Reward offered for Moundville artifacts stolen 40 years ago

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.

Pompeii fugitive wasn’t pinned after all

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.

Bronze hand from Jupiter shrine found at Vindolanda

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.

Leprosy DNA extracted from medieval skeletons in Denmark

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.

Rubens portrait rediscovered in South Africa

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.