Earliest Buddhist shrine found in Nepal?

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.

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

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.”

Roof of Ara Pacis leaks onto Augustan monument

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.

Bay Psalm Book sells for $14,165,000

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.

Irate ghost hunters burn LeBeau mansion to the ground

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.