Archive for October, 2013

Hidden sea of love found in Raleigh portrait

Friday, October 11th, 2013

A portrait of Sir Walter Raleigh, explorer, soldier, poet and favored courtier of Queen Elizabeth I, in the National Portrait Gallery has an allegorical love note to the Queen hidden in the upper left corner. It’s just a few wavy lines of dark blue underneath the crescent moon, but they symbolize Raleigh’s devotion to Queen Elizabeth who is represented by the moon. Just as the moon controls the tides, the Queen controls her humble servant who is naturally content to be swayed by her irresistible influence.

The painting has been in the museum’s permanent collection since 1857, but the ocean waves had been overpainted so only the moon was visible. Conservators have worked to remove the overpainting and clean the portrait this year to make it ready for the Elizabeth I and Her People exhibition on display now through January 5th, 2014.

As obscure as it may seem to us, the image would have held immediate significance to Elizabeth, her court and the literati of the age. The association of Queen Elizabeth I with the moon was widespread at the time and Raleigh was a famous sailor whose first name is one letter away from water. Raleigh wrote a series of devotional poems to Cynthia, the goddess of the moon, from her devotee, the Ocean. Cynthia was a byname of Artemis, Greek goddess of the moon, hunt and virginity (among other things) who was born on Mount Cynthus. It also became a byname of Elizabeth, the Virgin Queen and an accomplished hunter in her own right.

Playwright Ben Jonson portrayed the Queen as the wise and virtuous Cynthia in Cynthia’s Revels (1600) and poet Edmund Spenser wrote Raleigh that he used his idea of Elizabeth as Cynthia to craft the character of Belphoebe in his masterpiece The Faerie Queen (1590).

In that Faery Queene I meane glory in my generall intention, but in my particular I conceive the most excellent and glorious person of our souveraine the Queene, and her kingdome in Faery land. And yet in some places els, I doe otherwise shadow her. For considering she beareth two persons, the one of a most royall Queene or Empresse, the other of a most vertuous and beautifull Lady, this latter part in some places I doe express in Belphoebe, fashioning her name according to your owne excellent conceipt of Cynthia, (Phoebe and Cynthia being both names of Diana.)

This portrait of Raleigh was painted in 1588, the year of the Spanish Armada, when Sir Walter was still in favor with the Queen before she threw him in the Tower of London for marrying her lady-in-waiting Beth Throckmorton in secret without seeking the monarch’s permission first. Even though he still had her favor, it was precarious enough that copious flattery and public mooning (get it?) over the Queen was very much de rigeur. It’s not just the moon and sea in the corner than marks the portrait as a devotional exercise. Raleigh’s pearl-festooned sunburst outfit clothes him in adoration for Queen Elizabeth.

Widely understood as a visual statement of Ralegh’s devotion to the Queen, he wears the Queen’s colours of black and white and his costume is covered with pearls, which were associated with Elizabeth as symbols of virginity. The pearls on his sable-trimmed cloak form the rays of a ‘sun in splendour’, a heraldic device also found in portraits of the Queen, possibly reinterpreted here as a ‘moon in splendour’.

Pearls are also associated with the moon because they look like her, and represent nobility, wealth and unblemished beauty. Queen Elizabeth wore huge quantities of pearls in her portraits, and here Sir Walter does the same. He didn’t just pick out his clothing for the portrait; patrons determined content during this period, which is how we know the moon over water imagery wasn’t some random doodling by the portrait painter.

Technical analysis of the portrait has also shown that the artist originally intended to show Ralegh with his right hand on his hip, instead of on the table. This evidence indicates that the picture was certainly devised as an original composition rather than from an existing portrait.

Dr Tarnya Cooper, Curator of Elizabeth I & Her People and Chief Curator, National Portrait Gallery, London, says: “We know it was the patron rather than the painter who would have helped to devise the content of portrait compositions at this time. Therefore this discovery provides exciting new evidence about Ralegh’s creative ingenuity. It shows how portraiture, like poetry was used as a tool to present personal messages of devotion to the queen.”


Update: begin solving the Pictish Puzzle October 25th

Thursday, October 10th, 2013

If you’ve been anxiously anticipating getting your chance to help piece back together the carved face of the Pictish Hilton of Cadboll Stone from thousands of fragments, mark you calendar: on October 25th, the website Pictish Puzzle officially launches. It’s a placeholder right now, but once it goes live, anybody with a reasonably functional computer — it doesn’t have to be a high-end gaming machine — will be able to use the Pictish Puzzle program to manipulate fragments in 3D and piece them together like a jigsaw puzzle.

The fragments are organized in the database by category and users can collect pieces from all the categories to work with in the same way you would put together a conventional jigsaw puzzle. You could pull up all the knotwork pieces, for instance, and pick fragments you think look like they might go together, then go to the corner category to look for some framing pieces. Other categories include human, animal, tool mark, strip, spiral, key and, awesomely, appendage. Once you have two or more pieces on your desktop, you can push them around in three dimensions to see if any of them might fit.

Here’s a preview of the software at work:

That looks hard, man. I’m intimidated because I am not a great puzzler, but you don’t have to be a great anything to give this a try. You don’t have to have a fancy computer, gaming experience or flawless spatial awareness. The designers specifically made the program to be widely usable by anyone. The more people participate, the better the odds of getting any useable recreations out of this project.

All suggested solutions will be displayed for users to judge before being examined by professionals. The final results will be combined to create a digital replica of the original face of the Hilton of Cadboll Stone, something that hasn’t been seen since 1676. Everybody who worked on the puzzle will be credited in some way.


2,700-year-old portico found in Argilos, Greece

Wednesday, October 9th, 2013

A joint Greek-Canadian archaeological team has unearthed an ancient portico in the ancient city of Argilos, northeastern Greece. It dates to the 6th century B.C., the Greek Archaic period, which makes it a rare survival and the oldest portico ever discovered in northern Greece. Hellenistic period (3rd-1st centuries B.C.) porticoes are much more common.

Early porticos were single-story open colonnades built as public spaces overlooking the city’s central public square, the Agora. Merchants set up shop in portico chambers, as did artists and philosophers. One philosophy even got its name from the structure. The Greek term for portico is stoa, and Zeno of Citium taught his philosophy in the Stoa Poikile, adjacent to the ancient Agora of Athens. This was a significant choice because it meant Zeno was teaching the public out in the open rather than in private schools. It was such a crucial element that Zeno’s school of philosophy became known as Stoicism.

The section of portico uncovered thus far is 40 meters (131 feet) long. Because of the impressive length of the structure, the team used a quadcopter, a four-rotor radio-controlled model aircraft, to take aerial pictures of the complete stoa. As if getting to excavate a find like this weren’t enough fun on its own. Five rooms have been unearthed; archaeologists believe there were seven rooms originally. Each room is five meters (16.4 feet) wide and 7.5 meters (24.6 feet) deep with a back wall 2.5 meters (8.2 feet) high. Although their dimensions are uniform, the individual rooms were constructed with different materials and methods. This is important evidence of how the portico was built and by whom.

Since Argilos was prosperous, it is plausible that the portico was commissioned and built by the city. If this were the case, an architect would have overseen the construction and architectural integrity of the structure; there would have been no differences in the size of the stones used, and all the rooms would have been identical.

However, examination of the remains indicates just the contrary.

“The construction techniques and the stones used are different for one room to another, hinting that several masons were used for each room,” [Professor at the University of Montreal’s Centre of Classical Studies Jacques] Perreault said. “This indicates that the shop owners themselves were probably responsible for building the rooms, that ‘private enterprise’ and not the city was the source of this stoa.”

Argilos was very prosperous indeed in Archaic Greece. Perched on the Aegean coast at the mouth of the Strymon River, the area was a rich source of gold and silver. With port access for shipping, fertile alluvial land for farming and a vast supply of precious metals to mine and trade, Argilos was one of the wealthiest cities in the region. Its prosperity peaked in the 5th century

Located on the edge of the Aegean Sea, the ancient city of Argilos was the first Greek colony established in this area around the great Strymon River. At its peak in the 5th century BC, Argilos was one of the richest cities in the region. When the Athenians founded the city of Amphipolis less than four miles away in 437 B.C., Argilos began a rapid decline. When Philip II of Macedon conquered the area in 357 B.C., he moved the population of Argilos to his new regional capital Amphipolis. The city was left deserted and was never repopulated.

This kind of demise is always a boon to archaeologists since they don’t have to deal with multiple layers of construction and habitation. The collaboration between archaeologists from the University of Montreal and the Ephoria of Prehistoric and Classical Antiquities of Kavala to explore Argilos’ ancient remains has been ongoing since 1992. Students from universities in Canada and Europe apply to participate in the seasonal digs and get a hands-on education from professional experts in many fields of Greek archaeology from architecture to ceramics to numismatics.

Check out the project website for more information about the history of the site, excavation and, if you’re the luckiest bastard in the world, to fill in an application for the 2014 excavation.


Mead Art Museum acquires rare Roman sarcophagus

Tuesday, October 8th, 2013

Amherst College’s Mead Art Museum has acquired a rare Roman sarcophagus decorated with sea creatures and engraved with a desperately sad inscription. It was made in Italy out of expensive white Carrara marble around 165-180 A.D. It is 5’8″ long and has carved sea centaurs holding the inscription on both sides while sea nymphs ride on their fishy hindquarters and cupids hover in the corners. This beautiful coffin was the final resting place of two young children who left behind a despairing mother. The Latin inscription tells the tragic tale.

To the departed spirits of Laberia Alexandria, who lived 10 years, 5 months, 7 days, and of Sylvanus, who lived 6 years, 5 months, 14 days.

In this sarcophagus, the unhappy mother buried two bodies, her children, forever to live in sorrow. She survives her children and leads a most miserable life — her husband snatched away by death, the father of these poor little ones.

The second paragraph is a four-line poem in dactylic hexameter in the original Latin. To welcome the sarcophagus to the Mead collection, Amherst alumnus, professor, former U.S. poet laureate and two-time Pulitzer Prize winner Richard Wilbur composed a new verse translation of the poem in iambic pentameter:

In this sarcophagus, two children lie
Whose mother’s eyes shall nevermore be dry.
Her husband’s gone, who sired these luckless dears.
His childless widow faces empty years.

Richard Wilbur recited the poem when the sarcophagus made its official debut last month at opening of This Just In! Additions to the Collection from Pompeii to Today, an exhibition that runs through December 29th, 2013. After the exhibition is over, the sarcophagus will remain on permanent display.

The Mead is very fortunate to have had the opportunity to acquire such a compelling and rare piece. One of the things that makes it so rare is that it’s in compliance with the UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property because it left Italy in the early 20th century. Until last year, it was in the permanent collection of the Princeton University Art Museum which is where the Mead acquired it.

In an era when most antiquities with a legally and ethically “clean” provenance are securely held onto by museums, the Mead was fortunate to have Sarcophagus with Sea Creatures become available for purchase. “I never imagined, in my entire career, having the opportunity to participate in a museum acquisition of such an important antiquity,” says Mead director, Dr. Elizabeth E. Barker. Given the infrequency with which works that meet the strict criteria of the UNESCO convention concerning antiquities become available to museums, Barker remains “gratefully amazed to have secured such a rare specimen for Amherst.” Its availability, says the chair of the Mead advisory board, Charles (Sandy) Wilkes, was recognized as “perhaps a once-in-a-generation opportunity to purchase a significant work that helps strengthen the Mead’s collection in a clearly important area.”

It appears to have been a private sale between the two institutions, or at least, I could find no evidence of a public sale or auction, nor is anybody talking about how much money changed hands. There’s little information about the provenance of the sarcophagus either, not where it was discovered or when it exactly it was sold and exported from Italy. All we know is that it was used as a fountain or watering trough for some time before doing tours of duty as a decorative element in the courtyards of two Roman palazzos. (The sarcophagus as water fountain thing is surprisingly common. We had one in the play yard of my elementary school in Rome. Nobody thought anything of it at the time, although in hindsight it seems kind of amazing to me that we drank from a tap whose basin was an ancient coffin.)

In August of this year, professional art handlers from Marshall Fine Art Services moved the 1,400-pound sarcophagus into the museum and hoisted it onto its new pedestal, a custom aluminium piece funded by a grant from the Butler Family Foundation in memory of longtime museum supporter Kate Butler Peterson. While the handlers lifted the sarcophagus into the place, Mead antiquities expert Dr. Pamela Russell took advantage of the rare opportunity to examine the bottom of the coffin. The bottom is almost always covered by 1,400 pounds of marble, so having a chance to explore it might well reveal previously unknown details about the history of the sarcophagus.


New Globe building to loom over early Toronto sex & murder scandal

Monday, October 7th, 2013

If there’s even a temporal disturbance in the future 17-story Globe and Mail Centre, the Toronto newspaper will have a front-row seat to one of the juiciest, most sensational stories in the city’s history. The new tower will be constructed on a 10-block grid on King Street East in the oldest part of Toronto, the former town of York. Because of the age of the site, city regulations require an archaeological survey before construction can begin. Two weeks ago, archaeologists unearthed brick foundation walls, masonry, beams, a backyard privy and a smattering of artifacts that date to the earliest days of British Toronto.

These are the remains of Berkeley House, a structure that began life as a modest hewn timber house in 1794, just a year after Governor John Graves Simcoe established the town of York. The house, one of the first permanent dwellings in the settlement, was bought for $50 in 1795 by Major John Small, a well-connected British militia officer who served as clerk of the Executive Council of Upper Canada under Governor Simcoe. When Small bought the one-acre lot, it was just outside the perimeter of York’s nascent street grid, but because of his friends in high places, he got the grid extended to cover his lot. It stands out on early maps, the jutting property attached to the original grid giving it an irregular shape.

The man who drew those early maps, Surveyor General David William Smith, played in a pivotal role in a scandal which would ensure John Small’s place in Toronto history. It all started with a party snub. At a ball celebrating the turn of the century in late 1799, Mrs. Small, née Elizabeth Goldsmith, publically slighted the wife of Attorney General John White. Marrianne White was notoriously hard to get along with. She and her husband had separated twice and she actually took their daughter and returned to England shortly after that fateful party.

Still, York society was tiny at this time — the total population was 400 souls, with maybe 75 of them establishment grandees — and mighty contests rose from trivial things. In response to the slight, John White wrote to David William Smith that Mrs. Small was just bitter because White had hit it and quit it, to coin a phrase. He broke up with her, White told Smith, out of concern for his health given “the variety and piquancy of her amours with others.”

Mr. Smith did not sit on this information. He promptly spread it to the wife of Chief Justice John Elmsley who spread it to everyone else. Within days, word of White having basically called his wife a syphilitic whore got back to John Small. He wasted no time in seeking satisfaction and on January 3rd, 1800, the Attorney General and the clerk of the Executive Council of Upper Canada faced each other behind the Parliament buildings, pistols in hand. Small shot White through the ribs. It was a fatal blow, although it would take the poor man 36 hours of what must have been excruciating pain to die.

Small was arrested and tried for murder on January 25th. Presiding Judge Henry Allcock, a close friend and colleague of Chief Justice Elmsley and of the slain Attorney General, was openly hostile to Small, but that wasn’t sufficient to secure a guilty verdict. The trial lasted just eight hours and Small was acquitted because no witnesses came forward to say they had seen him fire the fatal shot. (The district sheriff was his second at the duel, which may explain the lack of witnesses.)

What the law could not do, York society did. Small and his wife were shunned by all the top families who had once been their friends. He kept his job, but all his attempts to run for office were thwarted by his social enemies. A full eight years after the duel, an invitation to Mrs. Small to attend the governor’s New Year’s Day levee still caused grumbling among the upper crust.

The Smalls’ social decline didn’t impede his success in business, however. By 1797 John Small had acquired more than 2,500 acres of land in York. He sold some lots and bought others, and as the city grew, he prospered from his investment real estate. By 1820 land prices were sky high and John Small was one of the wealthiest men in town. He rebuilt his log cabin into a manor house with twin gables and gave it the noble-sounding name of Berkeley House.

John Small died in 1831 and bequeathed the house to his son Charles Coxwell Small. Charles added wings in the 1840s. He died in 1864 and by 1870 Berkeley House had been divided into three homes. Meanwhile, that original one acre lot had been subdivided with parcels sold to, among other outfits, a lumber mill and a grain elevator, which left Berkeley House with some less than pleasant neighbors. By the 1920s, the house was derelict with chunks of falling stucco and rotten wood everywhere. In 1925 it was demolished. Since then, there’s been no construction on the site other than a parking lot.

Little of the house’s material culture remains. Keith Powers and his team have unearthed inkwells, an 1880 gravy boat, an 1882 plate pilfered from the Albany Club and an evocative Bank of Montreal penny decorated with an English rose, a Scottish thistle and an Irish shamrock.

“It grounds you to the family who lived here,” he said as he turned the oversized coin in the morning light. “This was dropped by one of the Smalls and no one has held it for more than a hundred years.”

The artifacts unearthed during the survey and parts of the walls and foundations will be integrated into the public areas of the Globe & Mail Centre. Sadly the architectural elements will not be preserved in situ. Whatever is deemed worthy of display will be removed and the rest will be destroyed when the new building goes up.


Gamers enlisted to put Pictish slab back together

Sunday, October 6th, 2013

The National Museums Scotland will be enlisting the aid of gamers to help piece back together the base of the Hilton of Cadboll Stone, an elaborately carved Pictish sandstone cross-slab from 800 A.D. The stone once stood in Hilton of Cadboll, a seaboard village on the east coast of the Tarbat Peninsula in northeastern Scotland. Originally carved on the seaward side with an early Christian cross and on the landward side with traditional Pictish symbols like the crescent and double disc and secular themes like a hunting scene, the stone was knocked down in the 17th century, possibly by a storm in 1674.

After its fall, it was lying face down with the Christian side exposed which apparently gave someone a very bad idea. One Alexander Duf had the early Christian Pictish cross on the reverse side chipped away and replaced with his crappy coat of arms. He also left an inscription identifying himself as the vandal: “He that believes well does well sayeth Solomon the wyse. Heir lyes Alexander Duf and his three wyves 1676.”

The criminal carving was done, but the stone was not moved to Mr. Duf’s actual tomb. It remained where it fell until the mid-19th century when the MacLeods of Cadboll removed it to Invergordon Castle for use as a garden ornament. From there it spent a brief stint in the British Museum in 1921, but public opinion was strongly opposed to the move, so it came back to Scotland within the year, this time going to the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh where it is still on display today in the Early People gallery.

In 2001, Historic Scotland funded an excavation by the Glasgow University Archaeological Research Division (GUARD) on the site where the cross-slab had stood for eight centuries. Their aim to recover any fragments of the stone left behind and to determine when it was first erected. They found the missing base of the slab and more than 3,000 fragments of the carved cross face chiseled away to make way for Mr. Duf’s execrably poor taste and narcissism. The pieces range in size from little chips three centimeters (1.18 inches) in diameter to large pieces as much as 20 centimeters (7.87 inches) long.

Putting humpty dumpty back together has proved to be too challenging with conventional methods, and it has taken more than a decade for a possible technology solution to be developed. Scottish technology firm Relicarte has developed a program which gives users access to 3D scans of each fragment which can then be pieces together in an online 3D environment.

Aegir Maciver, director of Peebles-based Relicarte, which developed the platform for online gamers, said the stone’s precious fragments were transported at night to Borders General Hospital, placed in trays and put through a CT scanner, which digitised the fragments and reproduced them as 3D objects.

The task, which took two nights to complete, also involved the laborious business of labelling each individual fragment.

“We had already been doing some work at the museum and we were told they were about to undertake the Cadboll Stone project and intended to have a digital aspect too and asked us to come up with ideas,” Maciver said.

“We came up with the crowd-sourcing idea and digitising the three and a half thousand fragments. We created an online software platform which allows you to view and manipulate files.”

Maciver continued: “It’s very innovative and allows people who don’t have powerful computers or 3D software to go online and interact with 3D models in real time.”

Because gamers are accustomed to manipulating objects in a virtual 3D environment, archaeologists hope to enlist their skills in solving the puzzle of the Hilton of Cadboll fragments. National Museums Scotland will shortly issue an appeal to gamers asking them to contribute to the herculean effort of piecing together the carvings which can then be deciphered by experts in Pictish symbology.

UPDATE 10/10/2013: And we have a website! It’s just a placeholder right now. Pictish Puzzle officially launches on October 25th.


Brain boiled in its skull 4,000 years ago survives

Saturday, October 5th, 2013

Archaeologists excavating the Bronze Age mound of Seyitömer Höyük near the Western Anatolian city Kütahya in Turkey discovered a skull with a preserved brain still inside in 2010 and have now published the results of extensive scientific analysis of the brain and its archaeological context in the Journal of Comparative Human Biology. The brain was found in a middle Bronze Age layer, dating it to around 4,000 years ago. Optically stimulated luminescence testing on the samples dated them at 1900–2000 B.C., confirming the stratigraphic results.

The layer showed signs of a devastating fire. Charred wooden debris was found along with partially burned human skeletons. Four of those skeletons contained the remains of brain tissue inside skulls cracked by the ancient conflagration. Tissue from two of the partial brains was sampled for histological analysis and the most intact, best preserved specimen was removed for study and for a future museum display.

Unlike the glistening, rubbery 2500-year-old Heslington brain (still one of my favorite all time pictures), this one is blackened and hard. Its grooves and basal ganglia are still distinct giving it the look of a sponge but the texture of petrified wood. Researchers used computerized tomography to look inside the brain and found surviving diencephalic (the posterior of the forebrain), metencephalic (the cerebellum and pons) and occipital (back of the head) tissue.

This is an exceptional instance of soft tissue survival, particularly notable because the brain is one of the first organs to liquefy after death because of its high fat content. The fire that devastated the tumulus 4,000 years ago played a major role in this preservational fluke. A fault line crosses the layer in which the brains were found and the area is seismically active. Professor Meriç Altinoz from Haliç University in Istanbul posits that an earthquake leveled the settlement after which fire burned through the debris and human remains. The brains boiled in their own fluids until there was no fluid left. The fire consumed all the oxygen in the rubble layer, which left behind brain tissue dried to a crisp and in a low oxygen environment, a recipe for long-term survival of organic material.

The particular chemical composition of the soil was also a significant factor. From analysis of the brain matter, bones, teeth, soil surrounding the skeletons, researchers found high levels of boron, potassium, magnesium, aluminum. The Kütahya area had the largest boron mines in the country, a resource that made it a center for glazed tile production under the Ottoman Empire. Boron naturally repels insects and bacteria which is why the Egyptians used boron in the mummification process. The naturally high levels of boron in the soil may have aided in the preservation of the carbonized brains in the 4,000 years since the fire, converting the tissue into a ceramic of sorts, a bioporcelain, as the researchers term it. Potassium, magnesium, aluminum create the highly alkaline environment necessary for the formation of adipocere, aka corpse wax, which preserved the shape of the brain tissues.

“The level of preservation in combination with the age is remarkable,” says Frank Rühli at the University of Zurich, Switzerland, who has examined medieval brain tissue. Rühli says that most archaeologists don’t bother looking for the remains of brain tissue because they assume it is seldom preserved. “If you publish cases like this, people will be more and more aware that they could find original brain tissue too.”

In cases where the brain is as well preserved as this, Rühli says it might even be possible to look for pathological conditions such as tumours and haemorrhaging, and maybe even signs of degenerative disease. “If we want to learn more about the history of neurological disorders, we need to have tissue like this.”


Remains of 5th century fort massacre found on Öland

Friday, October 4th, 2013

Archaeologists have found yet another Pompeii, you guys! As usual, it’s nothing at all like Pompeii, but it is a fascinating slice of life and violent death in the Scandinavian Migration Period. An excavation of the Iron Age Sandby ringfort on Öland, an island off the southeastern coast of Sweden, has unearthed five skeletons felled by violence and then left untouched until now. No volcanoes or spectacular feats of preservation are involved, but the remains do capture a moment frozen in time that hasn’t been captured anywhere else. During this period Scandinavians cremated their dead so very few whole body remains have been found at all, never mind a whole group of them left unmolested for 1,500 years.

The scene dates to the 5th century, the beginning of a transitional period after the decline of Roman power characterized by mass migrations of Germanic and eastern European peoples. The Migration Period (400 – 700 A.D.) saw a great deal of violence as populations clashed, and the ringforts on Öland (there are 19 in total) were built to defend small farming and livestock raising communities from raids. There was also something of a wealth boom on Öland during the Migration Period — gold and other expensive artifacts have been found in Sandby and other forts — which made it an ideal target for raiders.

The walls were built high and defenders patrolled the parapets. In the middle of the fort interior were multiple small thatched roof dwellings which housed one family each. The builds closer to the walls were used to store food supplies and stable livestock. The people who lived in the ringfort ate comparatively well, a meat-based diet relying on their stock supplemented by trade goods like grains and cereals.

One night in the 5th century, those walls and defenders failed. Lund University osteologist Helene Wilhelmson:

“I think they were surprised. There are so many bodies and two of them are lying by the door as if they were running for the door and people were coming in. They’re lying very close to each other so I think that they were just ambushed in some way, and people were running into the house, trying to kill them and they almost didn’t have a chance. There are so many bodies, it must have been a very violent and well-organized raid.”

The five bodies were all found in a single 62-square-meter house inside the courtyard of the fort. A previous excavation unearthed the house and its door. Two skeletonized feet were peeking out of the doorway. When the team returned the next season, they dug a trench adjacent to the feet and uncovered the first body. It was an adult man lying on his back bearing sharp force trauma wounds to his head and shoulder. He had been killed on the spot and left where he fell. Another man was found lying face down on his stomach. Archaeologists don’t know if he fell that way or if he was flipped over by his killers as a sign of disrespect.

When the first round of excavations began in 2010 to ward off looters who had been spotted scouring the spot, archaeologists found six beautiful gilded silver and bronze buckles. That means the raiders who killed these five people left riches behind, which is unexpected. It also means the site wasn’t plundered after its destruction, which is also unexpected.

Wilhelmson again:

“It’s such a terrible massacre that, yeah, it completely destroyed the fort and everything in it. I don’t think anyone dared to go near it for a very long time. It’s more of a frozen moment than you usually find in archaeology. It’s like Pompeii: something terrible happened and everything just stopped. It’s pretty much just a day in the life in the Migration Period and that’s completely unique. We have nothing to compare it with actually.”

Only one percent of the entire fort area, just a few houses of the 54 inside the fort walls, has been excavated thus far and the partial remains of seven other skeletons have already been found, so it’s likely archaeologists will find more bodies, perhaps even hundreds of them, when the fort is more fully explored.Meanwhile, the team is now photographing the killing house in great detail so accurate 3D models can be made to reconstruct the entire crime scene and hopefully determine what happened step by step.



The NPG acquires lost portrait of Lady Anne Clifford

Thursday, October 3rd, 2013

A portrait of the redoubtable Lady Anne Clifford long thought lost has been purchased by the National Portrait Gallery for £275,000 ($444,428). The portrait was known to have existed because Lady Anne, a dedicated diarist her entire life, wrote about having sat for artist William Larkin in the summer of 1618. She was 28 years old at the time and married to Richard Sackville, 3rd Earl of Dorset. Larkin made two versions of the portrait, one of which was kept at the Sackville estate in Knole, Kent, where it remains to this day. The other Anne gave to her mother’s first cousin, Margaret Hall of Gretford, Lincolnshire. It stayed in the Margaret’s family until the 19th century when it was auctioned as Portrait of Lady Goodrick Parke by Federico Zuccaro. It was sold again in 1956 to a German art dealer. From there it went into a German private collection which is where Mark Weiss, director of the Weiss Gallery in London, found it last year and identified it as the long-lost Larkin portrait of Lady Anne Clifford.

The National Portrait Gallery bought the portrait with a £70,000 grant from the Art Fund, £45,000 in private donations and £160,000 from its own acquisitions budget. This painting of Lady Anne as a young woman joins just one other portrait of her in the NPG collection. It’s a copy after an original by Sir Peter Lely painted around 1646 when Lady Anne was 56.

Larkin’s portrait captures Anne in a dark period in her life. Early in 1618 she gave birth to a baby who died. In deep mourning, she refrained from writing in her diary for the entire year. She sat for William Larkin that summer. You can see the signs of mourning in the portrait. Those black strings hanging from her neck and left ear are mourning strings. She began writing in her diary again on January 1619. That’s when she refers to the portrait:

The first of this month I began to have the curtain drawn in my chamber and to see the light… The 16th… I sent my cousin Hall of Gilford [sic.] a letter and my picture with it which Larkin drew at Knole this summer.

That first line is a reference to her coming out of mourning, having the curtains drawn to let the light into her room for the first time since the death of her baby. Her description of Larkin coming to paint her at Knole is noteworthy because it means he was welcomed into high aristocratic circles. The other portraits by Larkin in the National Portrait Gallery (Frances Howard, Countess of Somerset, and George Villiers, First Duke of Buckingham) were both painted in his London studio. They both predate the Clifford portrait and are markedly inferior in quality. That Anne Clifford, a noble and influential patron of the arts, invited Larkin to paint her in situ means he had well and truly arrived.

Larkin certainly captured her beauty and verve, at least according to her description. Here is Lady Anne’s self-assessment from her diary:

The colour of mine eyes were black, like my father, and the form and aspect of them was quick and lively, like my mother’s; the hair of my head was brown and very thick, and so long that it reached to the calf of my legs when I stood upright, with a peak of hair on my forehead and a dimple in my chin like my father, full cheeks and round face like my mother, and an exquisite shape of body resembling my father.

Low self-esteem was not her problem, and bless her for it because she was a genuine unstoppable badass. She spent 38 years fighting for the birthright her father had denied her after he bequeathed the title and estates to his brother instead of his 15-year-old daughter. She finally succeeded when she was 53 years old and her cousin Henry, son of the brother who had inherited, died. In the interim, she used her extensive education, meticulous record-keeping and impressive multi-tasking ability to run estates while her husbands gambled, drank and whored their lives away.

The metaphysical poet John Donne said of Lady Anne that “she knew well how to discourse of all things, from predestination to slea-silk.” (Slea-silk is a kind of floss silk that can be separated into filaments for use as embroidery thread.) She also knew how to get her way even if it meant spending decades in litigation or going head-to-head with Oliver Cromwell to rebuild Clifford properties damaged during the Civil War.

Read this entry to get the full scoop on Lady Anne’s colorful life and why she’s become a proto-feminist icon.


Twenty Roman skulls found in London subway dig

Wednesday, October 2nd, 2013

Tunnel diggers excavating next to the Liverpool Street railway station for the £14.8 billion Crossrail project have found 20 human skulls believed to be from the Roman period. Pieces of Roman pottery were found alongside them.

The construction crew was digging a deep pit in which to relocate utility cables when they came across the skulls. Although archaeologists supervise the excavation, the actual digging is being done by professional tunnelers because they’re 20 feet below the surface, underneath the site of the Bedlam cemetery where two years ago more than a hundred skeletons from the late 16th century onward were discovered. The Bedlam cemetery will be fully excavated next year. Archaeologists except to find more than 3,000 bodies which will be careful removed and studied before reburial somewhere where the subway is not.

The Roman skull were found in clusters, probably because they were swept away by a river and caught in a bend. It’s unusual to find a group of ancient human remains like this outside of a graveyard, and indeed, despite the tempting prospect that they’re the result of a dramatic mass decapitation event, it’s more likely that a burial ground is the source of these remains even though they’re all skulls.

Lead archaeologist Jay Carver said: “This is an unexpected and fascinating discovery that reveals another piece in the jigsaw of London’s history. This isn’t the first time that skulls have been found in the bed of the River Walbrook and many early historians suggested these people were killed during the Boudicca rebellion against the Romans. We now think the skulls are possibly from a known Roman burial ground about 50 metres up river from our Liverpool Street station worksite. Their location in the Roman layer indicates they were possibly washed down river during the Roman period.”

The Walbrook River is one of London’s lost rivers, a waterway that once divided east and west London that disappeared when it was paved over in the 15th century and the water diverted into a culvert to make way for new construction. Earlier this year the Walbrook gave up an extraordinary 500-year slice of daily life in Roman London, and now it continues to bear fruit underneath Bedlam.

The skulls have not been dated yet, but experts believe they are probably from the late Roman period — 3rd or 4th centuries A.D. — because before then Romans tended to cremate their dead rather than inhume them. Skulls always travel further than other skeletal remains when they are buried near a moving body of water. They can easily float and their quasi roundness also allows them to roll along river beds.

Earlier this year Crossrail workers unearthed the foundations of a Roman road made of packed earthed, clay and human bones at the Liverpool Street site. It’s possibly that those human bones the Romans put to such practical use were washed out from the same cemetery that disgorged these skulls into the Walbrook. Romans insisted on human remains being buried outside city walls for religious reasons and for civic health, but they were quite sanguine about bones exposed over time in natural processes, even to the point of putting them to use as construction filler.

Initial osteological examination found the skulls were probably buried in different places. They are different colors of brown and grey, indicating different burial conditions, different minerals in the soil, etc. There is no immediate evidence of foul play, although more detailed analysis will have to be done to confirm that. Stable isotope analysis on their teeth will hopefully answer questions about where the people came from and what they ate.







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