Archive for February, 2014

Mummy in Germany is murdered Inca woman

Friday, February 28th, 2014

A mummy that has been in the collection of the Bavarian State Archaeological Collection in Munich has been identified as a young Inca woman whose skull was smashed shortly before death. When the mummy came to the museum from the Anatomical Institute of Ludwig-Maximilians University in 1970, all documentation of its origin was lost. It was first recorded at the university in 1904, but its movements before then were unknown. Because of the mummy’s dark brown skin, it was thought to be a bog body, possibly recovered from the Dachauer moor outside of Munich. The plaited hair, the fetal position (minus the lower legs which were damaged by bombing in World War II), the well-preserved bone tissue all argued against a central European bog origin, however.

The mummy has been on display at the State Archaeological Collection since the donation. To finally identify the mummy’s origin, physical condition and cause of death, the museum decided to do a full forensic anthropological examination. They took CT scans of the entire body, did stable and unstable isotope analysis of the teeth, examined tissue samples microscopically, tested ancient DNA and reconstructed any injuries found.

Radiocarbon dating found the mummy dates to 1451–1642 A.D. and was between 20 and 25 years old at the time of death. Stable isotope analysis revealed that she ate maize and seafood and was from the Peruvian/Northern Chilean border along the coast. Her hair was dark in life (it has faded over the centuries) and her braids are tied with fiber bundles made from wavy camelid hair, a pattern characteristic of New World camelids (alpacas or llamas). Her skull also testifies to her origin: she has a Wormian or “Inca” bone at her occiput, an extra wedge of bone between sutures that is found in native South American populations but not European ones, and the flattened back of her skull is typical of Inca intentional cranial deformation.

It was the skull that held the biggest surprise. She lost her front teeth after death and there’s a small wound on her forehead, but other than that, from the outside, the head looks intact. The CT scans revealed impressions are vastly deceiving. She was a victim of massive blunt force trauma to the skull. her forehead, upper skull and face were completely staved in. The upper jaw was broken. Large chunks of bone are lying against the back of the skull, along with the remains of brain tissue and possible sites of blood accumulation.

This was a perimortem injury, inflicted around the time of death, not damage done to the body after death. Terrace-like shapes on the inside back of the skull suggest a rounded weapon was used to beat her face in by someone standing in front of her. How she might have encountered this brutal skull-collapsing fate is unclear. Ritual murder is one possible explanation, but without a burial context, it’s probably unprovable. Osteological evidence suggests she lived fairly well — her dental wear was low and her joints and vertebra show no sign of stressful labor — but she was ill. Thickening of some of her heart and large intestine tissue and DNA found in rectal tissue indicate she suffered from a chronic parasitic infection by the protozoan Trypanosoma cruzi, known as Chagas disease, since infancy. Perhaps her lifetime debilitating illness made her a candidate for sacrifice. If she’s going to die anyway, goes the logic, might as well give her demise religious significance.

As far as how she got from Peru to Germany, researchers believe the mummy was one of two brought to Germany by Princess Theresa von Bayern of Bavaria at the turn of the century. Princess Theresa was the daughter of Prince Regent Luitpold who ruled Bavaria while King Ludwig II, the great palace builder sometimes known as Ludwig the Mad, was sidelined by purported mental illness. In her youth she and her cousin Otto, Ludwig’s brother and successor, were in love but could not marry because of Otto’s own struggles with mental illness and the political complications of her father being regent. She never married, dedicating her life to educating herself (women were not allowed to attend university) in the natural sciences.

In 1898, Princess Theresa went on an expedition to Peru. According to her records, she carried two mummies with her back to Bavaria. There are no records of where she installed the mummies. She died in 1925, leaving her extensive collection of South American anthropological remains to the State Museum of Ethnology in Munich. Since this mummy appears in the Anatomical Institute records in 1904, just six years after her Peruvian expedition, if it was one of the Princess Theresa mummies, she probably donated it to them directly.

Confirmed: Tetrarchs looted from Constantinople

Thursday, February 27th, 2014

Framing a corner of the facade of St. Mark’s Basilica in Venice are high relief sculptures of four Roman emperors known as the Portrait of the Four Tetrarchs. Each pair is on a separate panel carved out of Imperial Porphyry, a dark purple-red color reserved in antiquity for emperors, in the early 4th century A.D. The figures are the two senior emperors (Augusti) and two junior emperors (Caesares) of the tetrarchy, a power-sharing system instituted by Emperor Diocletian in 293 that established one senior-junior pair to rule over the eastern empire (Oriens) and another over the western empire (Occidens). It only lasted two decades. By 313 civil war had chipped away at various usurpers and claimants leaving only Constantine I as Augustus Occidens and Licinius I as Augustus Oriens.

It’s not possible to identify the specific rulers depicted in the sculpture. Unlike the portraiture of earlier Roman emperors, the Tetrarchs are not realistic. There are no identifying characteristics or attributes, no naturalism, no individuality in the carving of garments or the men wearing them. Each pair shares an embrace, one bearded figure and one clean-shaved. It’s probable the bearded figures are Augusti and the Caesares are smooth-cheeked, but that’s symbolic of their relative ages and ranks, not a reflection of tonsorial reality. It’s also possible they were carved after the functional demise of the tetrarchy and are actually the three sons of Constantine (Constantine II, Constantius II, Constans) and his nephew Dalmatius, all of whom held the rank of Caesar.

What’s certain is they didn’t originate in Venice. They were looted, carried back to the city after the 1204 Sack of Constantinople during the Fourth Crusade. Their exact provenance has long been debated. No contemporary chronicles mention the Tetrarchs explicitly. There are references in 14th century sources to marble and porphyry tablets plundered from Constantinople, but not to sculptures. There are also references to stonework being looted from Acre after Venice defeated Genoese forces there in 1258.

Some historians have posited that the 1258 date is accurate, but that it refers to the arrival of the Tetrarchs in Venice rather than plunder from the Genoese castle in Acre. By this theory, the Tetrarchs had remained in Constantinople during the short-lived Latin Empire when Crusaders ruled Byzantium between 1204 and the restoration of the Byzantine Empire under Michael VIII Palaiologos in 1261. When the situation started getting hairy for the Latin Empire, the Tetrarchs and other loot were sent to Venice and arrived contemporaneously around the time of the Genoese loss at Acre.

A popular legend dispenses with all this Crusader jazz. According to this version of events, the sculpture was once four thieves who were caught in the act trying to steal of the basilica’s treasure by Saint Mark himself. They were petrified for their crime affixed to the wall where the treasure is kept to guard it for eternity.

In 1965, a Turkish-German archaeological excavation underneath the Bodrum Mosque, originally a 10th c. church called the Myrelaion, in Istanbul recovered a porphyry fragment of a heel standing on a rectangular base. It seemed to fit the Tetrarchs whose fourth figure is missing his original feet and base. The Myrelaion was built over a 5th century rotunda and next to the Capitolium, a temple associated with the imperial cult built during Constantine’s reign. The Capitolium was also known as the Philadelphion, the “temple of brotherly love,” after the sons of Constantine.

This is the likely source of the Tetrarchs. Each pair would have adorned one of the massive porphyry columns on the portico of the main entrance. The building may even have become known as the Philadelphion because of the Tetrarchs. They were soon identified as Constantine’s sons, regardless of whether that was the original intent, and since they’re embracing, they were seen as representations of fraternal love. (This site has some neat reconstructions of the Philadelphion and the Tetrarchs on their columns.)

So the evidence has piled up, enough that for decades the Tetrarchs were widely assumed to have been plundered from Constantinople, but it has taken until now for an official confirmation.

Last year, the Procurator of St. Mark made an exact replica of all four Tetrarchs in Venice and the foot found in Istanbul. The fragments were combined in one piece, which fits perfectly together. Additional analyses were also made of the materials and the porphyry used for the making of the sculptures and the foot fragment. The results have confirmed that indeed the same material was used for both and therefore they are identical.

World’s oldest cheese found on Chinese mummy

Wednesday, February 26th, 2014

Researchers have found the world’s oldest cheese around the neck a of Chinese mummy that was buried almost 4,000 years ago in the arid and salty Taklamakan Desert of the Tarim Basin, now in the Xinjiang region of northwest China. The Tarin mummies, first discovered in the 1930s, have already made a name for themselves because of their exceptional state of preservation and their European features. Now they can add wearing the oldest known cheese to their considerable mystique.

Chemist Andrej Shevchenko of Germany’s Max Planck Institute of Molecular Cell Biology and Genetics led the study which analyzed the yellow clumps adorning the neck and chest of the Beauty of Xiaohe, one of the earliest Tarin mummies at approximately 3,600 years old. The research team found proteins and fats characteristic of cheese, not other dairy products like milk or butter. These oldest cheese crumbles dates to approximately 1,615 B.C., an exceptional survival given how quickly dairy products decay.

The analysis also showed the mummies’ cheese was made by combining milk with a “starter,” a mix of bacteria and yeast. This technique is still used today to make kefir, a sour, slightly effervescent dairy beverage, and kefir cheese, similar to cottage cheese.

If the people of the cemetery did indeed rely on a kefir starter to make cheese, they were contradicting the conventional wisdom. Most cheese today is made not with a kefir starter but with rennet, a substance from the guts of a calf, lamb or kid that curdles milk. Cheese was supposedly invented by accident when humans began carrying milk in bags made of animal gut.

Making cheese with rennet requires the killing of a young animal, Shevchenko points out, and the kefir method does not. He argues that the ease and low cost of the kefir method would have helped drive the spread of herding throughout Asia from its origins in the Middle East. Even better, both kefir and kefir cheese are low in lactose, making them edible for the lactose-intolerant inhabitants of Asia.

We don’t know why the Tarin mummies were buried with cheese. A snack for the afterlife is one obvious possibility and they were certainly interred with elaborate grave goods and rituals. The Beauty of Xiaohe was coated head to toe in a milky white substance then wrapped in a be-tasseled white woolen cloak. Her elegant attire also includes a felt hat, a string skirt and fur-lined leather boots, all of them in like-new condition. On her chest was placed a wooden phallus and the cloak has three small pouches attached the right edge which contain fragments of the evergreen ephedra, a stimulant with thousands of years of use in Chinese herbal medicine. So sure, the cheese could have just been food for the voyage, or it could have had some entirely distinct ritual significance that we don’t understand.

There is far older evidence of cheesemaking — pottery cheese strainers found in Poland a few years ago date to 5,500 B.C. — so it’s not like it’s a surprise that people were making cheese 2,000 years after that, but these are the first ancient cheese pieces to have survived and been identified.

Couple walking dog find biggest gold hoard in US

Tuesday, February 25th, 2014

A couple walking the dog on their property in Northern California last spring discovered the biggest and most valuable gold coin hoard ever unearthed in the United States. They were treading the same well-worn path they’ve trod hundreds of times for the dog’s daily constitutional when they spotted the rusted top of a metal can sticking up out of the eroded ground. They dug the can out with a stick and took it home.

It was so heavy lugging it back proved to be quite an effort. They figured there was lead paint inside. When the lid cracked off the husband saw the seductive rib of a single gold coin. Clearing out the rest of the contents, they found a lot of dirt and a stack of $20 liberty head gold coins from the 1890s. The pair promptly returned to the find spot, an area they dubbed Saddle Ridge, and dug some more. They immediately found another can about a foot to the left of where they had found the first can. Then they found five more smaller cans, and one last can they used a metal detector to locate.

The eight cans contained a total of 1,427 gold coins. Most of them, 1,373, to be precise, were $20 coins, 50 were $10 coins and four were $5 coins. Most were minted in San Francisco; one of the $5 coins was minted in Georgia. They date to between 1847 and 1894 and were stacked in approximate chronological order; all the 1840s and 50s coins in the first can and the rest by date in subsequent cans. The arrangement of coins and the varying condition of the cans suggest they were buried by someone over the course of years rather than the result of a single caper like a bank robbery. The total face value of the coins is $27,980.

In a panic over what to do with the immense gold treasure they had just found walking the dog, the owners took a page out of the original hoarder’s book. They put the coins in plastic bags and the bags inside an old cooler. They then dug a hole under the wood pile buried the cooler there. Two months later, they invited coin dealer Don Kagin and numismatic expert David McCarthy of Kagin’s, Inc. to examine the hoard. They found an incredible wealth of rare coins in beautiful condition. Fully thirteen of them are either the finest examples known to exist or tied for the finest. One of them, an 1866-S No Motto Double Eagle, is estimated to be worth $1 million on its own.

It’s fitting that such a rich find would be made in Gold Country, the region of the Sierra Nevadas east of Sacramento to the Nevada state line where an 1848 gold strike at Sutter’s Mill set off the madness of the California Gold Rush. Someone in the area was bucking the trend and putting gold back into the ground, oftentimes before it had even circulated. Many of the Saddle Ridge Hoard coins are in near-perfect condition, even the older ones. Paper money wasn’t legal in California until the 1870s, which means most of the coins from before then saw a great deal of circulation and wear. People didn’t start keeping California gold coins in uncirculated condition until the 1880s.

The exceptional condition and rarity of the coins makes their estimated market value around $10 million, far exceeding the estimated $1 million value of the other contender for biggest gold hoard found buried in the United States. The Tennessee Hoard was found in Jackson by workers building a city parking lot in 1985. The exact quantities found are not known because the workers pocketed much of the coins before the site was protected. Judging from the assessment of gold dealers who bought most of the Tennessee coins, there were hundreds totaling about $4,500 in face value and while the condition of some pieces was excellent, many of them were damaged by heavy machinery during the discovery while others were cleaned so roughly the coin surface was cracked.

The couple has chosen to remain anonymous and keep their exact location secret to avoid turning their peaceful rural home into Sutter’s Mill 2: Now We Have Metal Detectors. They plan to sell 90% of the coins in a landmark deal with Amazon’s new Collectibles & Fine Art store. This is the first coin treasure to be sold via Amazon. Most of the rest will be sold privately directly to collectors. The couple plans to keep a small selection of the hoard. As “John” says in this great interview with the finders “Mary” and “John” on the Kagin’s website, “We would like to hold onto a cross section of it – something to leave to relatives when we pass on.”

I love their response to the question about whether they had noticed anything unusual about the find spot before:

John: Years ago, on our first hike, we noticed an old tree growing into the hill. It had an empty rusty can hanging from it that the tree had grown around – that was right at the site where we found the coins… At the time we thought the can might be a place for someone to put flowers in for a gravesite – something which would have been typical at the time.

There was also an unusual angular rock up the hill from where the coins were buried – we’d wondered what in the heck it was.

Mary: It wasn’t until we made the find that we realized it might have been a marker: starting at the rock, if you walk 10 paces towards the North Star, you wind up smack in the middle of the coins!

700-year-old tea jar Chigusa at the Sackler

Monday, February 24th, 2014

Chigusa, glazed stoneware tea storage jar, mid-13th to mid-14th century ChinaChigusa was not born into refinement and elegance. It was a utilitarian piece, a large stoneware jar made in southern China in the 13th or 14th century and exported to Japan for use as a commercial container. Large at 16.5 inches high with four lugs around the neck and a mottled amber iron glaze that swoops down in overlapping ovals, once in Japan it was used to store tea, and it was this association that paved its road to glory.

Ciphers of past owners on Chigusa's baseChigusa worked uncomplainingly for centuries to earn a proper name, exquisite adornments and the contemplative gaze of some of the greatest masters of Japan’s tea culture. It had an important job. Matcha, the powdered green tea used in the tea ceremony, is harvested in May when the leaves are still young. Tea connoisseurs would stamp their names on the base of their jars and send them to the growers in the spring so the freshly picked and steamed leaves could be placed directly in the vessel. The mouth was sealed with a stopper and the tea left alone for six months to allow the flavor to ripen and mature. In November, the jar was opened and the first tea of the year drunk, an important ritual in Japan’s chanoyu (meaning “the way of tea”).

Tea master Kamiya Sotan's diary entry describing Chigusa, 1587The base of Chigusa has four names written in black lacquer. The first of them is Noami, a 15th century artist and tea expert for the Ashikaga shogunate. The next owner to leave his mark was Torii Insetsu (1448-1517), a tea master in the city of Sakai who would be revered by his successors. Ju Soho’s cipher is next. He is known to have hosted a tea in 1573 attended by Chigusa and the tea master Sen no Rikyu, one of the most influential masters, if not the most influential, in the development of tea culture. We know Chigusa was there at this ceremony because another guest, Imai Sokyu, wrote about seeing the “large jar … Chigusa” which had once belonged to the great Insetsu. A few years later the fourth owner, merchant Kondaya Tokurin, added his name to the base.

Chigusa's historical documentsWe don’t know who named the jar, but it was likely a poetry reference. The word means “myriad varieties” or “thousand plants” (it alters depending on which characters are used). By the time Sokyu wrote about Chigusa, its name was already known and the once workaday storage jar had become a meibutsu, a “celebrated tea object” that inspired masters to look at it carefully, writing journal entries about the smallest details of its glaze, shape and aesthetic significance. Tea master Yamanoue Soji observed Chigusa at a ceremony hosted by warlord Toyotomi Hideyoshi in Osaka Castle in 1584 and recorded it in his diary. So did Kamiya Sotan three years later.

Chigusa with mouth cover, cords, silk net bagOver the centuries, its rustic beauty would be adorned with precious materials worthy of its importance: a mouth cover made out of gold brocade Ming Dynasty silk, a blue silk net bag from the Muromachi or Momoyama period in the 16th century, blue ornamental cords from the Meiji era (1868–1912). It has three nested storage boxes to keep it and its accoutrements safe. The innermost box was made during the Edo period (1615–1868) from lacquered paulownia wood. What is now the middle box was originally the outer box. It was also made in the Edo period out of cedar wood stained with persimmon tannin. The outermost box today is from the Meiji era. Trays inside the innermost box hold the cords, net, letters and other documentation that illustrates the rich history of this unique jar.

Chigusa's three nesting storage boxesBy the 17th century, Chigusa was so important it played a part in Japanese politics. During the Tokugawa shogunate, shoguns and daimyos gave it as a gift to seal alliances and prove their loyalty. It remained in Tokugawa hands until the end of the shogunate in 1868, after which Chigusa entered the tea collection market. Wealthy industrialists owned it, allowing it to go on display very occasionally. It only left Japan once in 2009 when it went to New York City to find a new home. At a Christie’s auction on September 17th, Chigusa with all its goods was bought by the Freer Gallery of Art for $662,500.

Tray of innermost box with cords and envelopes holding documentationThe Freer and the adjacent Arthur M. Sackler Gallery are the Smithsonian’s Asian art branches, centered on core collections built by their eponymous founders. Chigusa is therefore in good company, despite its great distance from home. There are only a few hundred such large tea storage jars with all their accessories and documentation remaining in Japan, and only a smattering of remotely comparable pieces abroad.

On February 22nd, Chigusa and the Art of Tea debuted at the Sackler.

In Chigusa and the Art of Tea, Chigusa holds court alongside other cherished objects, including calligraphy by Chinese monks, Chinese and Korean tea bowls and Japanese stoneware water jars and wooden vessels that were used and enjoyed during this formative time of Japanese tea culture. In order to create the intimate feel of a 16th-century tea gathering, part of the exhibition space recreates a Japanese tea room, complete with tatami mats.

“Tea men looked at Chigusa and found beauty even in its flaws, elevating it from a simple tea jar to how we know it today,” said Louise Allison Cort, curator of ceramics at the Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery. “This ability to value imperfections in objects made by the human hand is one of the great contributions of Japanese tea culture to the world.”

Chigusa with brocade mouth cover and knotted ornamental cordThe exhibition includes a video of a tea master ceremonially adorning Chigusa, tying elaborate decorative knots with the blue cords, connecting the blue silk net bag, and tying the brocaded cover on the mouth. A traditional tea ceremony will be hosted for visitors on March 23rd and April 6th. There are also regular lunch tours led by curators and panel discussions with researchers Oka Yoshiko and Andrew M. Watsky. See the full list of events and dates here.

The exhibition closes on July 27th, 2014, after which Chigusa will travel to the Princeton University Art Museum in Princeton, New Jersey, where it will be on display from October 11th through February 1st, 2015.

Lost portrait of Bonnie Prince Charlie found

Sunday, February 23rd, 2014

In 2008, art historian Dr. Bendor Grosvenor, director of London art gallery Philip Mould Ltd, caused a stir when he claimed that a portrait in the National Galleries of Scotland purporting to be a pastel of Bonnie Prince Charlie by Maurice Quentin de la Tour was actually a portrait of his younger brother, Henry, Duke of York. The museum which had bought the painting in 1994 for £22,000 ($36,583), pointed to a top expert’s authentication and insisted the portrait was the pretender to the British throne. When said top expert admitted in 2009 that Grosvenor’s argument was supported by the weight of the evidence (Grosvenor’s paper in the British Art Journal is pretty damn persuasive), the National Galleries had to grudgingly admit they had bought a prince in a poke, to coin a phrase.

Grosvenor’s vindication was not cause for unbridled joy. The painting in question was considered the best surviving portrait of Prince Charles in his prime. There are paintings of him as a youth and as an old man, but this one showed him in armor, the dashing prince seeking to reclaim his throne from the Hanoverians. It was printed in histories, biographies, on shortbread tins and was literally next to the prince’s name in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. “Bonnie Prince Charlie is one of my heroes,” said the art historian, “and I always felt bad about debunking what used to be his most famous portrait.” So he set about looking for a real portrait of the prince, one that was known to have existed in the 1740s but was lost after the defeat of the Jacobite Rebellion at the Battle of Culloden on April 16th, 1746.

His first stop was the Royal Archives in Windsor Castle. There he found a letter from by Bonnie Prince Charlie’s valet to renown Scottish painter Allan Ramsay. It said: “Sir, you are desired to come to the Palace of Holyroodhouse as soon as possible in order to take his Royal Highness’ picture. So I expect you’ll wait no further call. I am, your most humble servant, John Stuart, Holyrood House 26th of October 1745”. That was important because it confirmed the existence of a portrait painted in Scotland, not England, by a Scottish painter rather than de La Tour.

Grosvenor then went to the National Portrait Gallery in London to look through its archives. He found a black and white picture of a painting of Charles that bore some of the hallmarks of Ramsay’s style. The sitter painter wasn’t identified, but on the back of the photograph was a note saying that the portrait was at Gosford House, seat of the Earls of Wemyss in East Lothian, Scotland.

“I went to Gosford House where the portrait had been hanging in a dark, downstairs corridor. It had always been known that it was Bonnie Prince Charlie but not known to have been painted by Ramsay in Scotland.” Dr Grosvenor added that Ramsay went on to become King George III’s official artist and the portrait of the Jacobite prince became his “guilty little secret”.

Dr Duncan Thomson, former director of the Scottish National Portrait Gallery and an expert on Ramsay, said: “This portrait brings the prince back to life in a way I’d never thought imaginable. It’s hard to overstate the importance of finding a portrait of the prince painted in Scotland by a Scottish artist.”

The Ramsay portrait, depicting Prince Charles Stuart wearing the blue sash and star of the English Order of the Garter, was supposed to be Charles first official state portrait after his great victory placed him on the throne his grandfather, James II, had vacated so hastily in the Glorious Revolution of 1688. Charles took the painting with him in 1745 when he and his army got as far south as Derbyshire. It was still with him when his forces turned back to Scotland and met their fate at Culloden a few months later.

With the Jacobite hopes dashed, even supporters weren’t keen to be seen displaying fine portraits of the failed pretender. The original painting disappeared from the public record. The image survived thanks to an engraving made of the Ramsay portrait by Robert Strange. It appeared on Jacobite memorabilia, like this scent bottle made in Bourbon-ruled Naples around 1753. Notice the addition of the green sash of the Scottish Order of the Thistle. The prince who had himself painted with specific English references to enlist iconography in supporting his claim was now wistfully draped in his Scottish colors too.

No decision has been made about display of the portrait. Gosford House released a statement saying that they’re considering where it might be exhibited in the near future.

The BBC dedicated an episode of The Culture Show, hosted by Bendor Grosvenor, to the discovery. If you’re in Britain or can make your computer pretend to be in Britain, the show will be available for viewing on the BBC’s website for the next six days.

Ancient mass grave found under Uffizi Gallery

Saturday, February 22nd, 2014

Workers digging underneath the library of Florence’s famed Uffizi Gallery to build a new elevator have unearthed the skeletal remains of more than 60 people dating back to late antiquity. Coins found in the graves range in date from the end of the 4th century A.D. to the beginning of the 5th, but of course we don’t know how old the coins were when they went underground with their owners. Radiocarbon dating, DNA testing, stable isotope analysis and osteological examination will help determine the time of death, where they were from, their diets, physical condition, social class and hopefully cause of death.

Over the five months of excavation, archaeologists have thus far seen no evidence of trauma to the bodies, so they were not killed by violent means. Their bones don’t show the signs of malnutrition either, so they didn’t die in a siege or famine. It seems they were felled by illness. Soil samples taken from around the remains indicate they were interred either simultaneously or within a very short timespan. That the bodies were buried to take up as little space as possible, mainly head to toe, and in uneven groupings with children placed in the small empty spaces is evidence that they were done in a hurry, likely as the result of an outbreak of contagious disease.

This area was just south of the Roman walls and prone to the alluvial floods of the Arno. The earliest remains found on the site were architectural and lapidary remains that appear to be construction debris dumped during the city expansion of the late 1st, early 2nd century A.D. The use of the spot as a dump ended by the 5th century when it began to be used as a necropolis. The choice of location — over a dump next to a river regularly in flood — confirms that the burials were an emergency, probably done in the summer while the river was at its lowest.

The timing could coincide with the Plague of Justinian, an epidemic that devastated the Byzantine Empire and what was left of the Western one during the 6th century A.D. Recent DNA studies of 6th century burials in Germany have found that the Yersinia pestis bacterium caused Justinian’s Plague like it would the Black Death eight centuries later.

The bones have been documented in situ and once fully excavated will be studied by Italian archaeologists in conjunction with experts from the University of Mainz who specialize in paleogenetics. Researchers hope to find pathogen DNA that will identify which deadly contagion claimed the lives of the people buried. Besides bubonic plague, possible candidates include cholera, dysentery and influenza.

Archaeologists hope the mass grave will fill in important blanks in the history of Florence in late antiquity. Up until now, very few human remains from this time have been found in various parts of the city. Finding dozens of skeletons in one place provides researchers with a solid sample size that can testify to the living conditions, health, nutrition, work of the Florentine population during a period that is poorly documented.

The five months of excavation were filmed in 3D to make a documentary that can be exhibited in the new addition that is expected to double the gallery space of the Uffizi. The skeletal remains themselves will be reburied somewhere in Florence once the studies are complete.

A lady’s bag at the court of Mosul in 1300

Friday, February 21st, 2014

The ancient city of Mosul on the west bank of the Tigris in what is today Iraq, once home to the palace of King Sennacherib and Library of Ashurbanipal, has had many different rulers seek to profit from its location as a hub in trade routes connecting Persia, India and the Mediterranean. In 1262, it was conquered by the Mongol forces of Hulagu Khan, grandson of Genghis Khan who expanded the southwestern Mongol empire from Uzbekistan to Syria.

Hulagu was not known for his light hand. Any cities where he encountered resistance were destroyed and their inhabitants slaughtered. When the Mongols conquered Baghdad in 1258, they virtually leveled the city. It’s said that the waters of the Tigris turned black with the ink from the thousands of books from the Grand Library of Baghdad that the Mongols threw into the river. Mosul was spared, however, because governor Badr al-Din Lu’lu’ agreed to support Hulagu’s invasion of Syria. The Mongol Ilkhanid and Jalayrid dynasties ruled Mosul through the 15th century until it was conquered by the Turkic Aq Qoyunlu Confederation.

Even before the arrival of the Mongols, Mosul was famed for its exceptional metalworking tradition. The technique originated in Persia, but Mosul’s location at the cross-roads of trade influenced the craft, introducing new forms of vessels and designs from the Byzantine Empire. Brass containers were inlaid with silver and copper creating intricate geometric decoration and scenes of courtiers hunting, traveling, adorning themselves, drinking, eating and listening to live music. The Blacas Ewer, now in the British Museum, is an exceptional example of Mosul metalwork. Made by Shuja’ ibn Mana al-Mawsili in 1232 (he signed and dated the piece, for which we were eternally grateful), the ewer may have been commissioned by Badr al-Din Lu’lu’ or one of his courtiers. He is known to have commissioned a number of pieces that bear his name.

As noted by Spanish Muslim author Ibn Said al-Maghribi in his 1250 book Geography, Mosul metalwork vessels were so highly prized they were used as diplomatic gifts, a high honor considering they were made out of brass instead of the gold and silver that were the expected standard of gift-giving between rulers.

The Courtauld Gallery in London is the proud owner of another example of Mosul metalwork, a piece made in the first century of Mongol reign around 1300-1330. This form is one of a kind, so exceptional that it is rarely included in studies of the craft. The artifact has been part of the Courtauld’s permanent collection since 1966 when it was bequeathed to the institution by the grandson of collector and museum patron Thomas Gambier Parry. Experts have debated its function for decades. It’s shaped like a clutch purse, but they weren’t making brass ladies’ handbags in 1300s Mosul. Some proposed functions include wallet, saddlebag and document carrier.

The Courtauld is putting on a new exhibition centered around this beautiful piece. Court and Craft: A Masterpiece from Northern Iraq proposed a new function for the Courtauld wallet: a lady’s shoulder bag. Exhibition curator Rachel Ward found an important clue in the decoration of the bag itself.

The key to unlocking its secret is an unusual panel on the top showing a nobleman and women and their attendants. One of those, a smiling page boy, has the bag around his shoulder.

Wider research by Ward has turned up considerable visual evidence of bag-carrying page boys next to noblewomen but never alongside men.

“Other people in the past have called it everything from a work basket to a document wallet and inevitably male academics always assume it was for a man.

“What I’m saying is it’s a lady’s bag. It is the forerunner of a designer bag. The only difference between a modern and expensive designer bag and this one is that you get a bag carrier to go with it.”

The bag will be on display along with 40 other relevant works from collections around the world, including the Blacas Ewer. The exhibition will look at how Mosul society was depicted before and after the Mongol conquest in its art. The museum will also recreate the scene from the top of the bag, building a life-sized display of the courtly festivities from artifacts similar to the ones depicted.

The exhibition opened on Thursday and will run through May 18th.

1800s douche found under New York City Hall

Thursday, February 20th, 2014

Archaeologists excavating the National Historic Landmark New York City Hall in lower Manhattan have unearthed a rare early 19th century vaginal syringe, a sort of proto-douche. Made from the bone of an unidentified mammal, the device was found in parts and the Chrysalis Archaeology team weren’t sure what its function was. Its three-inch hollow cylinder with rounded tip looks sort of like a pestle; a needle case was another possibility.

The discovery was made in 2010. The eureka moment wouldn’t happen for another three years. It wasn’t until archaeologist Lisa Geiger saw a group of late 19th century glass vaginal syringes at Philadelphia’s Mütter Museum (is there anything the Mütter’s collection can’t do?) that she realized what the City Hall tool was and began researching the history of these devices.

The syringe was found in a buried garbage pile that dates to between 1803 and 1815. The garbage begins three feet under street level and goes down another three feet. It’s filled with liquor bottles and food waste and may be the impressive remains of a single epic party. Construction on City Hall began in 1810 and ended in 1812, so right around the time this infamous liquor and douche party may have taken place. Before that, the area was the city commons, known as “The Fields,” site of public pasture land, the old Debtor’s Prison, run as a POW jail by the brutal British Provost Marshall William Cunningham during the Revolutionary War, the Bridewell prison and the poorhouse.

Vaginal syringes were used by women for contraceptive purposes to flush out sperm after intercourse and to treat gynecological ailments from venereal diseases to menstrual cramps to “the Whites,” aka vaginal discharge. Although they became increasingly popular in the 19th century, syringes were in active use in modern Europe as early as the 17th century. The civic museum in Zwolle, the Netherlands, has two rare 17th century wooden ones that are rather more artistically designed (read: penis-shaped, one complete with decorative scrotum) that were also found in historical garbage, namely in the cesspit of a private home.

They make an appearance in 17th century Dutch art as well. Jan Steen was overtly fond of painting domestic scenes of swooning women being treated by questionable doctors for “lovesickness.” He made multiple versions of these tableaux, all of them with details like cupid statues, boys holding arrows or herrings meant to convey phalluses, background paintings of mythological sexytimes and unmade beds suggesting that taking the pulse of the lady wasn’t going to cure what ailed her. Two of them, The Sick Woman (1660-70) and The Doctor’s Visit (ca 1665), both now in the permanent collection of the Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen in Rotterdam, feature figures holding vaginal syringes. A particularly formidable example is wielded by an old lady, a midwife perhaps, in the first painting, while a little boy holds a slightly less endowed version in the second. Both characters are snickering, because, as the paper on the floor of The Doctor’s Visit notes, “No medicine is of use, for it is lovesickness.”

Medicine was certainly deemed of use by doctors, apothecaries and herbalists. English botanist Nicholas Culpeper wrote in his 1653 compendium Complete Herbal about the appropriate herbal remedies for various women’s troubles to be applied directly into the afflicted region: Lady’s Mantle, Amaranth, Plantain and Feverfew, among others.

Monsieur Pierre Pomet, owner of an apothecary shop and chief druggist to King Louis XIV, wrote extensively about what kind of nostrums women should inject into their vaginas via syringe, and he didn’t stick to herbs. From the 1748 translation of A Complete History of Drugs by Pierre Pomet, first published in French in 1684 and translated into English in 1712:

The Aqua Styptica Composita, or the Compound Styptick Water, is made of this [white] Vitriol, and other Ingredients in the following Manner. Take purified white Vitriol, Roch Alum, of each an Ounce; Saccharum Saturni, half an Ounce; Spring Water, two Quarts, mix and dissolve over a gentle Heat, digest close stopt ten Days; decant the clear, filtrate, and keep it for Use. This is an easy Preparation, and of few and simple Ingredients, but of no mean Use. It is a good Injection (Universals being first premised) against the Whites in Women, and the Gonorrhea in Men, though of never so long standing, and possibly may do more in two, three, or four Days Time, being injected, than all other Medicines could do in as many Years.

By the late 19th century, home medical care assumed the easy availability of vaginal syringes. Here is a treatment for leucorrhoea (the so-called “Whites”) from Gunn’s Newest Family Physician by John C. Gunn, published in 1883:

The first is cleanliness, by bathing freely with cold or tepid water, and injecting it up the birthplace three or four times a day with a female syringe, which can be purchased at any drug store. The glass syringe is preferable. […]

I have used an injection of Green Tea with much benefit, which may be substituted for the simple water, either cold or tepid, which ever appears to be most beneficial. Injection of Sugar of Lead forms one of the most cooling and astringent injections in this disease, in the commencement of the discharge, and should be injected two, or three, or four times a day; this remedy will, in mild cases, be attended with much benefit, and in those of plethoric or full habit, this injection, with a dose of Salts occasionally, combined with the Bath, will be found very beneficial. The proportion of the injection is from 5 to 8 grains of Sugar of Lead, medically called Aceti Plumbi, to three or four table-spoonfuls of Rain Water; or an injection made with 5 or 6 grains of White Vitriol, medically called Sulphate of Zinc, to the same quantity of Rain or Soft Water; or an Alum wash in similar proportions to the last, or a decoction of Oak Bark, or the Green Tea, as before mentioned, or a strong tea of Nut Galls; either one of these astringent articles, used as an injection, four or five times a day, will, if used regularly, remove the discharge, which few women, particularly if they are married, or mothers, escape completely, for, of all the diseases peculiar to the sex, there is none so common as the Whites.

Yes, I’m quite sure injecting lead and zinc sulphate into your vagina five times a day will work all kinds of wonders. It often amazes me that anyone ever survived their doctoring.

As common as vaginal syringes were in the middle class households of the Victorian era, there were rumblings against their use, primarily in the nascent males-only profession of gynecology. In 1875, Dr. Thomas More Madden presented a paper to the Dublin Obstetrical Society advocating that gynecologists abandon the DIY vaginal syringe which could cause (admittedly very rare) complications in favor of the vaginal irrigator to be operated only by the doctor. Later that year, Dr. Alexander Padlock addressed the questions raised by the Dublin doctors in a paper read before the East Tennessee Medical Society. He gets into some pretty gruesome detail about his patients’ experiences with vaginal syringes. Lots of “uterine colic” which does not sound at all fun followed by peritonitis which in addition to not being fun was also frequently fatal.

Probably not coincidentally, the syringes fell out of favor in the 20th century, replaced by douches on a minor scale and gynecologists on the larger issues.

Looter caught with Roman gold, silver hoard

Wednesday, February 19th, 2014

An unnamed and unauthorized metal detectorist found a late Roman gold and silver hoard in the forest near Ruelzheim in Germany’s southwestern Rhineland-Palatinate state and dug it up so he could sell it on the black market. The authorities are not releasing specifics on how this scofflaw was discovered hoarding an ancient hoard except to note that “the looter rendered up [the pieces] himself – but only under pressure from investigators.” That means they caught him first and persuaded him to surrender the loot. The police have reason to believe he may have already succeeded in selling some of the pieces overseas. They will continue to investigate the case, looking for missing artifacts. No announcement was made regarding whether the looter would be charged with any crimes.

By German law, all excavations for archaeological material must be authorized in advance by the government heritage authority. Different states have differing laws on the particulars. Some allow finders to keep half the value of a find, if not the find itself. The Rhineland-Palatinate is not one of them. Searching for ancient artifacts with a metal detector is a misdemeanor offence. Removing any artifacts discovered without reporting them rises to the level of fraud, and selling them can result in a charge of receiving stolen property.

Certainly if monetary value plays a part in determining the severity of a property crime in Germany as it does in the US, this looter is going to be in big trouble. The hoard includes three dozen beautifully detailed solid gold brooches shaped like leaves, even more gold square pyramids that archaeologists believe all once ornamented a ceremonial tunic of an important Roman official. There’s also a silver dish with the remains of gilding still visible that was cut into pieces, possibly to be used as hacksilver, a solid silver bowl with gold accents inset with semi-precious stones, a crumpled and folded highly decorated silver plate that may have been a chest cover. A set of silver and gold statuettes and pieces of fittings are the remarkable survivors of what was once a curule seat, a commander’s portable folding chair.

The hoard dates to the early part of the fifth century A.D., a time when Germanic tribes banged away at each other and at the weakening Roman Empire. The Battle of Mainz took place in 406 A.D. not far from where this treasure was buried and it was a watershed event in the collapse of Roman control of Europe. Pressured by Huns in the east, migrating allied tribes including Alans, Suevi and Vandals assembled on the east bank of the Rhine. The Franks sent a raiding party across the river and succeeded in killing the Vandal king Godigisel, but the Alans turned the tide and defeated the Franks. The tribes then crossed the Rhine into Gaul on December 31st, 406, breaching what had been for centuries one of Rome’s strongest boundaries and pillaging Mainz, Rheims, Amiens and Strasbourg among many other Roman cities. It marked the end of Roman political and military control in northern Gaul and ushered in the Migration Period.

It’s no wonder why someone might have sought to bury his most precious treasures under these circumstances. The jewels from ceremonial clothing, the elaborate silver and gold folding chair and the exquisite silver tableware all point to them having been the belongings of an important magistrate or even royalty. These were the highly recognizable attributes of Roman political authority. They were buried near a former Roman road, whether by its original owner of by marauders who wanted to keep it safe from competing marauders, in a relatively shallow hole. It’s a testament to how dangerous the roads were that nobody made it back to reclaim so vast a treasure.

The age and nature of this hoard makes it a unique find in Germany, worth at least a million euro on the market and worth far more than that in historical value. It would be worth inestimably more if it had been excavated with respect for its context. Instead, the looter pulled whatever he could out of the ground, having no care whatsoever for archaeological integrity. According to state archaeologist Axel von Berg, the curule chair, for example, was “brutally torn out of the earth and destroyed.” The site itself was deliberately damaged. Boy would I love to see this thief prosecuted just for doing that.

Meanwhile, some people are getting excited over the prospect that this could be part of the legendary Nibelung hoard, the Rhine gold that features in Norse and German sagas and Richard Wagner’s opera cycle based upon them. The evidence for this is nonexistent, of course. The fifth century dating and the location somewhere in the vague area where the Rhine may have once flowed but doesn’t any longer is all it took for the legend buzz to start.

The treasure will soon go on display in Mainz and Speyer.




February 2014


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