7-year-old finds dugout canoe during scuba lesson

Seven-year-old Koen Ergle found a dugout canoe that could be hundreds, even thousands of years old, while taking scuba diving lessons with his grandfather in Owen Lake in the Ocala National Forest east of Ocala, Florida. Former Marion County sheriff Ken Ergle and his grandson Koen were scuba diving in eight feet of water when Koen saw a piece of dark wood. His grandfather dismissed it as scrap from an old dock, but the boy insisted they investigate.

“He was on my secondary respirator and I could hear him making noises and pointing to the wood,” Ken Ergle said. “I started fanning the sand off and still wasn’t quite sure what it was.”

Koen said it looked like a canoe.

After two weekends of digging, what emerged was indeed a nearly 20-foot long canoe.

“This is very complete, this is in very good shape. These are the ones we can really learn from,” said Julia Byrd, senior archaeologist for the Bureau of Archaeological Research, Division of Historical Resources, who was on site Thursday.

There are still indications in the wood of how the canoe was crafted. Charred areas in the dug-out are remnants of the burning that was done to hollow out of the log and make a suitably concave interior.

Julia Byrd photographed the canoe, took detailed measurements and samples. The samples will be analyzed to determine which wood the canoe is made out of and to radiocarbon date it. Native Americans lived in the area starting 15,000 years ago, so the canoe could be pre-historic or from more recent history. A shard of Native American pottery was discovered near the canoe and it’s in a style dating back 2,000 years, but that could be a coincidence.

The Ergle family has donated the canoe to the Marion County Museum of History and Archaeology.

“We are just tickled that the family decided to donate it to the museum. What we are trying to do is get nice quality finds from Marion County. This is an extremely good quality find,” said Lee Brown, who is affiliated with the museum.

Next up for the canoe is two years of drying. The moisture must be extracted very gradually to ensure the wood doesn’t warp and crack. This can be done using PEG like with the Mary Rose, freeze drying like with La Belle or low, long heat like with the bog oak kiln. In this case, however, experts will be wrapping it in plastic to ensure it dries slowly.

Unique Medusa mosaic revealed before restoration

The unique mosaic of Medusa in the Odeon theater of Kibyra, an ancient Hellenistic city in southwest Turkey’s Burdur Province, has been revealed for the first time since it was discovered in 2009. In order to preserve it, the vast marble mosaic was covered in five layers of sand and gravel. Those layers have now been removed to allow restorers to assess its condition and devise a detailed restoration plan for next year. Once restoration is complete, the mosaic will be covered with glass to protect it while still making its special beauty accessible to visitors.

What makes this piece so unique is a combination of size, design, location, materials and subject. So yeah, basically everything about it. The mosaic is 11 meters (36 feet) wide and fills in the entire orchestra area in front of the stage. In the center is a circular face of Medusa with a nimbus of wavy hair and serpents. From the central panel radiate geometric plates paired in contrasting colors that look like large feathers stretching all the way to the edge or the orchestra semi-circle. Marble plaques, some as slender as a single a millimeter thick, in red, white, green, brown, blue, red, grey and veined combinations of each form the design, a mosaic style called opus sectile which uses larger, irregularly shaped pieces rather than the small square tesserae used in the opus tessellatum style. It was created in the mid-third century A.D.

This is the only opus sectile Medusa known in the world. It’s the largest mosaic in Anatolia. It’s one of the best preserved of its size with 95% of the original material extant. It’s also the only Medusa mosaic found in the orchestra section of a Roman theater.

The most exceptional elements, as far as I’m concerned, are the color combinations and the details of Medusa’s face. I think it looks incredibly contemporary. The eyes, nose, mouth and hair could have been drawn by Lucien Freud or Edvard Munch. I love opus sectile — the 4th century Tigress Attacking a Calf from the Basilica of Junius Bassus, now in the Capitoline Museums, has been a favorite of mine since childhood — but it usually has fairly distinct colored sections that are almost paint by numbers in their sharp outlines. Look at the rings the make up the irises and pupils, the crimson in the corner of the eyes and lips, the grain in the marble of the hair. This Medusa has a completely different feel than the tiger because of its remarkably organic composition.

If you think that this post was essentially an excuse to post this picture, you are correct. Such a spectacular piece of art, and a striking figure to border a performance stage. Odeons were small theaters built for musical shows — concerts, contests, poetry recitals — that often had roofs for acoustic purposes. The Kibyra odeon had seating for 3,600 and was used not just as a theater, but as a legal court and legislative chamber during winter when the roof made it the most comfortable building for public use.

EDIT: I initially described the Odeon as an amphitheater. Many thanks to Oliver Gilkes for his correction in the comments.

Intact Sarmatian burial found strewn with gold

Last month, archaeologists excavating a mound in the Filippovka burial ground in the Orenburg region of Russia’s Southern Ural steppes discovered a rare intact burial from the nomadic Persian-speaking Sarmatian people who lived in the area from around 500 B.C. until 400 A.D. The burial ground has 29 funerary mounds, known as kurgans, almost all of which have been thoroughly excavated by archaeologists since the 1980s and thoroughly plundered by looters since antiquity. Archaeologists still work the site and have found important artifacts from Sarmatian daily life like hunting tools, household goods, but they thought there was no chance of finding any intact burials.

Mound 1, aka the Tsar Tumulus, where the most recent discovery was made was excavated in 1986 and a large collection of jewelry, glassware, weapons and 26 stylized carved wooden dear covered in gold sheet was discovered. It became a signature treasure of the Sarmatian archaeology, giving historians a whole new understanding of the Iron Age nomads of the steppes, and has traveled to some of the world’s greatest museums. This summer the archaeological team from the Russian Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Archaeology returned to Mound 1 to explore the eastern section of the kurgan which the original excavation had overlooked. They had no expectations of discovering flashy artifacts; the goal was to find out everything they could about the mound and to determine how best to defend it from conservation threats.

Instead, five meters (16.4 feet) under the surface in a passage near the entrance the archaeologists were welcomed by a cast bronze cauldron more than three feet in diameter with two looped handles on the sides and two top handles in the shape of griffins facing each other beak to beak. Underneath the mound they found the burial chamber, miraculously untouched with its human remains and artifacts lying exactly where they were left 2,500 years ago.

A small wicker chest that is thought to be a vanity case was found near the skull. It was filled to the brim with items including a cast silver container with a lid, a gold pectoral, a wooden box, cages, glass, silver and earthenware bathroom flasks, leather pouches, and horse teeth that contained red pigments.

Nearby lay a large silver mirror with gilded stylized animals on the handle and embossed decoration on the back with the image of an eagle in the centre, surrounded by a procession of six winged bulls.

The garments were decorated with several plaques, depicting flowers, rosettes and a panther leaping on a saiga’s (antelope) back. There were also 395 pressed pieces of gold leaf sewn onto the breeches, shirt and scarf. A fringed shawl was held together with a golden chain and the sleeves of the shirt were embellished with multicoloured beads, forming a complex geometric pattern. Two cast gold earrings decorated in places with cloisonné enamel were found in the area of the temporal bones.

They also found stone palettes, gilded needles, bone spoons and decorated pens that are thought to make up an ancient Sarmatian tattooing kit, a wooden bowls with gold handles shaped like bears, gold rings, a decorated glass vessel of Persian manufacture, a quiver of bronze-topped arrows and so much more. More than 1,000 artifacts were found in this one burial.

Because of the wicker chest/beauty case, the mirror, bracelets, earrings and other jewelry, archaeologists initially thought the remains were of noble woman. Initial osteological analysis, however, indicates the skeleton belongs to male around 40 years old when he died. Only a DNA test can determine the sex of the person buried in this tomb of wonders.

Once the artifacts are fully cleaned, conserved, catalogued and studied, they will go on display in an Orenburg museum.

Da Vinci’s Codex on Flight of Birds at Smithsonian

Leonardo da Vinci’s Codex on the Flight of Birds will be on display at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C., from September 13th through October 22nd as part of its The Wright Brothers & The Invention of the Aerial Age exhibition celebrating the 100th anniversary of Wilbur and Orville Wright’s historic first flight. The codex usually resides in the Bibliotecha Reale in Turin, Italy, and rarely travels, so this a special opportunity to see one of Leonardo’s most important notebooks in the context of the history of human flight.

The Codex on the Flight of Birds is a bound notebook of 18 two-sided pages that Leonardo covered with sketches and notes in his characteristic mirror script. In it he examines how birds fly, principles of aerodynamics and what kind of machine might be able to duplicate natural flight. Leonardo wrote it in 1505-6, almost 400 years before the Wright brothers’ flight, and he made prototypes of several of the machines drawn in the notebook, none of which worked, alas. Still, the concepts he explored — like how air acts like a fluid when it moves over a bird’s wing or how a bird’s center of gravity and center of pressure are different — are some of the building blocks of aeronautics.

The notebook is a modest eight by six inches in size and will be displayed in a custom case for conservation and security purposes. Since visitors obviously won’t have the chance to put their grubby hands on the codex itself, the museum has set up interactive stations with digitized versions of the notebook. People can leaf through every page using a touch screen and see the details in high resolution. A full English translation of every page will illuminate the backwards Renaissance Italian script.

“For Leonardo, art was the foundation of engineering, and engineering was an expression of art,” said Peter Jakab, chief curator of the museum. “The artist who painted the ‘Mona Lisa’ and ‘The Last Supper’ was a Renaissance visionary who saw the modern world before it was realized.” Jakab, an expert in early flight, is also serving as the curator of the special exhibition.

“The exhibition of Leonardo’s Codex at the Smithsonian, including in an electronically readable and scrollable format, is truly a unique event,” said the director of the Biblioteca Reale, Giovanni Saccani. “In fact, the Codex has rarely been exhibited outside the library, although in 2012, a reproduction of the document together with Leonardo’s self-portrait were fastened on a microchip and carried to Mars aboard NASA’s Curiosity rover—leading Leonardo’s genius on a mission to conquer space.”

One of Leonardo’s drawings in another manuscript is of an ornithopter, a plane with wings that flap like a bird’s. A full-size model built from da Vinci’s sketch by an Italian manufacturer is also on display in this exhibition, along with the original Wright Flyer of 1903 in the Smithsonian’s permanent collection and reproductions of several other earlier and later Wright kites and aircraft.

Here’s a quick intro to the codex narrated by curator Peter Jakab:


Important note: Not specifically flight-related but nonetheless extremely cool is the Leonardo self-portrait that is second only to Vitruvian Man in its frequency of use in history-of-man-and-science collages and documentaries. It too is part of the Bibliotecha Reale’s extensive da Vinci collection, and they loaned it to the Smithsonian for this exhibit along with the Codex on the Flight of Birds.

1000-year-old Wari feather hangings at the Met

Peru; reportedly from Corral Redondo, Churunga Valley
Wari; 7th-10th century
Feathers on cotton, camelid fiber, 28 3/4 x 83 1/2 in.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Michael C. Rockefeller Memorial Collection, Bequest of Nelson A. Rockefeller, 1979

Twelve massive feather panels made by the pre-Inca Wari people of Peru at least 1000 years ago and possibly as long as 1,400 years ago have gone on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. The panels in the Feathered Walls: Hangings from Ancient Peru exhibition, 10 of which are in the Met’s permanent collection while the remaining two are loans, will adorn the 88-foot-long wall between the ancient South American art galleries and the modern art galleries, an ideal transition for pieces of ancient Peruvian art whose solid colors and sharp geometries have such a contemporary aesthetic.

The feather panels were discovered in 1943 by workers making adobe near the town of La Victoria in the Churunga Valley along the southern coast of Peru. In an enclosure known as Corral Redondo after three concentric walls that encircles it, workers first encountered Inca artifacts and human remains before unearthing six to eight humaniform ceramic jars (conflicting reports have muddied some of the details) decorated with mythological subjects. The jars were three to four feet high and each contained 12 rolled up feathered panels for a total of 96. It was the largest discovery of ancient Peruvian featherwork ever made.

Kept safe in their jars from the depredations of insect, climate and the salty ocean air, many of the panels were found to be in excellent condition. The average size of the feather panels is seven feet in width and two feet and a half in height. They were all made using the materials and stitching method. On a foundation of plain-weave cotton, body feathers from the blue and yellow macaw were individually knotted onto strings and then stitched onto the cotton panels in overlapping horizontal rows. Along the top is a woven band made from camelid fibers with braided ties attached to the upper corners. It’s those ties that strongly suggest the panels were used as wall hangings rather than, say, garments or blankets. Hung against the rough grey walls common in Wari architecture, these brilliant, refined color blocks would have transformed a humble space into a suitable setting for ceremonial purposes.

Peru; reportedly from Corral Redondo, Churunga Valley
Wari; Carbon-14 date 660-870 (95% probability)
Feathers on cotton, camelid fiber, 27 1/4 x 84 in.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Michael C. Rockefeller Memorial Collection, Bequest of Nelson A. Rockefeller, 1979

Four of the panels in the Met’s collection have been radiocarbon dated to between 600 and 1000 A.D, placing them firmly in the period of Wari hegemony in south coastal and highlands Peru.

Feathers, particularly those from colorful birds, were a highly valued material in ancient Peru, and featherwork was likely one of the most treasured of Wari art forms, which also include other types of fine textiles, polychrome ceramics, exquisite personal ornaments made of precious materials, and small-scale sculpture.

Such portable luxury goods were markers of wealth and power, and because the Wari, like other ancient Andean peoples, did not use a writing system, they also played an important role in expressing, recording, and preserving concepts about the human, natural, and supernatural realms. The bold minimalistic design, striking formal sophistication, and superb craftsmanship of the panels have appealed to modern sensibilities, serving as inspiration for twentieth-century artists such as Max Ernst and his wife Dorothea Tanning, who acquired one of the works presented in the exhibition.

By the time the discovery was published in English-language publications in 1958, the featherwork hangings were described as a buried cache, but according to original workers cited in early Spanish-language publications, Wari mummy bundles were found buried along with the ceramic jars. They were burned on the spot by the finders, presumably for religious reasons. If the panels were indeed buried along with people, they may have been offerings left at the grave of a very high status personage or a human sacrifice.

Twenty-three of the panels were acquired by Nelson Rockefeller who gave them to the Museum of Primitive Art, a now-defunct museum in New York he founded to house his collection of the art of indigenous peoples of Africa, Oceania, the Americas and early civilizations of Europe and Asia. The museum closed in 1976 and its permanent collection transferred over to the Metropolitan. Nelson Rockefeller died in 1979. He bequeathed the Wari feather hangings to the Met.

Peru; reportedly from Corral Redondo, Churunga Valley
Wari; 7th-10th century
Feathers on cotton, camelid fiber, 29 1/4 x 83 5/8 in.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Michael C. Rockefeller Memorial Collection, Bequest of Nelson A. Rockefeller, 1979