Archive for November, 2013

Earliest Buddhist shrine found in Nepal?

Saturday, November 30th, 2013

Archaeologists digging in the Maya Devi Temple in Lumbini, Nepal, have unearthed the remains of a timber structure around an open space dating back to the sixth century B.C. which would make it the earliest known Buddhist shrine.

Tradition has it that Lumbini is where Siddhārtha Gautama was born. The Maya Devi Temple is one of four major pilgrimage sites for Buddhists today (the other three are the places of his enlightenment, first discourse, and death as identified by the Buddha in the Parinibbana Sutta) and pilgrims have been visiting the temple as the Buddha’s place of birth since at least the third century B.C. A large stone found in 1996 was installed in the third century B.C. to mark the precise spot.

Buddhist tradition records that Queen Maya Devi, the mother of the Buddha, gave birth to him while holding on to the branch of a tree within the Lumbini Garden, midway between the kingdoms of her husband and parents. Coningham and his colleagues postulate that the open space in the center of the most ancient, timber shrine may have accommodated a tree. Brick temples built later above the timber one also were arranged around the central space, which was unroofed.

To determine the dates of the timber shrine and a previously unknown early brick structure above it, fragments of charcoal and grains of sand were tested using a combination of radiocarbon and optically stimulated luminescence techniques. Geoarchaeological research has confirmed the presence of ancient tree roots within the temple’s central void.

There is a debate about when the Buddha was born — historians have theorized anywhere between 623 BC and 340 B.C. — and until now, the earliest archaeological evidence of Buddhist temples dates to the reign of Indian Emperor Ashoka (reigned 269 B.C. to 232 B.C.), a convert to Buddhism who built stupas, monasteries and shrines all over his empire. One of them was a brick cross-wall temple at Lumbini, in fact, under whose remains the archaeological team dug to find the earlier shrine.

It was an engraved pillar erected by Ashoka that identified Lumbini after it was lost to the jungle for centuries. In 1896, German archaeologist Dr. Alois Anton Fuhrer (who was later revealed to have been a prolific forger of Buddhist relics) found a 22-foot pillar inscribed “Twenty years after his coronation, Beloved-of-the-Gods, King Piyadasi [aka Ashoka], visited this place and worshiped because here the Buddha, the sage of the Sakyans, was born. He had a stone figure and a pillar set up and because the Lord was born here, the village of Lumbini was exempted from tax and required to pay only one eighth of the produce.”

Another inscription found higher up on the pillar where pilgrims left their marks in the centuries after Ashoka was made by King Ripu Malla in the early 14th century. Somewhere in the 15th century, the temple stopped drawing pilgrims for unknown reasons and the buildings fell into ruin. The rediscovery of the site in the late 19th century re-established it as an important pilgrimage destination and made excavating down to the earliest levels impossible until recently. Archaeologists dug inside the central temple building as monks and pilgrims prayed around them.

Having said all this, there is no specific evidence that proves this 6th century shrine was dedicated to the Buddha. Tree shrines have a history in South Asia long predating Buddhism, perhaps going as far back as the Neolithic, and in the early days of Buddhism there were other active religions in the mix like Jainism, Brahmanism and local cults. It’s still an exciting find with great potential to elucidate a time we know very little about.

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16th c. coins fall out of jug found on Lindisfarne

Friday, November 29th, 2013

In June of 2003, builder Richard Mason was renovating a home on Lindisfarne, the tidal island also known as the Holy Island because of the 7th century monastery founded by Saint Aidan that brought Christianity to the north of England, when he found a funny old jug while hand digging under a drain pipe. He looked inside, didn’t see anything and tossed it in the back of his van. He stored the jug in his father’s basement and thought nothing of it until Christmas of 2011 when he decided to clean all the mud and muck off of it and give it another look. During the cleaning process, Mason tipped the jar upside down and a little shower of gold and silver coins fell out.

When the holidays were over, Richard brought the jug and its contents to a local historian in his hometown of Rothbury, Northumberland, who referred the find as potential treasure to experts at the British Museum. They determined that the vessel is a Frechen stoneware Bartmann jug from the Rhineland area. It has a brown glaze characteristic of Frechen vessels and its design is of type fabricated between 1551 and 1700. Its contents were deemed treasure trove at a recent coroner’s inquest in Northumberland.

The jug holds 10 gold and seven silver coins ranging in date from the 1430s to the 1560s. They were minted in England, France, Italy, Saxony and the Burgundian Netherlands (Belgium today). Most of the coins are English, four of them from the time of the Great Debasement (1542–1551), when Henry VIII and Edward VI replaced a portion of the precious metals in minted coins with base metals like copper. Even so, the three debased gold coins are still more than 80% fine metal, which is an excellent figure for debased coinage. The rest of the silver and gold coins are over 90% fine.

One the coins stands out as a particular rarity. It’s a scudo from the central Italian city of Ancona and it’s so rare that the Italian coin experts Mason sought out only know of one other similar but not identical example. It bears the Medici crest and the name of Pope Clement VII, aka Giulio de’ Medici. Ancona was an oligarchic republic until 1532 when it became part of the Papal States and Clement died in 1534, so the coin must have been minted inside that two-year window.

The scudo is the most valuable coin in the group and because of its rarity, the most difficult to assess. A silver thaler minted in Annaberg, Saxony, in 1548, is another unusual find in England. The total value of the 17 coins in the 16th century would have been around £6, just over half the yearly pay of the average worker at the time (£10) and just under a seventh of what a gentleman would need to live on (£40).

The Treasure Valuation Committee is currently studying the coins to assess their fair market value. Once they’ve made their determination (the announcement is planned for December 5th), the Great North Museum at Hancock in Newcastle hopes to raise the money and acquire the hoard for permanent display. The finder and the landowner will split the proceeds and the finder will receive something even more precious albeit intangible: the hoard will be named after his family.

When it goes on show, The British Museum will refer to the collection as “The Mason Hoard”. “It’s something to tell the grandbairns about,” said Mr Mason.

“I’m honoured to have the family name attributed to such a find. My dad is in his 70s and he still works with me on the building sites six days a week.

“He volunteers with the local history society and having his name in The British Museum will mean a lot.

The house the Masons were renovating when Richard found the hoard was built in 1962, but underneath it lie the remains of a building from the 14th century. Based on the date of the more recent coin and their overall condition, experts believe the hoard was probably buried around 1562. In a freakish coincidence, another coin hoard from around the same time was buried in the exact same spot. It was 50 silver coins, the latest from 1562, found in a Bartmann jug, no less. It was unearthed by builder Alan Short in 1962 when they installed the drainpipe that Richard Mason dug under to find this hoard. The Great North Museum has the hoard Short found as well.

Not freakish enough a coincidence for you? Here’s another:

Although it was an exciting discovery at the time, it was even more interesting when Mr Mason found himself in the company of Mr Short by sheer coincidence 40 years later.

“We were both working on the same building job,” he said. “We were both sat eating our sandwiches, when we started to talk about the sorts of things we’d found while working on jobs.

“I said I’d dug up a pot filled with coins on a site at Holy Island that was now in a museum and he said he’d dug up a similar pot in almost the same place 40 years earlier. It’s unbelieveable how small a world it is.”

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Roof of Ara Pacis leaks onto Augustan monument

Thursday, November 28th, 2013

The glass roof covering the Ara Pacis Augustae (the Altar of Augustan Peace) is leaking water over the marble monument built in 9 B.C. to celebrate Augustus’ military success in Hispania and Gaul. Torrential rains in Italy have caused major flooding and even loss of life in Sardinia, the region worst hit by downpours. The new roof, built in 2006, was unable to withstand the pressure and flooded the enclosure the night of Tuesday, November 19th. The night staff didn’t notice, leaving the water to accumulate until the next morning. The museum was closed for the day so conservators could drape the Altar with tarpaulins and mop and vacuum the water off the floor. It reopened on Thursday the 21st.

The enclosure that is supposed to be protecting the symbol of Augustus’victories has been a bone of contention from the beginning. Built in 2006, the airy glass structure was designed by eminent American architect Richard Meier, designer of the Getty Center in Los Angeles and the High Museum in Atlanta. Its modernist design was controversial as many felt it was not in keeping with the classical and Fascist neo-classical architecture of the historic center. Francesco Rutelli, the center-left mayor of Rome when the designs were first proposed in 2000, strongly endorsed Meier’s vision, believing there was room in the ancient and baroque downtown for modernist structures as well.


Advocates of the new museum pointed to the deplorable condition of the previous roof, built in 1938 by architect Vittorio Ballio Morpurgo, as requiring immediate intervention to prevent exposing the Altar, which had only been completely excavated a year earlier, to the elements. Some think reports of the old Fascist-era enclosure’s dire condition may have been overstated at the time because Rutelli was so keen to have a world-class modernist piece in Rome. The irony is strong here, since Morpurgo’s building lasted 68 years without anybody needing to cover the Ara Pacis with a tarp to protect it from a downpour. After the museum was constructed, center-right mayor Gianni Alemanno (elected in 2008), threatened to tear the whole thing down, an obviously empty threat that never went anywhere.

An aide of Meier’s flew to Rome to determine why the roof leaked. His assessment was that leak was caused by a failure to perform necessary maintenance. If that’s so, then that was a design flaw too because seven-year-old roofs shouldn’t need a lot of maintenance to keep the water out.

On a completely unrelated note, Happy Thanksgiving, USers! I’m going to give thanks for that 30-year warranty on my roof.

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Bay Psalm Book sells for $14,165,000

Wednesday, November 27th, 2013

The Bay Psalm Book, the first book printed in what would become the United States, has sold at a Sotheby’s auction tonight for $14,165,000. This is a new world record for a printed book, eclipsing the $11.5 million James Audubon’s Birds of America sold for in 2010. Even so, this astronomical figure is below expectations. The pre-sale estimate was $15,000,000 — $30,000,000.

There was much excitement surrounding this sale because there are only 11 surviving copies of the Bay Psalm Book, and only six of them still have their title pages. Seventeen hundred copies of the book were printed in 1640 on a press imported from London and operated in Boston by indentured locksmith Stephen Daye. This was a huge number considering the Massachusetts Bay Colony only had an estimated 3,500 families living there at the time for a total population of around 15,000 or 20,000.

So many were published because the entire congregation singing psalms (as opposed to a dedicated choir) was an important part of Puritan worship and the ministers of the colony were unhappy with the psalm books used by the Church of England and the separatist Pilgrims. The former they deemed to be replete with interpolations and added verbiage not in the original Hebrew; the latter they found difficult to sing. So a group of 30 “pious and learned” ministers were tasked with created a new more literal book of psalms to use a hymnal.

The volume was instantly popular and a later edition continued to be printed well into the 18th century. Because this was a book meant to be used early and often, those original 1,700 copies were hard worn. By the mid-19th century, it was extremely rare and highly sought after by sacrilegiously unscrupulous collectors. By the mid-20th century, Bay Psalm Books were so rare that a 1947 sale of one set a record of its own when it commanded $151,000. That was the last time one came up for public auction until tonight.

That copy, purchased by rare book dealer Abraham Rosenbach acting for a consortium of Yale University alumni, is now in the Yale University Library. Eight of the other surviving copies are also owned by libraries, including the Library of Congress and the Bodleian. The last two are actually in the Boston Public Library, but they belong to Boston’s Old South Church (est. 1669). They decided earlier this year to sell the book because they have another even more pristine copy of it and they needed the money to fund their extensive ministries. They obviously have a very positive attitude and don’t appear to be disappointed at all that it didn’t garner the $30,000,000 figure bandied about.

Nancy S. Taylor, Senior Minister and CEO of Old South Church, said: “Old South Church has millions of reasons to be thankful this Thanksgiving. We have re-acquainted America with this amazing book and its extraordinary story. And, we have turned it into fuel for our ministries – from homelessness to housing, from youth violence prevention to elder care, from food insecurity to public education. We are delighted.”

In a rare break from the endless litany of anonymous private collectors, we actually know who the buyer is and the news is just about as good as it gets. The book was purchased by private equity billionaire and history buff David Rubenstein. He is a philanthropist of the old school and has spent tens of millions preserving history for the public. Last year he donated $7.5 million to restore the Washington Monument after it was damaged by an earthquake in 2011. After buying the only privately-owned copy of the Magna Carta for $21.3 million, he loaned it to the National Archives and then gave them $13.5 million to build it a new custom display case.

His plans for the Bay Psalm Book are equally civic-minded. He will loan the volume to libraries all over the country (interest in this book was so great when the news broke of the impending sale that it traveled to Philadelphia, Chicago, St. Louis, Cleveland, Houston, San Francisco and Texas, drawing crowds wherever it went) and then will choose one library to place it in on long-term loan.

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Irate ghost hunters burn LeBeau mansion to the ground

Tuesday, November 26th, 2013

The LeBeau Plantation mansion in Arabi, St. Bernard Parish, Louisiana, was burned to the ground by a group of thwarted ghost hunters in the early hours of Friday, November 22nd. The house had survived war, fire and hurricanes for 160 years and was one of only two plantation houses in the area still standing. Now all that’s left of it are its four chimneys, still surprisingly straight and uncharred amidst the smoldering ruins, and part of an internal brick wall. It is unrecoverable.

The mansion was built around 1854 by Francios Barthelemy LeBeau, a wealthy businessman from New Orleans, as an elegant weekend retreat overlooking the Mississippi River. It was a lavish Greek Revival mansion with a central cupola and 16 rooms spread over 10,000 square feet. The internal doorways were 13 feet high. Although LeBeau built all but the one central staircase outside to avoid the tax on interior staircases, he spared no expense on decorative features like black Egyptian marble mantelpieces, ornamental plaster, imported European wall-to-wall carpeting and nine-foot mirrors in gilt frames. It was the most ornate plantation on the lower Mississippi.

LeBeau died at the young age of 48 just months after construction on the house was completed. His left the property to his son Louis who along with his mother Christine Sylvanie decided to live in the mansion full-time and make it a working plantation. The site had been used to farm everything from cypresses to rice to indigo, but the soil was too impoverished to grow high intensity crops. Instead, they grew oranges and raised cattle for sale to local markets and slaughterhouses.

It remained in the family until 1905 when it was sold to a realty company who converted it into the Friscoville Hotel. This was not just a nice place to spend the night. It was a hotel, bar and casino, the fanciest gambling establishment of several along the Friscoville Road. New Orleans had outlawed gambling in the city limits of Orleans Parish, and Arabi, once part of Orleans Parish but incorporated as a town in St. Bernard Parish in the 1880s, was ideally located to take advantage of the ousted gambling traffic. You could get there on a New Orleans city streetcar.

It was a rollicking spot during Prohibition, a speakeasy and casino that was regularly raided by police. Gun turrets were installed in closets next to the front door, although there is no record of them ever having been used. In 1928, the mansion and the other Friscoville casinos were raided on the orders of Governor Huey Long and 225 people were arrested.

By the 1930s, it was being used as a private home again. It passed through various hands until it was purchased by real estate entrepreneur Joseph Mereux in 1967. The house was in bad shape by then. Mereux installed caretaker on the site and he restored it after a 1986 fire damaged the cupola and interior, but the overall condition of the mansion was still in decline. After Mereux’s death in 1992, he bequeathed the property to the Mereux Foundation which has been administering it ever since. Calls for preservation led the Foundation to stabilize the house in 2003, a project that doubtless saved the home’s life when Hurricane Katrina struck, devastating St. Bernard Parish.

It came out of the storm in terrible condition, with windows broken and holes in the roof. Already a popular spot for vandals and thrill-seekers who had long heard tales of the old house being haunted by mistreated slaves, a woman in white or mysterious lights in the cupola, the damage from the storm made the mansion a target for looters who stripped the interior of many of its prized features.

Still, as long as it stood, there was hope that it might be revived. The Mereux Foundation, widely criticized for its failure to maintain the historic property (among many other controversies), was said to be considering several restoration plans. Those hopes were dashed Friday.

The men, between the ages of 17 and 31, arrived at the home late Thursday night, likely entering through a gap in the fence around the property that had been cut out by other curious trespassers over the years, according to Col. John Doran, who oversees the Sheriff’s Office’s criminal enforcement.

“They had been looking for ghosts, trying to summon spirits, beating on the floors,” Doran said. [...]

Doran said the men appear to have become frustrated when no ghosts materialized. Police believe that in a haze of alcohol and marijuana, one of them decided to burn the place to the ground.

Seven men have been arrested on arson, burglary, criminal damage and trespassing. Dusten Davenport of Fort Worth, Texas, the genius who started stacking wood to punish the house for not being ghostly enough, is the oldest of the group at 31.

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The Maltese Falcon sells for $4,085,000

Monday, November 25th, 2013

The Maltese Falcon sold for $3,500,000 ($4,085,000 including buyer’s premium) at a Bonhams auction in New York today. It was part of a sale of movie memorabilia curated in conjunction with the eminent film nerds of the Turner Classic Movies cable channel, source of all high-density bottlenecks on my DVR. This particular falcon was one of two surviving lead props made for the classic movie starring Humphrey Bogart as Dashiell Hammett’s private investigator Sam Spade.

When I first wrote about the sale of the iconic Black Bird, I mistakenly thought this example was the second lead prop made by artist Fred Sexton after the first was damaged during shooting. In fact, the one that sold today is the one that was damaged. It has a bent tail garnered in an epic incident on the set.

One of the Taplinger memos [, Robert S. Taplinger was Warner Bros.' Director of Publicity,] mentions a significant incident during filming of the finale: actress Lee Patrick (as Spade’s secretary Effie, the woman who delivers the falcon to his apartment) dropped the statuette while handing it over to Bogart. Bogart pushed Patrick out of the way of the falling bird, but in so doing his own foot caught the brunt of the falcon’s weight, causing him to injure two toenails. The right tail feather of the falcon was reportedly damaged in the fall, and the damage is visible as Sam carries the bird out of his apartment at the end of the film

The stuff that dreams are made of, as Spade described the bird, was the star of the auction, but there were a number of other wonderful pieces. Leaf through the catalog to spot your favorite. I defy you not to swoon at the 1940 Buick Phaeton from Casablanca that was so prominently featured in the immortal final scenes of the movie. This is the vehicle in which Renault drives Rick, Ilsa and Victor to the airport. The “here’s looking at you” final dialogue between Rick and Ilsa takes place next to the car. It unexpectedly sold for $380,000, below the low estimate of $450,000.

On the less expensive end of things, I was charmed by a portrait of Harpo Marx as Gainsborough’s Blue Boy painted by John Decker in the 1930s. It sold for $9,500. Mary Pickford’s monogrammed Louis Vuiton trunk went for $2,600, a steal for vintage Vuiton with Mary Pickford’s initials emblazoned on the side while Mr. Vuiton’s were discretely relegated to the brass locks. It was a subtler time for high fashion.

It wasn’t just the older classics represented. Indy’s braided leather bullwhip from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade was bought for $8,000. A can of new! delicious Soylent Green, ostensibly the “miracle food of high energy plankton gathered from the oceans of the world” but I get the feeling they might be leaving out a key ingredient, went for $1,800. It comes with a Soylent Green cracker which is actually a piece of painted balsa wood. Movie magic, y’all.

From the sexy days of pre-code silent films, the snake headdress and pyramid earrings worn by Theda Bara in the 1917 Fox version of Cleopatra sold for $28,000. I wonder if her impressive risqué snake bra has survived. It reminds of Princess Lea’s famous gold bikini from Return of the Jedi, only Theda’s version offers significantly less coverage.

My favorite non-Bogey lot is a 1929 nude portrait of Clara Bow painted by Hungary artist Geza Kende. The portrait was commissioned by a far more famous Hungarian, Bela Lugosi, when he was still treading the boards.

In 1929, Lugosi was touring the United States appearing in the play Dracula, soon to be optioned by Universal for a film adaptation. One of the audience members at a Los Angeles performance was the silent film star Clara Bow. Sound films had recently taken hold in Hollywood and Bow was anxious about whether her thick Brookyln accent would appeal to audiences. Having read in the press that Lugosi spoke his lines phonetically without knowing English, Bow was determined to find out more about the Hungarian actor. Bow biographer David Stenn describes their meeting: “Clara sat transfixed through Dracula, and when the final curtain fell, she made a beeline for Lugosi’s dressing room. ‘How d’ya know your lines?’ she immediately asked him. Lugosi, who still spoke no English, gesticulated that he learned from cues by other actors. Without further ado, Clara invited him home’”

Clara Bow was so game. I love her. Oh, and her accent is basically non-existent, to modern ears anyway. Here she is in 1932′s Call Her Savage:

The painting sold for $24,000.

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First Maya fresco found in northern Guatemala

Sunday, November 24th, 2013

A team of archaeologists from the University of Valencia, Spain, and the University of San Carlos of Guatemala have discovered the first known Mayan fresco, a mural painted on wet plaster, near the archaeological site of La Blanca in northern Guatemala close to the border with Belize. All the other extant wall paintings done by the Maya were created using a dry paint technique. These frescoes date to the eighth century A.D., the Late Classic period, when they were painted on the walls of room six in Chilonche Palace. The room was sealed in antiquity, leaving the murals in exceptional condition while those in other rooms of the palace have faded to near nothingness.

“It’s an extraordinary discovery because of the information it provides, both historically and because of the pictorial technique and from an artistic point of view they are exceptional. There are three aspects [to this find]: the history, the pictorial technique and the artistic excellence; the great plasticity of the figures, the colors and also for the good state of conservation, very good for a site in tropical conditions, said Cristina Vidal, [scientific director of the archaeological project].

The Maya used natural pigments to create the brilliant colors of their murals. The most famous is Maya blue, still being studied today by scientists keen to understand how its components, mainly indigo and a white clay mineral called palygorskite, came together to create such a rich and durable pigment. The newly discovered frescoes include some Maya blue elements. The dominant color is a red made by mixing ground up iron oxide with water. The white background was made with white lime, the blacks and greys with charcoal and the yellow with the mineral goethite.

There are adult men, women and children depicted in the murals, many of them labelled with their names. Identifying each figure’s name, date and any historical data is a top priority for the team. The paintings show people of all different types and classes bringing an offering to an illustrious personage of some kind. Archaeologists believe this is a historical event being depicted, not a mythological scene.

The Palace of Chilonche, while just 10 miles southwest of the archaeological zone of La Blanca, is on privately held land. This makes it basically impossible to police. The site has been looted on a regular basis and it makes protecting and conserving the finds a challenge. It will therefore not be opened to tourists any time soon.

Now off I go to check every Mayan mural post I ever wrote for sloppy use of the word “fresco.” I know it means wet painting, but in my eternal search for a varied vocabulary, I’m sure I used it to describe what I now know were exclusively dry painted works. :facepalm:

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6,400-year-old remains found in Can Sadurní cave

Saturday, November 23rd, 2013

University of Barcelona archaeologists excavating the Can Sadurní cave in Begues, 12 miles southwest of Barcelona, Catalonia, Spain, have found the skeletons of four people who died 6,400 years ago early in the middle Neolithic. Human burials from the same period have been found in the cave before, but they were not so well preserved. These four bodies — one adult male around 50 years old at time of death, one adolescent, a child aged three or four years old and another child of around five or six — weren’t even buried. They were placed in along the north wall of cave and appear to have been covered by a mild landslide shortly after placement. Their bodies had not yet decomposed, so they remained in position when the landslide hit and being covered up helped preserve them.

All four bodies were placed in a line about three feet apart from each other along the north wall. They were curled in fetal position and positioned on their right sides with their banks turned to the wall. Their knees were bent and pulled up to their chests, their arms bent between the legs and head. This position strongly suggests they were enshrouded or tied up because otherwise their bodies would have relaxed out of this extreme fetal posture. Preliminary examination of the adult skeleton found evidence of severe spinal osteoarthritis and a bone tumor.

Grave goods were found around the adult male, but not with the younger people. A vessel with two handles was placed on his lap and under his left arm near his elbow archaeologists found a polished bone pendant. Next to him the remains of a calf humerus and two goats were found, and the remains from a strong fire were as well.

According to its characteristics, it seems to be derived from only one particular episode which may have only last[ed] some hours, but powerful enough to create an ash layer. Although it is thought that it belongs to a previous burial, other campaigns had already identified in the cave other combustion structures that are contemporary to burial. That suggests that there is a relationship between combustion structures and burial rituals. To be exact, they might correspond to fires lighted to keep vigil over the death the day before their disposal inside the cave.

Archaeologists are excited to have discovered remains in such good condition because they might shed new light on the Neolithic the ritual burials that were ongoing in this cave for hundreds of years. Bodies were buried in one layer, then in a second layer after the first was covered with sediment and so on for more than two centuries. The top layer of bodies was displaced by a strong landslide, jumbling the remains and scattering them in the cave.

The particular death rituals of the Neolithic Can Sadurní community have already proven themselves to be of momentous historical import. In 1999, archaeologists found a pottery shard which was found to have traces of oxalate and barley-corn phytoliths. That means beer was held in that pottery vessel when it was whole, and its advance age makes it the oldest beer remains ever discovered in Europe. (It’s also a perfect illustration of how the archaeologist’s focus on collecting every little piece can pay off in a huge way.) It could have been a part of someone’s favorite beer mug, or perhaps the beer was part of the burial rites.

Last year, an anthropomorphic clay figurine was found just a few inches above the bodies found this year. It’s from approximately the same period, around 6,500 years ago, which makes it the oldest pottery ever discovered in the Iberian peninsula.

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“Dueling Dinosaurs” fossil fails to sell

Friday, November 22nd, 2013

The fossil of two large dinosaurs frozen in what appears to be a combat posture failed to sell at a Bonhams’ auction Tuesday. This will doubtless gladden the heart of the scientific community which was dismayed that this unique specimen was being sold to the highest bidder instead of to a museum or institution of learning. The sellers, the owners of the Montana ranch where the fossil was unearthed in 2006, had offered it to museums but for ungodly sums (they asked the Smithsonian for $15 million) so they turned to the open market. The pre-sale estimate was $7 million to $9 million, but the expectation was this piece would blow past those figures to eclipse the standing record for a fossil sale (T-Rex Sue, sold in 1997 to the Field Museum of Chicago for $8.36 million).

Instead, the bidding stopped at 5.5 million which wasn’t even enough to meet the undisclosed reserve price. I’m sure the Smithsonian is discreetly hiding a little smirk behind its fan right now, especially since the next step is private negotiations with, you guessed it, museums.

“The story isn’t over,” said Thomas Lindgren, co-consulting director of the natural history department at Bonhams in Los Angeles, who put together today’s natural history auction in New York, which drew a crowd prospective buyers, curious onlookers and reporters.

“Behind the scenes, before the sale occurred today, I’ve had museums mention that they have difficulty coming up with funds this quickly, but should the lot not sell — which of course occurred — they want us to be in negotiations immediately,” Lindgren said during a press conference after the sale. “I’m very confident we’re going to find a scientific home for these dinosaurs.”

If the prices hadn’t been so ludicrously exorbitant, I’m very confident these dinosaurs would already have a scientific home. Apparently Mr. Lindgren had some concerns, unstated in the publicity rush leading up to the sale, of course, that this rare discovery of a herbivore (Triceratops relative Chasmosaurine ceratopsian) and a carnivore (one of only two examples of Nanotyrannus lancensis ever found) locked together would fall into the black hole of a private collection and be lost to science.

Lindgren said he had been guiding the sale toward the institutions and donors that would house the fossils in a public collection, adding that he wasn’t thrilled with the idea that they could “disappear to a private individual who would not make them available.”

There’s only so much guiding you can do when the sellers are looking to make $15 million, however, so its failure to get anywhere near the price tag they were hoping for will hopefully be the correction they need to make something happen with a museum or school.

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Priscilla Catacombs re-opened and Google Mapped

Thursday, November 21st, 2013

The Catacombs of Priscilla in Rome, an eight-mile network of warrens on several levels dug out of soft volcanic tufa used for Christian burials from the second century A.D. through the fifth, have been re-opened after five years of conservation. Restorers used laser technology to clean the wall paintings, a highly significant collection of early Christian iconography that includes the earliest known depiction of the Madonna and Child dating to around 230 A.D. and, in a room known as the Cubiculum of the Veiled Woman, a later third century depiction a woman with arms outstretched wearing what the Vatican’s Italian language website calls “a rich liturgical vestment” (the English version calls it “a rich purple garment”) which some consider evidence of female clergy in early Christianity. In the newly-dubbed Cubiculum of Lazarus, lasers revealed a fourth-century fresco of Christ raising Lazurus, still wrapped in his shroud, from the dead. This work had been obscured by centuries of grime.

The Priscilla catacombs are thought to have been named after the wife of Manius Acilius Glabrio, Roman Consul in 91 A.D. (the future emperor Trajan was his co-consul) executed by Domitian for atheism, ie, his refusal to worship the Roman gods because he was Christian. She had him buried in what was once a quarry and donated the property to the church so others could be buried there. It’s known as the “Queen of the Catacombs” because of the art work and because so many martyrs and popes were buried there. Popes Saint Marcellinus (296-304), Saint Marcellus I (308-309), Saint Sylvester I (314-335), Liberius (352-366), Saint Siricius (384-399), Saint Celestine I (422-432) and Vigilius (537-555) were laid to rest in the Catacombs of Priscilla, as were the following martyrs: brothers Felix and Philip, probably killed under Diocletian, their mother Felicity and five of their other brothers (Alexander, Martial, Vitale, Silanus and Januarius), Saint Philomena, Saint Pudens and his daughter Saint Praxedes. His other daughter Saint Pudentiana is buried next to her father, but there are no surviving accounts of whether she was martyred.

Such a rich connection to important figures of the early Church made the Priscilla catacomb a target of looters. That’s why it was forgotten for almost a thousand years, because, like many other catacombs at the time, its entrances were deliberately blocked and hidden in the sixth century to protect it during a period when Rome was being sacked on a regular basis. It was one of the first catacombs to be rediscovered in the 16th century, and then the local sackers got to work stealing tombstones, sarcophagi, tufa blocks and the remains of presumed martyrs.

Thankfully they left the paint of the walls, and eight labyrinthine miles are hard to completely strip of all their contents so when archaeologists began excavating the site in the late 19th century, they found around 750 marble fragments of funerary art. These pieces of sarcophagi and funerary inscriptions have been kept for a century plus in a space in the basilica of San Silvestro, a new church built over the foundations of a fourth century one in 1907. In addition to the conservation of the catacombs themselves, the project saw the construction of an innovative new museum to house these pieces. They needed restoration and they needed to be displayed in a suitable context, so a museum was built over what was still an open archaeological site.

They covered the foundations of the ancient church, which still contains many burials, with a pavement made out of panels of clear glass, metal gratings or imperial travertine. The clear panels cover the areas with significant archaeological remains so visitors to the museum can look down and see the ruins. The gratings provide air flow to the remains to ensure moisture levels don’t rise encouraging the growth of destructive vegetation and microorganisms. They also provide easy access for future maintenance of the archaeological material because they can be easily removed. The travertine was chosen because of its durability and because it is aesthetically in keeping with its surroundings. Its opacity obscures cables and other unsightly fundamentals of modern construction.

The Museum of Priscilla has its own website now and it’s actually good, something worth noting since so many archaeological sites have truly atrocious websites if they have any web presence at all. It’s only in Italian but it’s worth browsing even if you have to use an online translator. The videos do not have English captions but I still think you should watch them if only to see how the museum came together. It’s quite spectacular.

This video covers the process of museum construction from early rejected concepts to final execution. Watch it to see the space go from display room with a solid floor covering ruins protected solely by burial in sand into a floorless archaeological site into a handsome, multi-layer, non-invasive one-room museum.

This one describes the construction of the floor, the three different kinds of panels, their uses, why the materials were chosen:

Doesn’t that combination floor look great? I think it’s brilliant.

The following video shows the restoration of the 750 fragments. My quick translation of the main points: three restorers worked on the fragments for two and a half years. In the early 1900s, the marbles were affixed to the church wall with iron hooks and mortar. They needed to be cleaned of oxidized iron, cementacious materials and concretions accumulated over the centuries underground. The cement was so much harder than the ancient marble that removing it with power microdrills without damaging the marble was a great challenge. They had to use the smallest of bits to do the work. Once cleaned, the fragments were reunited using a special glue. The biggest surprise was the discovery of traces of the original polychrome paint. The figures of people were outlined in red. The fruit is fuxia (I’d call it a raspberry or a purple more than a bright pink, but I’m not there and the restorer is so what she says goes.) There’s so little left because “restorers” in the past scrubbed the marble raw with wire brushes (like the British Museum did to the Elgin marbles in the 19th century). In fact, the one feature all these fragments have in common is that their surfaces are thoroughly scratched.

Finally, if you’d like to get a more detailed view of the Catacombs of Priscilla but can’t make your way to Rome right at this minute, you can tour them on Google Maps! The whole eight miles haven’t been scanned, but you can follow basically the same route you’d take if you were there in person and then some. According to the Giorgia Abeltino of Google Italy, the had to build specialized cameras and instruments to take the Street View process underground, and it pays off. I’ve been in my fair share of catacombs and they are dark, y’all. The virtual tour is illuminated and detailed beyond my wildest expectations.

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