Liquid mercury found under Teotihuacan temple

The excavations under the Temple of the Feathered Serpent in Teotihuacan have unearthed another exceptional find: large quantities of liquid mercury. Archaeologist Sergio Gómez and his team have been excavating the tunnel underneath the pre-Aztec pyramid, discovered by accident in 2003 when a sinkhole opened up in front of the temple, since 2009, using a robot to reveal three chambers at the end of the tunnel and last year discovering an enormous cache of 50,000 artifacts (sculptures, jade, rubber balls, obsidian blades, pyrite mirrors) and organic remains (animal bones, fur, plants, seeds, skin). It has taken so long to excavate it because the tunnel was filled to the brim with soil and rocks and sealed 1,800 years ago by the people of Teotihuacan about whom we know very little.

The mercury was found in one of the chambers discovered by the robot at the end of the tunnel.

“It’s something that completely surprised us,” Gomez said at the entrance to the tunnel below Teotihuacan’s Pyramid of the Plumed Serpent, about 30 miles (50 km) northeast of Mexico City.

Some archeologists believe the toxic element could herald what would be the first ruler’s tomb ever found in Teotihuacan, a contemporary of several ancient Maya cities, but so shrouded in mystery that its inhabitants still have no name.

Unsure why the mercury was put there, Gomez says the metal may have been used to symbolize an underworld river or lake.

Mercuric sulfide is the most commonly found source of mercury ore and ancient Mesoamericans were intimately familiar with it both as a red pigment and for its mercury content. They knew how to extract mercury from crushed cinnabar — heating the ore separates the mercury from sulfur and the evaporated mercury can then be collected in a condensing column — and employed it as a gilding medium and possibly for ritual purposes. It was very difficult and dangerous to produce. Before now, traces of mercury have only been found at a two Maya sites and one Olmec site in Central America. This is the first time it has been discovered in Teotihuacan, and I suspect this is the first time it has been discovered in large amounts anywhere in ancient Mexico. (The exact quantities discovered under the Temple of the Feathered Serpent and at the other sites haven’t been reported.)

Reflective materials held a great deal of religious significance in Mesoamerican cultures. Mirrors were seen as conduits to the supernatural. A river of mercury would make one hugely expensive and ritually important conveyance to the underworld. Added to the exceptional finds already made in the tunnel, the presence of so much mercury indicates that if anybody was buried in these chambers, it would have to be someone of enormous importance in Teotihuacan society. It could be a king, but we don’t know what kind of governing system they had in Teotihuacan, so it could be a lord, several oligarchs or religious leaders. The hope is that this excavation and its unprecedented finds will answer many of the long-outstanding questions about the city of Teotihuacan.

I’m excited about this discovery because I’ve been fascinated by the notion of underground rivers of mercury since I first read about the ones reportedly created for the tomb of the first Emperor of China Qin Shi Huang. Better known today for the terracotta army found in pits around the emperor’s burial mound, the mausoleum itself was apparently a thing of shimmering splendour. Grand Historian to the Han emperor Sima Qian, writing a century after the Qin emperor’s death, described Qin Shi Huang’s mausoleum in Volume Six of the Shiji (Records of the Grand Historian), China’s first official dynastic history.

They dug down deep to underground springs, pouring copper to place the outer casing of the coffin. Palaces and viewing towers housing a hundred officials were built and filled with treasures and rare artifacts. Workmen were instructed to make automatic crossbows primed to shoot at intruders. Mercury was used to simulate the hundred rivers, the Yangtze and Yellow River, and the great sea, and set to flow mechanically. Above, the heaven is depicted, below, the geographical features of the land.

As the emperor’s burial mound has not been excavated (just the environs), we don’t know if the rivers of flowing mercury really existed, but high levels of mercury have been found in soil samples taken from the tumulus so significant amounts of the heavy metal were certainly used for some purpose. I think it would be the coolest thing if the people of Teotihuacan created their own shimmering splendor of an underworld too.

Possible remains of Napoleonic king of Naples to be DNA tested

In his short life Joachim Murat rose from modest beginnings as an innkeeper’s son in the small southwestern French town of Labastide-Fortunière to the King of Naples at 41 years of age. In between he became one of Napoleon’s best generals and, after his marriage to Caroline Bonaparte, Prince and Grand Admiral of France and the Grand Duke of Berg. Famous for his daring cavalry charges and for his flamboyant dress sense involving as many buttons, gold tassels, medals and feathers as can be crammed onto a uniform, Murat fought in approximately 200 battles and looked great doing it.

In her memoirs, Caroline Murat, daughter of Joachim’s second son Prince Napoleon Lucien Charles Murat, described her grandfather’s dashing style of dress and fearlessness in combat.

His form was tall, his tread like that of a king, his face strikingly noble, while his piercing glance few men could bear. He had heavy black whiskers and long black locks, which contrasted singularly with his fiery blue eyes. He usually wore a three-cornered hat, with a magnificent white plume of ostrich feathers. […]

My grandfather’s dazzling exterior made him a mark for the enemy’s bullets. The wonder is that, being so conspicuous, he was never shot down and was rarely wounded. At one battle a bullet grazed his cheek. Like lightning his sword punished the offender by carrying away two of his fingers. I have read that at the battle of Aboukir he charged with his cavalry straight through the Turkish ranks, driving column after column into the sea.

Murat’s ascent was too inextricably tied to Napoleon’s to survive his mentor’s fall. In the attempt to preserve his throne, he went so far as to enter into an alliance with Austria after France’s defeat at the Battle of Leipzig in October of 1813, but his Austrian allies turned out to be fair-weather friends at best, and when he realized they planned to remove him from the throne during the Hundred Days, he declared himself in favor of Italian independence and fought the Austrians in northern Italy. He was defeated and fled, first attempting to get his old job back but Napoleon wouldn’t even see him, a choice the emperor would come to regret bitterly. (On St. Helena he said: “at Waterloo Murat might have given us the victory. For what did we need? To break three or four English squares. Murat was just the man for the job.”) After Napoleon’s rejection, Murat went to Corsica and mustered up 250 or so men with whom he planned to reconquer the throne of Naples from the restored Bourbon king Ferdinand IV.

This was not a well conceived plan, needless to say. His three ships were scattered in a storm. The one carrying him and 26 men was blown off course and landed in the southern Italian town of Pizzo, Calabria, near the toe of the boot, where he was promptly captured by Bourbon forces. Napoleon noted dryly that “Murat has tried to reconquer with 200 men the territory he was unable to hold when he had 80,000 of them.” Ferdinand ordered a show trial — the judges were appointed on the same day the order for his execution was sent by telegraph — and on October 13th, 1815, Joachim Murat was convicted of insurrection and sentenced to death by firing squad.

He died how he lived — well dressed, vain and fearless. His last request was for a perfumed bath and the opportunity to write to his wife and children. He refused the offer of a stool to sit on and a blindfold and stood unblinking before the fusiliers, dressed to the nines and smelling terrific. The phrasing has come down in several versions, but his last words to his executioners were so epic people are still quoting them without realizing that they’re quoting anyone: “Soldiers, do your duty. Aim for my heart, but spare my face. Fire!”

His old friend and administrator of his duchy Jean-Michel Agar, the Count of Mosburg, eulogized him poetically: “He knew how to win. He knew how to rule. He knew how to die.” Napoleon’s final assessment was a tad harsher: “In battle he was perhaps the bravest man in the world; left to himself, he was an imbecile without judgment.”

Murat’s remains are thought to have been interred in a mass grave underneath Pizzo’s Church of St. George, but there were rumors that they had been spirited away to France. There’s a memorial grave for Joachim Murat and his family in Paris’ Père Lachaise Cemetery. In 1899, his granddaughter Countess Letizia Rasponi Murat tried to find his remains in the St. George crypt so they could rebury them with dignity in the Certosa di Bologna cemetery. They were not successful. In 1976, the crypt was exposed during repairs to the church floor. Photographs were taken through a foot-wide hole in the trap door but all they captured was the basement full of bones and humus. Determining which parts belonged to Murat would seem a fool’s errand.

In April of 2007, Professor Pino Pagnotta, president of the Joachim Murat Association, got a hold of the pictures from the 70s and studied them closely. He had them enlarged and enhanced and was able to see more than 1976 photographic technology had allowed. He spied a broken casket made of a plain wood with a cord entwined in the boards. This matches contemporary eye-witness accounts like the one of Antonino Condoleo, a youth of 15 in 1815, who assisted in the burial of Joachim Murat. Condoleo describes a mishap on the way to the church when the plain fir casket containing Murat’s body was dropped and broken. They hastily tied the casket back together with a long cord and got it to St. George’s church where it was dumped unceremoniously in the crypt.

The discovery made news at the time and the Joachim Murat Association advocated strenuously that the remains in and/or around the broken coffin be DNA tested. Eight years later, they’ve finally gotten all the various authorities clerical and secular to sign on to the project. (I suspect Richard III was not far from their minds. Pizzo’s main tourist draw is the 15th century castle built by Frederick I of Aragon in which Murat was tried and executed. The castle was renamed after him and now receives thousands of visitors a year.)

In May, the heavy marble slab sealing the basement will be moved and biologist Sergio Romano will be lowered into the crypt where he will take pictures and samples from the broken casket. If DNA can be extracted from the samples — a very big if — it can be tested against Murat’s many descendants, among then his three times great-grandson actor René Auberjonois, aka the shapeshifter Odo in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, whose late mother was Princess Laure Louise Napoléone Eugénie Caroline Murat.

Roman owl fibula found on Danish island

Last summer, archaeologists excavating an Iron Age settlement on the Baltic island of Bornholm, Denmark, unearthed a rare enameled brooch in the shape of an owl. The excavation of the Lavegaard settlement on the outskirts of the town of Nexø was carried out in advance of construction of a daycare center. The archaeological team from Bornholms Museum has found large quantities of pottery, the remains of workshop ovens, hearths, clay and daub construction, traces of iron smelting and ceramics firing and more than 1,300 postholes. The owl pin was found by metal detectorists working with the archaeologists a few meters from an ancient home in the Roman Iron Age layer. Its design and composition date it to the middle of the 1st century through the end of the 3rd century A.D.

The owl’s most prominent features are its huge round eyes with bright orange irises around a black pupil. Its body has a wing decoration filled with green enamel inset with five circles, each containing concentric rings of red, yellow and black. The bird’s tail feathers are marked with semi-circular indentations and its neck is encircled by a rope design. All the colors are made of enamel.

The artifact is a plate or disk fibula, a pin used to fasten garments made from a flat disk that could be shaped into a variety of designs, including zoomorphic ones. It was made of bronze and decorated with multi-colored enamel accents. The enamel in the piece was created by applying various colors of powdered glass onto the glass rods you see in millefiori designs (that’s how those concentric circles in the eyes and on the body were made) and then firing the brooch until the powder fused into enamel. The technique used to make the owl so colorful is known as pit enamel because the surface of the enamel becomes uneven upon subsequent firings done to harden the enamel.

Roman enamel came in a variety of colors — orange, red, azure, dark blue, green, yellow, white, black — but it rarely survives in brilliant condition. Many enameled fibulae found today have seen their colors fade or change into a yellowish brown. The owl’s colors are still diverse and bright because it was preserved by archaeological layers topped by a thick clay sealing layer. Also, the area was not ploughed anytime in the recent past which saved the little owl from being churned up and potentially damaged by heavy equipment.

While enameled fibulae do not appear to have been very popular north of the Germanic border — Scandinavia had excellent artisans of its own, particularly metalworkers, and the fashion was to leave metal jewelry as is rather than putting lots of color on it — more of them have been found on the island of Bornholm than anywhere else in Scandinavia, about a dozen of them so far. This is the only owl fibula known to have been found in Scandinavia. They’re rare anyway, and the few that have been found were unearthed in German frontier forts or closer to the heart of the empire in what are today Belgium, France, Italy, Austria and Switzerland.

Somebody must have loved this colorful owl, perhaps appreciating its rare design or symbolic significance, enough to take it home. Archaeologists believe it was likely to have been brought to Bornholm by a mercenary returning from a stint in the Roman army rather than openly traded.

Owls have a keen sense of night vision, enabling these highly skilled silent hunters to catch their prey unawares. This notion of owls as intelligent and wise animals is one that has endured throughout the ages as famous companions to both Athena, the Greek Goddess of war, and later to Minerva, the Roman goddess of wisdom, art, trade, and war.

In fact, Minerva was often depicted with an owl on her shoulder as a symbol of wisdom, making it a highly desirable animal for a Roman soldier.

We do not know if the Germanic perception of the owl was the same as the Romans, but many of them would have been mercenaries in the Roman territories and developed a deep insight into the Roman mentality and culture. It is likely that they also adopted Roman traditions of symbolic jewellery.

The brooch must have been something quite special at the time, both because of its unusual shape and bright colours. It must have given the wearer a great level of prestige.

In Danish the word for owl fibula is uglefiblen which is, I think we can all agree, extremely adorable. The uglefiblen is now on display at the National Museum of Denmark along with other treasures discovered in 2014.

Sabre is oldest crucible steel weapon in Eastern Europe

Researches doing a routine examination of a sabre in the collection of the Yaroslavl Museum in the Russian city of Yaroslavl 160 miles northeast of Moscow have discovered that the blade is the oldest crucible steel weapon ever found in Eastern Europe. The bent and broken sabre was unearthed in 2007 in the shadow of the Dormition Cathedral in the historic center of Yaroslavl. Originally built in 1215, the cathedral suffered a great deal of damage during the Russian Revolution and was demolished by the Soviets in 1937. It was reconstructed starting in 2004 and completed in time to celebrate the 1000th anniversary of the founding of the city in 2010.

Dr. Asya Engovatova from the RAS Institute of Archaeology led an archaeological excavation of the area which in 2007 found a mass grave of defenders and civilians killed when Mongol invaders under Batu Khan sacked and burned Yaroslavl in 1238. The grave held the skeletal remains of men, women, children, common household goods and jewelry. The sabre, missing its hilt and fittings, was one of several weapons found in the mass grave. Swords from the 12th and 13th centuries are very rare finds in Russia, and most of the ones that have been unearthed were discovered in warrior graves in southern Russia. Finding one in the archaeological layers of a city is even greater a rarity.

In March of this year, the Yaroslavl Sabre underwent metallographic analysis at the RAS Institute of Archaeology to find out more about its composition and internal structure. The blade was examined under a scanning electron microscope and using X-ray microphotography.

The metallographic methods used in the analysis revealed that the sword was made from crucible steel. The technology used to produce steel of this kind was first perfected in India, in the 1[st century] A.D. Artifacts crafted from such steel later begin to turn up in Central Asia. European sword makers appear to have known nothing of this technology. The techniques for making crucible steel were later lost and European steel makers reinvented it only at the end of the 18th century.

In the Middle Ages and thereafter, crucible steel was very expensive. It produces bladed weapons more exactly than any other material, conferring a combination of great strength and the ability to maintain sharpness throughout the length of the blade.

The only native metal available for swords in early medieval Europe was bloomery iron which was made by heating iron ore and charcoal in a furnace. This created an end-product replete with slag inclusions and only occasionally absorbed enough carbon to form steel. Crucible steel was made by placing pieces of iron and charcoal in a crucible and heating it until they combined to form a steel ingot. The ingots were then forged into hard, sharp blades at low temperatures.

According to ancient weapons expert Alan Williams, the only European swords forged at least in part from crucible steel known from this period were made in Germany between the 8th and 9th centuries and inscribed “ULFBERHT” (or variants thereof) on the blade. About 100 ULFBERHT swords have been found, mainly in Scandinavia and along the Baltic coast. Only a handful of them have the high-steel content indicating Central Asian crucible steel may have been used in their forging, but the ULFBERHT smiths didn’t have the know-how to forge this material to its ideal strength.

The Yaroslavl Sabre, on the other hand, is made entirely of crucible steel by highly skilled smiths. It was likely made in one of the Central Asian steel production centers that had been conquered by the Mongols before they invaded Russia. It was almost certainly a Mongol weapon, and must have belonged to a very wealthy, high-ranking Mongol warrior. That might explain its ignominious fate. Analysis of the blade revealed micro-cracks with metal in them cause by long exposure to burning. It seems the blade was deliberately heated to a high temperature so it could be bent and then was thrown into the mass grave.

Bending the enemy’s expensive and lethal sword may have had a ritual purpose to it, although any hope that it might curse away the Mongol conquest would prove futile. Batu Khan, grandson of Genghis Khan and the ruler of the Golden Horde, the northwest section of the Mongol Empire, and his 35,000 mounted cavalry cut a deadly swath through the splintered Kievan Rus in the last month of 1237 and early months of 1238, razing almost every major city including Moscow, Vladimir, Rostov and Kiev. Only Novgorod and Pskov would be spared destruction.

The last organized resistance to the invasion was at the Battle of the Siti River on March 4th, 1238. The Russian forces were led by Grand Prince Yuri II of Vladimir, who had survived the levelling of his capital to raise an army. Fighting by his side were three of his nephews, one of whom was Prince Vsyevolod Konstantinovich, the first independent ruler of the Principality of Yaroslavl. The Russians were annhilated. Yuri and two of his nephews were killed on the battlefield. The third, Vasilko, Prince of Rostov, was taken prisoner and only lived long enough to call Mongol general Subutai “a dark kingdom of vileness” before Subutai had his throat slit. After that, all Russian states submitted to Mongol rule ushering in two centuries of Mongol domination of modern-day-Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus.

Conserving a boat made of cloves

British Museum organics conservator Verena Kotonski was tasked with a unique assignment last November: conserving a model boat made of cloves. The museum doesn’t know much about the boat’s history. They think it was made in Indonesia anywhere from 18th to the early 20th century, probably in the middle of that range. It entered the collection in 1972 but there are no records nothing how it made its way to the museum, who made it where and when, whether it was donated, purchased, etc. It’s such a rare and intriguing piece that despite the many questions attending its history the clove boat is the cover model for the British Museum’s Connecting continents: Indian Ocean trade and exchange exhibition which is on now and runs through May 31st.

The boat is slim and long with a central canopy and a raised openwork prow and stern. Rowers with long paddles stand on both sides, back and front, and the canopy is topped with a pennant. A drawing of the boat made when it first arrived at the British Museum indicate there was a second pennant at one point as well. The boat is made of dried cloves strung together on threads or threaded together with thin wooden pins. The hull is formed of layered strands of cloves tied together. Charmingly, even after at least a century and probably two it still smells like cloves. The conservator said as soon as she opened the crate she was overwhelmed by the scent of cloves.

The artifact has never been on display before because of its condition issues. Already in the 1970s there were detached pieces kept in a box with it, and by the time Kotonski received it there were 14 detached elements, plus evidence on the boat that there were more pieces missing. It was also veritably caked in dust which she had to clean painstakingly with a brush, a vacuum to suction off the dust and conservation-grade rubber to extract the more deeply embedded particles.

Once the boat was clean, the damaged areas needed to be fixed and detached pieces reattached. The thorniest issue was puzzling out where everything should go. Out of the 14 detached pieces — five torsos, one standing figure, two pairs of arms and paddles (these were made as one piece and then attached to torsos), one long paddle (possibly a rudder), one pennant without its pole, three round objects of indeterminate nature — the standing figure, two of the torsos and their matching arms and paddles could be immediately identified as fitting vacant spots on the boat.

Having reinstated the standing figure and two rowers, I was still left with three torsos and two drum shaped elements as well as the pennant. Although the Museum’s records, which include a rather vague historic drawing, hinted at the possibility that some figures could have been on top of the cabin including a second pennant, the exact location of figures and pennant remained difficult to establish.

A similar boat in the Kew Gardens Economic Botany Collection helped fill in some of the blanks. It has three figures on the roof of the canopy with round objects, most likely drums, in front of them. Kotonski examined the round objects under a microscope and was able to match the break edges of one of them to one of the torsos. It still wasn’t clear where the drummers and their drums were placed atop of the canopy. There are multiple holes allowing for any number of arrangements. The conservation team debated whether they should even reinstall the drummers without being certain about the original placement.

We decided in favour of installing the figures on the roof. We felt that the figures (drummers) are a key part of the object and therefore vital for the interpretation of this artefact. Furthermore, it is possible to install the figures securely without using any adhesive which means they can easily be removed and repositioned if further evidence on their original position should emerge. Knowing that the figures on the roof were meant to depict drummers certainly helped to find a sensible arrangement of the figures on the roof.

They made the opposite decision when it came to the long paddle, the pennant and one drum with an attached pole. In order to reattach these pieces to the model, they would have had to reconstruct significant missing parts. Since they couldn’t know their original positions nor what the lost parts looked like, the reconstruction and reattachment would have entailed more guesswork than they were comfortable with. The pieces were returned to the boat’s storage box.

They did reconstruct one piece: a teeny tiny little retaining collar that was important for the boat’s stability. These collars fit on top of posts on each corner of the canopy, keeping the roof from gradually inching upwards and coming off its poles. The replacement collar was made of Japanese tissue paper, one of the modern conservator’s best friends, to distinguish it from its clove-wrought brethren.

Because conservators are magical (and because the model is small), the entire process took just 34 hours. The boat is now on display, but conservation isn’t over yet. Verena Kotonski would like anyone with any information that might help them suss out the original positions of the detached pieces to email the team at