Archive for January, 2018

Lifting and conserving a Roman mosaic floor

Monday, January 22nd, 2018

Last winter, University of Leicester archaeologists unearthed a mosaic floor from the Roman era that is one of the largest found in Leicester in three decades. In the winter of 2016/2017, a site the corner of Highcross Street and Vaughan Way was slated for development, so the ULAS team was engaged by to survey it before construction of new apartment blocks began to perform any necessary salvage of archaeological remains. When they found the remains of a Roman house with a big fragment of a late 3rd or early 4th century A.D. mosaic surviving, they realized they’d have to remove it to save it.

This was not a simple proposition. At two by three meters (6.6 x 9.8 feet) in size, it is impressively large even though it’s just a fragment of the original floor which would have been three times larger and covered the entire square room. The tesserae are small cubes of stone and brick arranged in a square of grey tiles surrounded by border of red. With the central square are red accents, among them a floral motif, leaves and a Swastika meander border.

It’s handsome, but it’s not a glamorous floor like one of Leicester’s best known Roman remains, the Blackfriars Mosaic which is one the largest and most elaborate mosaic floors ever discovered in Britain. This is the type of floor most houses in Leicester would have during the Roman era.

Because it wasn’t the highest quality mosaic like you’d find in the villas of the very wealthy elite, the tesserae were fragile and after 1,500 years or so underground, the mortar that adhered them to the floor and each other was long gone. This made the job of lifting the mosaic a difficult one for the ULAS archaeologists. Archaeological conservator Theo Sturge, who was part of the team who lifted the Blackfriars Mosaic in the 1970s, contributed his extensive expertise to the challenging logistics of lifting a large, barely held-together mosaic in snowy, rainy, cold winter weather.

Thousands of tesserae had to be lifted in such a way to ensure none of them would be displaced and the pattern disrupted. To make this happen, especially in the atrocious weather conditions, ULAS had to glue Hessian fabric to the surface of the mosaic. Whatever remained of the mortar grout between the tesserae and the mortar base onto which the tiles had been set were cut away and thin boards placed underneath sections of the mosaic. The boards were then lifted and the mosaic was moved, section by section, to Theo Sturges’ laboratory for conservation.

[ULAS Project Officer] Mathew Morris added: “The finished mosaic looks fantastic, Theo has done an amazing job putting it back together. In some ways it’s quite unusual to go to this level of effort and cost to conserve a mosaic of this quality, but actually because of its poorer quality you can see the craftsmanship behind it. You can see the direction the Roman workers were laying the stones in, you can see at one point one of the lines started to bend off and so they’ve had to turn one line into three to create a straight edge again. It’s these little human touches and errors that you can see in it that are important because they give you those glimpses into how it was made, who made it and their attitude to work, that gives you that real insight into the people of Roman Leicester.”

Its conservation complete, the mosaic is back in Leicester where it will go on display at a future date and location yet to be determined. In anticipation of the upcoming exhibition, ULAS has just released a very cool video describing the lifting and conservation of the mosaic.

Share

120 Days of Sodom declared national treasure

Sunday, January 21st, 2018

The original manuscript of the Marquis de Sade’s The 120 Days of Sodom has been declared national treasure by the French government. You might recall that over two years ago I wrote about how the thin (5 inches), very long (39 feet) parchment scroll on which the Marquis de Sade wrote what he considered his masterpiece was going up for auction. The circumstances were shady, to put it mildly. Quick summary: the scroll had been stolen in the early 1980s from the legitimate owner, Natalie de Noailles, daughter of a viscount and descendant of de Sade’s on her mother’s side and was sold in Switzerland (surprising no one) to an erotica collector. Noailles sued in French court, won, and the judgment was simply ignored by the Swiss collector.

After his death, his heirs sold the parchment with the blessing of a ridiculous and offensive Swiss federal court judgment contradicting the French one. In 2014, the manuscript was sold to avid collector Gérard Lhéritier, founder of Aristophil which turned out to be not so much as a company as a Ponzi scheme that used the collection of important manuscripts and autographs to defraud people of their money. When Lhéritier and his operators were arrested in March of 2015, the collection was confiscated. Now there would be a new court ruling, and this one wasn’t so easy to ignore. The entire collection of hundreds of thousands of historic manuscripts was to be sold at auction with the profits split among creditors.

With Lhéritier vociferously claiming his innocence, the slow wheels of French justice kept on a’grindin’. In October 2016, a court appointed the auction house Aguttes to sell off the collection. In November 2017, the auction house Drouet announced it would hold the first of more than 300 auctions over six years so the market wouldn’t be flooded with important manuscripts and prices driven down.

Meanwhile, the Bibliothèque Nationale de France, which before the sale to Lhéritier had negotiated a complicated deal to acquire the manuscript on terms the sellers, the Noailles family and the French legal system could live with only to have it fall through at the last minute, was working another angle. If they could get the scroll declared national treasure, then its sale would be impeded.

It took a long time, but France has indeed classified the de Sade manuscript as a trésor national. That means its export is barred and thus it cannot be sold internationally. The government will have 30 months to make a purchase offer of a sum equivalent to the “international market value” which is certainly many millions of euros. The Bibliothèque Nationale de France raised five million to buy the scroll in the deal that fell through and that was years ago.

The scroll is undeniable an icon of French literature and a microcosm of political and moral controversies of the ancien regime, French Revolution and early Napoleonic era. The Marquis de Sade wrote it from scraps of parchment attached together to form a long, skinny scroll that looks more than a little toilet papery (very thematically appropriate considering the subjects he explores in the tome) while he was imprisoned in the Bastille. He didn’t quite make it to liberation on July 14th, 1789. Ten days before it was stormed, he was transferred from his rather nicely appointed prison cell to the Charenton insane asylum without warning or opportunity to collect his stuff in punishment for riling up the Revolutionary mob milling around outside by hollering “They’re killing prisoners in here!”

A few days later, the tightly rolled scrolled was discovered in the crack of a wall in de Sade’s prison cell. The finder brought it home before eventually selling it and thus the long, strange journey of The 120 Days of Sodom got longer and stranger. So it survived the Bastille, it survived the sudden removal of its author, it got out of Dodge City before high noon and passed through multiple hands in three countries. It even found the time to get published in between all that, in two different editions, no less. Not bad for a janky roll of parchment scraps covered in spidery handwriting.

Now the question is, can a French institution actually afford this object? Stay tuned for the next exciting episode in the saga of The 120 Days of Sodom.

Share

Dried flower from Lincoln’s bier found in historical society attic

Saturday, January 20th, 2018

A single delicate dried flower that lay on Abraham Lincoln’s bier has been discovered in the archives of a local historical society in Lockport, Illinois. Sandy Vasko, Director of the Will County Historical Museum & Research Center, discovered the single white rose last month while looking through some boxes stored in the attic. Beautifully preserved in a modest display case with a glass lid, the rose was identified by a handwritten label on the back as having performed the solemn duty of adorning the slain president’s coffin when it lay in state in the Capitol Rotunda in Washington, D.C., on April 20th, 1865. According to the label note, the rose was given to Lincoln’s good friend General Isham Haynie of Illinois who in turn gifted it Mrs. James G. Elwood of Joliet. James Elwood, was the mayor of Joliet and a Civil War veteran. Boxes of his belongings were donated to the Will County Historical Society decades ago. The rose and its all-important label was in one of them.

There are very few extant pictures of the multiple funerals and public viewings of the coffin that were held along the long, slow, sad journey of Lincoln’s body from Washington, D.C. to Springfield, Illinois. This was deliberate. Secretary of Edwin Stanton, devastated by President Lincoln’s assassination was adamantly opposed to any hint of commercializing the horrific event. Grieving widow Mary Todd Lincoln agreed with him, and he ordered General Townsend, who was delegated to accompany the cortege, to prohibit all photographs. When he failed to do so in New York, Stanton was enraged and had every plate confiscated and destroyed.

There is no picture of the Rotunda that shows the bier covered with flowers, only contemporary written sources describing the flowers, among them white roses. The flowers themselves are extremely rare. As far as we know, the only other ones are in the Ford’s Theatre National Historic Site in D.C., and it’s not clear whether they came from the funeral in the East Room of the White House, the one in the Rotunda, or from when he lay in state the next day. This find is historically significant because it’s such a rare survival, because of its involvement in an iconic tragedy in American history, and because it’s in Illinois, President Lincoln’s home state.

There is also no picture currently available of the rose itself. As you know, I am usually adamant about only writing stories if there are high resolution pictures available of the find. I have made rare exceptions, however, and this is most certainly worthy of one because the reason for there is no photo of the flower available is something I support unreservedly.

When I emailed the Will County Historical Society asking whether a photograph was available, I received a most gracious reply from Sandy Vasko explaining why they would not be releasing a photograph at this time nor do they plan to in the near future. The Will County Historical Society, like so many other small county and town historical organizations and museums, operates on a shoestring budget. They are staffed entirely by dedicated volunteers, including the director herself. The discovery of this one precious bloom might as well be King Tut’s treasure for the Society. It’s a unique opportunity for them to raise the funds they need to keep the lights on (and maybe even more importantly in the Illinois winter, the heat on) and invest in historic preservation projects that are pivotal to the county.

I am a great supporter of local historical societies, who almost always rely on volunteers and meager donations to preserve an area’s social history, genealogies, endangered structures and who are actively engaged in researching local matters that don’t get a great deal of attention from the outside. This is desperately needed work that keeps history alive.

In aid of these noble goals, on 4:00 PM February 17th, the flower will make its public debut at a special preview event that will include a buffet dinner, a silent auction and a speaker who will deliver a Lincoln-related talk. Tickets are $50 apiece and seating is limited to just 50 people, so if you are anywhere near there and want to see a single white rosebud that once rested inches away from the body of Abraham Lincoln, fill in this registration form (pdf) and mail it in with a quickness. People are already snapping them up even when they have to fly in from half the country away to attend. If you can’t attend, you can use the form to donate.

Sandy Vasko was kind enough to allow me to interview her about the find and the upcoming event. At the time when the James Elwood boxes were donated, the early 1970s, the Society was moving into a new (old, actually, but undergoing renovation) building. The 13 boxes of the Elwood collection were stashed in the building, nine in closets, four in the attic, and remained there for decades before Vasko started going through them this year.

On the bottom of the last box in the attic, she discovered the display case with the single white rose. When she read the label, she couldn’t even believe her eyes. She put it aside, walked outdoors in the 15 degree temperature to clear her head. When she returned and reread the label, it said the same thing she’d read before.

“For a museum director to find this kind of incredible artifact, it is so lucky,” Vasko said. “When I was touching it and handling it, it was like electricity. It was just so amazing.”

The flower is being kept under lock and key for its protection until the sneak preview next month. After that, it will return to the safe until it is displayed again in June. A Chicago artist’s drawing of the rose will be a give-away to one lucky attendee at the event. The museum staff is working on several ideas for postcards or saleable souvenirs that feature the rose drawing coupled with highlights from the label.

Speaking of which, it is one fantastic label, the kind of thing appraisers and historians always tell people to write on their heirlooms so future generations don’t wind up tossing random dried roses they know nothing about in the trash instead of preserving them like the sacred mementos they are. Vasko generously shared a photograph of the back of the box and its exemplary label with me. We can’t see the Lincoln rose yet, but we can see the only reason we know what it is.

Share

Trouvelot’s astronomical drawings to go on display

Friday, January 19th, 2018

When last we saw Étienne Léopold Trouvelot, the gifted astronomical observer, artist and accidental destroyer of worlds via his injudicious introduction of the gypsy moth to the US, the 15 impeccably detailed astronomy drawings he chose for publication in 1881 using the new color printing technology of chromolithography had just been digitized by the New York Public Library. Now one of the rare surviving complete sets of Trouvelot chromolithographs is going on public display at The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens in San Marino, California. The exhibition, Radiant Beauty: E.L. Trouvelot’s Astronomical Drawings, opens April 28th of this year and runs through July 30th in The Huntington Library’s West Hall.

The set of 15 chromolithographs was the crowning achievement of Trouvelot’s career, said curator Krystle Satrum, assistant curator of the Jay T. Last Collection at The Huntington. “He was both an extraordinarily talented artist and a scientist, producing more than 7,000 astronomical illustrations and some 50 scientific articles during his working life.”

In vivid color and meticulous detail, the works depict a range of astronomical phenomena. “The high quality of both the artwork and the scientific observation demonstrates his uncanny capacity to combine art and science in such a way as to make substantial contributions to both fields,” Satrum said.

The pas-de-deux between art and science is still producing magic today. Images from high-powered telescope cameras, satellites and probes that have so mesmerized the public since the Hubble first started working right don’t look anything like the swirling marvels of color when they are transmitted. They’re black and white, infrared, ultra-violet, etc., thick with data but not so much visual impact for our limited optic range. It’s the artists who translate that data into something approximating what we’d see if we could.

Trouvelot was a master of converting telescopic information into beautifully colored artworks long before the Hubble was a twinkle in NASA’s eye. The chromolithographs wound up being a bit of a last hurrah for the field. By the turn of the century, drawings were rapidly being superseded by photographs as cameras became more powerful and precise. Of the estimated 300 luxury portfolios published by Charles Scribner’s Sons in 1882, only a few still survive intact today. Most of them were bought by institutions and observatories as references for their astronomers, but once photography starting edging out the old school artistic rendering, the Trouvelot chromolithographs were sold off or thrown away.

The Huntington’s set was acquired by physicist and Silicon Valley co-founder Jay T. Last as part of his extensive collection of graphic arts, particularly lithographs, from the 19th and early 20th century. He donated more than 200,000 printed works from more than 500 companies, high-end astronomical chromolithograph sets to orange crate labels to the museum. Highlights from the Jay T. Last of Graphic Arts and Social History can be browsed on The Huntington’s website.

Speaking of online collections of historic lithographs, the NYPL didn’t have high resolution versions of Trouvelot’s drawings in the online gallery when it debuted, much to my chagrin, but they are available now for download in tiff format. Click “All download options” and select “High Res tiff” from the list to get them. They’re not as gloriously huge as The Huntington Library’s images which they so kindly allowed me to use in this here post. They are in great condition, however, and I got a kick out of comparing the two sets.


Share

The Two Brothers are in fact brothers

Thursday, January 18th, 2018

Groundbreaking analysis of ancient DNA has answered a century-old question: are a pair of Egyptian mummies from the 12th Dynasty dubbed the Two Brothers actually brothers? One hundred and eleven years after their discovery, we now know the answer is yes. They are half-brothers, same mother, different fathers. This overturns the results from the original 1908 study that indicated no familial relationship between the two men.

The mummies of Khnum-nakht and Nakht-ankh were discovered by renown archaeologist Flinders Petrie in a stone-cut tomb near the village of Deir Rifeh in 1907. Their exquisitely painted coffins were placed next to each other and inscriptions on their sarcophagi identified them as brothers, sons of a local governor (an unnamed “hatia-prince”) and a woman (or women) named Khnum-aa. The richness of the funerary furnishings in the tomb confirmed their high status as the sons of an elite functionary. The style of the tomb dated it to around 1,800 B.C.

Flinders Petrie wrote to the Manchester Museum that his team had discovered a small 12th Dynasty tomb in Rifeh packed tightly with two polychrome painted sarcophagi complete with mummies, two funerary boats with servant figurines, a painted chest with a full set of four canopic jars, five statuettes placed in the coffins and two pottery vessels. All the human remains were intact and the craftsmanship of the artifacts of the highest quality. Petrie, keen to ensure the core funerary group would stay together, offered it to the museum for a £500 contribution to his next excavation. The Museum Committee accepted with alacrity and raised £570 19s in a few weeks thanks to the donations of boosters. The extra £70 19s went to the writing and production of a The Tomb of Two Brothers, a publication about the museum’s research into the find.

This pamphlet makes fascinating reading, touching on the transition from archaeology as an amateur treasure hunt to archaeology as a science, the complicity of antiquities collectors in systemic looting of tombs, and how the sausage of the examination of the remains was made in the Edwardian era. Hint: it ain’t pretty. Cringeworthy in an age when mummies are never unwrapped precisely because of the damage described in the publication: soft tissues disappearing into clouds of dust and moisture causing long-preserved flesh to rapidly decay.

It’s of particular interest in the light of the recent DNA analysis that upends the conclusion drawn from the initial study. The introduction opens with a broadside to those who would castigate archaeologists as desecrators of the dead, pointing the finger back at accusers who “would not hesitate to wear a scarab-ring taken off a dead man’s hand” and who “will handle without a qualm the amulets that were found actually inside a body.” This hypocrisy, the authors note, has real consequences on the treatment of human remains because it creates a market for looters to tear apart dead bodies for saleable trinkets.

They go on to explain why the examination of dead bodies is important.

Archaeology has been raised to the rank of a science within one generation: before that it was merely the pastime of the dilettante and the amateur who amused himself by adding beautiful specimens to his collection of ancient art. Then came the period of the enthusiast in languages, to whom inscriptions the joy of life. And now there has arisen a new school to whom archaeology is a science, a science which embraces the whole field of human activity. Archaeology, in other words, is the history of the human race. It is a science which contains within itself all other sciences. The new sciences of psychology and comparative religion owe their being to archaeology, and history itself is merely archaeology in a narrow form.

Four sciences are listed as examples of disciplines that rely on information derived from material culture of the past: psychology, comparative religion, ethnology and comparative anatomy.

Archaeology can assist these four great sciences only by opening and examining graves and their contents. It is only by a knowledge of the objects placed with the dead, and by the methods of burial, that we the ideas of early races as to a future life; by studying these graves in chronological order we trace the growth of ideas and the evolution of religion and of the philosophy of life. By an examination of the bodies, the knowledge of the ethnologist and the anatomist is immensely increased.

It’s an interesting juxtaposition, the fervent belief that their morphological analyses form the scientific backbone of numerous academic disciplines vs. the DNA testing that proved the inaccuracy of said analyses. One of the sciences listed, ethnology, which at the time was emphatically focused on the putative anatomical differences between races and genders of humans, appears to have been the grounding for the erroneous conclusion.

Led by Dr. Margaret Murray, archaeological pioneer and the UK’s first woman Egyptologist, the Manchester Museum team examined the mummified remains in 1908. The team’s anatomist, Dr. John Cameron, compared their skulls and declare the differences between them “so pronounced that it is almost impossible to convince oneself that they belong to the same race, far less to the same family.” He thought the older brother, Nakht-ankh, might be a woman because the evidence of muscular attachment was so faint. When the pelvis established he was male despite the “female character” of the skull, Cameron looked for another explanation:

The question of the skeleton being that of a eunuch next suggested itself; but unfortunately, the state of preservation of the external genitals (see page 44) does not permit one to make a definitive pronouncement on this question. If this could have been proved definitely then we should have been provided with a distinctly rare opportunity of comparing the skeletons of two brothers, one of whom was virile, and the other a eunuch.

(Page 44 is where an extensive discussion of the man’s mummified penis and missing scrotum begins. There was no evidence of the scrotum having been surgically removed, btw.)

Mummy of Nekht-Ankh at various stages of unwrapping, Plate 10, 'The Tomb of Two Brothers', by Margaret Alice Murray et al, 1908.The virile brother has sub-Saharan African ancestry, Cameron concludes, but not exclusively. He was biracial, according to the skull feature studies prevalent at the time. Between that and the eunuch thing, the anatomist cannot accept that they are brothers, but he does explore later on the chapter the possibility that they could be half-brothers with the same mother. Their mother is titled Nebt Per, (“Lady of a House”) in the inscription, which means she had inherited an estate. A moneyed, propertied woman could easily have had children from two different husbands during a lifetime. Alternatively, one or both of them may have been adopted.

Either way, they were still brothers, as the contemporary inscription emphasized, and the exquisitely painted sarcophagi became the museum’s most famous icons. They have been on display almost continuously since 1908 and have been known as the Two Brothers just as long, blood relations or no. There have been multiple attempts to extract a viable DNA sample to determine the brothers’ brotherness but all of the results were inconclusive. The technology has improved greatly in recent years, however, so in 2015 scientists tried again.

[T]he DNA was extracted from the teeth and, following hybridization capture of the mitochondrial and Y chromosome fractions, sequenced by a next generation method. Analysis showed that both Nakht-Ankh and Khnum-Nakht belonged to mitochondrial haplotype M1a1, suggesting a maternal relationship. The Y chromosome sequences were less complete but showed variations between the two mummies, indicating that Nakht-Ankh and Khnum-Nakht had different fathers, and were thus very likely to have been half-brothers.

Dr Konstantina Drosou, of the School of Earth and Environmental Sciences at the University of Manchester who conducted the DNA sequencing, said: “It was a long and exhausting journey to the results but we are finally here. I am very grateful we were able to add a small but very important piece to the big history puzzle and I am sure the brothers would be very proud of us. These moments are what make us believe in ancient DNA.”

The study, which is being published in the Journal of Archaeological Science, is the first to successfully use the typing of both mitochondrial and Y chromosomal DNA in Egyptian mummies.

The new study is available online free of charge so you can read the original publication and the latest one for a one-shot comparative history of science. To paraphrase Martin Luther King, Jr. who in turn was paraphrasing Transcendentalist and Unitarian minister Theodore Parker, the arc of the scientific method is long, but it bends towards accuracy.

Share

5.6 metric ton coin hoard found in China

Wednesday, January 17th, 2018

On October 13th, 2017, a massive cache of an estimated 300,000 copper coins for a total weight of 5.6 metric tons were discovered during construction work on the foundations of an old house in Chalian Village, near Jingdezhen in East China’s Jiangxi province. They are wén coins from the Song Dynasty (960–1279). Archaeologists from the Ceramics Archaeology Institute excavated the site starting October 22nd.

The property is 100 square meters in area and is surrounded by village houses. After the coins were discovered, word of the find spread like wildfire. There was intense interest from the locals who wanted to dig up some buried treasure even though experts noted the coppers have little monetary value. Their worth is not in conversion to modern currency via black market sales, but rather in their historical significance.

It is known that the coins date from the time of the Song dynasty (960-1279). The dynasty relocated its capital to Lin’an (Hangzhou today) after the city of Kaifeng was lost to the Jurchen Jin in 1127. Lin’an is near where the coins were found. The problem is that there is no local source of copper, which quickly led what was then the Southern Song dynasty to produce lower quality coins than those issued by the Northern Song dynasty. This also led to the emergence of paper money as copper cash coins became scarce. Iron coins were issued, but due to corrosion and manufacturing problems were never popular. Some numismatists have referred to this as the Qian Huang or “currency famine” for the Southern Song dynasty.

The southern government cut military wages in half by 1161 due to a shortage of wen coins. In 1170 Huizi paper money became a permanent fixture since it was mandated half of all taxes be paid with this form of currency. This resulted in increased demand for the notes as well as for the increasingly scarce bronze coinage. Inflation eventually led to the use of small coin tallies called Qian Pai.

Nonetheless, as soon as the government archaeologists left, villagers returned to the site with their digging implements to help themselves to any loot they might have missed. Individuals who did manage to remove coins from the site before and after the official excavation were persuaded to hand them over after being told that they were breaking cultural heritage laws by keeping the objects.

Local folklore has it that the coin hoard was the treasure of a landlord who buried it under the foundations of his home 1,000 years ago. There is no evidence of this being true. Of the three filled cellars unearthed during the excavation, two were filled with coins and one with assorted debris. The fill in the third cellar included some dateable materials placing it in the Yuan Dynasty period. The story of the landlord puts him in the Ming Dynasty. Besides, it’s highly unlikely that a landlord, tradesman or any one individual would have had access to such a huge cash reserve, and even if they did, they would have converted it into more easily portable silver or gold bullion. According to Fuliang County Museum Director Feng Ruqin, the coins were probably stashed by a private organization or a bank.

The excavation is over now and all three cellars have been backfilled for their protection. Conservators and researchers now have to commence the daunting task of cleaning, derusting, classifying weighing, cataloging and studying 5.6 metric tons of coins. The process is expected to take at least two or three years.

Share

Runes call a comb a comb

Tuesday, January 16th, 2018

Archaeologists excavating the ancient market square in the city of Ribe in southwest Jutland, Denmark, have unearthed a comb from around 800 A.D. that is inscribed with the word “comb” written in runes. They also discovered a second runic inscription on a plaque of bone or antler that has yet to be deciphered.

This is a sensational find, especially for Denmark. Runic inscriptions of any date are rare in Denmark; runes dating to the 9th century are exceptionally rare in Scandinavia period. Almost all of the runes from that period are carved on runestones, not inscribed on combs or bone plates. (Interestingly enough, the oldest Germanic language discovery ever made in central Germany were 3rd century runes also inscribed on a comb.)

So few runes have been found in Denmark that the discovery of two runic inscriptions from around 800 A.D. doubles the number of rune-engraved artifacts found in Ribe. The oldest extant town in Denmark, Ribe was already bustling in 793 A.D. when Viking raiders pillaged the monastery of Lindisfarne launching the Viking Era. Archaeologists have found evidence, however, of peaceful trade between the Norse of Norway and Denmark in Ribe. During an earlier dig season at the Ribe marketplace, antlers from Norwegian reindeer were found. They date to 725 A.D., which means the Norse were already taking on significant sea voyages and engaging in lucrative transactions with their neighbors long before the accepted date of the Viking Era.

Given its history as a market city big enough to attract business from elsewhere in northern Europe, the comparative lack of runes on the archaeological record is puzzling. The runic alphabet was undergoing a seachange when Norsemen were trading reindeer antlers in Ribe, with the more complex Elder Futhark giving way to the newly succinct 16-letter Younger Futhark. The transition took place gradually over the 7th and 8th centuries, but by the early 9th, largely coinciding with the arrival of the Viking Era, the Younger had decisively overthrown the Elder. Researchers have been hoping to find more runes from this pivotal transition phase to shed new light on the transition to Younger Futhark and the role the towns played in the shift.

Archaeologists were especially interested to find out whether the script on the comb and plate were the new alphabet, which came into use at the beginning of the Viking Age.

Previously, the Vikings used a more complicated alphabet known as the 24 character futhark—itself a combination of the first six letters of the alphabet.

“It was built up so each rune had its own name and indicated the sound. But as the language developed, the names and sounds changed too, and in the end it was too difficult to remember the sound value of each rune and there was too much uncertainty in the message being conveyed,” says rune expert Lisbeth Imer from the National Museum of Denmark.

“At some point they decided not to use the old system anymore,” says Imer, who was invited to Ribe to study the two new discoveries and decipher whether it was the old or new alphabet.

Imer found that both inscriptions were written in Younger Futhark, just the linguistic jackpot they were hoping for. The word “comb” in inscribed on both sides of the comb, although they are different parts of speech. The verb “to comb” is on one side, the noun “comb” on the other. The handwriting suggests the inscriptions may have been carved by two different people.

The runes on the bone plate are fragmentary — both ends are missing — and the piece was damaged by fire at some point making it even more difficult to read. It is clear that the text was engraved by one person, someone with a fine hand who could pull a proper line. He did not use the markers which denote the beginning and end of a word, so while the inscription is in theory decipherable, it’s difficult and experts haven’t cracked it quite yet.

Here’s Imer giving it a go in this video:

Share

Flooded cellar in France may be medieval mikveh

Monday, January 15th, 2018

Saint-Paul-Trois-Châteaux, an ancient city in southeastern France that boasts a splendid 12th century Romanesque church, medieval town walls and gates and a cobblestoned downtown of considerable charm, can also lay claim to unique vestiges of a small Jewish community that abided there for three centuries or so before the saw the anti-Semitic writing on the all and got out while the going was good.

There was a small but consistent population of Jews in the city from the 12th century well into the 15th. They were ghettoized into a handful of streets on and around the Rue Juiverie, the street that is still named after them centuries after their departure. As was the custom with these segregated neighborhoods, the residents had a curfew and were locked in at night. Still, bounded on one side by the town market and on the other by bishop’s palace, the Jewish quarter was in the very heart of the city and the 70 or so families who lived there made good.

We know there was a synagogue in the neighborhood because a 15th century Holy Ark was found in one of the buildings, known as Tower House, in the early 18th century. Dated 1445, the stone archway with wooden doors was where the synagogue’s Torah scrolls were kept. It is a unique survival, the only one of its kind in France and is now on display in the local archaeological museum.

To the marked advantage of the Jewish community, the town wasn’t part of France in the Middle Ages. It was ruled by the Holy Roman Empire, so yes,while they were locked in at night and subject to a number of discriminatory laws and practices, at least they didn’t have to deal with repeated expulsions, confiscations and a wide variety of oppressive measures ordered by French kings like Philip II, who was just 17 years old when he kicked out the Jews and stole their stuff in 1182, and Louis IX who set copies of the Talmud on fire by the thousands, made usury illegal and forced Jews charged with the newly criminal offense to pay huge sums in support of the Crusades and turned the Inquisition up to 11. They even managed to dodge the mass expulsion edict of 1394 when all the Jews in France were forced to leave the country by order of King Charles VI.

Provence was absorbed into France in 1481. Initially it seemed like Jews in the province, which had deeply rooted Jewish communities going back to the 1st century A.D., might be okay. Their privileges were confirmed in 1482. But de jure and de facto are two very different things, and in 1484 waves of anti-Semitic violence broke out regularly. Provencal Jews, recognizing the stench of pogrom approaching, starting packing up and leaving, and the Jews of Saint-Paul-Trois-Châteaux were no exception. Archival records note there were just three Jewish families left in town by 1486, and that’s the last mention of any Saint-Paul-Trois-Châteaux Jews on the historical record.

In the 1990s, the city government began to buy properties in the old Jewish quarter with an eye to restoring it and creating a suitable environment to return the Holy Ark to its original context in the Tower House. Archaeologists have been studying the neighborhood since 2014 and have discovered remains going back to Gallo-Roman times. The most recent work has unearthed a flooded cellar that archaeologists believe was a mikveh, a ritual Jewish bath. The city called in experts from France’s National Institute for Preventive Archaeological Research (INRAP) to explore this intriguing find.

This small (7 by 4 meters), vaulted and partially buried construction contains a groundwater emergence point. The bath would have consisted of a shallow pool. The construction forms and techniques could correspond to the configurations of Medieval mikvaots.

The building has since been modified several times. The cellar was used to store bottles, for example (the archaeologists collected more than 600 of them), and anomalies suggest a later, more complex, modification. A diverticulum and the existence of a walled, partially masked, opening suggest architectural alterations that were masked by later transformations. They could be the remains of spaces associated with the mikveh and necessary for its functioning (dressing room, stairway access, etc…).

Share

Wicked copper-headed barbed arrow found in melting ice

Sunday, January 14th, 2018

A wicked looking copper arrowhead still masterfully attached to a barbed antler shaft discovered in a melting patch of ice in Yukon, Canada’s northwestern most province, in 2016 has been found to be almost 1,000 years old making it one of the earliest copper artifacts ever found in the Territory.

The credit for this discovery goes to a herd of caribou, because even though the arrowhead was found by an archaeologist, he wasn’t at the site to excavate or search for ancient artifacts. Archeologist Greg Hare was flying over the area in a helicopter accompanied by a film crew that was shooting a documentary. He was pointing out some of the sites where he and his colleagues have discovered First Nations hunting weapons when they saw the caribou. The documentarians wanted to get a clean shot of the majestic ruminants so Hare’s helicopter landed to allow the filmmakers in the second copter to get a clean shot.

The rocky hillside where they landed was topped with a rapidly vanishing layer of half-melted ice and under normal circumstances they would never have stopped there given the precariousness of the melting ice on the surface. While they were waiting, the team spotted a barb sticking out of a barely-there thin layer of ice. They pulled it out gingerly and found a copper blade attached to the barb.

“This is one of the oldest copper elements that we ever found in the Yukon,” Hare said.

For thousands of years, caribou took refuge in the summer up high on the alpine ice patches to escape the heat and swarms of harassing insects. That made those ice patches good areas for ancient hunters to get close to the caribou.

Some weapons would miss their marks and disappear in the snow and ice, over time building a treasure trove of artifacts now revealed by the melting ice. Archaeologists have found ancient hunting tools made of wood, antler bone, and now copper.

“The significant part of the story is that [the arrowhead] is so old, and it is such a beautiful expression of copper metallurgy,” Hare said. “Copper only first shows up in the Yukon about a thousand years ago and this is almost at the beginning of that technology.”

The arrowhead was radiocarbon dated to 936 years ago. Bows and arrows only began to be used by First Nation hunters about 1,100 years ago, so this really is an incredibly early example of copper metallurgy in the area. For thousands of years before then the weapons of choice were atlatli, throwing darts launched by striking them with a paddle. It was a technology that was employed by indigenous peoples in Yukon for almost 7,000 years before it was abandoned in favor of the bow and arrow.

The copper in the arrowhead is incredibly pure at 99.9 percent, and it is of local extraction. The nugget from which it was made was recovered in the metal-rich creeks of the southwest Yukon. The quality of workmanship is exceptional and the hunter who missed his target doubtless would have searched for it in the snow and ice-covered terrain for days, even weeks, after it was lost.

The random good luck that put Hare and his team down on that hillside to recover such a rare and important transitional in the evolution of indigenous hunting weaponry would have passed them (and us) by if the timing had been only slightly off. Two weeks after the discovery, Hare returned to the site to explore it further and all the ice had melted leaving nothing behind to find besides lumps of still-frozen caribou dung. If there was anything there, it was carried away by the runoff into the rocks or down the hill.

Look at the condition of this arrowhead. It is a spectacular piece of work and we are very fortunate the right people were in the right place at the right time to rescue it in such pristine condition just as it emerged from the melt.

Share

Michigan State to create vast slave trade database

Saturday, January 13th, 2018

Funded by a grant of $1.47 million from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, Michigan State University will create a massive database that brings together scattered information about enslaved people as a priceless research hub for scholars and the public alike. The project, entitled Enslaved: The People of the Historic Slave Trade, will be one-stop-shop for people seeking slave data for academic, genealogical and personal interest purposes. They will be able to search for specific individuals, create charts, map routes and analyze demographic data.

MSU has long been at the forefront of African studies — US News and World Report ranked its African history graduate program the best in the country — and they are eminently equipped to combine scholarship with digital resources that students, researchers and anybody else who wants to delve deeper into the subject can use. This is the raison d’etre of MSU’s Matrix: The Center for Digital Humanities and Social Sciences which will be one of the databases linked together with other world-class databases to create the Enslaved tool.

“‘Enslaved’ brings new digital tools and analytical approaches to the study of African slavery and the Atlantic slave trade,” said project co-investigator Walter Hawthorne, professor and chair of MSU’s Department of History. “By linking data compiled by some of the world’s foremost historians, it will allow scholars and the public to learn about individuals’ lives and to draw new, broad conclusions about processes that had an indelible impact on the world.” […]

The partner projects in phase one are “African Origins and Voyages: The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database” led by David Eltis, professor emeritus, Emory University, and Paul Lachance; “The Slave Societies Digital Archive” led by Jane Landers, Vanderbilt University; “Dictionary of Caribbean and Afro-Latin American Biography” and “Dictionary of African Biography and African American National Biography” led by Henry Louis Gates Jr., Steven Niven and Abby Wolf, Hutchins Center for African and African American Research at Harvard University; “Freedom Narratives” led by Paul Lovejoy, York University; “Legacies of British Slave-Ownership” led by Keith McClelland, University College, London; and “The Liberated Africans Project” led by Henry Lovejoy, University of Colorado Boulder; and “Slave Biographies” led by Daryle Williams, University of Maryland.

The first phase of the project is expected to about 18 months. The goal is develop a functional framework that proves that it’s even possible to link the eight online collections in the initial pilot into one searchable, cross-navigable, publicly accessible database. After that’s done, they can get down to the real nuts and bolts of getting so many moving parts to work together in harmony. It’s going to be a while, but the results could be groundbreaking. Dean Rehberger, director of Matrix and one the leaders of the project:

“In bringing together data from a number of highly successful projects, we have the opportunity from many small threads of data to weave together lives of enslaved individuals once thought lost to history.”

Share

Navigation

Search

Archives

January 2018
S M T W T F S
« Dec    
 123456
78910111213
14151617181920
21222324252627
28293031  

Other

Add to Technorati Favorites

Syndication