Archive for August, 2017

400 Viking, Iron Age artifacts stolen from Bergen museum

Monday, August 21st, 2017

At least 400 Viking and Iron Age artifacts were stolen from the University Museum in Bergen, Norway, during the weekend of August 11-1. The burglars climbed scaffolding on the exterior of the museum’s building (currently undergoing renovation) and broke in through a 7th floor window. They ransacked the rooms where the objects were being kept in cabinets and on shelves, making off with hundreds of pieces.

Two alarms rang on the evening of Saturday, August 12th. Security guards investigated the building, but reported nothing untoward, which does not speak highly of their competence given the 7th floor was left in a total shambles by the burglars. The theft was discovered on Monday by museum staff.

The museum acknowledges that the artifacts were insufficiently secured. In a painful irony, they were scheduled to be moved to a more secure location on August 14th, that same Monday when the theft was discovered.

Conservators are still tallying up the stolen artifacts. Most of the more than 400 that have been identified so far date to the Iron Age (500 B.C.-1030 A.D.) and the Viking period (800-1030 A.D.). They are small, portable objects, primarily jewelry of negligible monetary value, nor is there any particular value in the metals they’re composed of. It’s their historical value that matters, and the thieves are unlikely to be able to cash in on that.

To the museum, however, the loss is devastating.

“For us as a museum it is to take care of the cultural heritage our most important task. We have not met our requirements. It is incomprehensible and no explanations are good enough. The items that are gone do not have so much economic value, but very high historical value. We can now only hope that the lost is coming back and we can work purposefully to prevent the like from happening again. But I feel heavy,” says the museum director [Henrik von Achen].

All safety systems have been reviewed, the scaffolding and building secured, but closing the barn door after the horses have fled is little consolation to the museum staff. Many of the objects were going to be on display in an upcoming Viking exhibition scheduled for later this year. Unless the artifacts are recovered quickly, the exhibition will probably have to be postponed, perhaps indefinitely.

Norwegian police are actively investigating the theft, working with their counterparts in other countries in the hope of catching the thieves in the attempt to smuggle or sell the artifacts. The University Museum staff aren’t sitting on their hands waiting for the police to solve the crime. They are enlisting the power of social media to get the word out. As conservators work to inventory the stolen objects, images of the artifacts are being uploaded to a dedicated Facebook page. The museum asks that the photo album be shared as widely as possible and that people keep their eyes peeled for any pieces that might crop up on auction and sale sites that don’t monitor whether sellers have legitimate title to the items being sold. The more widely seen the artifacts are, the harder it will be for the thieves to unload them under the radar.


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The 1st photographs of a total solar eclipse

Sunday, August 20th, 2017

It’s been far too long since I indulged in a theme post. As total eclipse of the sun mania has struck the US, I’m jumping on the bandwagon too. The subject covers three of my favorite obsessions: the history of photography, the history of astronomy and historical firsts, all accompanied by that greatest of all obsessions, great high-resolution pictures.

William and Frederick Langenheim were born in Schöningen, Germany in 1807 and 1809 respectively. The were from a prominent family — their father Friedrich Wilhelm was mayor of Schöningen from 1808 until 1813 — but left what was then the Duchy of Brunswick in the 1830s. They immigrated to the United States and carved out careers as journalists. By 1842, they had opened a photography studio in Philadelphia.

The Langenheim daguerreotype studio quickly rose to preeminence in the city, thanks to the brothers’ great talent, inventiveness and embrace of new technology. In 1850 they debuted a new projectable photographic slides they called Hyalotypes. The device used to project them was a better-mousetrap version of the magic lantern which projected small drawn or painted images onto large screens. The stereopticon, as the Langenheim’s device became known, was a huge leap forward because it projected photographic images, not drawings, and because daguerreotypes capture even the most minute detail that cannot be seen with the naked eye, they could be magnified onto a screen at enormous dimensions, large enough that an auditorium of thousands could see spectacular images of, say, Niagara Falls or St. Peter’s Basilica without loss of resolution.

The brothers’ stereopticon had another feature that would prove momentous: a twin lense system that allowed the images to be faded one into the other, a smooth transition that far outshone the magic lantern’s choppy switch-overs. When they conceived of showing slides in an orderly progression, one dissolving into the other in a chronologically rational sequence, they unwittingly introduced the forerunner to the moving picture. The Langenheims charged people a dime to see pictures of natural, historical, architectural, artistic and scientific wonders projected on the big screen and the device was a huge hit.

A perfect subject for the stereopticon appeared in the skies over North America on May 26th, 1854. It was a total eclipse of the sun, the first one in the US since Louis Daguerre announced his new image-fixing process in 1839. The Langenheim brothers took eight daguerreotypes of the eclipse as it progressed. Only seven of them have survived. They are now in the permanent collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Although six other daguerreotypists and one calotypist are known to have documented the event, only these seven daguerreotypes survive. In the northern hemisphere, the moon always shadows the sun from right to left during a solar eclipse; these images therefore seem odd because they are, like all uncorrected daguerreotypes, reversed laterally as in a mirror.

It is noteworthy that these daguerreotypes are quite small, three exceptionally so. In order to produce any kind of image at all, the Langenheims were forced to use the smallest cameras available, since smaller cameras require proportionally less light and there was virtually no available light when the disk of the new moon eclipsed the largest part of the sun. The missing eighth image was probably made on the smaller plate size and showed nothing at all-a total eclipse.

As for our eclipse, now so easily captured by terrestrial and satellite technology, the National Archives in Washington, D.C. is going all out. They have secured safe solar telescopes from the National Air and Space Museum and will make them available to the public between 1:00 and 4:00PM so people can watch the eclipse up close and in total security. They’ve also created an exhibition, Solar Eclipses: Past and Present, from their pictures and records of other eclipses.

For all you eclipse watchers out there, don’t forget your protective eyewear. If you don’t have the opportunity to view the eclipse in person, you can follow its whole extraordinary path on NASA’s website.

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Dutch shipwreck yields more treasures

Saturday, August 19th, 2017

Divers exploring the wreck of the Rooswijk, an 18th century Dutch ship off the coast of Kent, England, have discovered a sealed seaman’s chest whose contents are unknown but could be actual treasure. The largest of several chests recovered from the wreck, it is about one meter long and could contain objects like sabre blades (known to have been on board) that need a long container. Or, like other chests previously recovered from the wreck, it could contain silver ingots and coins, a conventional treasure as well as a historical one.

Of course, any contents at all would be archaeologically precious, but archaeologists dare not open it for risk of damaging the chest and/or its contents.

It may never be possible, or even desirable, to open the mystery chest. Conventional x-rays often don’t reveal much of heavily concreted objects. Angela Middleton, a conservation expert at Historic England, hopes to persuade the customs authorities to bring along one of the scanners they use at the port to check for people and goods hidden in lorries, and see if it shows up anything.

“We might find out it is impossible to open the chest without destroying it. Or we might find out what is in it and decide it’s just not worth even trying to open it,” she said.

The Rooswijk, a three-masted Dutch East India (VOC) trading ship, had just set off from Amsterdam on its way to Jakarta with a hold full of silver bullion and coins to buy spices when it was blown off course in a storm and sank on the treacherous Goodwin Sands off Kent in January of 1740. Known as the Ship Swallower, the Goodwin devoured the Rooswijk and all 250 crew and passengers on board.

The ship was so heavily laden it went down in a flash. British newspapers reported on the wreck of a Dutch merchant ship in the storm. Letters and debris washed ashore. It’s not clear whether the VOC was made immediately aware of these reports. The voyage to Jakarta was so long Dutch East India officials wouldn’t have had reason to worry until after the ship failed to reach its scheduled stop at the Cape of Good Hope, months after its departure and sinking.

Whatever was left of the Rooswijk and its very heavy, very valuable cargo was covered over by the Goodwin Sands and its location remained a mystery for centuries. After years of documentary research and a magnetometer survey, a diver found the wreck and in 2005, a team of underwater archaeologists explored it. They recovered more than 1,000 artifacts, including musket parts, knives, sword blades, hilts and scabbards, pewter dinnerware, silver coins, more than 500 four-pound silver ingots. Because the wreck is owned by the Dutch government by virtue of its having absorbed the Dutch East India Company in 1798, the artifacts recovered from the wreck are property of the Netherlands and were returned to it. Some of them are now on display at the Maritime Museum in Vlissingen.

Because of its historical importance and rarity — just a third of the 250 known VOC wrecks have ever been found and the Rooswijk is the only one of them to be scientifically investigated — in 2007 the site was designated a protected wreck. The designation made any unauthorized interference with it a crime. Still, the location was kept under wraps to discourage treasure hunters from trying their luck.

Last year, the Cultural Heritage Agency of the Netherlands and Historic England launched a new excavation of the Rooswijk. There was an urgent need to survey the site because changing tides had drastically shifted the deep silt layers, exposing timbers that have long been shielded under the sediments. This not only triggered precipitous decay, but it made it more likely that looters might find the ship.

Working with the divers who first explored the wreck in 2005, archaeologists have recovered pewter tankards and spoons, glass brandy bottles, elaborately carved knife handles, shoes, wine glasses with twist stems, an onion jar, cooking tiles, Mexican silver dollars and cut up pieces of eight. All of the artifacts have been taken to a huge warehouse in Ramsgate to be recorded and receive any emergency treatment they require. They will then be moved to a Historic England facility for further conservation before being returned to the Netherlands.

There will be an open day at the Ramsgate warehouse on September 16th to give the public what may be their only chance and seeing some of these finds before they leave the country.

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Five centuries of history unearthed in Roman villa

Friday, August 18th, 2017

An international team of archaeologists, students and volunteers excavating the Roman villa of Durreueli at Realmonte in Sicily have unearthed evidence of habitation and usage from a much broader period than previously realized.

Through a month of excavations, they determined the villa was consistently occupied between the 2nd and 7th century CE and reconfigured to settlement in the 5th century Common Era (CE). That conclusion comes following the discovery of new walls, floor levels, staircase and water channel.

The team found cookware and lamps along with a large quantity of African Late Roman pottery and related materials such as kiln spacers. This leads researchers to believe an important function of the village was to produce pottery, bricks and tiles in industrial scale, helping explain the economic history of Late Antique Sicily.

One of Sicily’s largest Roman villas covering 5,000 square meters (54,000 square feet) in area, the Durreueli remains were first discovered in the early 1900s during railroad construction. They weren’t professionally excavated until 1979 when a team of Japanese archaeologists explored the site for six years. They unearthed important parts of the villa, including its baths and exceptional mosaics dedicated to the deities of the sea the structure so dramatically overlooks, but nowhere near the wide range of dates that the current excavation has encountered.

After Japanese excavation ended in 1985, the site was closed the public and all but ignored, even though it is just a hop, skip and a jump from the area’s preeminent tourist attraction, the Scala dei Turchi (the staircase of the Turks), a limestone rock formation that looks like gigantic steps built on a golden beach. The city of Agrigento with its exceptional Doric temple is just six miles to the east.

Dig director Dr. Davide Tanasi, assistant professor in History at the University of South Florida, sought to rectify this unfortunate neglect of such significant archaeological remains. Working with the Superintendence for Cultural Heritage of Agrigento, Tanasi not only excavated the villa this season, making important finds that vastly expanded its chronology, he enlisted USF’s state-of-the-art Center for Virtualization and Applied Spatial Technologies (CVAST) to thoroughly scan the site and create 3D views that will prove invaluable in determining the best approach to ongoing excavations in interpreting the phases of construction.

There aren’t any really good pictures of the excavation (not by my standards anyway), but Dr. Tanasi’s YouTube channel steps into the breach. There are super-short videos of the excavators in action:

Charming testimonials from participants in the project:

And the greatest gems in the collection, aerial and terrestrial 3D scans of the whole villa which are extremely cool views for we civilians as well as and essential tools for archaeologists.

The USF team will return to the villa next summer for a second season of excavations.

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Oldest surviving original picture of US President found

Thursday, August 17th, 2017

A daguerreotype portrait of John Quincy Adams taken in March of 1843 by Philip Haas, the earliest surviving original photographic image of a US president, has been rediscovered after more than a century and a half of languishing in obscurity. It is going up for auction at Sotheby’s Photographs sale on October 5th in New York. This silver plate portrait has been in the family of Horace Everett, a congressman from Vermont who served in the House of Representatives from 1829 to 1843, since Adams gifted it to him in 1843, but the seller, a descendant who wishes to remain unnamed, thought it was a portrait of Horace Everett and had no idea that an object of national significance was stashed amidst his attic clutter.

Claims of historical precedence tend to come with caveats and asterisks, and it must be noted that the daguerreotype, a so-called half plate measuring about 5 inches by 4 inches, is not, technically, the earliest photographic image of an American president.

That honor, if few others, belongs to William Henry Harrison, who had his likeness taken in 1841, around the time of his inauguration. He died of an uncertain illness 32 days into his term, and the original daguerreotype is not known to survive, though the Metropolitan Museum of Art owns a copy, made by the Boston firm Southworth and Hawes around 1850. And Adams himself was first photographed in 1842, by the Boston photographer John Plumbe Jr., though the images appear to be lost.

With the earlier pictures surviving only in later reproductions, that makes this daguerreotype the oldest known original image of a US president. (Until someone reads the headlines, is inspired to dig through grandpa’s junk and finds the William Henry Harrison portrait.)

The son of second President of the United States John Adams and his redoubtable wife Abigail, John Quincy Adams ably filled his father’s very large footsteps, carving out an exceptional career as a diplomat and politician. He started out with a bang as a US Minister to the Netherlands under President George Washington. Other high ranking diplomatic posts followed, in between which he held his first high elected office as a Senator from Massachusetts (1803-1808). He was President James Monroe’s Secretary of State from 1817 to 1825 — it was Adams who actually crafted the Monroe Doctrine, not Monroe — and then succeeded him to the highest office in the land when he was elected the sixth President of the United States (1825-1829).

After his loss to Andrew Jackson in the 1829 presidential election, despondent by the ugliness of the campaign and devastated by the suicide of his son, Adams contemplated retirement. Within two years he was back in the public service game. John Adams had been a one-term president, after all, the first one. John Quincy was the second, so he was still very much following in his footsteps. Between 1831 and 1848 he was repeatedly elected to the US House of Representatives from Massachusetts.

Horace Everett’s time in Congress overlapped with John Quincy Adams’. The two men were politically aligned and personal friends. Everett happened to be at Haas’ studio when the former president sat for the portrait. Adams had interrupted Everett’s sitting, in fact, which is why Adams gave him the signed plate as a gift since he’d been witness to its conception and had graciously allowed him to cut the line.

A patchwork of labels on the back of the newly discovered daguerreotype, which is in a simple ebonized wood frame, attests to that personal connection. There’s a piece of brown paper, apparently clipped from an envelope, with “J.Q. Adams” in the return address space, in what appears to be the former president’s handwriting. “He had a distinctive way of making his H’s,” Ms. Bierman said.

There’s also a bookplate with the Everett family crest, on which someone else wrote “Presented by J.Q.A. to his Kinsman H.E. 1843,” and noted that it was said to be “one of the earliest daguerreotypes.”

That was a bit of an overstatement. Louis Daguerre released his process of fixing images onto metal plates in August of 1839 and American photographers were experimenting with his system within months.

It wasn’t even one of the earliest daguerreotype portraits. Hell, it wasn’t even one of earliest daguerreotype portraits Philip Haas made of John Quincy Adams. This plate was the product of Adams’ second portrait shoot with Philip Haas. The first one had taken place a week earlier. In his diary entry for March 8th, 1843, John Quincy Adams recorded with wonderment his impressions of the technology.

I walked this morning to Mr Haas’ shop, and he took from his camera obscura there Daguerrotype likeness of me. The operation is performed in half a minute, but is yet altogether incomprehensible to me. Mr Haas says it is a chemical process upon mercury, silver, gold and Iodine. It would seem as easy to stamp a fixed portrait from the reflection of a mirror; but how wonderful would that reflection itself be, if we were not familiarized to it from childhood.

He returned for a follow-up shoot on March 16th. From his diary entry from that day:

According to promises I walked up to Mr Haas’s shop about 9. my hands in woolen lined gloves bitterly pinched with cold. Found Horace Everett there for the same purpose of being facsimileed. Haas took him once, and then with his confront took me three times – the second of which he said was very good – for the operation is delicate: subject to many imperceptible accidents, and fails at least twice out of three times.

The daguerreotype is estimated to sell for $150,000–250,000, but it’s likely to go for much more than that due its illustrious subject, uniqueness and historical significance.

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Tudor palace remains found under Old Royal Naval College

Wednesday, August 16th, 2017

The remains of the Tudor-era palace have been discovered under the floor of the Painted Hall at the Old Royal Naval College in Greenwich, England. The crew was working on an ambitious project to restore the King William Undercroft of the hall and reveal English Baroque architecture designed by Christopher Wren and Nicholas Hawksmoor that was covered up more than a hundred years ago when they found the remains of two rooms from Greenwich Palace. One has a rare surviving stretch of lead-glazed tile flooring.

Being set back from the river, these are likely to be from the service range, possibly where the kitchens, bakehouse, brewhouse and laundry were.

One of the rooms was clearly subterranean and contains a series of unusual niches, which archaeologists believe may be ‘bee boles’ for the keeping of skeps (hive baskets) during the winter months when the bee colonies are hibernating. Bee boles have occasionally been found in historic garden walls, but it is very rare to find them internally, making this find even more significant. The niches were probably used for keeping food and drink cool in the summer months when the skeps were outside.

The first palatial structure on the site was built by Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester, youngest son of Henry IV, brother of Henry V and uncle of Henry VI. Appointed Lord Protector upon his brother’s death, he largely ruled the country while his nephew was a small child and was even Regent, albeit a contested one, after the death of his elder brother. In 1433 he had a palace he named Bella Court built on the south bank of the Thames just downstream from London.

When he was accused of treason by his enemy, Queen Margaret of Anjou, and died in jail in 1447, she took Bella Court and renamed it the Palace of Placentia (from the Latin for pleasantness). From then on, it was the monarch’s playground and a highly popular one at that. Nestled in the bucolic splendor of Greenwich Park, it was a quick boat ride from Whitehall Palace and Hampton Court Palace, the primary London palaces of the Tudor monarchs. It offered all the clean air and verdant beauties of the country with all the advantages of easy proximity to the metropolitan heartbeat of London.

King Henry VII rebuilt and expanded the palace, and Henry VIII, never one to be outdone when it came to lavish spending on his personal luxuries, turned into one of the most glamorous palaces in the country, on a par with Hampton Court Palace. Henry VIII was born in the Palace of Placentia, so he had a particular affection for it. The future Queen Mary I was also born there. So was the future Queen Elizabeth I. Her mother Anne Boleyn was arrested there before being taken by barge to the Tower of London. Henry’s much longed-for but ultimately sickly and ineffectual male heir Edward VI died there.

Elizabeth I spent many a summer at Greenwich Palace and several events of momentous import in her reign took place there, including the parade of booty captured from the Spanish Armada, a performance by William Shakespeare, her knighting of Sir Francis Drake and, according to an almost certainly apocryphal tale, Sir Walter Raleigh’s chivalric act of covering a puddle with his cape so the Queen would not soil her dainty regal feet.

The Stuart monarchs weren’t as fond of Greenwich Palace as the Tudors had been, but it was still one of the most frequented palaces thanks to its prime location. Placentia was eclipsed when the Queen’s House was built nearby on the Greenwich Park grounds. Commissioned by Anne of Denmark, wife of King James I, Queen’s House was built between 1616 and 1635 by architect Inigo Jones, his first big royal job and the first palace built entirely in the classical style Jones would become famous for.

As with so many buildings associated with the British monarchy, aristocracy and church, the Palace of Placentia declined precipitously during the Civil War and Commonwealth. Cromwell tried to sell it at first, as he had sold off so many royal possessions. In 1652 the House of Commons authorized its sale to defray the Navy’s expenses. They ordered the palace, park and all associated lands be surveyed and their value assessed, but while the survey did take place, there is no record of the sale attempt going any further. Always practical minded, Cromwell converted the palace into a biscuit factory. Later he used it as a prisoner of war camp.

Come the Restoration in 1660, King Charles II decided to call time on the one glorious Palace of Placentia, by now so dilapidated it was beyond repair. He ordered it demolished and a new even grander palace built in its place. The expansive luxury compound he envisioned was never finished. His successors William and Mary had no interest in picking up where he left off. In 1685 they gave Charles’ unfinished nub of palace, a chunk of the grounds and other structures to Sir John Sommers with the intent that he use the estate to build the new Royal Hospital for Seamen, which he did.

And so Greenwich Palace became the Naval Hospital and then the Old Royal Naval College. When the restoration of the undercroft and elaborately painted ceiling after which the Painted Hall is named is complete in 2019, the hall will be the new visitor center for the Old Royal Naval College. The ORNC is hoping to include the newly discovered Tudor remains in the new visitor center, but that will require more money, and they’re still £2 million short of the total they need to complete the Painted Hall Project as it is. I’m sure they’ll find a way. How many more kings and queens had to have been born and died there before they can scrounge up the cash to preserve some of the only surviving remains of Greenwich Palace?

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Century-old fruitcake found in Antarctica

Tuesday, August 15th, 2017

Fruit cakes are famous for their longevity, mainly because they start off close to inedible so it takes years for them to cross the line into fully inedible. Conservators with the Antarctic Heritage Trust (AHT) have found a 106-year-old fruit cake in a 19th century hut on Cape Adare. It looks remarkably well-preserved, although none of the conservators have sampled the confection.

The hut is the oldest structure in Antarctica. The Borchgrevink huts are the only surviving first constructions by humans on a continent. It is one of two structures built by the Norwegian pioneer of polar exploration Carsten Borchgrevink in 1899 and used by later explorers. AHT experts believe the cake dates to the Terra Nova expedition (1910-1913), explorer Robert Falcon Scott’s calamitous final expedition to the South Pole. He and four others reached the South Pole on January 17th, 1912 only to find to their dismay that Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen and his team had gotten there a month earlier on December 14th, 1911. Scott and his men died on the return voyage when their dog teams failed to meet them at the pre-determined rendezvous spot.

The fruitcake was made by the Huntley & Palmers company, purveyors of sweet treats since 1822, and Huntley & Palmers cakes are known to have been among the supplies for the Terra Nova expedition. Scott himself didn’t go to Cape Adare. It was First Officer Victor Campbell’s Northern Party who sheltered in Borchgrevink’s hut and used it to hold their stores in the summer and winter of 1911. When the party was picked up in January of 1912, they left tinned supplies behind.

The New Zealand-based Antarctic Heritage Trust began a project in May 2016 to recover and conserve all the artifacts in the Cape Adare huts before the huts themselves are conserved. Because the site is an Antarctic Specially Protected Area (ASPA), the objects will all be returned to their original locations after the conservation of the buildings is complete.

The complexity of the project and the short seasons of the polar environment required stringent deadlines for everything to get done on time. The team has conserved close to 1,500 artifacts between May of last year and July of this year. The fruit cake was one of the last ones and conservators had no idea what it was because the tin was so corroded the label and brand could not be identified. It was only when they opened the tin that they saw it was a Huntley & Palmers fruit cake still in its original paper wrapper.

Conservation treatment involved rust removal, chemical stabilisation and coating of the tin remnants. Deacidification of the tin label and some physical repair to the torn paper wrapper and tin label was also carried out. The cake itself was in excellent condition.

Programme Manager-Artefacts Lizzie Meek said “With just two weeks to go on the conservation of the Cape Adare artefacts, finding such a perfectly preserved fruitcake in amongst the last handful of unidentified and severely corroded tins was quite a surprise. It’s an ideal high-energy food for Antarctic conditions, and is still a favourite item on modern trips to the Ice.”

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Silver in coins tracks Rome’s rise to power

Monday, August 14th, 2017

A study of Roman coins has discovered a significant shift in the source of the silver in the early 3rd century B.C. from Greece and its former colonies in southern Italy to the Iberian Peninsula. German and Dutch researchers took samples from 70 silver coins minted between 310 and 101 B.C., drilling minute holes in the rims of the coins to access unweathered heart metal. The samples were subjected to geochemical analysis to determine their metal composition. The team was able to determine the quantities and proportions of major elements (identified by an electron probe microanalyzer or EPMA), trace elements (identified using Laser Ablation Inductively Coupled Plasma Mass Spectrometry or LA-ICP-MS) and lead isotope signatures (identified using a Multicollector-Inductively Coupled Plasma Mass Spectrometer or MC-ICP-MS).

The lead isotope values of Roman silver coins before 209 B.C. largely overlap with coins minted in Magna Graecia from silver ore mined in the Aegean and Rhodope Mountain regions. The study found that the majority of coins minted after 209 B.C. were made from silver mined in the southern Iberian peninsula, source of the richest silver mines in the Mediterranean. The post-209 B.C. coins also have a higher silver content, greater than 96% by weight.

These findings are evidence of a massive shift in wealth from Carthage to Rome during and after the 2nd Punic War (218-201 B.C.). That 209 B.C. would be a demarcation line is no coincidence. Rome’s first attempt to relieve Carthage of its Iberian territories in 211 B.C. had failed miserably with the defeat of brothers Publius Scipio and Gnaeus Scipio in the battles of Castulo and Ilorca.

Their humiliation would be redeemed two years later by Publius’ son Scipio Africanus. He did what his father and uncle could not do and conquered Qart Hadasht (the Carthaginian name for the city of Carthage), modern-day Cartagena, a Mediterranean port city founded in 227 B.C. by Hasdrubal the Fair as the jumping off point for the Punic conquest of Spain. More than a century later, it was still the seat of Carthaginian power on the Iberian peninsula. By taking Cartago Nova, as Scipio renamed it, Rome hobbled Carthage’s control of the southeast. The loss was compounded in 208 B.C. when Scipio Africanus defeated Hannibal’s brother Hasdrubal at Baecula. Scipio broke the last of Carthage’s power in Iberia in 206 B.C. when he defeated an allied army of Carthage and Numidia at the Battle of Ilipa.

Cartago Nova had massive silver mines and indeed would go on to provide a constant supply of silver for the late Roman Republic and Roman Empire for centuries. Between Scipio’s successful conquest of Carthage’s silver-rich southern Iberian territories, war booty and, after the cessation of hostilities, the forced payment of punitive reparations, Rome was newly in possession of enormous silver resources. It wasted no time in converting them to cold hard cash.

Dr Katrin Westner, of the Institute for Archaeological Sciences at Goethe University, Frankfurt, one of the leaders of a group of scientists in Germany and Denmark that carried out the research, said the effect on the Roman empire was profound.

“This massive influx of Iberian silver significantly changed Rome’s economy, allowing it to become the superpower of its day. We know this from the histories of Livy and Polybius and others, but our work gives contemporary scientific proof of the rise of Rome. What our work shows is that the defeat of Hannibal and the rise of Rome is written in the coins of the Roman Empire.” […]

Professor Kevin Butcher, of the department of classics and ancient history at the University of Warwick, said the project had confirmed what had previously only been speculation. “This research demonstrates how scientific analysis of ancient coins can make a significant contribution to historical research. It allows what was previously speculation about the importance of Spanish silver for the coinage of Rome to be placed on a firm foundation.”

The results of the study were presented on Monday at the Goldschmidt Conference which is being held in Paris this week.

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Carved bones reveal Ice Age ritual cannibalism

Sunday, August 13th, 2017

A research team from the Natural History Museum in London team has found evidence of ritual cannibalism on 15,000-year-old skeletal remains. The study focused on a single bone, a radius (the large bone of the forearm) that was unearthed in 1987 from Gough’s Cave, a limestone cave in Cheddar Gorge, Somerset, southwestern England, which has one the greatest numbers of human skeletal remains from the Magdalenian period (ca. 17,000–12,000 years before the present). Examination of the bone and microscopic analysis of bone biopsy samples revealed cut marks, damage from percussive force and engraved incisions. It’s the last of these that suggest a ritual component to the cannibalistic practices of the Upper Paleolithic inhabitants of Cheddar Gorge.

Evidence of nutritional cannibalism has been found on other bones in Gough’s Cave — butchering and tooth marks on ribs and even toe bones — and human crania cut for use as skull cups have also been discovered, but the patterned incisions on the radius are the first intentional engravings identified on the cave’s Ice Age human remains. Microscopic analysis makes clear that the incisions are distinct from the slicing marks left by butchering and comparison with more than 400 other cut marks on bones, human and animal, discovered in Gough’s Cave.

By careful three-dimensional analysis of the microscopic characteristics of each mark, such as its depth and the angle of incision, they distinguished between marks made for butchery purposes and those made for engraving.

The results suggest that bones had been cleaned of their muscle and tendons, before being roughly engraved in one sitting by a single individual, using one tool.

Since breaks in the bones run across the engraving, the bones must have been broken to extract the marrow after the engraving had been made.

“The sequence of the manipulations strongly suggests that the engraving was an intrinsic part of the multi-stage cannibalistic ritual and, as such, the marks must have held a symbolic connotation,” says [the study’s lead author Dr. Silvio] Bello.

The incisions were made in linear, zig-zag patterns that have been seen before in Magdalenian contexts. Animal bones this period found in France have similar engravings, and multiple animals bones in Gough’s Cave are also engraved with the zig-zag incisions. The patterns engraved on the radius bone, however, are the first on a human bone ever found at a Paleolithic site. In fact, it is the earliest known example of an incised human bone, period.

As for what the symbolic purpose of these engravings may have been, there is no way to determine that. It could have been purely artistic, but the inextricable association with the butchering and eating of the dead suggests a more complex motivation.

“Archaeologists have linked the engraving of objects and tools to ways of remembering events, places or circumstances, a sort of ‘written memory’ and ‘symbolic glue’ that held together complex social groups.

“Perhaps the engraving of this bone may have told a sort of story, more related to the deceased than the surrounding landscape. It could be that they are indicative of the individual, events from their life, the way they died, or the cannibalistic ritual itself.”

The study has been published in the journal PLOS One and can be read free of charge here.

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Staedtler erasers extract DNA from medieval parchment

Saturday, August 12th, 2017

Two years ago, University of York bioarchaeologists used Staedtler Mars Plastic erasers’ characteristic soft, pure white crumbs to collect samples of ultra-thin uterine vellum from 13th century pocket Bibles without damaging the incredibly delicate pages. The microscopic samples collected on the eraser crumbs were then analyzed to determine the animal source of the vellum/parchment and the ages of the animals at time of death. It was a great breakthrough which answered a centuries-old question about the composition of so-called uterine vellum, namely, that it’s neither uterine (made from the skin of aborted or miscarried animals) nor necessarily vellum (made from cow skin) but the product of various young animals whose skin was treated with an unknown technique to create the paper-thin pages.

Now the Staedtler Mars eraser has enabled another great leap forward in the study of medieval manuscripts. Researchers from the University of Copenhagen, Trinity College Dublin and the University of York team who did the uterine vellum study have successfully performed DNA and protein analysis on samples from the pages of the York Gospels, an pre-Norman Conquest 11th century codex held at York Minster that is one of very few Anglo-Saxon gospels to have survived the Reformation’s orgy of destruction, and a 12th century Gospel of Luke in the collection of Corpus Christi College, Cambridge.

This isn’t the first time DNA has been retrieved from medieval parchment, but as with the extraction of DNA from archaeological remains, the process requires the destruction of some of the material. The Staedtler Mars eraser-based system, which has been dubbed the triboelectric sampling technique, is entirely non-invasive. They don’t even have to deal with the time and expense and making a special trip to take samples from the manuscript. Conservators already use the erasers to keep the pages clean without risking damage, so all they have to do is keep the crumbs instead of brushing them off and then send them in for analysis. It’s cheap, easy, risk-free and the sky’s the limit when it comes to the information that can be derived from the samples.

The proteins helped identify the animals used to make the book’s pages – mostly cattle in the case of the York Gospels, with some pages made from sheepskin. The DNA also revealed the sex of the animals that provided some of the parchments – most were female. Knowing information like this could, in future, help the researchers understand which livestock populations contributed to parchment making. Or it might even show how bookmakers periodically changed their materials following an outbreak of disease among specific kinds of livestock.

Perhaps more useful, as far as conservators are concerned, is the detection of DNA from bacteria including Saccharopolyspora. This genus is associated with unsightly spots that can develop on old parchment manuscripts. Finding it could alert conservators to the likelihood of the spots appearing on the manuscripts.

Just knowing the type of animal used is useful, says book and paper conservator Emma Nichols at Cambridge University Library. This is because, in their work, conservators often try to match replacement materials with those originally used so that the conservation work is as sympathetic to the document as possible.

The DNA reveals other secrets too. For instance, pages containing oaths for clergy that would have been touched and kissed regularly were associated with higher levels of human DNA.

North Carolina State University. English professor Timothy Stinson, who has been building a database of DNA from medieval manuscripts for the past eight years, calls this novel approach ground-breaking because it gives scholars access to a thousand years’ worth of information about European animal husbandry trapped in manuscripts without sacrificing even a tiny fraction of the precious pages themselves.

The results of the study have been preprinted (meaning not yet peer reviewed) online and can be read free of charge in this pdf.

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