Archive for December, 2015

Tomb of Tutankhamun’s wet nurse, maybe sister, opens

Monday, December 21st, 2015

The tomb of Pharoah Tutankhamun’s wet nurse Maia was opened to journalists Sunday for the first time since it was discovered in 1996. It will be opened to the public next month. The rock-cut tomb is in the necropolis of Saqqara, about 13 miles south of Cairo, and was discovered by French archaeologist Alain Zivie in 1996.

The tomb consists of the cult chambers with three decorated rooms and the underground, mostly undecorated, burial chambers. The first room of the cult chapel of her tomb is dedicated to the life of Maia.

She was the wet nurse of the king, educator of the god’s body and the great one of the hareem. Nothing is known about her parents. Tutankhamun is depicted on one of the tomb’s reliefs featuring the boy king sitting on Maia’s lap and the king is mentioned several times in the tomb’s inscriptions.

There is also a badly damaged scene showing Maia in front of the king. The second room is dedicated to the burial rites associated with Maia. Maia is shown in front of offering bearers. She is depicted as a mummy in relation to the opening of the mouth ritual and she is standing before the underworld god Osiris.

This large and elaborately decorated tomb could be an indication that Maia was not just an important figure because she nourished the young king, but because she herself was a member of the royal family. Recently an ostracon was found in the tomb that titles Maia “Mistress of Women,” a significantly higher title than wet nurse, even when the nursee is a future pharaoh. Zivie believes the depictions of Maia on the reliefs share “the same chin, the eyes, the family traits” of Tutankhamun. The tomb of Akhenaten, Tutankhamun’s father, in Tel el-Amarna has a wall carving showing the burial of Maketaten, second daughter of Akhenaten and Nefertiti, which is attended by a woman breast-feeding a baby. She is identified as Meritaten, the eldest daughter of Akhenaten, and the baby’s she’s feeding may be Tutankhamun. If true, that would make Tutankhamun’s wet-nurse his sister or half-sister.

The necropolis was extensively reused starting in the 7th century B.C. as a cemetery for mummified animals. Between the 30th Dynasty (380-343 B.C.) and the Roman period, Saqqara was a major center of animal cult worship and networks of galleries were carved out of the rock of the plateau to house the mummified remains of huge numbers of cats, dogs, bulls, ibises, baboons and more. In 2011, archaeologists discovered an incredible eight million animal mummies, mostly dogs but some cats and mongooses as well, in a catacomb near the temple of Anubis just to the east of the Bubasteion.

The area where Maia’s tomb was found is known as the Bubasteion, identified in Papyrus documents from the Late Period as the sanctuary of the cat goddess Bastet. Unlike the massive dog catacomb which was dug in the Late Period, the Bubasteion recycled the New Kingdom rock-cut tombs. Alain Zivie, then part of the French Archaeological Mission of Saqqara (FAMS), now director and founder of the French Archaeological Mission of the Bubasteion (MAFB) which has been excavating the necropolis since 1986, was the first to recognize in 1976 that the rock-cut tombs were originally created not for animals, but for important courtiers and high-ranking officials of 18th and 19th Dynasty Egypt.

The MAFB team has cleared more than a dozen tombs that were filled with debris and sand and whose original walls were obscured by Ptolemaic-era walls and pillars erected to support the rock ceilings which by then were in danger of imminent collapse. The new walls and pillars added in the conversion of the tombs to cat mummy catacombs helped preserve the original wall decorations — reliefs and paintings — and even hid some of the original burial gifts behind them. Maia’s tomb was full to the ceiling with sand, rubble and Ptolemaic modifications, which is why it has taken close to 20 years to fully excavate, clean and shore up the structure to make it safe for visitors.


A look inside a crocodile mummy

Sunday, December 20th, 2015

The British Museum has performed a new study of a 2,500-year old crocodile mummy which is now on display for the first time in 75 years. Scanning Sobek: Mummy of the Crocodile God, is one of The Asahi Shimbun Displays, a series of short exhibitions that explore objects in a new light. In this case, visitors will get to see the crocodile itself and the new information about the creature’s life and death revealed in the study.

The mummy is a Nile crocodile that dates from 650 – 550 B.C. and is four meters (13 feet) long. It was mummified after death, dried in natron and then coated in beeswax and pitch before being wrapped in linen bandages. The mummy was a representation of the god Sobek, the crocodile-headed deity which symbolized the power of the pharaoh, fertility, military strength and protection from harm. Crocodiles, which lay as many as 80 eggs in one clutch and which ferociously protect their young, carrying hatchlings on their backs or even in their mouths, were seen as great generators and guardians, powers that took godly form in Sobek and the pharaoh. The British Museum mummy has more than 25 mummified hatchlings on its back, representing that combination of generative and protective power evinced by the Nile crocodile.

It was one of about 300 crocodile mummies discovered in the Per-Sobek temple in Kom Ombo, a site about 30 miles north of Aswan in southern Egypt, and in the neighboring animal necropolis of el-Shatb. The Kom Ombo temple was the largest and most important center of worship of Sobek in Egypt during the Ptolemaic and Roman eras. Built in the 2nd century by Ptolemy VI Philometor on the site of an earlier temple to Sobek by 18th Dynasty Pharaoh Thutmose III (r. 1479–1425 B.C.), the unique symmetrical double temple had two sections, the southern one dedicated to Sobek, the northern to falcon god Horus the Elder. The necropolis, with hundreds of crocodile graves cut into the hard rock, was in continuous use from the Middle Kingdom through the Greco-Roman period.

The temple bred sacred crocodiles, the mummified eggs and juveniles used as votive offerings to the god. Sacred crocodiles bred at the temple were treated with kid gloves, adorned with jewels and hand-fed. Worshipped as the incarnation of the god himself, they lived out their natural lives and were mummified after death. They were probably as tame as fearsome Nile crocodiles could get. In Book XVII of his Geography, Strabo describes priests feeding a sacred crocodile in Crocodilopolis, modern-day Faiyum, the largest center of cult worship for Sobek.

[T]here is a sacred one there which is kept and fed by itself in a lake, and is tame to the priests. It is called Suchus; and it is fed on grain and pieces of meat and on wine, which are always being fed to it by the foreigners who go to see it. At any rate, our host, one of the officials, who was introducing us into the mysteries there, went with us to the lake, carrying from the dinner a kind of cooky and some roasted meat and a pitcher of wine mixed with honey. We found the animal lying on the edge of the lake; and when the priests went up to it, some of them opened its mouth and another put in the cake, and again the meat, and then poured down the honey mixture. The animal then leaped into the lake and rushed across to the far side; but when another foreigner arrived, likewise carrying an offering of first-fruits, the priests took it, went around the lake in a run, took hold of the animal, and in the same manner fed it what had been brought.

The Kom Ombo temple was in ruins from Nile flooding, earthquakes and centuries of stone quarrying for building projects when it was cleaned, restored and rebuilt as much as possible by French engineer and archaeologist Jacques de Morgan in 1893, then acting Director of Egyptian Antiquities. A selection of the surviving crocodile mummies from Kom Ombo are on display in the new Crocodile Museum near the temple that opened in 2012. The British Museum’s crocodile mummy was discovered during Jacques de Morgan’s work on the site and donated to the museum in 1895.

The mummy was scanned at the Royal Veterinary College using high-resolution computer tomography. The scans were used to create a 3D model displaying the details of the crocodile’s insides and the contents of his stomach confirms at least part of Strabo’s account.

Not all organs were removed by the embalmers and the stomach contents – the remains of the crocodile’s last meal – are still present. The crocodile appears to have been fed select cuts of meat prior to death, including a cow’s shoulder bone and parts of a forelimb.

Exact replicas of these bones – 3D printed from the scan data – are displayed next to a four-metre CT scan visualisation of the crocodile. The bones were found inside the stomach along with numerous small irregular-shaped stones, which the crocodile swallowed for ballast and to assist digestion, as well as several unidentified small metal objects.


Hitler really did only have one ball

Saturday, December 19th, 2015

The popular World War II song deriding the testicular constitution of top Nazi officials appears to have hit at least one nail on the head: Hitler really did only have one ball. The song, believed to have been written by a clever propagandist for the British Council in 1939, sung to the tune of the Colonel Bogey March originally put Goering in the first line with the one ball, but soon the two switched places in the verses and the song became a runaway success as a marching song for Allied troops and among school children on bus trips ever since.

The new evidence comes from a recently surfaced medical certificate issued in 1924 by Dr. Josef Brinsteiner, the staff physician of Landsberg Prison in Bavaria where Hitler spent a few happy months after being convicted of treason. On the night of November 8th, 1923, Hitler, his Nazi Party cronies and 600 Sturmabteilung (SA) militia staged an armed takeover of a political rally in a Munich beer hall and attempted to overthrow the government of Bavaria with the overthrow of the Weimar government in Berlin as the ultimate target. Hitler was inspired by Mussolini’s 1922 March on Rome which had successfully installed Fascist rule in Italy, but the putsch was disorganized and came to a swift end when the Bavarian police fired on the marchers at the Munich Odeonsplatz on November 9th. Sixteen people, including four policemen, died.

Hitler was arrested on November 11th and tried three months later for high treason. He was convicted by sympathetic judges and sentenced to five years of the mildest type of imprisonment (no hard labour, long visiting hours, comfy cell) in Landsberg Prison, with the possibility of parole after six months. He was busted smuggling uncensored letters out of the prison, so his parole was slightly delayed. Hitler ended up serving 264 days of that sentence, a productive and apparently fun-filled nine months during which he dictated Mein Kampf to his fellow convict and future Deputy Führer Rudolf Hess.

The doctor’s report was part of a bundle of about 500 records from Landsberg Prison that were sold at auction on July 2nd, 2010, in Fürth, Bavaria. The seller’s father had acquired them in the 1970s at a flea market in Nuremberg. It seems they were stolen from Landsberg by the then-head of the prison in the 1960s. After his death, his estate was sold off at the flea market. There are no doubts as to documents’ authenticity.

They describe an imprisonment virtually indistinguishable from a vacation at a nice B&B with bars on the windows. Every time Hitler had a visitor, the prison kept a record of the visit on a card. There are 330 cards, which means Hitler had quite the busy social schedule for the 264 days he spent at Landsberg. His close friend and supporter Ernst Hanfstaengl (who was half American, btw, and eventually turned coat and informed on his former bestie to Roosevelt) described his visits to Hitler in Landsberg as looking like he had “walked into a delicatessen. There was fruit and there were flowers, wine and other alcoholic beverages, ham, sausage, cake, boxes of chocolates and much more.”

The estimate sale price for the Landsberg records was 25,000 euros ($27,000) but sale was blocked and the papers seized by the Bavarian government after they were quickly classified as nationally valuable archives. They’ve been in the State Archives in Munich ever since, and now Peter Fleischmann, the Head of the Nuremberg State Archives, has published an annotated edition of the papers after five years of study.

Dr. Brinsteiner examined prisoner No. 45 (Hitler, Adolf) on November 12th, 1923, the day after his arrest. He noted in the “Record book for protective custody” that Hitler suffered from “right-sided cryptorchidism,” meaning his right testicle had never descended. Other than that, he was “healthy, strong” and weighed 78 kilograms. There’s no reason to think the good doctor was lying as he, like much of the rest of the prison staff, was a nationalist and Nazi sympathizer.

Hitler’s testicles have been the subject of much speculation over the years. As early as 1943 Dr. Eduard Bloch, Hitler’s Jewish childhood physician who fled to America in 1940, was asked by the US military about the Führer nads. He assured them they were “completely normal.” In 1968, a Russian journalist published a book that included the report of an autopsy done on Hitler’s body by Soviet doctors in the bunker after the fall of Berlin. They claimed his left testicle had not only not descended, but was nowhere to be found up in there. That autopsy report had other errors, however, and the Soviets first insisted that Hitler had escaped with his life so the source is less than reliable.

In 2008, Polish priest and amateur historian Franciszek Pawlar claimed that he had heard from a German army medic that Hitler had lost a testicle from a shrapnel wound suffered at the Battle of the Somme. The Somme rumor had been floating around for years by then, one guy’s hearsay confirmation of it wasn’t exactly a slam dunk. The Landberg medical report, on the other hand, isn’t obscured by time, propaganda, mythology or gossip. It makes no comment on any resemblance to Himmler’s, the size of Goering’s and presence or absence of Goebbels’.


Site of first multi-year European settlement in the U.S. found

Friday, December 18th, 2015

Archaeologists from the University of West Florida have identified the site of the first multi-year settlement in the United States in Pensacola, Florida. The settlement of Santa Maria de Ochuse was established by Don Tristán de Luna y Arellano in August of 1559, six years before Pedro Menéndez founded the St. Augustine colony in and 48 years before the first permanent English colony was founded in Jamestown, Virginia. Luna set sail from Veracruz, Mexico, with 1,500 people — 550 Spanish soldiers, about 200 Aztecs, colonists and African slaves — in 11 ships. The would-be colony was devastated one month after its arrival by a hurricane that sank six ships carrying their much-needed supplies.

Without a significant Native American population in the area able or willing to provide them with food and with the next relief ship coming months later in December, the colonists had to eke out a meager existence as best they could. Documentary research suggests they moved inland to Alabama for six months only to return when what food they were able to accumulate was taken by local Native Americans, but archaeological evidence of the Luna expedition in Alabama has yet to be found. The colony was never able to thrive and only lasted two years. In 1561 the surviving colonists were picked up by Spanish ships and went back to Mexico.

Archaeologists are keeping mum on the exact location of the site to protect it from interference. All they’ll say is that it’s a downtown neighborhood within view of two Pensacola Bay shipwrecks thought to have been part of the Luna expedition. Local historian Tom Garner found the first evidence of the settlement — 16th century Spanish artifacts — on October 2nd of this year. He was driving through the neighborhood in an area that scholars have suspected for decades may have been the site of the Luna settlement when he noticed disturbed ground on a privately owned lot where a house had recently been bulldozed. He stopped to check the spot for any artifacts and immediately noticed a fragment from the rim of a Spanish colonial olive jar and several other pottery fragments. The style of the olive jar, known as middle style, was produced for a range of time including the mid-16th century. Garner alerted University of West Florida Archaeology Institute to his find and they contacted the property owners to arrange further exploration.

On October 23rd, Garner returned to the site and saw the jar rim was still there. He decided to collect all the artifacts he could find on the surface before they were damaged or removed. During this collection he found a fragment of Columbia Plain majolica pottery which cleanly dates to the mid-16th century. Again he alerted the UWF Archaeology Institute to the find and then returned to the site three times over the course of the next week. Garner’s surface collection returned dozens of artifacts, mostly pottery sherds, which he brought to the University of West Florida archaeology lab on October 30th.

The artifacts so impressed UWF archaeology professor Dr. John Worth that he and his team quickly arranged a formal excavation with the permission of property owners. They were given five days, November 6th through 10th, to excavate the half-acre plot before construction of a new house began. The team did 69 shovel tests of the site.

UWF archaeologists recovered numerous sherds of broken 16th century Spanish ceramics found undisturbed beneath the ground surface. They are believed to be pieces of assorted cookware and tableware, including liquid storage containers called olive jars. Small personal and household items were also among the findings – a lead fishing line weight, a copper lacing aglet and wrought iron nail and spike fragments. Additionally, the team recovered beads known to have been traded with Native Americans. These items are consistent with materials previously identified in the shipwrecks offshore in Pensacola Bay.

The discovery of the artifacts is additional evidence that the two Emanuel Point shipwrecks were in fact from Luna’s expedition, anchored offshore and destroyed in that devastating hurricane. The second shipwreck, discovered in 2006, is currently being excavated by UWF archaeologists.

“The shipwrecks have provided a tremendous insight into the nature of the machinery that brought Spain to the New World and how they operated this entire vast empire,” explained Worth. “In terms of understanding who they were after coming to the New World, this kind of archaeology at the terrestrial site will provide us that window.”

Archaeologists hope to continue to explore the neighborhood in the hopes of determining the full extent of the settlement. Its exact size is unknown. Worth believes it will cover multiple city blocks and since it’s in a residential neighborhood, further exploration relies on the permission and goodwill of the residents. UWF archaeologists had a meeting Wednesday with about 100 homeowners to explain the find and its historical significance. They were enthusiastically received and multiple residents have agreed to allow archaeologists access to their property.

If sufficient numbers grant the UWF team access, Worth plans to do a few small-scale investigations in the spring before settling in for a more extensive excavation during the university’s 10-week archaeological field school this summer. If all goes well, he hopes to return every summer for the forseeable future.


Tutankhamun’s restored gold mask back on display

Thursday, December 17th, 2015

The gold funerary mask of Tutankhamun has gone back on display at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo after two months of restoration to repair a botched reattachment of its false beard. The beard fell off last summer when the mask was returned to the display case after workers replaced a burned out light bulb. Anxious to get the mask back on display as quickly as possible, museum staff hastily reattached the beard with a sloppy thick application of epoxy that hardened into an unsightly layer.

When the news got out a few months later, at first museum officials denied any damage had happened before admitting that someone had blundered. They brought in a team of German and Egyptian restorers led by Christian Eckmann and secured a donation of 50,000 euros from the German Foreign Ministry to fund the restoration. After months of analysis and preparation, work began on the mask this October.

Researchers took the opportunity to study the mask thoroughly. It was 3D scanned and examined inside and out with a microscope in the hope that it might answer some questions about its composition, like what materials and techniques were used to put it together, and whether there is any evidence supporting the theory most recently proposed by British Egyptologist Nicholas Reeves that the mask was first made for Queen Nefertiti and then hastily modified for Tutankhamun after his unexpected death at age 19.

The biggest challenge was determining how best to remove the epoxy layer to liberate the false beard from its clumpy prison. Restorers wound up sticking with simple tools that would have been available to the original makers in 1,324 B.C.: wooden tools and heat. The adhesive was slightly warmed to soften it and then removed by careful scraping with the wooden sticks, spatulas and other tools which are soft enough they won’t scratch the gold. It took two weeks to remove the beard and another six to figure out how best to reattach it in a responsible, reversible way.

Egypt’s Antiquities Minister Mamdouh el-Damaty said the reattachment came after studies explored the best materials to use for the work.

“We indeed found them to be the natural materials which the ancient Egyptian used; they are still the best tools: beeswax,” el-Damaty told reporters in Cairo on Wednesday. “It was prepared well and the beard was attached very successfully.”

The false beard wasn’t really attached when Howard Carter discovered the tomb in 1922. It looked like it was in place, but the support had broken in antiquity so when Carter moved the mask it was in two pieces. The mask and beard were displayed separately until 1946 when for the first time he beard was glued in place. That wasn’t the only time glue was used. Restorers found multiple thin layers underneath the epoxy one. The restoration team will publish a full report of the analysis, study and restoration of the mask and beard.


6th century foot prosthesis found in Austria

Wednesday, December 16th, 2015

Archeologists from the Austrian Archaeological Institute (OAI) have discovered a rare foot and lower leg prosthesis dating to the 6th century A.D. at the archaeological site of Hemmaberg, near the village of Globasnitz, Carinthia, southern Austria. Several churches were built on the hill in the late Roman, early medieval period and was a popular center of pilgrimage. There are several burial grounds associated with the site, one of which is a small cemetery of 29 graves from the Frankish period between 536 and around 600 A.D. It was in this cemetery that the skeletal remains of an adult male between the age of 35 and 50 with a missing lower left leg was discovered in 2009.

He was buried with a scramasax and a pennanular brooch in a grave next to the northern wall of the church. The skeleton is in excellent condition, intact except for the missing left foot and bottom of the left tibia and fibula. Where the missing bones would have been archaeologists found a circular iron band just under three inches in diameter. Two small iron rivets closed the band and decayed remains of wooden slats inside the ring were fixed to the ring with four iron nails. The shortened ends of the left tibia and fibia have dark stains that may be all that’s left of whatever organic material, probably wood or leather, that connected the prosthesis to the leg. The wood remnants and the position of the band in the grave indicate the device may have been a wooden leg with the iron band on the bottom.

Osteological investigation revealed the man had major dental health issues, with cavities throughout his mouth, and he sustained a broken nose that healed before his death. Evidence of arthritis was found throughout this body, but particularly in his shoulders, hips, left knee and wrist, and spine. He also had rotator cuff disease in his left shoulder. The left foot and the ends of the left tibia and fibula were missing entirely, providing clear evidence of amputation, and small circular holes are likely an indication of infection of the remaining lower leg bones.

To try to determine how long the man survived following the amputation, Binder and her colleagues turned to the X-rays, as cut marks on bone can disappear as soon as two weeks after an amputation procedure. The X-rays showed significant changes in the bone density of the femur, tibia, and fibula on the left side of the body as compared to the non-amputated right side. But osteoarthritis in the left knee suggests the man was indeed still using his left leg following the amputation, with the assistance of a prosthesis.

Because he was buried near the church — of the 29 burials, his was the closest to the church wall — he must have been a high status individual. That status is confirmed by the grave goods, which while not uncommon in Germanic burials from late antiquity, are unique among the Hemmaberg burials. His right and left hip joints show tell-tale signs of regular horseback riding. The muscle attachment sites of hip and knee and the osteoarthritis of the spine also indicate the man spent a lot of time riding horses. He also has a healed injury on his right tibia — a huge hematoma — that was likely caused by blunt trauma. Wounds of this kind are commonly found when men on horseback are attacked by men on foot.

The oldest known surviving example of a prosthetic device is a wood and leather big toe replacement found in Thebes on the mummy of Tabaketenmut It dates to around 1065–710 B.C. and shows signs of wear so we know Tabaketenmut walked on it in life; it wasn’t added by the embalmers after death.

There’s textual evidence of prosthetics in antiquity. Herodotus (484–425 B.C.) tells the story in Book Nine of the Histories of Hegesistratus who cuts off half his foot to escape imprisonment and fashions “a foot of wood” to wear after he heals. Legendary or not (probably the former), the story indicates prosthetics were known in 5th century Greece. Pliny’s Natural History (Book 7, Chapter 29) recounts the exploits of 3rd century B.C. Roman general Marcus Sergius, hero of the Second Punic War, who fought through a great many grievous wounds, including the loss of his right hand which deterred him not one bit. “He had a right hand made of iron, and attached to the stump, after which he fought a battle, and raised the siege of Cremona, defended Placentia, and took twelve of the enemy’s camps in Gaul.”

Archaeological evidence from classical antiquity, however, is very thin on the ground. In the 19th century, a prosthetic lower leg made of a wooden core covered in sheets of bronze was unearthed from a Roman burial in Capua dating to around 300 B.C. Unfortunately it no longer exists — it was bought by the Royal College of Surgeons in London and destroyed in the Blitz in 1941 — and any human remains found with it were not recorded so there’s no evidence of wear on the leg or stress on the bones that can confirm it was a functional prosthetic limb rather than a post-mortem addition for aesthetic purposes.

Only three other archaeological prosthetics are known until the 16th century: a leather and wood foot found in a 5-7th century A.D. burial in Switzerland (probably not used in life), a bronze foot found in a 7th-8th century burial in Germany of limited use at best, and the iron and wood prosthetic from the 6th century found in Hemmaberg. That’s why it’s such a significant find, because surviving ancient prosthetic are so rare and skeletal remains that can tell us something about how the person who wore the device and how it was used are rarer still.


Centenarian ham and peanut 3D scanned

Tuesday, December 15th, 2015

A 112-year-old ham and 125-year old peanut in the collection of the the Isle of Wight Museum in Smithfield, Virginia, have been 3D scanned by Virginia Commonwealth University anthropology professor Dr. Bernard Means. Means specializes in scanning archaeological artifacts and recreating them with 3D printing for use in the classroom and to give the public something they can touch and explore while learning about the ancient objects. The result is the Virtual Curation Laboratory, a collection of more than 600 3D printed artifacts scanned from originals at Jamestown Rediscovery, Mount Vernon, Montpelier, the State Museum of Pennsylvania, the Virginia Museum of Natural History and many other institutions. Its primary focus is on Native American artifacts, but when the Isle of Wight Museum asked Dr. Means to scan their ham and peanut, he was glad to oblige.

“The ham and the peanut are clearly important to the people of Isle of Wight County, and Virginia as well, and the lab is pleased to help them tell the story,” Means said. “But, I can also use the ham scan and peanut scan to teach my students at VCU.”

In the spring semester, Means and his students will be working on a series of exhibits, and the ham and peanut scans will likely be featured among a larger presentation of the human use of animals and plants. Some of these items, he said, will go on display at the VCU Globe building in the spring.

Officials with the Isle of Wight County Museum may also talk with Means’ students remotely about their museum and why the ham and peanut are important cultural artifacts.

The ham is the crown jewel in the Isle of Wight Museum collection and has achieved national fame in the years since it was first cured and hung from a rafter in one of P.D. Gwaltney Jr.’s packing houses in 1902. P.D. Gwaltney, Jr., founded the pork processing company with his father P.D. Gwaltney, Sr., in 1880 and soon Gwaltney hams became a household name. Junior was instrumental in the passage of the 1926 act of the Virginia General Assembly which defined Smithfield hams as a product raised only in specific parts of Virginia and North Carolina and makes imposter hams liable to fines.

That one 1902 ham was overlooked as the company expanded and became increasingly successful. When it was finally rediscovered in 1922, P.D. Gwaltney, Jr., adopted it as a company mascot and pet. By 1924 Gwaltney had it in an iron safe which he opened daily to show off his prize superannuated ham to visitors and guests. He then had a brass collar inscribed “Gwaltney’s Pet Ham” and a leash made for the ham and took it on the road to conventions and county fairs an example of how effective and safe the Gwaltney curing process was. He insured it against fire and theft for $1,000, upping it to $5,000 in 1932. The ham has been featured in Ripley’s “Believe It or Not” cartoon three times — in 1929, 1932 and 2003 — and gets yearly birthday parties where “Hammy Birthday” is sung by an adoring populace. The museum also has a webcam appropriately named HamCam pointed at Gwaltney’s pet for those who can’t get their ancient ham fix in person.

The Isle of Wight Museum’s greatest star is billed as the world’s oldest cured ham (there’s a Chicago ham 10 years older than the Gwaltney ham hanging in a butcher’s shop window in Oxford, England) and is reputedly still edible. Edible and delectable are not synonymous, obviously. The fat in dry cured meat oxidizes before its tenth birthday taking much of the flavor with it. Then as it diffuses throughout the ham, it gives it a rancid odor and taste. Eventually it gets rock hard and darkens. The oldest commercially available hams are aged for eight years.

Still, theoretically if you discarded enough of the outer layers, there would be a ham nugget in there that could be ingested by humans without killing them, ie, it’s edible. Dr. Means noted that the ham has “a powerful scent that I cannot describe,” which I’m guessing was more on the powerful stench side of the scale than the powerful delicious side.

As for the peanut, it can’t compete with the ham for fame, but it’s older and is tied both to the Smithfield ham tradition and to the Gwaltney family’s personal history. Before getting into the pork business, P.D. Gwaltney, Sr., had been in the peanut business in Tidewater, Virginia. He built the first industrial peanut cleaning plants and was known as the Peanut King before Amedeo Obici took the crown with his Planters Peanut Company in the early 20th century. Processing peanuts and processing hams were connected businesses at the time. In fact, when the 1926 act was passed, one of the definitions of a Smithfield ham was that the hogs were peanut-fed. This requirement was eliminated in 1966.

The Isle of Wight Museum plans to add the 3D scans to its website, giving viewers a different view of the famed pork product than what they can see through the HamCam. It may even use the scans to create a 3D printed ham for visitors to interact with since the original is kept under glass for preservation purposes.


Update: listen to the Tintignac Carnyx

Monday, December 14th, 2015

In 2004, archaeologists discovered a hoard of ritually destroyed weapons — a dozen swords, scabbards, spearheads, a shield, bronze helmets, an iron helmet shaped like a swan — a cauldron, animal remains and seven carnyces. Before then, the remains of only five examples of the Celtic man-sized wind musical instrument that was widely used as ceremonial and highly intimidating war trumpets in the two centuries before and after Christ were known to survive. The most complete of them was the Deskford Carnyx, discovered on a farm in Deskford, Banffshire, Scotland in 1816, and it was only the bell (the part at the top that the sound comes out of) shaped like a boar’s head. The tube and mouthpiece were long gone.

One of the seven found at Tintignac, on the other hand, was almost entirely complete. The Tintignac Carnyx was broken into 40 pieces. When puzzled back together, it was found to be just an inch short of six feet long with a single missing section of the tube. The bell was a boar’s head with protruding tusks and large pointed ears. Once restored, the Tintignac Carnyx proved to be the first virtually complete carnyx ever found.

While the restored carnyx went on display in various museum exhibits, archaeologists, musicologists and instrument makers worked together to create an exact playable replica. A replica of the Deskford Carnyx has been played by trombonist and carnyx expert John Kenny since the 1990s, but every part of it except for the intricate head had to be created from scratch with the help of ancient sources and artworks like the Gundestrup Cauldron (2nd-1st century B.C.). The completeness of the Tintignac Carnyx gave researchers the unique opportunity to study almost the entire instrument from mouthpiece to bell.

When I first wrote about this more than three years ago, acoustics experts had determined that adding a 10 centimeter length of tube could make a significant difference in the resonance frequencies which determine the range of playable notes. At that time they were working on graduating from mathematical models to replica construction. There was a working replica by 2012. Here’s a brief video of it being played outdoors as vertical as John Kenny with his head tilted all the way back can hold it.

That’s the way the men on the Gundestrup Cauldron play their carnyces, and that’s how the replica of the Deskford Carnyx is played, but the researchers working on the Tintignac replica realized the vertical posture didn’t quite fit its engineering.

The lower parts of the Deskford Carnyx were modelled upon the images of the Gundestrup Cauldron, where we see three men playing the instrument vertically. The structure of the Deskford head makes this interpretation logical – but the Tintignac Carnyx is clearly a different beast. The lower tubes are completely straight, terminating in a fixed, integral mouthpiece. This makes it virtually impossible to play vertically, thus although its head looks like the Gundestrup instruments, it must have been played at an angle closer to horizontal. The magnificent head of the Tintignac features gaping jaws and huge, delicate ears – and yet the structure is far less complex than the Deskford head, with its hinged jaw, sprung tongue, soft palette and brain cavity.

An extremely fine replica of the Tintignac Carnyx made of hand-hammered bronze made by artisan Jean Boisserie debuted in November 2014 in the church of Naves, the town next to where the original carnyx was discovered. John Kenny played the Tintignac replica and the Deskford replica before a rapt crowd in the picturesque 14th century church.

This French language news story (turn on CC and click on the settings icon to set it to auto-translate; the captions come out crazy, of course, but most of them convey the general meaning) shows the replica visiting the field where the original was excavated and includes short clips of John Kenny playing both Tintignac and Deskford. At around the :56 mark you can see the Tintignac carnyx played in its close to horizontal position. There are also views of Jean Boisserie hammering bronze in his workshop and talking about how refined Gallic bronzework was in the 2nd and 1st centuries B.C.


The European Music Archaeology Project (EMAP) in association with the University of Huddersfield will be bringing these ancient sounds to life in a £3.5 million ($5.3 million) ancient music research project which will release a series of new recordings on Delphian Records. The carnyces will get their own record, as will the earliest known Scottish bagpipe music, prehistoric bone flutes, ancient Scandinavian instruments, Etruscan litus and cornu (recreated from tomb reliefs) and more.

You don’t have to wait to hear the sweet blasts of the Tintignac Carnyx, though. Here are three short audio recordings of John Kenny on Boisserie’s beautiful bronze carnyx.


Lost Caravaggio Nativity recreated

Sunday, December 13th, 2015

On the night of the 17th or early morning of the 18th of October, 1969, one or two men broke into the Oratory of San Lorenzo in Palermo, Sicily, and stole the Nativity with St. Francis and St. Lawrence by Baroque master Michelangelo Merisi, better known as Caravaggio. They cut the monumental painting (9.7 by 6.5 feet) out of the frame and made off with it into the night. It was never seen again.

Over the years various stories have emerged attending its fate, none of them good. Mafia turncoats have proffered up a profusion of tales. One claimed it was hanging in the secret location where the Cosa Nostra leaders, known as the Commissione or Cupola, meet to make decisions and adjudicate disputes. Another testified in the 1996 trial of former prime minister Giulio Andreotti (who was accused of being mob connected) that he was one of the thieves who stole the Nativity on commission. He and his colleague had done such a bad job of cutting out and roughly folding the painting that the man who commissioned the theft wept when he saw the work and refused to accept it.

Another witness said the painting had been stolen by local amateurs who had seen a TV show about it and knew it was basically unguarded. They got in trouble with the Mafia for pulling such a heist on their turf without permission, so they had to hand it over. It then passed through the hands of a couple of other Mafiosi before ending up with murderer and heroin trafficker Gerlando Alberti who tried to sell it for a dozen years without success. When he was about to be arrested for yet another murder, he rolled the painting in a rug and put it in an iron chest with five kilos of heroin and several million dollars. When the cops went to the location where the chest had ostensibly been buried, it was gone.

Most recently in 2009 former hitman Gaspare Spatuzza testified that his boss had told him the Nativity was given to the Pullara family for safekeeping. They hid it in a farm outbuilding where it was eaten by rats and pigs and the remnants were burned.

As all these stories proliferate but lead nowhere, the small chapel adorned with white stucco sculptures in the Oratory of San Lorenzo where Caravaggio’s Nativity once towered over the altar was left bereft. A four-by-five inch color photograph taken by Enzo Brai in 1968 was blown up and inserted into the frame, but even a nice picture by a professional photographer can’t even begin to convey the greatness of the original when blown up to such a large size.

In December of 2014, Factum Arte got involved. The Madrid-based company is an innovator in using digital technology to create high quality reproductions of art. They made the exact 3D replica of King Tut’s tomb which opened last year at the Valley of the Kings, and that exceptional virtual tour through Piranesi’s fantasy prisons.

Factum Arte also made a frankly mind-boggling facsimile of Veronese’s gigantic 22-by-33-foot Wedding at Cana for the Palladio Refectory on the island of San Giorgio Maggiore in Venice. The original was made specifically for that space and hung there for 235 years before it was looted by Napoleon’s troops. It is now in the Louvre and they ain’t coughing it up any time soon, so in 2006 they agreed to let Factum Arte scan the original to make an accurate facsimile for the Refectory. It was a smashing success.

The quality and beauty of the Cana facsimile sparked the idea of creating a better stand-in for the missing Nativity. Early this year Factum Arte began creating a rematerialization of the Caravaggio’s painting using Brai’s photograph and some very detailed black-and-white glass-plate negatives taken by conservators who worked on the Nativity in 1951. To say it was a complicated process is a significant understatement.

The experts used sophisticated, 52 mega-pixel cameras and purpose-built digital printers to make copies of the images, steadily building them up into a composite image that was as faithful to Caravaggio’s original canvas as technically possible. They painted in details in a style that was true to Caravaggio’s famous “chiaroscuro” technique of depicting light and shade. They were even able to replicate the original brushstrokes left by the Renaissance painter.

“We worked by hand to decipher and interpret areas where the photographic information was not sufficient,” said [artist Adam] Lowe, who did the painting along with a colleague.

“It was a constant process, moving between the digital realm and the physical realm. We created multiple layers to build up the densities of tone and colour. We took photographs about the size of a postcard and then stitched them together digitally,” said Mr Lowe, who founded Factum Arte, a multidisciplinary workshop aimed at art conservation, in 2000.

Factum Arte was fortunate to have precious data on Caravaggio’s brushstrokes and pigments. In September and October of 2009, they took detailed high resolution photographs of the three Caravaggio paintings in the church of San Luigi dei Francesi in Rome to make facsimiles for the artist’s hometown of Caravaggio. For more details about how they made the magic happen, read this pdf from Factum Arte’s website.

They printed the finished file as an ultra high resolution digital print on canvas prepped with gesso. Once in Palermo, the painting was stretched and hung in the frame that once held the original. It was unveiled Saturday with much fanfare and emotion for the return in any form of one of Palermo’s most beloved treasures. The President of Italy, Palermo native Sergio Mattarella, presided over the ceremonies.

The work is funded by Sky Arte TV and Ballandi Multimedia who have made a documentary about the theft and the creation of the facsimile which is set to debut in January in Europe. No word on streaming services or US distribution.


Caesar fought here? 1st c. B.C. battlefield found in Kessel

Saturday, December 12th, 2015

Archaeologists from the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam (VU) have discovered what they believe to be the site of a bloody battle fought by Julius Caesar against the Tencteri and Usipetes tribes in 55 B.C. The site is at the confluence of the Maas (Meuse) and Waal rivers about 75 miles inland near modern-day Kessel, in the southern Netherlands province of Brabant. It’s the earliest known battlefield discovered in the Netherlands.

Archaeological remains are rich in the area, unearthed for decades by amateurs and now collected at Amsterdam’s Allard Pierson Museum. The discoveries strongly suggested a significant violent event took place there in antiquity. Between 1975 and 1995 many late Iron Age weapons and artifacts were found there during dredging operations on the Kessel side of the Waal — 20 iron swords, spearheads, a cavalry helmet of Gallic origin that is the oldest ever found in the Netherlands, Germanic belt buckles, cloak brooches — as well bones from more than 100 individuals. The weapons and artifacts stylistically date the 1st century B.C., but only recently has radiocarbon analysis of the skeletal remains confirmed they date to the same Late Iron Age period. Osteological analysis of the bones show clear and copious sings of cutting injuries caused by swords and penetrating wounds caused by spears.

Stable isotope analysis of the tooth enamel from three individuals unearthed at the site confirm that they were not native the Meuse-Waal area but came from elsewhere. The Tencteri and Usipetes weren’t locals; they were Germanic tribes on the move, pressured by the Suevi people encroaching on their home territories to cross the Rhine and migrate west. The isotope analysis is ongoing and additional tests should reveal with more precision where they spent their childhoods.

The Kessel skeletal remains are mainly of men, but there are also women and children among them, all of whom died at the same time in what archaeologists believe was a single violent event rather than a series of events when the dead were buried in the same place. It seems there was a battle followed by a massacre after which the bodies of the dead were thrown in the Maas riverbed, as were their weapons. Some of the swords were found to have been deliberately folded or bent, a common ritual practice symbolizing the destruction of the object before burial.

Caesar wrote about a battle that fits this bill in Book IV De Bello Gallico.

The following winter (this was the year in which Cn. Pompey and M. Crassus were consuls [55 B.C.]), those Germans [called] the Usipetes, and likewise the Tenchtheri, with a great number of men, crossed the Rhine, not far from the place at which that river discharges itself into the sea. The motive for crossing [that river] was, that having been for several years harassed by the Suevi, they were constantly engaged in war, and hindered from the pursuits of agriculture.

The Usipetes and Tencteri in turn drove the Belgic Menapii tribe from their homes by tricking them into thicking they were leaving only to double back and catch the Menapii unawares. The Germanic tribes killed the Menapii, seized their ships and used them to cross the Rhine (possibly the Waal which is a distributary of the Rhine) where they wintered comfortably on Menapii supplies.

Caesar heard of this and became concerned that the movement west of the Usipetes and Tencteri would get the Gauls all het up. Indeed, his scouts discovered that Gallic peoples were already beginning to deal with the Germans, appeasing them with money and valuables and drawing them further into Gaul itself. The Usipetes and Tencteri attempted to negotiate with Caesar, offering their fighting skills in exchange for being allowed to keep the lands they’d just taken, for new lands or for support against the Suevi who were driving them from their homeland.

Caesar wasn’t keen but agreed to a temporary truce while they worked out a possible resettlement option. The Germans panicked at the sight of Roman cavalry and attacked anyway. Caesar, now considering the truce ended by their treachery, put his game face on.

Having marshalled his army in three lines, and in a short time performed a march of eight miles, he arrived at the camp of the enemy before the Germans could perceive what was going on; who being suddenly alarmed by all the circumstances, both by the speediness of our arrival and the absence of their own officers, as time was afforded neither for concerting measures nor for seizing their arms, are perplexed as to whether it would be better to lead out their forces against the enemy, or to defend their camp, or seek their safety by flight. Their consternation being made apparent by their noise and tumult, our soldiers, excited by the treachery of the preceding day, rushed into the camp: such of them as could readily get their arms, for a short time withstood our men, and gave battle among their carts and baggage wagons; but the rest of the people, [consisting] of boys and women (for they had left their country and crossed the Rhine with all their families) began to fly in all directions; in pursuit of whom Caesar sent the cavalry.

The Germans when, upon hearing a noise behind them, [they looked and] saw that their families were being slain, throwing away their arms and abandoning their standards, fled out of the camp, and when they had arrived at the confluence of the Meuse and the Rhine, the survivors despairing of further escape, as a great number of their countrymen had been killed, threw themselves into the river and there perished, overcome by fear, fatigue, and the violence of the stream. Our soldiers, after the alarm of so great a war, for the number of the enemy amounted to 430,000, returned to their camp, all safe to a man, very few being even wounded.

Caesar’s numbers are exaggerated. Archaeologists believe the real number of Tencteri and Usipetes was somewhere between 150,000 and 200,000 and he couldn’t have killed them all. Plutarch says that there were survivors who were taken in by the German Sugambri tribe, much to Caesar’s irritation.

So, is the Kessel battlefield the one Caesar describes in De Bello Gallico? The evidence of a battle having taken place there between Gauls or Romans and Germans in the 1st century B.C. is strong. Whether it’s the specific battle described by Caesar, that’s more challenging to determine. I think they’re relying a little heavily on the presence of slaughtered civilians matching Caesar’s description of the battle’s aftermath. It seems to me you’d need coins, legion references or maybe remains of the camps to narrow down the time and combatants more precisely before you can comfortably claim, as the VU press materials do, that this is the “first time that the presence of Caesar and his troops on Dutch soil has been explicitly shown.”

The finds are currently on display in the Allard Pierson Museum and will be exhibited at least through next month.





December 2015


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