African coins found on north Australian island may rewrite history

In 1944, an Australian soldier named Morry Isenberg was manned a radar station on the remote Wessell Islands in Australia’s Northern Territory looking out for approaching Japanese aircraft. The enemy planes never materialized, but Isenberg’s sharp eye did spot something else. While fishing on the shore of Marchinbar Island, he found nine coins. He pocketed them, wisely drew a map where X literally marked the find spot and then forgot about them for 35 years.

In 1979, Isenberg found the coins he’d stashed away and took them to experts to determine their origin and value. They determined four of the coins were minted by the Dutch East India Company in the 17th and 18th century, which is not unexpected since the first known European to reach Australia was Dutch explorer Willem Janszoon in 1606. The other five were the shockers: copper coins from the east African Kilwa Sultanate that date to around 1100.

Before this, only one Kilwa coin has ever been found outside of the Swahili Coast (today the Indian Ocean coasts of Kenya, Tanzania and Mozambique) where Kilwa dominated from 900 until the Portuguese broke up the sultanate in the early 1500s, and that coin was in Oman on the southeast Arabian peninsula. Oman was also colonized by the Portuguese for a few decades while they were in the neighborhood in the early 16th century and in the late 17th century Oman conquered the east African coast where Kilwa once reigned. So there were plenty of opportunities for an old Kilwa copper to wind up in Oman. How five of the made their way more than 6000 miles east to the Wessell Islands is a fascinating historical mystery, one with the potential to rewrite the history of when non-indigenous people first stepped foot in Oz.

Kilwa is a small island off the coast of Tanzania. The sultanate was founded around 900 A.D. by displaced Persian prince Ali ibn al-Hassan Shirazi and soon became the primary center of commerce and trade on the east African coast. Kilwa territory grew nothing but coconut palms. They built their wealth as middlemen, trading manufactured goods from Arabia and India for food, gold and ivory with the inland Bantu communities, keeping the food and shipping the precious materials to Asia where they bought manufactured goods and started the cycle all over again. The Kilwa traders had sailing ships — coconut wood dhows sewn together with cocoa coir and sporting braided coconut leaf mat sails — that could travel as far as India during monsoon season thanks to propitious winds in the summer and then head back home in the winter. As far as we know, however, the Kilwa dhows couldn’t handle the turbulent waters and winds much further south than Inhambane, in today’s Mozambique.

Ian McIntosh, an Australian archaeologist who is now an anthropology professor of at Indiana University, explored the island when he was writing his doctorate on the Wessel Islands in the 1990s, but there wasn’t the interest or funding to do a proper archaeological excavation. Interest in the coins’ story grew in 1998 after the wreck of an Arabian dhow was discovered off the island of Belitung on the east coast of Sumatra, Indonesia. The wreck was laden with 60,000 Chinese Tang Dynasty (618 – 907 A.D.) artifacts including gold, silver and ceramics. The date of the wreck was determined by a handy date of manufacture on one of the ceramic bowls: 826 A.D.

Despite the significant find, it wasn’t until this July that McIntosh was able to return to the Wessell Islands with a team sponsored by the Australian Geographic Society to do a proper archaeological investigation of the site. Oral tradition from the local Yolngu people tells many stories of men from distant lands touching down. The team went looking for any signs of a non-indigenous presence on the island: ballast rocks, ship remains, more African coins, etc.

They didn’t find any more coins, but they did find something of great potential significance: indigenous rock paintings depicting a variety of ships and men wearing hats and trousers. The team documented about 20 images. Some feature whales and other local critters. Ten are ships of different sizes, shapes and configurations. One of them is a steamship with a visible propeller which obviously post-dates Captain Cook but is nonetheless a great find because it’s the only known rock art steamship. Another is a French sailing ship identifiable from its unique rigging.

The find site was a challenge to rediscover because the surveyor’s map from 1944 didn’t match where the radar base was known to be. The team was eventually able to pinpoint the X spot thanks to some topographical features and the remains of oil drums and shell casings from World War II.

“We didn’t find more coins which is disappointing,” Dr McIntosh said. “But the location was very interesting. It’s in a very inhospitable little bit of territory, on this crocodile infested creek littered with flotsam and jetsam amid thick mangroves.”

The coins were clearly not from an old aboriginal settlement, he said, but were most likely part of the detritus washed into the mangrove from the sea.

“There can be only two conclusions, we think: One that they were a product of a storm surge from a shipwreck, and two, alternatively, they were in the possession of one person who just happened to lose them there for whatever reason.”

The team also discovered a piece of timber that at first glance looked like driftwood but upon closer examination appears to be deck bracing for a sailing ship. The wood hasn’t been dated yet, but it might be evidence of a relevant shipwreck.

The timber and rock art will be thoroughly analyzed over the upcoming year. Next summer the expedition will return with underwater archaeologists who will dive the reefs looking for the remains of any ships that may have inspired the paintings.

Ostrich egg globe may be oldest with New World

Figure 1. The early sixteenth-century engraved ostrich egg globe among other ostrich eggs. Photo: Washington Map Society.

Recent research has found that an elaborately carved globe made out of the sealed-together lower halves of two ostrich eggs is the oldest known globe to include the New World. It’s also the earliest engraved globe and the oldest post-Columbian globe known to survive. Last but certainly not least, it’s one of only two globes in the world to feature an epic sentence that people think was common in ancient and medieval maps but in fact is only known exist on these two globes: “HIC SVNT DRACONES,” the famous “here be dragons.”

The ostrich egg globe was purchased by a private institution that has chosen to remain anonymous at last year’s London Map Fair. The dealer who sold it claimed it had been part of “an important European collection” since it was acquired after World War II. Dr. Stefaan Missinne, a Belgian real estate developer, map collector and published scholar of articles on ivory and silver globes, spent the past year researching the globe, consulting with more than 100 experts in his investigation of the artifact’s date, origin, sources, materials and construction. In addition to extensive documentary research, Missinne submitted the globe to scientific analyses including computer tomography, radiocarbon dating, regression analysis and x-ray fluorescence analysis. Missinne published the announcement of the globe’s discovery and the results of his research in the latest issue of The Portolan, a cartography journal published by the Washington Map Society.

The globe is around 11 centimeters (4.33 inches) in diameter, about the size of a grapefruit. Its maker cut the bottom halves of two ostrich eggs to make a proper sphere out of them. The map was carved into the individual eggshells and the lines traced with a blue-black color. X-ray fluorescence analysis found high levels of iron and traces of barium in the colored parts which indicates the engraver did not use paint but rather iron gall ink, perhaps mixed with an indigo blue derived from irises. Once engraved and inked, the two and then the two pieces were joined using the natural polymer gommalacca (shellac).

Figure 4. Asia on the ostrich egg globe, showing the large peninsula jutting southward at the right which is evidence of the influence of Henricus Martellus. Photo: Washington Map Society.

The shells themselves are primarily composed of calcium carbonate (CaCO3), as are all bird eggshells, but CT scans found that they’ve lost 50% of their calcium bone density compared to a new ostrich egg. Loss of moisture over time causes this in eggshells just like it does in human bones. By examining a random selection of ostrich eggs at the Museum of Natural History in Vienna, Missinne found that unmounted ostrich eggs lose about 10% of their density every 100 years until they have no moisture left to lose. Regression analysis on the ostrich egg globe found therefore that the egg was new about 500 years ago, giving it a creation date of ca. 1500.

This could not be confirmed with radiocarbon dating. The counterweight material in the bottom of the globe was tested and found to be of fossil origin and 49,310 years (+/– 620 years) old. This is probably because the bottom shell was filled with an organic fossil resin, commonly used as varnish in the Renaissance. Missinne decided not sample the eggshell itself because, according to University of Heidelberg professor Dr. Bernd Kromer, “without knowing the geographical origin of the ostrich egg material and the specific living area of the mother bird, it is very difficult or even impossible to estimate a C-14 date for the egg because of possible interference resulting from the bird’s eating other sources of carbon.”

Missinne turned to historical research to confirm the date. After all, the egg halves could be 500 years old but the engraving relatively new. A globe expert noted that the ostrich shell globe shares many significant similarities with the New York Public Library’s Hunt-Lenox Globe, a small engraved copper sphere from 1504-1506, that until now has held the title of the oldest globe to include the New World. Not only does the Lenox Globe share the overall design of the countries and continents with the ostrich egg globe, but it is identical in minute details like the waves of the ocean, the outline of islands and the Latin nomenclature and script and, most awesomely, in the presence over southeast Asia of the sentence “HIC SVNT DRACONES.”

This degree of similarity could not have been created by human hands working on two different pieces. Missinne concludes that the Lenox Globe was not directly engraved but rather was cast from the ostrich egg globe. That means the latter has to predate the former. The major differences between the two globes are the size, shape and the details at the equator. The Lenox Globe is an accurate sphere, whereas the egg has some irregularities. The Lenox is 11.2 centimeters in diameter, so slightly larger than the ostrich egg globe. Lastly, the details along the equator are crisp on the Lenox Globe while they’re obscured by the gommalacca joinery on the ostrich egg.

We know the egg has shrunk a little over time which explains the discrepancy in size and the unevenness in the sphere. The Lenox Globe is crisp along the equator because it was made from two half-spheres of copper alloy cast from the two half shells after they were carved but before they were joined. The other small imperfections in the eggshell were corrected on the bronze during the finishing process. Missinne believes the Lenox Globe was cast directly from a plaster of Paris mold made from each of the two pieces of the ostrich eggshell. The size discrepancy supports this hypothesis. Calculating back from the 50% density loss, the ostrich egg globe was about 11.4 centimeters in diameter when it was new. Direct casting typically results in 1.5% of shrinkage from model to cast, which is consistent with the Lenox Globe’s diameter of 11.2 centimeters.

As for the map itself, Missinne identified several sources for its geographical information. Ptolemy’s Geographia was used for the maps and nomenclature of Europe, Africa and Asia. The shape of the southern peninsula of Asia is very similar to those in maps of world by Henricus Martellus, a German cartographer who lived and worked in Florence in the late 15th century. The bestselling memoirs of Marco Polo were the probably source for Japan, called “ZIPANCRI” on the ostrich shell map. Information about the New World shows the influence of travel logs by Christopher Columbus, Portuguese explorers Gaspar and Miguel Corte-Real, Portuguese navigator Pedro Álvares Cabral and the Italian after whom the continent would be named, Amerigo Vespucci.

Figure 6. The New World on the ostrich egg globe, which bears three names: “TERRA DE BRAZIL,” “MVNDVS NOVVS,” and “TERRA SANCTAE CRVCIS.” Photo: Washington Map Society.

The New World is rudimentary indeed. There is no North America, just a few islands. ISABEL (Cuba) and SPAGNOLLA (Hispaniola) are named; others are not. South America is labelled TERRA DE BRAZIL (Brazil), MVNDVS NOVVS (New World) and TERRA SANCTAE CRVSIS (the Land of the Holy Cross).

There is no mark or any identifying information about the maker. Missinne thinks it was made in Florence and speculates about a highly tenuous possible connection to Leonardo da Vinci’s workshop based on some globe sketches and sphere surface area calculations in the Codex Atlanticus, but there’s no solid evidence of who made the ostrich egg globe and where. Florence is a likely candidate as it was a center of cartography in the Renaissance and was awash in all that Medici banking money for art patronage, but scholars think the Lenox Globe may have had a Parisian origin and the two globes must have been together in order for the Hunt-Lenox to have been cast from the ostrich egg.

Help Cygan become Leeds’ Robot in Residence

Emma Bearman of Playful Leeds has had the brilliant idea to secure 1950s robot playboy Cygan for the great city of Leeds. He lived there for a while in the 60s employed as a mascot for a car dealership, so it would be a sort of homecoming, and this time he would be the robot ambassador for the whole city, not just for a fine stable of Ford automobiles.

Through Playful Leeds Emma has started a fundraiser to raise not inconsiderable sum of £15,000 which will cover the high pre-sale estimate and leave a little extra for fees and transportation. The Christie’s auction is on September 5th which means time is running out. They have less than two weeks to reach their goal and right now they have £1,057 in pledges.

It’s insanely cool to think that someone might buy one of the artifacts they’ve read about here, restore it and display it for the public good. Go here to pledge and help make the dream a reality.

Wouldn’t it be brilliant to have Cygan welcoming visitors & residents alike to Leeds? As our first Robot in Residence, we’d love to see how he stimulates us to create our own robots and acts as an ambassador, inviting robots from around the world to Leeds. […]

We’d love to have a go at restoring Cygan back to his 1950s glory and to see if we can dance with him as he crushes cans.

I think we’d all love to see him back in full dancing and can-crushing fettle. In addition to returning Cygan to full working order, Playful Leeds aims to involve him in a variety of public events dedicated to celebrating robotic technology throughout this year and the next. Festivities will kick off with the March of the Robots in October. If they win him at auction, Cygan will be its Grand Marshall and he’d do a phenomenal job, no doubt. When Leeds’ year of celebrating robotics and technology ends, Cygan will be found a fitting permanent where he can delight the city until Judgement Day after which the Terminators will destroy him for being on our side.

The fundraiser is just a few days old and has already made regional news and national news. Everyone from a University of Leeds electrical engineering professor to local businessmen to council members is thrilled at the prospect of welcoming Cygan back to Leeds.

Should the funds raised be insufficient to secure Cygan, Playful Leeds will use the money raised to make a new Robot in Residence for Leeds. I hope it doesn’t come to that, but if it does, I think the new guy should have very large feet in homage.

Hear Titanic‘s life-saving musical pig play again

A musical pig credited with saving the life of its owner, Edith Rosenbaum, during the sinking of the Titanic on April 14th, 1912, has been silent for decades. Now, thanks to the wonders of technology, the pig’s song can be heard again.

Edith (she would legally change her last name to Russell in 1918 out of concern about anti-German sentiment in the wake of World War I) was a fashion writer for Women’s Wear Daily, one of the first professional stylists with a glittering roster of show business clients on both sides of the Atlantic and had her own fashion label “Elrose” carried exclusively by Lord & Taylor’s. She was 32 and at the peak of her professional success when she boarded Titanic at Cherbourg. She booked a first class cabin for herself and the 19 trunks full of glamorous gowns she was bringing across the ocean for her American clients.

When the iceberg hit, Edith was unconcerned. In British Pathé interview from 1970, she describes people making snowballs out of the ice shards left on the deck after the collision. When a cabin steward told her it was time to abandon ship, she locked all 19 of her trunks and put all 19 keys in her pocket. One thing she kept with her: her lucky musical pig which she had gotten after a serious car accident the year before in which the driver had died.

She did not want to leave the ship. The lifeboats weren’t attached to the deck so you could just step into them. There was an intimidating gap between the ship and the boats, and they were in various states of being lowered to the ocean. People had to climb up on the railing and jump into the boats. If they missed, all that awaited them was a 14-storey plunge into freezing water. Edith preferred to stay put. A sailor saw her and intervened. He said: “You don’t want to be saved; well, I’ll save your baby.” He snatched the pig out from under her arm and dropped into Lifeboat 11. In the interview Edit says “when they threw that pig, I knew it was my mother calling me.” She jumped in after him, and that’s how the pig saved her life.

She played the musical pig to soothe the children on the lifeboat. One of those children was Philip Aks, a baby who was just 10 months old. He had been separated from his 18-year-old mother, third-class passengers Leah Aks, during the chaos. He was thrown into Lifeboat 11 while his mother was forced into the next boat even though she tried to push her way onto 11 to be with her son. Edith held little Philip and played the music for him over and over again. In April of 1953, Edit, Leah and Philip met again at a special preview of the movie Titanic starring Barbara Stanwyck. Producers invited a number of survivors who had an emotional reunion at the screening. Edit remarked: “The baby, amongst other babies, for whom I played my little pig music box to the tune of ‘Maxixe’ was there.” He is forty-one years old, is a rich steel magnate from Norfolk, Virginia.”

Russell was more directly involved in the next Titanic movie, the 1958 classic A Night to Remember. She basically forced herself onto producer William MacQuitty as an informal consultant for the picture. She had already introduced herself to Walter Lord, author of the book on which the movie was based, after his account became a best-seller. Edith had written a memoir of her own, the excellently named A Pig and a Prayer Saved Me from the Titanic, and she was angry that Lord had stolen her thunder with his well-received book. Lord was kind to her — he had been in contact with survivors in the process of researching the book but had been unable to find her — and they became friends. After her death in April 1975 at the venerable age of 96, Edith left her pig and other memorabilia to Walter Lord.

Lord died in 2002 and, as he was encouraged to do by fellow Titanic obsessive William MacQuitty, he bequeathed his vast collection of Titanic artifacts, many of them given to him by survivors, to the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, London. In 2003 the musical pig, the clothes Edith Russell had worn the night of the sinking and her unpublished manuscript of A Pig and a Prayer Saved Me from the Titanic, went on display as part of the permanent collection of the museum.

Last year, the pig was part of Titanic Remembered, the National Maritime Museum’s exhibition in honor of the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic. Before the artifacts were returned to their permanent display in the museum’s Voyagers gallery, the pig and another artifact (the 18-carat gold pocket watch of passenger Robert Douglas Norman who sadly did not survive the sinking) were taken to the Nikon Metrology factory in Hertfordshire which has high resolution X-ray equipment used to analyze the minutiae of computer chips and other complex internal mechanisms.

Using X-ray computed tomography, the artifacts were scanned in three dimensions and a 3D model created from the scans. That model can then be broken apart, dissected and examined from every conceivable angle. Inside the pig researchers found its curly tail, long thought lost, and the crank-handle that was turned to make the music play. A loose pin was also inside the pig, possibly a relic of an attempt to activate the player after the crank-handle wound up in its rotund belly.

The 3D models revealed the musical mechanism inside the pig. It’s a small, simple device with a toothed wheel turned by the crank shaft against a comb that reads the teeth as notes. It looks like those cylinders in player pianos except they’re perforated rather than toothy. Using the detailed images from the model, experts spent almost a year studying the mechanism and were able to piece together every note it once played. For the first time in living memory, hear the pig play the song that soothed the children on Lifeboat 11 while they waited in the frigid night for seven hours for the Carpathia to rescue them:

According to Edith, the melody was the Maxixe, a popular Brazilian dance song, but the National Maritime Museum researchers challenged the Internet to name that tune. The Internet came through, bless its nerdy heart, and museum experts confirmed that it’s La Sorella, a march composed by Charles Borel-Clerq in 1905. The song is also known as La Matchiche, so Edith was right too.

The pig will be back on permanent display next week. He’ll be sporting his original knotted vellum tail which conservators were able to recover from inside the piggy and reattach it in its original position.

Update: Swash Channel Wreck rudder raised

Bournemouth University marine archaeologists have raised the elaborately carved rudder of a 17th century wreck from the seabed of Swash Channel outside of Poole Harbour off the southwest coast of England. The rudder is eight a half meters (27.9 feet) long, weighs three and a half tons and a has a man’s head sporting a dashing moustache carved out of one end of the beam. The pupils are concave; historians believe they may have once held precious or semi-precious stones, a testament to how extravagantly appointed this ship was.

The Swash Channel Wreck was discovered in March of 1990 when a Dutch dredging ship struck an obstacle. They pulled up timbers and a cannon, but there was no further investigation at that time. In 2004 the Poole Harbour Commissioners and Poole Borough Council site commissioned Wessex Archaeology to survey the site and English Heritage contracted further exploration in 2005. Wessex Archaeology found a structure 65 feet long that included some the upper deck like the forecastle with its galley and gunports. This is almost unheard of in shipwrecks because the top parts are usually destroyed in the wrecking.

Bournemouth University was enlisted in 2006 by English Heritage to monitor the site. They discovered that the wreck site, which was actually twice the size the original survey had found it to be, was in danger from sediment loss in the active shipping lane. As the sand levels lowered, artifacts were being exposed to corrosion, bacteria and shipworm and rapidly degrading. Raising the shipwreck like was done with the Mary Rose would be prohibitively expensive, so the university kept monitoring the site and experimented with methods of in situ conservation.

In 2010, Heritage Lottery Fund gave the university a £141,200 ($220,000) grant for the excavation, documentation and, where possible, recovery of the ship artifacts. For the next three years, Swash Channel saw the largest underwater excavation in the UK since the raising of the Mary Rose in 1982. More than 1200 objects have been lifted from the site, among them timbers, ropes and pulley blocks from the rigging, cannon, cannon balls, barrels that once held salt pork for the crew, lanterns, gun carriages, navigational equipment and personal items like leather shoes, wooden bowls and tankards. No cargo has been found, interestingly enough, suggesting that either it and its containers have been destroyed or that there was a salvage operation after the ship sank.

No identifying information was discovered so we don’t know what ship this was or even where it came from, but archaeologists believe it was probably a Dutch trading ship carrying luxury goods like high-end fabrics from Europe to Asia and carrying spices on the way back. Dendrochronological analysis found the timbers came from the German-Dutch border and were felled in 1628. Further research suggests that the ship was built in Holland in 1628 or 1629 and that it sank relatively shortly thereafter, sometime between 1630 and 1645. The rudder may provide more information about the ship and its origin.

The exceptional quality of the carving you see on the rudder was widespread throughout the ship, unmistakable symbols of wealth. Done in early Baroque style, the carvings include mermen on the bow and two cherubs on the gunports. The carved pieces were first photographed by divers in 2005. A bowcastle merman was raised in 2011 and 40 feet of the bow were raised in 2012. The rudder is the last and largest piece to be raised.

Divers spent a week digging the partially buried rudder out of the sand and placing it in a steel frame so it could be raised with a minimum of stress on the wood. On Monday, August 19th, the rudder was lifted out of its watery home of 400 years. It can’t be allowed to dry out or it will shrink, warp and degrade, so it was constantly sprayed with water before being transferred to the York Archaeological Trust. There it will be treated with polyethylene glycol (PEG) for two years until all the water is replaced with the waxy substance that never evaporates. That will keep the wood supple and allow the rudder to go on permanent display at the Poole Museum. Some of the smaller artifacts are scheduled to go on display next year; the rudder and the bowcastle will join them in 2015 or 2016.

The vast majority of the wreck — 96% of it — remains on the seabed. Only the bulky pieces that were sticking up too far to be covered with sand without creating a dangerous bump have been removed. The rest has been covered with sand and sealed to keep it safe from erosion and would-be looters. The site will continue to be monitored to ensure the sands don’t shift again and expose this unique object to decay.