Archive for June, 2018

Reward offered for Moundville artifacts stolen 40 years ago

Saturday, June 30th, 2018

The Moundville Archaeological Site near Tuscaloosa, Alabama, was the political and religious center of a Mississippian culture polity that flourished from the 11th to the 16th century. Today the park consists of 29 mounds and a large rectangular plaza which have been extensively excavated. It also includes a museum and archaeological repository. It is a National Historic Landmark and is the second largest Mississipian site after Cahokia, Illinois. one of Alabama’s most important historic sites.

In March of 1980, thieves broke into the Erskine Ramsey Archaeological Repository on the Moundville site and made off with 264 Native American artifacts. This was a loss of eight centuries worth of pottery vessels — bottles, bowls, jars and fragments — worth an estimated $1 million in 1980, the equivalent of about $3 million today. Some of the stolen objects were, according to archaeologists, among the highest-quality artifacts ever found at Moundville, recovered during excavations in the 1930s and completely irreplaceable. The sheer quantity was devastating as well, representing one fifth of the entire Moundville pottery collection and an agonizing 70% of the museum-quality pieces. To this day, the Moundville theft is the largest recorded antiquities theft in the Southern United States.

The theft was discovered by University of Michigan students who walked into the repository on March 6th to find boxes of artifacts lined up against the wall. Authorities suspect the thieves made several trips with boxes full of loot and had another one (or more) planned but were thwarted for some reason. The organized nature of the theft and the consistently exceptional quality of the chosen items strongly suggests that thieves were either educated in Mississippian artifacts or working with/for someone who was.

It’s been more than 38 years and none of the 264 artifacts have been seen since, let alone recovered. Because the market for Native American objects is predominately US-based, it’s likely they’re still in the country, even after so much time has elapsed. The thefts weren’t widely publicized at the time. There was a notice posted in the Journal of Field Archaeology in 1981 and the FBI was on the case, but it’s a whole new world now when it comes to the sale of stolen antiquities. Large internet auction sites like eBay are routinely used by looters, dealers and collectors to sell goods with questionable ownership histories.

In the hope that the power of the information age might be harnessed to solve this mystery, a private organization, the Associates for the Return of Moundville Artifacts, is now offering a reward of $15,000 for any information leading to the recovery of these priceless objects. They’ve established a confidential tip line (205 348-2800) for people to call with information. There’s a photo gallery of most of the stolen artifacts online here. If you see anything like them during your surfing and antiquing, please call the tip line.

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Pompeii fugitive wasn’t pinned after all

Friday, June 29th, 2018

When the skeletal remains of a man were found with a large stone block where his skull and neck should be in excavation of the Regio V area of Pompeii, archaeologists hypothesized that he had been killed when when the pyroclastic flow of superheated volcanic gasses shot the 660-stone at him, striking his upper thorax and head and pinning him to the ground. The image gave rise to many Wile E. Coyote references with Vesuvius playing the role of the Roadrunner.

Now everyone who made those Acme-brand japes is going to have to take them back, because the man’s skull and bones from his upper body have been found and they’re intact. He wasn’t killed by a giant stone being dropped on him after all.

The excavations at the corner of the Alley of the Balconies and the Alley of the Silver Wedding where the lower body was found unearthed a tunnel underneath it. The tunnel likely dates to the reign of the Bourbon kings of Naples in the 18th century when Pompeii was first “excavated,” to use the term loosely. King Charles III of Naples’ interest in funding these explorations was largely informed by the hope of acquiring fine ancient artifacts for his collection. Destroying structures mattered not one whit to him, so disturbing human remains didn’t even rank notice.

This particular tunnel eventually caved in, and the top part of the body, formerly articulated with the rest of the skeleton above the pumice layer, slid into the cavity. The tunnel didn’t extend under the block so the stone and the bottom section of the skeleton remained in their original positions, supported by the hardened pumice layer.

His death was presumably not, therefore, due to the impact of the stone block, as initially assumed, but likely to asphyxia caused by the pyroclastic flow. The identified skeletal remains consist of the upper part of the thorax, the upper limbs, the skull and jaw. Currently undergoing analysis, they display some fractures, the nature of which will be identified, so as to be able to reconstruct the final moments in the life of the man with greater accuracy.

Earlier this month, archaeologists found another piece of this poor soul’s puzzle: his hasty escape kit. A small leather pouch was discovered under his lower body. It contained 20 silver coins and an iron key. The key was likely his house key, an artifact that bears sad witness to the expected homecoming he and so many others would be brutally denied. The coins were worth a total of 80 sestertii, the equivalent of about $600, enough money for the average Roman family to live on comfortably for two weeks. The amount of cash he had on him suggests he was neither a wealthy man nor a poor one.

The skeletal remains, the leather purse and the coins are now in a laboratory where they will be conserved and studied to shed light on the man and the events that overtook him more than 1900 years ago.

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Bronze hand from Jupiter shrine found at Vindolanda

Thursday, June 28th, 2018

Archaeologists have unearthed a beautifully preserved realistic bronze sculpture of a hand at the Roman fort of Vindolanda in Northumbria. Working with a team of volunteers, Vindolanda’s archaeologists found the hand five feet under ground level in ditch fill from the Severan period (ca. 208-212 AD). The child-sized hand, less than four inches long, had been discarded in the ditch and was caked was dirt.

When conservators cleaned off the layer of dirt, they found that the hand was of very high quality, finely crafted and believably realistic, especially on the palm side. They also saw that the hand originally had an attachment inserted in the palm. That attachment is lost. It’s likely that whatever was once there was the star of the show, which is why the palm was so well-made. A socket at the base of the hand suggests it was not broken off of a statue, but rather a stand-alone piece originally fixed to a pole.

The find site is close to the remains of a shrine to Jupiter Dolichenus that were found in the northern wall of the of the 3rd century fort during a 2009 excavation. Archaeologists believe the hand was connected to the temple, serving a votive function associated with the worship of Jupiter Dolichenus. Votive hands have been found at or near other Jupiter Dolichenus temples. They were bigger, however, and several had inscriptions referring to the deity which made their votive role clear.

As seen in the altar to Jupiter Dolichenus found in the 2009 of the northern wall, the god is depicted holding a thunderbolt in one hand a double-headed axe in the other. His arm (usually the one holding the axe) is upraised and the votive hands are believed to represent the protection conferred by his power.

Dr Andrew Birley, CEO and Director of Excavations at the Vindolanda Trust commented, “We did not expect to find such a beautifully preserved and rare cult artefact so soon after the start of the 2018 excavation season. When we excavated the nearby temple to Dolichenus in 2009 it was clear that the temple treasures had been removed in Roman times. However, this find being made in a nearby area reminds us that the life of the temple and the practices associated with the worship of Dolichenus had clearly stretched beyond the confines of its stone walls.”

Founded in Doliche, modern-day Dülük, Turkey, the mystery religion spread throughout the Roman Empire in the early 2nd century, largely thanks to its popularity in the army. It was supported by all the Severan emperors, which is why its popularity plummeted in the mid-3rd century when the last of the Severans, Alexander Severus, was assassinated by the army in 235 A.D. and Maximinus Thrax elected his successor by those same assassins. Thrax came from humble origins and was extremely suspicious that people were out to topple him (they were), so he took action anything and anyone associated with his predecessors. The worship of Jupiter Dolichenus was one of the fatalities.

Cleaned and conserved, the bronze hand has gone on display at the Vindolanda museum in the same gallery as the stone altar.

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Leprosy DNA extracted from medieval skeletons in Denmark

Wednesday, June 27th, 2018

An international team of researchers has studied the bones of 85 individuals from the 12th and 13th centuries afflicted with extremely severe cases of leprosy. Isolated and shunned in life as victims of an infectious disease that causes visible disfigurement and deformity, leprosy sufferers were isolated in death too, buried in a dedicated cemetery. The skeletons were excavated from the leprosarium cemetery of St. George in Odense, Denmark, in the early 1980s and are now stored at the University of Southern Denmark.

Out of the 85 individuals from the Odense cemetery tested, 69 contained sufficient nuclear DNA to yield genotype data and those 69 also tested positive for the presence of the bacterium. The genetic material was compared against 223 skeletons from the same period unearthed in Denmark and Northern Germany that showed no evidence of leprosy infection. That makes this is the first case-control study relying on ancient DNA.

There are no automated systems for analyzing ancient DNA. Researchers had to manually remove any impurities from the Odense DNA and analyze the cleaned samples. They were able to examine 50-100 milligrams of material extracted from the teeth and hard bones of the skull. From that material they extracted up to 5% human DNA and several parts-per-thousand of leprosy DNA. For an ancient DNA study, those are really high yields, possible only because of the excellent state of preservation of the remains.

As a result of the analyses, researchers discovered that one particular variant of the HLA-DRB1 gene, whose job is to recognize bacteria and trigger an immune response, notably fell down on the job when it came to leprosy. Its presence made people more susceptible to it. The isolation that people with leprosy were subjected to had one upside: it made it much less likely that they’d have children to whom they could pass down the HLA-DRB1 variant. This might have contributed to the ultimate demise of the disease in Europe.

Scientists do not know precisely when and how the disease first came to Europe, but the crusades reached their peak between 1200 and 1400 CE, just when Boldsen’s research suggests that half of the population in the worst hit areas were dying with the disease.

Leprosy was almost wiped out in Denmark and large parts of Europe during the 1500s. But why it disappeared is a big question, says Bygbjerg,

“You might assume that the disease disappeared because the bacteria behind leprosy changed and became less dangerous. But the study shows that this is not the case,” he says.

The HLA variant also plays a role in inflammatory and autoimmune disorders like rheumatoid and psoriatic arthritis, ulcerative colitis, multiple sclerosis and type 1 diabetes, so the study of medieval leprosy may prove to have far wider implications, adding to our knowledge of the development of diseases that plague so many people today.

The bacterial genome sequencing revealed that leprosy victims in medieval Odense were afflicted by more than one strain of bacteria. Researchers have sequenced 10 complete leprosy genomes attesting to how complex leprosy infection was in 12th and 13th century Odense. As leprosy is not native to Denmark, carriers brought multiple strains into the area. This find came as a surprise as researchers previous knew of only one strain of Mycobacterium leprae in the area.

The study has been published in the journal Nature Communications and can be read in its entirety free of charge here.

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Rubens portrait rediscovered in South Africa

Tuesday, June 26th, 2018

A portrait by Peter Paul Rubens that was smuggled out of Germany to South Africa in the early 1930s and hung, unpublished and unrecognized, on the wall of the family home for decades, has been rediscovered and put up for auction. Portrait of a Gentleman depicts an elegant bearded man in a large white ruff and a finely woven black coat.

The identity of the sitter is lost and while Rubens is believed to have painted it between 1598 and 1609, the first time it appears on the historical record is when it was sold in Doornik (aka Tournai, modern-day Belgium) in 1740. Even though it is unsigned, it was recognized as a work by Rubens at that time, but in later sales the attribution bounced back and forth between Rubens and Frans Porbus the Younger. When it was sold in Amsterdam to a German-Jewish doctor in 1925, it was as a Rubens. The doctor had renown Dutch art historian Henk Peter Bremmer examine the painting and he confirmed that the oil on oak panel painting was in fact painted by Peter Paul Rubens. In 1927 two other well-known art historians agreed with Bremmer’s assessment.

Shortly thereafter, the doctor became increasingly concerned about the political situation in Germany. He discussed the rise of Nazism with his patients and during one of those conversations, he came to the grim realization that he had to leave Germany as quickly as possible to save his and his family’s future. A patient offered to keep his belongings safe, including his large and valuable art collection, to make it easier for him to get out of Dodge. That patient was as good as his word and returned everything to the doc once he’d gotten out of the country before he left for South Africa.

The doctor settled in Johannesburg around 1932 and established a successful practice. He also became an well-respected teacher. His Rubens hung on the wall the whole time. His family referred to the portrait as “the funny old man.”

In 2017, they approached fine art expert Luke Crossley with auctioneers Stephan Welz & Co to appraise a couple of works from the doctor’s collection. They told him they had come across a letter that claimed the portrait was the work of Rubens. Crossley had little hope that this was accurate as Old Master fakes are rampant and many families who think they’ve found a masterpiece by a famous artist in their own homes discover to their dismay that they have a nothing by nobody.

His rational pessimism turned to glee when he researched the portrait. Crossley was able to discover its long ownership history going back to the 18th century and the many expert attributions over the years. Rubens paintings are not exactly rife in South Africa, so this was a major find, a career high as well as a boon for the doctor’s heirs.

Stephan Welz & Co have put portrait on display at the Killarney Country Club in Johannesburg. Next week it will move to Cape Town. It is on silent auction until June 29th. The pre-sale estimate is $370,000-$592,000. If you’d like to make your own play for the funny old gentleman, fill in this form and email or fax it to the bidding department.

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Ghent Altarpiece Mystic Lamb is mystical again

Monday, June 25th, 2018

The formal name of what has become known as the Ghent Altarpiece is the Adoration of the Mystic Lamb. The central panel of the massive 18-panel polyptych painted by Jan and Hubert van Eyck for the Saint Bavo Cathedral depicts the Lamb of God on an altar, encircled by kneeling angels. A symbol of the sacrifice of Christ, the Lamb has a wound on its chest which gushes a thick stream of blood into a chalice. Adoring the Lamb in four distinct groups are prophets, apostles, saints, popes and assorted church figures, martyrs, the Righteous Judges and Warriors of Christ.
It is the only panel on the altarpiece that is horizontal and at 134.3 x 237.5 cm (4’5″ x 7’10”), it is as wide as the three vertically oriented panels above it.

As with the other panels in the altarpiece, the Adoration of the Lamb was awkwardly overpainted. First some small wanna-be restorations to areas of the panel were done and then, in the middle of the 16th century, just over a hundred years after the masterpiece was completed in 1432, a more ambitious refurbishment was undertaken to correct the earlier interventions and fill in paint loss. The result of this was that 45% of the central panel was overpainted. The Lamb was the primary victim of this well-meaning assault. The background landscape — the sky, the hills and the spires of New Jerusalem — and the altar cloth and draped robes suffered most of the remaining blows.

A 1951 restoration removed some of the overpaint on the head of the Lamb, but again the good intentions wound up as pavers on the road to Hell. When the green overpaint around the head was removed, the original smaller ears of the Lamb were revealed and since restorers didn’t remove the 16th century Dumbo ears, the poor fella looked to have four ears.

Overpaint, faulty restorations, the misfortunes of war, fire, moisture, climate and everything else that can possibly happen to a giant icon of late medieval art had left all of the panels in dire need of thorough conservation. A major conservation and restoration project saw the first eight panels removed to the Ghent Museum of Fine Arts in 2012 where experts from the Royal Institute for Cultural Heritage (KIK-IRPA) began the slow, painstaking process of returning the Ghent Altarpiece as close as possible to its original splendor.

That project continues today, and KIK-IRPA conservators are now working on the central panel, the very core of the altarpiece. Thankfully, they found that despite all the interference over the years, almost all of the original Van Eyck paint layers remained intact under the mess. Only 3% was lost. That allowed them to painstakingly remove all of the later overpaint and reveal the panel as the Van Eycks originally created it.

Lamb of God after overpaint removal. Saint Bavo Cathedral, Gent © Lukasweb.be-Art  in Flanders vzw, photo courtesy KIK-IRPA.After intensive research, the restoration team of the Royal Institute for Cultural Heritage (KIK-IRPA, Brussels) has removed the old overpaint that masked the main figure of the Ghent Altarpiece for nearly five centuries. As such, the well-known Lamb – an impassive and rather neutral figure, with a wide forehead and large ears – has given way to Van Eyck’s original. With its intense gaze this medieval Lamb, characterized by a graphically defined snout and large frontal eyes, draws the viewer into the scene of His ultimate sacrifice.[…]

While removing the overpaint – a delicate operation carried out under the microscope with surgical scalpels – the restorers discovered a subtly shaded sky with streaks of clouds above graceful mountains. The original buildings, overpainted with greyish layers, were painted in a variety of colours, with a beautiful play of light. Even previously hidden buildings are emerging from beneath the much simpler overpaint at the horizon. Solid-coloured garments make place for luminous draperies with complex folds defined by delicate highlights and deep shadows.

The seemingly bizarre choice of making the Lamb of God look like an expressionless animal was a function of the 16th century tastes in painting. The powerful gaze directed straight at the viewer of Van Eyck’s original humanized the Lamb, conveying its identification with Jesus. The more realistically lamb-like overpainted version, its entrancingly human eyes replaced with small prey animal eyes on the sides of its head, was more in keeping with 16th century conventions.

The restoration is ongoing so it’s only on view to the public at the Ghent Museum of Fine Arts during the weekends. On weekdays conservators get full custody of the panel. It needs to be laid flat for this stage of the conservation, so it can’t be seen by visitors to the museum.

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Aztec temple under supermarket opens to public

Sunday, June 24th, 2018

The 14th century temple to the wind god Ehécatl-Quetzalcóatl discovered underneath a former supermarket in Mexico City has opened to the public. The temple was found in 2014 after the old El Sardinero supermarket in the Tlatelolco neighborhood was demolished giving archaeologists from the National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH) a rare opportunity to excavate under the crowded streets of Mexico City. This site is on a heavily trafficked avenue. It has a busy shopping center, the Plaza Tlatelolco, on one side and a massive housing unit on the other. There was no way of breaking ground if it hadn’t been for the demise of the supermarket building.

Less than 10 feet under the surface, the 2014 excavation unearthed the top of a circular stone platform and the burials of 20 people and animals. A follow-up excavation in 2016 revealed the full platform, an impressive 36 feet in diameter and four feet in height with a 13-foot access platform in the front. Much of it was still covered with its original stucco, a very rare surviving feature. The second dig also found another eight human burials.

In total, the remains of 32 individuals were discovered at the site, including children and adolescents who are believed to have been sacrificed to Ehécatl-Quetzalcóatl. Ehécatl was the rain-bringer and according to early Spanish chroniclers, the amount of rain that fell was determined by the number of tears shed by the sacrificial victims.

The excavated ceremonial enclosure, almost 4,000 square feet in area, has been preserved in situ as a subterranean archaeological park. It can be accessed through the Plaza Tlatelolco shopping center on Ricardo Flores Magón Avenue. You can’t just walk in, however. Due to the limited space in the enclosure and to maintain a propitious environment, visits to the temple are by appointment only.

The underground archaeological site is the product of collaboration between property owners, the construction company and the government which by law owns all archaeological remains discovered in Mexico. In the past, Mexico City’s explosive development has come at the expense of its pre-Hispanic cultural patrimony, much of which was built over without concern for preservation. Thanks to the hard work of archaeologists and advocates, priorities have shifted over the past two decades, and the new temple site is being held up by INAH as an example of how development doesn’t have to come at the expense of archaeology and can in fact benefit from it. The shopping center will get more traffic, prestige from its underground treasure while the city’s archaeological heritage is preserved.

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Beautiful bibliophile bait

Saturday, June 23rd, 2018


The Boston Public Library (BPL) has made available online more than 200 high-resolution photographs of its collection of exquisite fore-edge paintings. These are miniature masterpieces painted just inside the edge of the pages on the side of books. Some of them match the subject of the book; others are tributes to the wealthy aristocrats who commissioned them. All of them are gorgeous.

The idea of painting the outer page surface of a closed book took hold in the 17th century and became a popular trend for a while. It continued into the early 18th century but had largely fallen off the radar as the century came to a close. The Edwards family of Halifax, first William Edwards around 1755, followed by his even more innovative sons, revived the medium and turned it up to eleven.

John and James Edwards, sons of William, opened a bookshop on Pall Mall in London in 1784. They also maintained the family shop in Halifax which was much larger and may have been the place where some or most of the actual bookbinding for the Pall Mall shop was done. Both of the Edwards shops had a reputation for the elegance and quality of their bindings, but it was the London store that brought them the most rarified clientele of the age.

They used fine materials like calf leather, colored morocco, silk (for markers and end-leaves) and gold tooling to create expensive prêt-a-porter books and ultra-luxurious custom editions for bibliophiles and collectors from the staunchly respectable (vicars, scholars, assorted professionals) to the highest echelon of Britain society. Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, Marchioness of Rockingham and Queen Charlotte were repeat customers.

In 1785, James Edwards received a patent for a process to create transparent vellum that would line the covers and couple be painted or printed on the underside. This allowed books to be decorated to order with ink or pencil designs that would never rub off or smudge. The book’s front and back covers could be dusted and wiped clean with a wet cloth without any risk of the drawing on the delicate vellum lining would run. Family crests, monograms and initials were popular personalizations, on their own or accompanying figures drawn from the subject of the book.

The customized artwork of the vellum paintings neatly segued into fore-edge painting. Traditionally fore-edge paintings has been florals and heraldic motifs applied to the flat surface of the edge that could only be seen when the book was closed. The Edwards brothers eschews those limitations and created elaborate miniature widescreen panoramas of grand estates, landscapes, cityscapes, religious scenes, all applied to a thin sliver at the very edge of the pages so the pages had to be ever so slightly fanned out for the image to be seen. The painting became a sort of Easter egg, invisible when the book was closed because the outer surface was gilded; if the book was closed, all you saw was gold.

Their ambitious approach made bibliophiles swoon. Rev. Thomas Hartwell Home of the University of Cambridge described the technique in glowing terms in his 1814 book, An Introduction to the Study of Bibliography, Vol I:

To Messrs. Edwards, the lovers of ornamented books are indebted for a method of gilding upon marbled leaves, and decorating the edges of leaves with exquisite paintings; we have seen landscapes thus executed, with a degree of beauty and fidelity that are [sic] truly astonishing; and when held up to the light in an oblique direction, the scenery appears as delicate as in the finest productions of the pencil.

A Mrs. Thrale wrote about it in a letter to her daughter ca. 1812:

I have seen a newer – to me at least – a newer Method of displaying Elegance, in which, if you do not exceed all Your Competitors, it will be your own fault. Tis in Bookbinding – a White smooth Vellum cover to – [Mason] The English Garden – for example: must be painted with some Device relative to the subject on both sides – and the Leaves apparently gilt, must when you hold them in a particular manner – slanting, exhibit a beautiful Miniature Landscape painted likewise by the Lady; but concealed when the Book is shut. They are ten Guineas each, if you purchase; and Edwards of Pall Mall is the Owner of the Invention; but perhaps I am talking of a well known contrivance, which however surprized me.

We don’t know who painted the Edwards fore-edge mini-masterpieces. There are no signatures. Mrs. Thrale’s attribution of authorship to “the Lady” may have just been a groundless assumption on her part. Other accounts by people more closely connected to the Edwards suggest they were painted by one of the brothers, possibly John who made some of the finest of the vellum binding paintings.

Edwards weren’t the only bookbinders to create beautiful fore-edges. The Boston Public Library’s collection, amassed by Albert H. Wiggin in the second half of the 1940s, is the second largest in the country and the largest public collection. Its 258 volumes feature the work of several bookbinders and some of the most important fore-edge paintings extant, including a few very rare signed works.

Browse through the gallery here or click Browse to look through them by subject, category or title.

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Gold watch from Pulaski wreck stopped at crucial moment

Friday, June 22nd, 2018

The exploration of the wreck of the steamship Pulaski has ramped up for the summer dive season and propitious weather conditions have allowed teams to dive for longer periods. They have already recovered more than 150 gold and silver coins and assorted artifacts like thimbles, nails, ceramics and keys. One find, however, stands out for both material and historical value and because it’s like something from an Agatha Christie novel. It’s a solid gold pocket watch stopped at 11:05, five minutes after the boiler exploded and the ship began its rapid descent under the waves.

The watch was found inside a concretion about the size of a grapefruit. An intricate gold chain was visible, threaded through the chunk of hardened sand, rock, shells and marine debris. Only one small curve of the watch emerged from the edge of the concretion. It wasn’t clear until the concretion was removed that it was a gold watch and its fob, still attached as they had been in the pocket of the wealthy gentleman passenger who lost them in the disaster.

“We were shocked,” said Max Spiegel of Certified Collectables Group, which is handling preservation of Pulaski artifacts.

“It’s very unusual to see an artifact with that sort of impression of a historic moment, when a ship sank. Think about how fragile the watch’s hands are, yet they survived in that exact position. It’s one of the most exciting finds we’ve handled, and we’ve done a half dozen shipwrecks.”

Eye witnesses reported that the starboard boiler exploded at around 11:00 PM, but the reports from survivors could be contradictory, not surprising given the chaos of the explosion and sinking. Finding the stopped watch confirms the timeline.

The pocket watch is still in the process of being conserved. It is richly engraved and there are many of those details have yet to be revealed.

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Civil War limb pit found at Manassas

Thursday, June 21st, 2018

Archaeologists have unearthed a gristly testament to the horrors of the Civil War at Manassas National Battlefield Park in Virginia: a pit containing the skeletal remains of amputated limbs. This is the first Civil War surgeon’s limb pit ever found and professionally excavated. The pit also contained the complete skeletal remains of two men, the first recorded find of whole bodies and amputated limbs buried in the same grave from the Civil War.

The men of the First and Second battles of Bull Run were left on the field near Manassas rather than collected and buried in cemeteries, so there are human remains scattered throughout the park. The National Park Service maintains many Civil War battlefields as historic sites and as hallowed ground, preserving them rather than exploring them as archaeological sites.

The excavation of the limb pit is a very rare exception precipitated by an inadvertent find of bone fragments in 2014. Park staff suspected the bones might be human and enlisted the aid of experts from the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History to confirm it. They did. After much careful planning, a joint team of archaeologists from the National Park Service and the Smithsonian excavated a small area of the find site between October 19th and the 21st, 2015.

In those two days, the team unearthed the skeletons of the two soldiers, 11 limbs and a few artifacts. The soldiers proved pivotal to determining whether the pit dated to the first or second of the Manassas battles. One of soldiers was found with lead buckshot in his bones and metal buttons running down his chest. The buttons were of a type used in Union sack coats which weren’t in production yet in 1861. The pit is from the Second Battle of Bull Run (also known as the Second Battle of Manassas) took place on August 28-30, 1862. The other soldier was shot with an Enfield bullet that is still lodged high up his femur. Stable isotope analysis revealed that both soldiers were raised in the northeastern United States.

In dialogue with Bies at the Manassas site, and with the aid of military medical logs and other primary sources, Owsley and Bruwelheide pinned down what likely happened. Following the Second Battle of Bull Run, Union battlefield surgeons would have been admitted to the grounds by Confederate gatekeepers, with all but their most rudimentary supplies confiscated (it’s likely that chloroform was unavailable, meaning the procedures described above would have been undertaken with the patients conscious and suffering). There at the site, surgeons would have hastily operated on soldiers who had been baking in the sun and soaking in the rain without food for days on end. “Some of these amputations were probably done in less than ten minutes,” Owsley says.

The exactitude of the amputations under the circumstances was striking. Forensically, Owsley says, “you can read how the doctor’s positioned and how he’s cutting through the bone, and what pace he’s using in different locations. These were done by an experienced surgeon. This was not novice work.” […]

But what of the two full skeletons? Why were those men buried with the severed limbs of their brothers in arms? Owsley says the answer is simple. In the early days of the war, before the advent of sophisticated triage, the categories battlefield surgeons relied on were simple: those worth trying to save by amputation, and those beyond saving. The two men left in the shallow grave with the remains of their peers fell into the latter classification.

The remains of the two soldiers have been transferred in a solemn ceremony to the US Army. They will be buried at Arlington National Cemetery later this summer.

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