Rare 14th-16th c. shipwrecks found in Stockholm

Archaeologists have discovered the wrecks of two ships in the Baltic Sea off Stockholm. That’s not unusual because the Baltic is a) really cold, and b) so saline that shipworm (and other assorted wood-eating critters), which can devour a wooden wreck in a matter of months, find it distinctly inhospitable. There are at least 100 intact ships on the Baltic Sea bed around Stockholm.

What is unusual about the two that have just been discovered is their age. One is a medieval cog believed to date to the 14th or early 15th century. The other is from the 16th century. Most of the ships that sank in Stockholm’s waters date to the 17th and 18th centuries when Sweden’s naval fleet was in its fullest fulgor.

Swedish National Maritime Museums (SNMM) divers found the wrecks just before Christmas while photographing and surveying the seabed for a new museum dedicated to the maritime archaeology of the Baltic Sea.

The wreckage from the Middle Ages is mostly submerged in mud and its details indicate that it is a cog, most likely from the 14th or 15th century. The ship is 23–25 meters in length and seven meters wide. It is likely to have had a mast with a square rig. More shipbuilding details indicate it being from the Middle Ages, such as protruding deck beams with unusually high knees and a simple anchor wheel. When cog ships were introduced on the seas they were a brand new, large and powerful type of ship that came to dominate large parts of the trade around the Baltic Sea for centuries.

The other shipwreck is estimated to be from the 16th century and still stands with the mast straight up and fully equipped. Some of the discoveries onboard include 20 barrels of osmond iron, kitchen utensils and tools. The extent of the iron found is unprecedented in previous maritime findings. Osmond iron has largely built Sweden, but also supported countries around the Baltic Sea. Gustav Vasa wanted to ban the iron, and this happened later in 1604 when osmond iron was replaced with wrought iron.

The SNMM is working on a ground-breaking new approach to shipwreck archaeology and display: leaving them where they are. Instead of investing in the risky, time-consuming and prohibitively expensive recovery of shipwrecks as was done with the incomparable Vasa, known wrecks and ones still to be discovered will stay on the Baltic Sea floor where they will be explored by marine archaeologists. The new maritime archaeological museum, to be built next to the Vasa‘s museum home in Stockholm, will display artifacts and fragments of wrecks recovered in the dives rather than the ships themselves. Visitors will still get a chance to see them, not in person after decades of conservation and restoration (always precarious), but as if they had been part of the diving team. The wonders of computer graphics and virtual reality technology make it possible to experience marine archaeological remains in their original context, in virtual situ, if you will.

The Treasures of the Baltic Sea museum is scheduled to open in 2020.

2,500-year-old grave mutliple burial found in Mexico

Archaeologists with Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH) have discovered a 2,500-year-old grave containing the skeletal remains of at least 10 people during a salvage excavation in Tlalpan, a borough in the Federal District of Mexico City. The grave was found five feet below the surface under property belonging to the Pontifical University of Mexico. It is the first burial with so many individuals from the Preclassic period found in the Valley of Mexico. Previous finds have had two, at most three, individuals buried together.

The burial pit is modest in size, about 6.5 feet in diameter, considering how many bodies it contains. The skeletons found there were all buried at the same time. So far 10 individual skeletons have been identified. The sex of three of them has been determined — two female, one male — and archaeologists are working to identify the rest. Most of them were children at the time of death. There is one confirmed adult, one child between three and five years of age and the remains of an infant who died just one month old. Osteological analysis has found individuals with deliberate cranial deformation and some dental modifications as well. There are also evidence of wear on the teeth and bone spurs on the vertebrae, today more common in people older than 50.

The grave goods include earthenware bowls, pots and gourds of various sizes from large to tiny. There also stones and ceramic spheres placed in the hands of some of the deceased.

Investigations into the cause of death are ongoing. There is no immediate evidence of them being related to each other or affiliated in any other way, but there is likely a ritual significance to their deaths because their remains were carefully arranged, the arms of one placed under the spine of the other in a sort of windmill pattern that is particularly pronounced in the center. They’re not in the same positions, however. Some are on their sides, others on their back or with their knees pulled up to their chest or their lower limbs hyperextended towards the hips. Their intricate placement is how the team knew they were buried together in a single event.

The area was first settled around 1200-1000 BC as a small farming community. It was one of the first settlements south of modern-day Mexico City. The civic center that developed is known as Cuicuilco and the archaeological site contains the remains of a conical pyramid on oval base, built around 800–600 B.C., likely modeled after one of several active volcanoes in the Valley of Mexico. The attempt to appease the local Pele was successful for centuries. Until it wasn’t. Cuicuilco was obliterated in the eruption of the Xitle volcano around 100-200 A.D. Subsequent eruptions buried the city and the valley in lava.

The village of Tlalpan was settled just east of Cuicuilco between the Zacatenco phases (700-400 B.C.) and Ticoman (400-200 B.C.) of the Middle and Late Formative period. It had come to some prominence, apparently, until the eruption depopulation the valley. There may have been a brief Post-Classic period resettlement (archaeologists are still debating this point) but by then the area was dominated by the nearby urban center of Teotihuacan which didn’t exist yet as a single community when Xitle destroyed Cuicuilco.

When archaeologists first came across the remains of basalt stone walls, they weren’t sure at first what period they came from. They thought they might be Post-Classic, but closer examination found that they were built using river stones, which is marker of Pre-Classic construction. INAH experts believe Tlalpan had areas used for residential, ritual or burial purposes, pieces of which have been found in this excavation and others over the past dozen years. The stone walls were from a private dwelling, archaeologists believe.

This Spanish language video released by INAH shows the burial pit once it’s fully excavated and includes commentary from the researchers on the arrangement of the bodies. Turn on the closed captioning if your Spanish is shaky or non-existent and use the auto-translator to get a hint of what they’re saying through the autogenerated weirdnesses.

Rare Arabic-inspired chess piece found in Norway

Medieval chess piece of Arabic-inspired design. Photo by Lars Haugesten, NIKUArchaeologists have unearthed a rare medieval chess piece in the remains of a 13th century house in Tønsberg, Norway. It was discovered just before Christmas by a team from the Norwegian Institute of Cultural Heritage Research (NIKU) who were excavating the Anders Madsens gate area of Tønsberg.

The cylindrical piece is 30 mm high (1.2 inches) and 26 mm in diameter (1 inch). There’s a wedge jutting out from the top front and it as well as the rest of the body are decorated all over with circles with dots inside. It was carved out of antler and archaeologists believe the maker inserted a piece of lead in the middle of the cylinder to ensure it would hold firm on the chessboard.

Its unusual design suggests it was at least inspired by Arabic art, but that doesn’t mean it was manufactured by Islamic artists or in an Islamic country.

“The design of the piece has an abstract shape, and is designed according to Islamic tradition, where no human figures are to be depicted,” says project manager for the excavation in NIKU Lars Haugesten. […]

“No previous archaeological finds from Tønsberg have such details, which emphasizes that this chess piece is a unique object,” says Haugesten.

Researchers determined that the this piece is a knight. The piece was called an “asb,” meaning horse in Persian in the early form of chess that spread throughout Europe after the Islamic conquest that ended the Sasanian Persian Empire in the 7th century. The game under its Arabic name, shatranj, was brought to Europe via Islamic Spain in the 10th century and from there spread to the far reaches of the continent over the next couple of centuries.

The oldest known chess piece in Scandinavia was found in Lund, Sweden, and dates to the 12th century. It too is of Arabic design and is not dissimilar to the one recently unearthed at Tønsberg. Similar pieces have been found in Bergen, Norway, as well, where more than a thousand game pieces have been discovered in multiple excavations. The Arabic-influenced abstract knight design is very rare. There are only six examples of them among the Bergen pieces, and they have different dimensions and decorative motifs.

The Anders Madsens dig started in the fall and has so far discovered the remains of streets and houses from the Middle Ages. Artifacts found include a panoply of daily use objects like combs, pottery and antlers. The excavation has been the subject of much interest because Tønsberg is the oldest city in Norway, its founding traditionally dated to 871 A.D. based on the account of 13th century chronicler Snorri Sturluson, and the dig site is located in a key position near Slottsfjell Castle, the royal estate and St. Laurence Church, now no longer standing.

World War I propaganda at the Bruce Museum

After the digitization of the World War I memorabilia, we went to the room next door where the Bruce Museum had its small but impeccable collection of World War I propaganda posters on display. About 3 dozen posters were on display, almost all of them in flawless condition with color lithography still vibrant. They were arranged in thematically-related groups, which illustrated how many angles artists used to approach the same subjects.

Perhaps the most compelling grouping from my perspective were the violent, disturbing ones that demonized the enemy as blood-thirsty barbarians. Some are a shock to the system, and would have doubtless been even more so in 1917-1918.

Another group of posters was dedicated to the mobilization of women as Red Cross volunteers, nurses and in the ubiquitous sale of bonds, stamps and other products devised to help finance the war. One poster stood out for me the most with its saturated color and detailed design:

Joan of Arc Mobilizing women

Meanwhile, over in the section where recruitment posters reached out to American men to volunteer for the services if at all possible, I was struck by a rather happy piece with a Village People sort of vibe. It calls for men to join the US Navy by showing them in cheerful comraderie with sailors from around the world.

Posters were not the only things on display in the exhibition. There were some artifacts and two multimedia stations playing propaganda films on a loop. The first was an extraordinary piece of artwork by cartoonist and animation pioneer Winsor McCay. His most famous animated movie, Gertie the Dinosaur, released in 1914, was the first moving picture to have a dinosaur in it and while it wasn’t the first animated feature ever made, it stands out for its artistry and theme and has been studied and copied extensively.

In 1918, McCay created a masterpiece of animated innovation by way of propaganda: The Sinking of the Lusitania, as 12-minute animated recreation of the torpedoing of the RMS Lusitania. The tragedy was not filmed or photographed, so McCay relied on detailed descriptions from the Hearst Corporation’s Berlin correspondent August F. Beach to create his short film. It took him just shy of two years to finish the incredibly huge amount of drawing required to make this serious, dramatic subject come alive for 12 minutes. It was the longest animated feature ever made up until that point. The picture was not a box office hit, but it did fulfill its political purpose of making the sinking of the Lusitania a rallying cry for Americans, 123 of whose countrymen died on that ship.

The second film is lighter fare, starring a characteristically sweet, insouciant Mary Pickford learning how to rein in her profligacy so she can “do her bit” and buy a Liberty Bond. It’s a propaganda film, complete with her appeal straight to the audience in the end, but it also ties in with other propaganda media covered by the Bruce’s exhibition. There’s a “Hun” poster that shames her out of buying an ice cream sundae, and the title of the short is 100% American, a common motif in the recruiting and bond drive posters.

Fun with World War I digitization

Quick summary of the day: digitization was a blast and the exhibition of World War I propaganda posters at the Bruce Museum was a gem.

The first thing we did was register with the immensely courteous, enthusiastic and efficient digitization crew from the Connecticut State Library. We sat for a few minutes waiting for a specialist to become available, enjoying a variety of quality cookies and coffee. The wait was minimal. I don’t think I got 3 sips down before our digitization pro was ready for us.

A veteran himself, he was very interested in the medals from France and the Red Cross that the formidable ladies had been awarded in 1919. He asked my relative everything she knew about them and she filled in all the information she could while we looked up the online census data for details like date of birth and death. He was particularly fascinated with the certificate that accompanied one of the awarded medals. It was in Cyrillic letters, but a variant, not the standard ones you see today.

The certificate was cracked and torn and in very delicate condition, taped to white poster paper in a most precarious way. Project manager Christine Pittsley came over and was so intrigued by the certificate that she took a photo and uploaded it to Instagram in the hope of enlisting the power of the web to identify and translate the wording.

No answers so far on what the certificate is saying. We were able to identify the medal and language as Serbian — talk about being in the thick of things — but it would be so great to know the reason for the medal. We know she and her sister volunteered for the Red Cross and worked building orphanages during the war. They were also in France at some point.

The certificate and all of the medals were scanned in a high-resolution tiff scanner and professionally photographed with one of those cool blazing lights-black umbrellas setups. The staff were so conscientious and careful with these treasures, making sure there would be no harm done in the process of documenting World War I family memories.

I asked the person at the registration desk how the day had gone and she said there was a great turnout, with people coming in a brisk pace as soon as the event began at noon. We were at the museum checking out the exhibitions until it closed at 5:00, and the staff were still packing up even though the scanning period ended at 4:00. It was a real joy to see people so dedicated to preserving memorabilia and memories and residents so enthusiastic about keeping their family histories alive.

Coming up tomorrow, the Bruce Museum’s small but impeccable World War I poster collection.