to his side. The Commissioners insisted that he sign the Solemn League and Covenant granting them religious freedom which Parliament had agreed to but then ignored, establish Presbytery (a governing body of elders) in England, that he fire the Marquis of Montrose, a Covenanter who switched sides to fight for the king, and that he surrender to the Scottish army at Newark.

The next day he surrendered and was taken to Newcastle upon Tyne. Charles kept wheeling and dealing, refusing to fulfill various parts of the bargain, convinced that he could negotiate a better deal for himself even as he was captive of Scottish forces. He couldn’t. On the 30th of January, 1647, the Scots handed Charles over to Parliament in exchange for £100,000 up front (a fraction of the money Parliament had promised them before they joined the fray) with more to come.

Southwell was handled roughly by Cromwell’s troops in the wake of Charles’ surrender. They used the Archbishop’s Palace as a stable for their horses, looted graves, damaged the Minster and generally trashed the place. Legend has it that Cromwell himself made a point of staying in the King’s Arms in the very suite Charles had slept in the night before his surrender.

That pub is still standing, now called the Saracen’s Head Hotel, and visitors can stay in the King Charles Suite where he slept. Some beautiful Elizabeth era murals painted around 1590 in that room and one other were rediscovered during a renovation in 1986.

To celebrate the area’s rich history, the Newark and Sherwood District Council has secured a £5.4 million (ca. $8,240,000) grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund to create a National Civil War Centre in Newark. It’s scheduled to open in 2014. Jack Sinclair won’t be donating his prize cannonball to the new center, however. He’s keeping it. His school, Lowe’s Wong Junior School, is planning a special assembly dedicated to the cannonball.


Navy dolphins find rare early torpedo

Sunday, May 19th, 2013

Yes, the United States Navy has teams of bottlenose dolphins trained to detect mines, other undersea objects and enemy divers. During training in the Pacific off the coast of San Diego, California, last month, a dolphin named Ten alerted his handlers to the presence of a suspicious object in an area where the trainers hadn’t planted anything. A week later a second dolphin, Spetz, alerted in the same area. He was sent back with a marker to pinpoint the precise location so the object could be retrieved. When the Navy divers recovered it, they found it was a Howell torpedo broken into two pieces.

To train the dolphins, Navy specialists sink objects of various shapes in rocky and sandy undersea areas where visibility is poor. The shapes mimic those of the mines used by U.S. adversaries. […]

The dolphins have found unexpected things in the past, including a mine-shaped lobster trap during a mission off Canada with the Canadian navy. But a torpedo that was more than a century old and that the divers and trainers needed to consult explosives experts — and Google — to identify?

“We’ve never found anything like this,” said [head of the marine mammal program Mike] Rothe, his voice full of admiration for the marine mammals. “Never.”

The Howell torpedo was the first torpedo to be produced in any quantity by the US Navy. It was invented in 1870 by Navy Lieutenant Commander John A. Howell, head of the Department of Astronomy and Navigation at the U.S. Naval Academy, but development took almost two decades. In 1889, the Navy ordered 50 Howell torpedoes from the Hotchkiss Ordnance Co. of Providence, Rhode Island. Powered by a flywheel that was spun at high speed before launch, the 11-foot-long Howell required no fuel, left no visible wake for the enemy to detect and could be surface-launched from battleships or launched underwater by torpedo tubes. It had a range of 400 yards and could reach a speed of 25 knots. Its flywheel acted as a stabilizing gyroscope to keep it on target.

It had some marked disadvantages however. It was unwieldy, hard to load and hard to charge. The flywheel had to be spun by massive winches to get it going and once it was finally in the water, the flywheel was so loud it obviated the stealth advantage of wakelessness. In 1892, American manufacturer E. W. Bliss Company secured the rights to producing Whitehead torpedoes. Invented by English inventor Robert Whitehead in 1866, over the next few decades Whitehead torpedoes became established in the Navies of Austria, Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Russia and China. They were more expensive, but they were self-propelled with three-cylinder engines.

For a while, the Navy tested both Howells and Whiteheads side by side (see this 1894 New York Times article about just such a test in Newport, Rhode Island), but by the late 1890s, the Whitehead was the undoubted victor. The Howells never made it past that initial 50 unit order.

Before the kickass trained dolphins did their thing, there was only one known surviving Howell torpedo on display at the Naval Undersea Museum in Keyport, Washington. The discovery of a second one, by dolphin no less, is thus nothing short of epic.

The newly recovered Howell is stamped “USN No. 24” which puts it right in the middle of the production run. Explosive experts have examined it and found that its century plus in the Pacific has rendered it inert. It’s at a Navy base right now being cleaned and prepared for shipment to the Naval History and Heritage Command in the Washington Navy Yard.


Bored Viking carved outline of his foot on ship deck

Saturday, May 18th, 2013

The carved outline of foot found on the removable deck planking of the late 9th century Viking Gokstad Ship bears mute witness to how at least one crew member passed the time during a long sea voyage. There are two foot outlines: a right foot carved across two planks and a weaker outline of a left foot on a single plank. The deck was made out of moveable pine planks that could easily be lifted if the crew needed to access the small hold for cargo storage or to bail out water. When the ship was first excavated in 1880, the planks were found scattered so we don’t know if the feet were originally next to each other or if they were carved independently.

Even though the ship was excavated 133 years ago and has been in Oslo’s Viking Ship Museum since 1932, researchers only noticed the footprints in 2009 when moving the loose floorboards. Museum storage manager Hanne Lovise Aannestad thinks the carving was the work of a bored youth, much like kids these days might carve their initials into their desks.

“My guess is that some time or another a person was bored and simply traced his foot with his knife. It’s a kind of an ‘I was here’ message,” says Aannestad. […]

Aannestad has measured one of her own feet against a tracing of the carved outline – because no one can actually step on the fragile floorboard, of course. The foot was smaller than hers, and even though people were generally shorter in the Viking days, this was probably a little person.

“It could have been a young man. People were treated as adults much earlier in those days. They took off sooner than we would allow young boys to do today,” says Aannestad.

They should add the shoe outline to the exhibit so visitors, especially kids, can compare their feet to that of a real Viking who lived and traveled in that ship 1100 years ago.

The foot carving is not the first time a young man established a lasting connection to this ship. It was first discovered on Gokstad farm near the town of Sandefjord on the west side of the Oslo Fjord in 1880 by the two teenage sons of the farm’s owner. The hill was called Kongshaugen (meaning “The King’s Mound”), and one day the boys decided to see if the legends that a king was buried there with all his treasure might be true. Just after New Year’s when the ground was still frozen, the highly motivated youths climbed the hill and started digging. Although the name suggests the hill was a burial mound for royalty, there are many mounds named Kongshaugen that turn out to be just hills. This one turned out to have an elaborate Viking ship burial within.

The news reached the Society for the Preservation of Ancient Norwegian Monuments and its then-president Nicolay Nicolayse managed to stop the amateur dig. He returned in the Spring and began a proper excavation from the side instead of the top down. You can read his 1892 account of the dig here. What he found was an oak clinker-built ship 76 feet long and 17 feet wide with 16 oar holes on each side of the hull. There was room for more than the 34 rowers, however. The ship’s maximum capacity was around 70. A scrap of white wool with red stripes sewn on was found in the front of the ship, possibly a fragment of the square sail.

There was a birch bark-covered wooden burial chamber built at the stern of the ship behind the mast. Inside the burial chamber was a raised bed with the incomplete skeleton of an adult male, a man in his 40s around 5’9″ whose leg bones showed the marks of the cutting blows that probably killed him in battle. Blows to the leg were a common fighting technique in Viking times. Fragments of silk and gold thread stuck in the joists of the roof indicate the chamber was once draped with expensive textiles.

There were grave goods, although none of the gold, silver, jewelry, precious accessories and armaments that usually accompanied a Viking ship burial. Those had been looted, probably not long after the burial, but plenty of archaeological wonders remained: wooden furniture, a game board with horn pieces, fish hooks, a sledge, a tent, a harness tackle made of iron, lead and gilded bronze, fish hooks, kitchen equipment, six beds and 64 shields. There were also three smaller boats in pieces and the remains of many animals (eight dogs, two goshawks, two peacocks and 12 horses).

The ship and artifacts were removed to the University of Oslo where they were studied, conserved and stored until the Viking Ship Museum room was built to house them. Since this was before the days of PEG and giant freeze dryers, the wood dried during excavation and conservation. Restorers steamed the planks to shape them back into their original curved positions and put the ship back together. The wood that was too damaged to subject to the process was replaced with modern planks.

It wasn’t until 1993 that dendrochronological (tree ring) analysis narrowed down the date. The timber that built the ship was felled in 890. The ship was used for sea voyages for at least a decade — we know this because the oar ports in the upper hull are worn and now because smart-alecky teenagers carved their feet into the deck — before being retired for the burial of what had to be a very important person. A possible candidate for the deceased is Olaf Geirstad-Alf, a king of Vestfold of the Swedish Yngling dynasty, who according to the Norse saga Heimskringla died at the end of the 9th century.

Although the ship and grave contents have been much seen and analyzed since their discovery, the site itself has been somewhat neglected. As of 2009, researchers from the Museum of Cultural History at the University of Oslo have returned to Gokstad to explore the mound in the light of our current understanding of Viking history and culture and using the latest technologies.

Up to now, the find has had an apparently isolated position, both as archaeological monument in the landscape, and as cultural historical phenomenon. Although sporadic archaeological investigations and chance finds since the 1880’s have demonstrated that the surroundings around Kongshaugen are rich in other contemporary structures, there has never been an attempt to investigate and analyze the landscape surrounding the mound as a whole. And likewise it has never been tried to look at the entire Gokstad find – the mound, the animals, the objects and the deceased – as a single, monumental manifestation by those who once created it, and to decipher what it was that they intended to accomplish. At the core of the Gokstad revitalised project thus stands the goal to create a context around the burial, and to give an archaeological answer to the question Who was the Gokstad man?


Napoleonic POW ship models for sale

Friday, May 17th, 2013

One of my favorite posts last year was about a model of a guillotine made out of animals bones by a Napoleonic prisoner of war in England. Britain had a surfeit of prisoners from France and other countries who fought on Napoleon’s side during the late 18th, early 19th century. An estimated 100,000 Napoleonic prisoners were in British hands between 1793 and 1815 because of French Revolutionary and Napoleonic policies against the ransom or exchange of prisoners. Prison hulks had nothing like that capacity, so a number of prisoner of war camps were built in England, the first permanent POW camps of their kind.

These camps weren’t the extreme hellholes that prison hulks were, but they were still overcrowded, wet and subject to epidemics like Typhus. British authorities allowed the prisoners to make crafts and sell them to supplement their miserable existence. Since many of the prisoners were conscripts rather than professional soldiers, they had work skills from their civilian lives and were able to create rather exceptional pieces. The working model of a guillotine carved from discarded bones is one of them. Beautifully appointed model ships were also popular.

Two of those ships are coming up for sale at Bonham’s Fine Maritime Paintings and Decorative Arts auction on June 5th in New York. One is a model of a 76-gun French ship-of-the-line made out of bone. The other is a boxwood model of a British 76-gun ship-of-the-line. Both were carved around 1800 and are amazingly elaborate. The boxwood model is valued at least $2,000 higher than the bone one because of how crazy fancy it is:

in a diorama format with the hull built up from the waterline, a painted green bottom, the topsides painted in alternating bands of black, pink and white, and black topsides fitted with a figure head of a Roman warrior, at the stern the quarter galleries and transom are modeled with windows, cut and pierced and decorated with a geometric pattern. The decks are of veneer with the planking lines drawn in and detailed with: anchor, cannons on carriages, pin and fife rails, capstan, railings, ladders, belfry, hatches, deck eyes. At anchor, one anchor rode is run out into the sea as if the ship were anchored. Rigged with three masts, bowsprit, standing and running rigging, turning blocks, cross spars, tops and trees, and dead-eyes and other rigging details. Displayed on a carved and painted sea, framed by an ornately decorated and drawn acanthus base, within a mahogany and glass case with carved front columns and a foliate frieze over the top.

The bone ship is slightly less fancy, but no less amazing:

possibly Le Maroc [name on transom barely legible], the hull built up from the solid and planked in bone, between the gun decks are raised bone strakes which were painted black, brass guns fitted to the topsides and decks, chain plates and dead-eyes, polychromed figurehead of a warrior, carved and pierced stern and quarter galleries with verdigris copper details, head rails, pin and fife rails, scored planking for the decks, open well deck, guns on carriages, taff rail, and other details. Rigged with masts, yards, standing and running rigging, spars, stun’sail booms, and other details [rigging in need of attention]. Set into a bone and wood base with a painted sea [distressed] giving the impression of a waterline model.

I’m partial to the bone one both because I’m just a fan of bone art in general and because you can really see that it was made out of bits of carved bone. On the other hand, it does not have a Roman legionary figurehead so the boxwood model clearly wins on that score.


Remains of early church found under Lincoln Castle

Thursday, May 16th, 2013

Archaeologists excavating Lincoln Castle as part of a major refurbishment project have unearthed the remains of a stone church and burials pre-dating the Norman invasion and the construction of the castle. A total of eight skeletons have been found thus far, all buried in the east-west alignment that is typical of Christian burials. The remains of walls and flooring suggest this was a religious structure in which people of high status would be buried rather than a cemetery. Pottery found at the same level dates to the 10th century, which means the church and burials are around a century older than Lincoln Castle, which was one of the first castles built in England by William the Conqueror in 1068.

The spot 10 feet under ground level was being surveyed before construction of an elevator shaft when archaeologists encountered multiple skeletons and two stone walls. Further excavation in the small space — it’s approximately 10 by 10 feet — revealed another skeleton which had once been wrapped in a finely woven fabric buried in a niche in the foundations of the oldest wall. The textile has long since disintegrated, but the imprint of it is still visible in the wall’s mortar. This unusual burial within a wall suggests the remains may be the relics of a saint or august venerated personage of some kind who was inhumed in the foundations as a votive deposit to sanctify and dedicate the building.

They also found a limestone sarcophagus with the lid mortared in place. Archaeologist Cecily Spall of FAS Heritage was able to peer inside the coffin using an endoscopic camera and saw a complete articulated skeleton within. Anglo-Saxons didn’t, as a rule, make sarcophagi. This is probably a Roman one that was re-used. That was a not uncommon practice for early English Christians in the centuries after the collapse of Roman Britain, but it’s highly unusual to see a stone sarcophagus in a late Saxon burial.

Judging from the dimensions and location of the walls, Spall believes the church was about 23 feet by 13 feet, which if accurate, would place the sarcophagus right in the middle of the structure. The sweet spot, if you will, where only the most important people would be buried. The other skeletons were buried in wooden coffins, less dramatic than the sarcophagus, but still an indication of wealth and rank.

It’s a highly significant find: an unrecorded church with high status burials underneath Lincoln Castle. The earliest Christian church was built in Lincoln in the 7th century by one Blaecca whom Bede describes (Ecclesiastical History of the English Nation, Book II, Chapter XVI) as the praefectus Lindocolinae civitatis, the main city official whose high title may indicate he was related to the royal family in addition to having been appointed city magistrate by King Edwin of Northumbria. That church, named St. Paul in the Bail after Saint Paulinus who brought Christianity to Lincoln and converted Blaecca and his family, was built in the former Roman forum near what is now the northeastern corner of the castle.

That church was demolished in the 14th century, but there is evidence that a body buried in the 7th century church was removed in the 10th century and buried somewhere else. Until now historians have assumed it was reburied in the late Saxon church underneath the 11th century Lincoln Cathedral, but perhaps that somewhere is else was the small but noble-packed church on the site of the future castle.

The skeletons will be analyzed by osteologists to determine their age, sex, place of birth, diet, lifestyle and possibly their cause of death. They will also be radiocarbon dated. After the scientific examination, the remains will go on display at The Collection archaeological museum in Lincoln. Meanwhile, visitors are welcome to visit the castle and observe the excavation work.

Lincoln Castle is undergoing an ambitious £19.9 million ($30 million) expansion of its visitor facilities. The walls are being repaired complete with disabled access (hence the elevator shaft) so people can walk the full circuit of them. There will be a new visitors center and a vault that will house Lincoln’s copy of the original Runnymede Magna Carta, one of only four known to exist. The hope is construction will be completed in time for the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta in 2015.


19th c. slave cabin donated to Smithsonian’s African American History Museum

Wednesday, May 15th, 2013

An antebellum slave cabin from the Point of Pines Plantation on Edisto Island, South Carolina, will become a centerpiece of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC), a new museum set to open in 2015. The cabin, one of two still standing on the plantation, was donated to the museum last month by the Edisto Island Historic Preservation Society who received it from the plantation’s owners, the Burnet Maybank family.

Quite a few slave cabins have survived despite their rickety construction, and there are several in museums, but the NMAAHC was particularly interested in acquiring one of the Point of Pines cabins because it was one of the first places where slaves emancipated themselves after Union occupation. Point of Pines was a large plantation where more than 170 slaves picked Sea Island cotton before the Civil War. The islands on the coast of South Carolina were taken by Union troops shortly after the war began. In 1861, almost two years before the Emancipation Proclamation declared slaves in Confederate territories free, Point of Pines slaves and slaves from neighboring plantations who had fled to Point of Pines, declared themselves free. The Point of Pines cabin therefore tells not just the story of the degradation of chattel slavery, but also of the triumph of self-determination.

The fragile structure is being dismantled on site by Museum Resources, a Virginia company which specializes in historic woodwork. Smithsonian officials arrived on Monday to supervise the deconstruction and to do some on-site archaeological and historical research on the cabin and its inhabitants. The dismantlement process is a painstaking one. The first step is to marking and remove any non-period materials added to the historical structure. Then the siding and roofing comes off, then the roof framing and flooring, then the cabin frame. Every board and nail will be numbered and mapped before being carefully packed for transportation. The work is expected to take a week, after which the packaged cabin will be driven to the Williamsburg headquarters of Museum Resources where the wood will be dated, cataloged, its condition assessed and stabilized.

Once the pieces are given the all clear, the two-room, 16 by 20-foot cabin will be rebuilt inside the National Museum of African American History and Culture where it will be centrally located and visible from three floors. Because of its delicate condition, visitors will not be allowed to step into the cabin.

“This is one of the crown jewels of the collection, along with the Harriet Tubman shawl, Nat Turner’s Bible and an airplane used by the Tuskegee Airmen,” said Nancy Bercaw, a curator with the museum who is in South Carolina to monitor the cabin’s dismantlement. “It is there to remind us of the lives of people who were enslaved and definitions of freedom coming out of the African American community that led to transformational moments that changed America.”

Only a few days into the deconstruction, new information has been unearthed about the site. The cabin appears to have been built along a “slave street,” a row of up to 25 cabins similar to the surviving one.

Preliminary documentary research has uncovered rich primary sources about Point of Pines slaves. One is the private register of the Rev. Edward Thomas, Rector of Edisto Island’s Trinity Church, which covers 1827 through 1829 and includes information about the plantation owners, the Bailey family, and their slaves. Another is the 1758 estate inventory of Joshua Grimball (Paul Grimball, the first European settler of Edisto Island in 1674, built the plantation; it stayed in his family until it was sold to the Baileys in 1789). Along with the furniture, tools, cattle, spinning wheels and glassware, it lists the names of more than 90 Point of Pines slaves, among them Wando Pompey, the Wench Murriah, Big Sampson, Angolo Ned, Sambo and Gamboa Sampson. The African place names indicate first generation slaves.

With this valuable documentation and the help of Lowcountry Africana, a non-profit African American genealogy organization, Bercaw’s team is also interviewing local descendants of the Point of Pines slaves to add an oral history component to the future display about the cabin and the community that lived there slave and free.


Mayan temple in Belize bulldozed for road fill

Tuesday, May 14th, 2013

Last week, archaeologists from the National Institute of Culture and History’s Institute of Archaeology were called to the site of main temple at the Nohmul complex in northern Belize after learning that heavy equipment was damaging the 2,300-year-old structure. They arrived to find the onetime pyramid, turned by time into an overgrown mound about 100 feet tall, had been brutally whittled away by backhoes. Dump trucks were on site to carry out the limestone bricks, each one carved by hand with stone age tools by ancient Mayans, which apparently make good rubble for road fill.

Nohmul is one of only four important pre-classic Mayan sites in northern Belize and its central temple and namesake (Noh Mul means “big hill”) is one of the tallest in the country. The entire complex covers an area of about 12 square miles in the middle of sugar cane fields. There are 81 buildings, all of them mounds today, which were home to an estimated 40,000 people between 500 and 250 B.C. The main temple, in addition to having a public ceremonial and administrative function, may have also housed the High Priest or important nobles. You can see one of several chambers the Maya built into the structure torn open at the top edge of the destruction. Archaeologists found fragments of monochrome pottery typical of the pre-classic period all over the mangled site.

All of the buildings are on private property, but they are protected by law as ancient monuments. Unfortunately, the statutory protection does not stop unscrupulous fiends from using them as gravel quarries. As Dr. Allan Moore from the Institute of Archaeology put it in a local 7News story, “Belize is 8,867 square miles of jungle. We are only around 16 personnel in the department. We can’t be in the Chiquibul and at the same time being at La Milpa.” They have to rely on tip-offs, and by the time they respond, it’s often too late.

The construction companies are well aware of the advantage this paltry ratio of enforcers to surface area confers. There are tens of thousands Mayan mounds dotting the landscape; gutting them for use as rubble has become an endemic problem. This is a deliberate choice made by the builders. Although the mounds look like hills covered in plant growth rather than the clean pyramids we associate with Maya architecture, they are very well known as Maya structures. It’s not like the construction companies innocently think they’re clawing away at a hill only to find a wealth of limestone bricking. It’s the bricks they’re targeting.

The construction company in this case was identified. Archaeologists saw the name of D-Mar Construction on the equipment, a company owned by one Denny Grijalva, a United Democratic Party candidate for representative of his district, Orange Walk Central. Nohmul is in Orange Walk North. Interesting that the party platform includes rebuilding access roads to major tourist sites. It would seem counterproductive to build those roads using the major tourist sites. Then again, following election laws appears to be a sore point for Mr. Gijalva, so what’s a little cultural patrimony destruction?

When questioned by the 7News team, Grijalva denied knowing anything about his backhoes tearing down an ancient Mayan temple in the district next to the one he is running to represent.

Grijalva … referred us to his foreman who never answered at least a dozen calls we made to him. Then Grijalva said he would be there in twenty minutes, we waited fourty and left – we had been stood up.

Interestingly, Grijalva told us that when his foreman got there, he would apologize on behalf of the company, D-Mar’s and the Deputy Prime Minister, Gaspar Vega. Vega’s name comes in because Noh Mul is in Orange Walk North, and the roadfill is reportedly being used in nearby Douglas Village. Of course, we never met the foreman, but we have learned that after we left with the Archeologists, he did arrive and removed the heavy equipment.

How giving of them to remove their means of illegal demolition once the archaeological authorities and police were on site. Police are now investigating the temple destruction. Let’s hope there are real consequences — ie, prison — for Grijalva and anyone else who was in on this monstrosity.

As for the temple itself, there is no way to restore it. There’s just too little of it left. Archaeologists expect it to lose all structural integrity and collapse when the rains come.


Pope Celestine V was not killed by a nail in the skull

Monday, May 13th, 2013

Celestine V’s papacy was doomed from the start. Born Pietro Angelerio in Sicily, from his early 20s until old age he was an ascetic hermit who lived in a succession of remote caves on top of mountains and modeled his life after John the Baptist. He founded the Celestine monastic order whose rule was based on his own strict practices of hair shirts and bread-and-water fasts, but left it to somebody else to run so he could retire to his beloved mountain-top cave. He was only dislodged from there very much against his will when the cardinals declared him Pope in 1294.

That was the last thing he wanted. The problem was the cardinals had been trying for two years to decide who should be pope after the death of Nicholas IV in 1292, but divisions between Guelph and Ghibelline factions and rivalries between the great Roman families of the Orsini and the Colonna (out of the 11 cardinals, three were Orsini, two Colonna and one, Benedetto Gaetani, Colonna-affiliated) had caused a seemingly unbreakable stalemate. At that time there was no conclave locking them in the Vatican until the decision was made, so two years of dithering were entirely comfortable. Pietro sent them a stern letter telling them God had told him that if they didn’t elect a Pope in four months, His wrathful vengeance would fall upon them. Much to his horror, their response was to elect him Pope.

At first he categorically refused and even tried to run away, but he was 79 years old and 200,000 people had flocked to his mountain after the news broke. Finally a delegation of cardinals and two kings (the Angevin King Charles II of Naples and his son, King Charles I Martel of Hungary) convinced him to don the mitre. On August 29th, 1294, almost two months after his election, Pietro was crowned Pope in L’Aquila and became Celestine V.

He was awful at it. Charles II hadn’t climbed that mountain just to pay his respects; he was looking to secure himself a pet Pope and secure him he did. Celestine never entered the Papal States, never went to Rome. He moved from L’Aquila, then a territory of the Kingdom of Naples, to Naples proper. He lived in a spare room in the Castel Nuovo — he had a tiny cell built so he could be properly eremitical during Advent — and appointed everyone who wanted anything to whatever they wanted, even if he’d already appointed someone else. For Charles he created 12 new cardinals, seven of them French and three or five of them Neapolitans. That completely altered the makeup of the college, giving the French massive new weight which would directly lead to the disaster of the Western Schism and the Avignon papacy 80 years later.

After a mere five months on the job, Celestine couldn’t take it anymore. He asked canon law expert Cardinal Benedetto Gaetani whether a pope could abdicate and Gaetani replied that he could, so long as he promulgated a decree saying that he could. On December 13th, 1294, Celestine V decreed that he was out of there. Eleven days later, the college of cardinals assembled in Naples and elected Benedetto Gaetani the new pope. He took the name Boniface VIII and hightailed it to Rome and out from under Charles II’s control.

Celestine headed back to his mountain top but he didn’t make it. The abdication was contentious, and there were factions within the Church and in the temporal world who Boniface feared might attempt to install Pietro as an anti-pope. While still in Naples, Boniface ordered Celestine to be taken to Rome. The old man, remarkably spry considering his age, hair shirt, the chain he wrapped around his body and his only eating on Sundays, managed to escape. He was captured and escaped again. He tried to leave the country but a storm forced his ship ashore in Vieste, in Apuglia, the spur of Italy’s boot. There he was captured yet again and this time Boniface dispatched him to the Castle of Fumone in the Campania region.

By all accounts, this imprisonment was not a gentle one. Even for a man with his taste for the Spartan, Celestine’s cell was tiny, so narrow that the two younger monks who accompanied him got sick. He died 10 months later, on May 19th, 1296. The circumstances of his death were immediately seen as suspicious. Boniface was accused of having had the old man killed to remove the potential anti-pope with undeniable finality. His enemies got their revenge in the end by having Celestine canonized a saint in 1313.

Pietro’s body was moved repeatedly after death, finally finding a permanent resting place in the Basilica of Santa Maria di Collemaggio in L’Aquila, although it didn’t get to rest easily. The silver coffin he was laid in was stolen in 1529; a new one was stolen in 1799; his remains were stolen in 1988 but found two days later, and in 2009, the glass casket that held his remains in public view was buried under the rubble of the church during the earthquake that devastated L’Aquila.

For hundreds of years, a square hole in Pietro’s skull was considered evidence that he had been murdered by a nail driven through his head. Now pathologists at the San Salvatore Hospital’s in L’Aquila can confirm that the nail hole was definitely not the cause of death. Dr. Luca Ventura, son of the pathologist who last examined Celestine’s remains after the 1988 theft, studied the bones.

“[O]ur analysis found no trace of the murder engineered by Boniface. On the contrary, we can say beyond doubt that Celestine wasn’t alive when the lesion was made.”

According to the researcher, the morphology of the lesion clearly shows it was produced on a skeletonized skull. Most likely, the hole was made with a pointed, metallic object during one of the many reburials of Celestine’s bones. […]

“We can’t establish the real cause of death,” Ventura said. “A previous research carried test for heavy metal poisoning with negative results.” […] “Contemporary sources cite pneumonia and a possible hemiplegia (paralysis of one side of the body),” Ventura said.

That doesn’t let Boniface off the hook. Even if he didn’t put a hit out on him — and we still don’t know if Celestine was killed by some other means — Boniface is responsible for walling up an sickly old man in a tortuously cramped castle cell. Osteological evidence indicates Celestine was 5’5″ tall, had chronic sinusitis, parodontopathy (a chronic bacterial infection of the gums), vertebral arthritis and Schmorl’s nodes, herniations of vertebral discs probably caused by heavy labor done as a youth. It’s impressive he lasted 10 months, all things considered.

Researchers at L’Aquila University took the opportunity to do a laser scan on the skull so they could make an accurate facial reconstruction. There’s a practical reason for this reconstruction beyond just curiosity. When on display, Celestine’s remains are clothed and his skull face covered by a wax mask. The mask wasn’t a likeness of the saint, however, but rather that of Cardinal Carlo Confalonieri, the Archbishop of L’Aquila from 1941 to 1950. With the new facial reconstruction, artists were able to make a handsome silver funerary mask that is an accurate likeness of the face it now covers.


Color films of Britain in the 1920s

Sunday, May 12th, 2013

A reader — he knows who he is — pointed me to this video, a remarkable color film of London in 1927 that has been making the Internet rounds the past couple of days. The uploader notes that it’s the work of British film pioneer Claude Friese-Greene using a color process invented by his father William. The name rang a bell because last year I wrote an entry about the restoration of the earliest natural color movies (as opposed to ones shot in black and white and then tinted by hand afterwards), experimental films shot in 1902 by Edward Raymond Turner using a three-color process patented in 1898 which he was never able to develop into a practical working model of camera and projector.

After Turner’s premature death, investor and American film producer Charles Urban hired early film pioneer George Albert Smith to continue where Turner had left off. Smith simplified the Turner process by dropping the blue and turning it into a two-color red and green process called Kinemacolor which Urban and Smith patented in 1906. The black and white film was shot through red and green filters and then projected through them. Even though it required special projectors, Kinemacolor was a hit from its first public showing in 1908. At its peak popularity, more than 300 theaters in Britain had installed Kinemacolor projectors.

It was William Friese-Greene who dethroned Kinemacolor. An avid photographer and inventor — he got more than 70 patents for his inventions during his lifetime — William Friese-Greene drove himself into bankruptcy repeatedly with his passion for moving pictures. One of his inventions was a two-color red and green film process he called Biocolour which he patented in 1905. The process required exposing alternate frames of film through red or green filters and then staining them red (for the green filtered frames) or green (for the red filtered frames). The end result suffered from flickering and very visible red and green edges around figures in rapid motion, but so did Kinemacolor. That was the nature of the beast with these early two-color systems.

In 1911, he tried to sell his system to filmmakers and movie theaters. Biocolour had one great advantage over Kinemacolor: it played through regular projectors, no special equipment necessary, but Kinemacolor’s popularity and the strength of its patent stopped him in his tracks. Urban filed an injuction against Biocolour Limited in 1912, on the grounds that Biocolour’s two-color red and green process was an infringement of Kinemacolor’s 1906 patent. Friese-Greene challenged the injunction on the grounds that Kinemacolor’s patent was too broadly written and not detailed enough to cover the Biocolour process. He lost in the lower courts but an appeal to the House of Lords was ultimately decided in Friese-Greene’s favor in 1915 because Smith had not specified in the patent which exact colors were necessary for his process to work. He claimed that any two colors from nature would work, which was not at all the case, hence the years of struggle from Turner’s first experiments until Smith’s success with red and green.

William Friese-Greene’s win killed Kinemacolor, but with no funding and a World War going on, he was unable to convert his legal victory into theatrical success. He died penniless in 1921. His son Claude picked up where his father left off, developing and improving Biocolour. In the mid-1920s, Claude traveled the length of Britain from Land’s End in Cornwall to John o’ Groats in Scotland, filming in the “new all British Friese-Greene natural colour process.” The result was a travelogue of Britain in 26 ten-minute episodes called The Open Road which is the source of those shots of London linked to above.

Here’s the full London shoot done in 1927 at the end of the three-year voyage. The little girl selling peanuts at the cricket match slays me.

You’re not seeing what audiences would have seen, however. The British Film Institute digitally restored the film to remove the flickering and clean up the color. The entire film was shown on British television in a BBC documentary series in 2006. The DVD is available on the BFI website.

The British Film Institute’s YouTube Channel has more than 60 extracts from The Open Road, most of them less than a minute long but all of them riveting. The color film has a way of making these scenes, now almost a century old, feel much closer to our present. At the same time, they are still very much of a time gone by, an immensely compelling combination.

My favorite scenes are the ones that capture people at work. There are fishermen bringing in the catch and herring girls gutting it in Oban, Scotland (1926):

Three generations of weavers in Kilbarchan, Scotland (1926):

Harvesting on Earl Bathurst’s Estate using traditional oxen in Cirencester (1924):

A potter at his wheel and the ladies painting Wedgwood Etruria pottery (1926):

I also love the ones where Claude took full advantage of the red and green process by filming things that are particularly red and green.

Dingle Gardens Shrewsbury, Shropshire (1926):

Gingers enjoying a bathe by the sea at Torquay, Devon, in 1924:

From a historical perspective, I love the Roman baths in Bath in 1924 and the charming utter lack of thrills and chills on the Reed, a ride at Blackpool Pleasure Beach, Lancashire, in 1926.



Really I could post every last one of them. There are no duds here. I highly recommend spending a few hours watching them all, which is exactly what I did today.






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