Tortoises all the way down in Plovdiv Roman tomb

When a Roman tomb was discovered in a courtyard behind the Rector’s office at the Medical University of Plovdiv in Bulgaria at the end of March, one of the more curious items found within was the shell of a tortoise next to the head of one of the individuals buried in the grave. Now the shell of a second tortoise has been found in the tomb, a unique discovery in Bulgarian archaeology.

“[The second tortoise in the Roman tomb] is smaller [than the first one], and [its remains] are not so well preserved,” [Plovdiv University archaeologist Zdravka] Kortukova has told local news and culture site Plovdiv Time, emphasizing that the tortoise tomb find is the first such archaeological discovery in Bulgaria.

“In the perceptions of our ancient predecessors, the tortoise is connected with god Hermes in his chthonic (underworld) aspect,” says in turn [Plovdiv Museum of Archaeology archaeologist Maya] Martinova.

“Some researchers think that the depictions of Hermes with a tortoise in his hand is connected with the belief that the dead tortoise, not unlike the deceased [human]’s soul, moved to the afterlife,” she elaborates.

“That is, the tortoise is directly connected with Hermes Psychopompos and the immortality of the soul,” stresses the archaeologist.

She has referred to one of ancient deity Hermes’ functions in (Ancient Greek but also Thracian and Roman) mythology, namely, that of a psychopomp, a conveyor or conductor of souls who escorts newly deceased souls from the Earth to the afterlife.

The discovery of coins inside the grave narrow the burial date down to the 3rd century. The coins were mined in Philipopolis (the ancient name for Plovdiv) and Traianopolis (modern-day Alexandroupoli Municipality in Northeast Greece) and date to the reigns of the Emperor Caracalla (r. 198-217 A.D.) and Elagabalus (r. 218-222 A.D.).

As the Medical University is located over one of four burial grounds known to have dotted the outer perimeter of the ancient city, the discovery of a Roman tomb from this period was not surprising, but its excellent condition is.

“The grave which we have unearthed this year is of the most widespread type of burial facility – a grave of brick masonry with a flat lid, in this case made of flat gneiss slabs. It is oriented north – south, with a little deviation to the northeast. On the bottom [of the tomb], there was a “pillow” made of tilted bricks,” Martinova reveals.

“Our first impression was that the grave had not been opened but after we expanded the research spot, and unearthed the entire facility, it turned out that the lid had been compromised in the southern section, so someone had been here before us. This probably happened back in the Antiquity,” she adds.

The bones of two adults and one child about 10-11 years of age were found in the grave. Archaeologists believe they were a family, but that cannot be conclusively confirmed short of successful extraction and analysis of DNA.

Two pages of Anne Frank’s diary uncovered

Researchers have uncovered two previously unpublished pages of Anne Frank’s diary. It was Anne Frank herself who covered them with brown gummed paper, blacking out what she had written on those pages on September 28th, 1942, two and a half months after she went into hiding with her family in the secret annex.

The content was revealed using digital technology. In 2016, every page of the diary was photographed as part of a condition check for conservation purposes. The page, front and back, covered with brown paper was held up vertically and backlit with a flash. The high resolution photograph was then analyzed with image-processing software which was able to distinguish the writing underneath the paper from the writing on the reverse sides.

On those two pages, Anne had crossed out five phrases, written four “dirty” jokes and her musings on sex education and prostitution, 33 lines worth. The top of the first page Anne stated her intent: “I’ll use this spoiled page to write down ‘dirty’ jokes.” It’s not clear why she thought it was spoiled.

In the afternoon of Monday 28 September 1942 workmen were busy removing the office toilet, immediately below the secret annexe, so any sound from the hiding place was dangerous and had to be avoided at all costs. Anne was writing. In her diary Anne pretended that she was corresponding with a number of imaginary friends, and that day she wrote a total of four “diary letters”: to her whole circle of imaginary friends, to Kitty, to Pien and to Loutje.

On that day she also leafed through her entire diary and added comments to no less than 18 earlier “diary letters”. She wrote additions to photo captions, to a letter from her father and to a letter from her friend Jacqueline van Maarsen that she had earlier stuck into her diary. What is more, Anne also wrote of how afraid she was that the people in hiding would be discovered, and how much support her diary gave her. She made a list of twelve signs of beauty and assessed the extent to which she lived up to them. It all goes to show that on that day Anne was closely scrutinising herself, her own sexuality and the world around her.

In the 33 lines about sex, Anne, who was 13 at the time, noted that a girl gets her period when she is around 14 years old and that is “a sign that she is ripe to have relations with a man but one doesn’t do that of course before one is married.” Her remarks on prostitution are also direct with a personal angle: “All men, if they are normal, go with women, women like that accost them on the street and then they go together. In Paris they have big houses for that. Papa has been there.”

Anne reread her diaries often during her years in hiding and continued to make changes to her old entries as she saw fit. She crossed out parts of it, added new text, rearranged the wording. These are the only two pages she covered completely. What drove this choice is unknown. There are other dirty jokes and frank reflections on sex, puberty and body image in Anne’s diaries, and she never covered them up. She did evince concern that her father might take her diary away as he’d threatened to do, and apparently Mrs. Van Pels creeped her out when she said she wanted to read them.

The covered pages do not alter our image of Anne. She regularly recorded “dirty” jokes or dealt with sexuality in her diary. Over the decades Anne has grown to become the worldwide symbol of the Holocaust, and Anne the girl has increasingly faded into the background. These – literally – uncovered texts bring the inquisitive and in many respects precocious teenager back into the foreground.

Gold “cabbage” leaves stolen from Vienna landmark

The gold dome of the Vienna Secession building, the Art Nouveau landmark that is one of Vienna’s most unique architectural masterpieces and a popular tourist draw, has been robbed of several of its laurel leaves. The theft took place some time between 6PM Monday, April 23rd, and 6:30AM Tuesday, April 24th. Authorities believe they likely scaled the scaffolding to reach the dome and then broke off six to eight leaves. The leaves were pulled off roughly, causing an estimated 10,000 euros worth of damage to the head of cabbage. The damage bill exceeds the value of the stolen leaves themselves is only about 1,000 euros each.

Affectionately known as the “Krauthappel” (cabbage head) because of its spherical shape, the dome is undergoing restoration as part of an ongoing renovation of the building. It’s been 30 years since any conservation was done, and it was in acute need of repair to its wrought iron structure. The leaves needed to be removed, cleaned, regilded and reattached. The Secession launched a “Gild the Dome” fundraising drive where people could adopt one or more of the 2,500 leaves to pay for its gilding.

Starting in December 2017, the wrought iron dome structure, 28 feet diameter, was dismantled and the leaves removed for individual treatment. Each of the 2,500 leaves and 311 berries were cleaned, resurfaced and regilded, then manually welded back onto the dome structure on the roof. They’re almost done now. The dome restoration should be complete by the end of the month, theft notwithstanding.

The Secession building was the brain-child of a group of artists, Gustav Klimt most prominent among them, who chafed under the neoclassical strictures of the Viennese artistic establishment at the Academy of Fine Art. They wanted a new exhibition space to showcase diverse modern arts, from literature to crafts to oil paintings, in a setting that was itself a reflection of contemporary architectural styles. In 1897, they formed the Secession, a reference to their abandonment of the Academy to found their own association, and commissioned architect Joseph Maria Olbrich to build an exhibition hall in cutting edge Art Nouveau style.

The building’s modern materials, stark geometry, whimsical decorative elements like owls and lizards on the exterior walls and distinct lack of Greek columns did not endear it to the staid architectural community. It was roundly criticized, and the gilded laurel leaf cupola was derided as a cabbage head.

Because the plans scandalized the conservative city council, the Secession only had a 10-year permit, so they didn’t expect the building to keep standing past a decade. Yet here we are, and the Vienna Secession Hall remains in business today as the oldest artist-led institution dedicated to the display of contemporary art. The snide “cabbage head” insult has evolved into a term of warm appreciation.

4th c. BC Greek bronze reliefs found in Slovakia

Archaeologists have discovered pieces of an ancient Greek bronze breastplate at a Celtic sacrificial site in Slovakia. Found near the village of Slatina nad Bebravou in western Slovakia’s Trenčín Region, the fragments of finely crafted relief were originally part of the shoulder boulders of an elite warrior’s breastplate.

Professor Regine Thomas from Cologne University analysed the parts of the found breastplate.

She worked out a special analysis by digitizing small pieces of the shoulder boards. Through this method she succeeded in reconstructing the Hellenic scene decoration.

“It was a so-called Amazonomachy, a portrayal of the mythical battle between the Ancient Greeks and the Amazons, a nation of all-female warriors,” explained [deputy director of the Slovak Archaeological Institute in Nitra, Karol] Pieta, as cited by SITA.

They are the oldest Greek artifacts ever discovered in the area, and they were already old when they first arrived there. The breastplate was manufactured in the Spartan Greek colony of Taras (modern-day Taranto, in Puglia, the inner heel of Italy’s boot) in the 4th century B.C., the time when the city reached the apex of its cultural, political, economic and military influence. It was the most powerful city in Magna Grecia and was famed for the beauty and detail of its silver coins and pottery.

While Tarentum’s commercial and trade reach was extensive in the 4th century B.C., it did not likely reach Slovakia. The military nature of the object suggests it was taken as a war prize, something the Celts who inhabited the find site would have had ample opportunity to do a hundred years later.

“There is a justified hypothesis that Celtic warriors, who at that time were moving to the area of middle Danubeland, brought those bronze reliefs here. Theoretically, it is possible that the discovery was stolen from the Delphi oracle, which Celts plundered in the first half of the third century BC,” said Pieta for SITA.

The bronze reliefs were unearthed at a spot used by ancient Celts for ritual purposes. It is less than a mile from a Celtic fortified settlement on Udriana Hill. There is ample evidence of sacrifices having taken place at the site in the late 3rd century B.C., particularly burnt offerings of animals, objects and valuables. Most of the artifacts found there were burned in antiquity.

Archaeologists also unearthed a sacrificial hole, a pit where the blood of sacrificed animals, possibly including human ones, trickled down. Burned animal bones have been found there, as well as burned human bones. Jewelry, horse fittings and metallic clothing decorations were also found in the pit.

The most numerous objects were fragments of ceramics. Archaeologists believe these are the remnants of ritually smashed beverage vessels. The beverage was used at the feast celebrating a sacrifice, and as soon as the fluid was drunk, the containers were thrown on the fire, smashing it into pieces.

Rare early 1800s sleigh restored

A rare early 19th century horse-drawn sleigh is being restored to its former splendor in Sandwich, Massachusetts. The Portland Cutter sleigh, built in the early 1800s, has spent untold years in obscurity in a broken-down shed at Meadow Spring Farm. It was rediscovered by John Nye Cullity, executive director of the Nye Family Association, when the farm was set to go on sale in 1997. It was derelict, only the bottom of it intact, the rest in pieces. Cullity rescued it and kept it safe, but he didn’t have the first idea how to to go about putting it back together.

Former boatbuilder and current historical archaeologist David Wheelock found out about the sleigh while doing some repairs to a grist mill next to the Benjamin Nye Homestead and Museum which is managed by the Nye Family Association. He offered to restore the sleigh.

When the sleigh was collected from the crumbling farm site, its pieces were so covered in animal feces and cobwebs that they looked black, and there was some debate as to whether the sleigh was salvageable.

Undeterred, Mr. Wheelock spread everything he could find of the sleigh, including one of the four wooden wedges used to hold the convertible top on, upon the lawn and spent a day with a scrub brush and pail of soapy water, cleaning each piece.

When the scrubbing was finished, he could see the sleigh’s original colors of red, blue, blue/green, and black.

Mr. Wheelock then reassembled the sleigh. He noticed a black, oily substance under the driver’s bench and realized it was tallow stains from years of the drivers’ boots rubbing against the wood. Tallow was once used as waterproofing grease.

These historic tallow stains will be left untouched when he repaints the rest of the sleigh, he said.

A Portland Cutter was a light sleigh with a square body shape, flat body panels and a dash designed to protect riders from the wind and snow kicked up by the horse. That dash started out flat but later evolved a curved shape The original designer is believed to be Peter Kimball, a carriage maker in Portland, Maine, but their speed and maneuverability made them the most popular form in the country and many manufacturers, particularly in New England, Michigan and Wisconsin, sold models of Portland Cutters all over the country.

Drawn by one horse, the cutter was the most convenient conveyance in snowy climes before the automobile blew all horse-drawn vehicles off the road. Carriages could not negotiate snow-covered roads anywhere near as well. People would take the trotters that drew their carriages when the ground was passable and hitch them up to the sleigh the same way we switch out our regular tires with snow tires today.

A certain song you may have heard once or twice (ie, ad nauseum), written by James Pierport and published in 1857 as “One Horse Open Sleigh,” now known as “Jingle Bells,” was inspired by the Portland Cutter. The bells were necessary, in some places even legally required, because the horses’ hooves were muffled by snow and the sleighs’ runners so quiet that they often caused traffic accidents. The bells on the horse’s harness were an alert system. The sleighs were open, with no roof or enclosure to protect the riders from the cold of winter (hence the song). People kept warm under blankets, or by putting a metal box of hot coals on the floor of the sleigh and using it as a toasty footrest.

The cutters were so fast (“dashing through the snow” wasn’t a euphemism) that sleigh racing became a fashionable winter sport and going to watch the sleigh races a popular pastime. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote about attending the sleigh races in his diary.

So they were road hard and put away wet (for once that idiom can be used literally), and early models are very hard to find in any condition at all. That’s why an early 19th century model is a major discovery, and why it’s worth all the hard work necessary to put one back together.

Wheelock believes that 80% of the original parts can be used in the restoration, wood panels, the original wooden pegs, hand-cut nuts and bolts, the wrought iron braces, all but the bottom of the iron runners. The runners will be photographed and documented so that their precise curve can be recreated after they’re removed from the sleigh because as soon as they’re no longer bearing weight, the curves will release.

By a great stroke of history nerd luck, Mr. Cullity is in possession of a photograph shot around 1900 of his great-great-grandfather Robert Armstrong riding in that sleigh, blanket on his lap, in the snow-covered wilds of Route 6A in Sandwich. That means the sleigh put in at least a century of service. The picture is also invaluable to Wheelock’s restoration since it shows the sleigh intact and in use.

The Nye family will be involved in the restoration in another way too. White oak boards that were cut into planks by Cullity’s grandfather 100 years ago will be used to make new runners and braces for the sleigh.

The restoration should be complete by mid-June, in time for it to go on display at the Nye Homestead when it reopens for the season.