Mask of Palak found in Palenque

Archaeologists have discovered a stucco mask believed to depict Maya ruler Pakal the Great at the ancient site of Palenque in southern Mexico. It is a human visage, not a fantastical creature or deity. The face are those of an older man and there are no previously known images of Pakal as a senior, the features — in particular his prominent mouth — do map to depictions of the Lord of Palenque like his glorious jade mosaic funerary mask now in the National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City.

The apparent advanced age of the face in in the mask is itself evidence in favor of it being Pakal. Pakal ascended the throne in 603 A.D. at the age of 12 and reigned until his death 68 years later. His is the longest known reign in the Western hemisphere and the 30th longest in the world. Under his stable rule, the city-state of Palenque reached its political, military, cultural and architectural zenith.

Experts from Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH) discovered the mask during restoration work in House E of Palenque’s Palace complex. Work began in January to contain and restore damage caused by weather and wildlife in Houses A, B, C, D and E. At House E, the team was addressing the accumulation of water in the east courtyard which during the rainy season filtered into the building and caused persistent moisture problems. To seek out the source of the moisture infiltration, archaeologists dug under the exterior surface, a level equivalent to the bay of the building where the water was seeping in and damaging the stucco, wall paintings and characteristic ornamentation.

They unearthed the remains of what is believed to have been a pond. Just behind it is where the mask was discovered. Accompanying the mask were a large number of ritual offerings including ceramic figurines, vessels, jadeite pieces, napped flint, nacre shell, obsidian, cinnabar, pyrite, two pearls and a plethora of animal bones from fish, turtles, lizards, crabs, birds and snails. The offerings symbolize water and fertility. Many of these were imported luxury items, an indication of the high status of the individual represented and of the general prosperity of Palenque society.

“The offerings are usually presented when there is an end of a period, an architectural renovation or the construction of a new building. In this case, it looks like it was a renovation,” said González.

Elsewhere, [in House C] the researchers identified a nose-ring made of bone that although it does not belong to Pakal does coincide with its Late Classic period [(684-720 A.D.)].

“I do not know a naringuera of this type neither in Mayan area, nor in Mesoamérica; it’s unique,” said González.

The conservation of House E is going forward now with the construction of a new water drain that should alleviate the problem of moisture retention. The cleaning of the walls, which have seen significant microorganism growth as a result of the water problem, continues. The building is famed for its murals, considering the finest examples in Palenque, so restorers are focusing on removing microorganisms and concretions to conserve and protect the important murals.

Palenque is one of Mexico’s most popular archaeological sites. It gets 1,300,000 visitors a year, and that number is increasing.

Mummification 1,500 years older than previously thought

Egypt’s hot, dry desert climate preserved dead bodies long before the advent of artificial mummification. It was long believed that predynastic mummies curled in their characteristic fetal position, were all the product of natural causes, desiccated by the hot sands in which they were buried. A new study has found that a predynastic mummy of the Naqada I (3900-3700 B.C.) period in the collection of Turin’s Museo Egizio was enbalmed, not naturally mummified. That makes him the earliest known example of Egyptian mummification, embalmed 1,500 years before the time when the practice was previously believed to have begun in Egypt.

The mummy, affectionately known as Fred, was acquired in 1901 by renown Egyptologist Ernesto Schiaparelli who a few years later would go on to discover the tomb of Queen Nefertari at Deir el-Medina. It’s not certain where it came from; the most likely candidate is Gebelein. Schiaparelli was the director of the Museo Egizio for decades and the mummy has been in the museum’s collection since its acquisition. It has never been conserved or treated with modern materials, nor has it been subjected to scientific testing. That’s incredibly rare with mummies of any kind — archaeologists, amateurs, collectors used to tear into them with unfortunate gusto back in the day — and predynastic mummies are already far rarer than pharaonic ones.

It was this unusual lack of interventions which made the Turin mummy a unique opportunity for researchers to examine for evidence of deliberate mummification techniques. The team had already spent years studying impeccably-provenanced linen wrappings found in early Egyptian pit graves. Examination under a microscope revealed the presence of a toffee-like substance that subsequent chemical tests identified as pine resin, plant gum, a natural petroleum and fat. These same materials were used 3,000 years later at the peak period of Pharaonic mummification.

Those results were exciting, but they were not entirely convincing because the linens were not attached to any mummies. They were recovered on their own, and while the dating was solid and the discovery recognized by scholars as authentic, the materials could not be conclusively linked to a mummified individual and therefore could not be said to be an example of pre-pharaonic mummification practices. Fred, on the other hand, was the ideal mute witness.

The researchers sampled linen fragments from the mummy’s torso and right wrist, as well as from a woven basket that had been buried alongside the remains. Plant oils and animal fats permeated the ancient fabric, and the scientists pieced together an embalming “recipe” from the compounds that they found, which included sugar or gum, conifer resin, aromatic plant extracts, and antibacterial agents. These ingredients were in similar proportions to those found in balms used during the dynastic period, according to the study.

The Turin mummy is so old that it even predates written language (the earliest known evidence of writing dates to about 3400 B.C.). So, it’s likely that the embalming instructions were preserved verbally “and passed down through generations,” [study author Jana Jones, a research fellow with the Department of Ancient History at Macquarie University in Sydney] said at the briefing.

Fisherman finds Pictish symbol stone in river

A rare stone carved with Pictish symbols has been discovered in the River Don in Dyce, Aberdeen, thanks to an extended period of unseasonable heat and a keen-eyed local fisherman. The hot, dry weather this summer dropped the water level of the Don to the lowest it has been in decades, exposing the stone on the bank of the river. A fisherman spotted it and reported the find to Aberdeen University. Archaeologists examined the stone and identified it as a Class I Pictish symbol stone, an unworked stone dating to 6th to 8th century A.D. with multiple symbols carved into the surface, among them a triple disc with cross bar, a mirror, and a notched rectangle with two internal spirals.

Gordon Noble, Head of Archaeology at the University of Aberdeen, is currently leading a major research project into the early medieval Kingdoms of northern Scotland and Ireland. He said:

“Although there is a corpus of more than 200 of these stones across Scotland, each one is unique and this is a fantastic example which enables us to fill some of the gaps in the record and helps us to trace the development of literacy in north-east Scotland. As such, it is a very significant find.”

With the water levels expected to rise again soon, the clock was ticking on recovering the stone for further study, conservation and display. Experts from Historic Environment Scotland (HES), the Aberdeenshire Council and University of Aberdeen worked with contractors AOC Archaeology and a specialist lifting firm to raise the heavy stone out of the river. The logistical challenge was significant because the weight of the symbol stone required a crane to lift it safely, but the crane would have to be perched on the riverbank which is less than ideal a platform for heavy machinery. A mobile crane did the trick, however, and the ancient stone was successfully pulled form the Don without suffering any damage.

The stone has been transported to Edinburgh for the time being. Its final disposition has yet ot be determined.

14th c. hoard found in clay pot in Bulgaria

An excavation of the Kaliakra Fortress on the coast of the Black Sea in northern Bulgaria has unearthed a small clay pot full of coins, jewelry and other valuables hidden under a floor in the Middle Ages. A team of archaeologists headed by Bonnie Petrunova, director of the National History Museum (NHM) in Sofia, discovered the pot on August 17th, 2018, in a room that was burned in the 14th century, conveniently providing the outside date range for the burial of the hoard.

The pot, filled with soil as well as treasure, was moved to the NHM to be excavated in laboratory conditions. After painstaking removal of the soil, archaeologists found a total of 957 objects: 873 gold and silver coins, 11 fittings and buckles, 28 silver and bronze buttons, 11 gold earrings, one gold ring, a second metal ring and four gold beads studded with gems.

The coins include both Ottoman and Bulgarian silver issues. A majority of them, about 60% of them are Ottoman. Most of that 60% date to the reign of Sultan Bayazid Yildirum (1389-1402). A fraction of them are older, dating to the reign of his predecessor Murad I (1362-1389). Of the Bulgarian coins, 25% were minted under the reign of Ivan Alexander (1331-1371). They are very small, a symptom of the economic crisis in Bulgaria at the time. There are nine coins minted in Vidin by governor John Sratsimir. A few Byzantine silver pieces are also in the mix, including several very rare hyperpyroni.

The gold coins, much fewer in number, include 20 gold hyperpyroni of the Byzantine Empire, one the last gold coins issued of the empire. They are so debased and flimsy that it’s hard to identify them. Experts have been able to spot John V Palaiologos and his mother Anna of Savoy (regent during the minority of her son from 1341 until 1347), John VII Palaiologos, Andronikos II Palaiologos and Andronikos III Palaiologos on the obverse of some of them. There are also eight high quality Venetian gold coins, the classic Zecchino d’Oro, each made of 3.5 grams of 24-carat gold. Most of them were issued by Doges Marco Cornaro (1365-1368) and Andrea Dandolo (1343-1354).

The date range of the coins coincides with the evidence of the torching of the space to confirm the treasure pot was hidden under the floorboards at the end of the 14th century, a turbulent period in the history of the fortress who political fortunes are reflected in the coinage. The area was part of the Despotate of Dobruja, an autonomous principality in the fractured Bulgarian Empire. Under the control of Dobrotitsa, who gave himself the title “Despot,” the principality achieved its greatest power and territorial extent. Dobrotitsa made Kaliakra his capital and deployed his navy on the Black Sea in alliance with Venice against Genoa. He fought Murad I, who by the end of his reign would conquer much of modern-day Bulgaria. Dobrotitsa’s son Ivanko changed his father’s policy as soon as he ascended the throne in 1386, signing a peace agreement with the Ottoman sultan, another with Genoa and moving the capital from Kaliakra to Varna. The changes did not lead to stability and in 1388 Ivanko was killed fighting the Ottomans at Varna. Mircea I of Wallachia stepped into the vacuum of power and Wallachia, former vassal state of Dobruja, ruled the principality off and on until the Byzantine Empire took over in 1413.

To all this political instability and conflict, the Tartar invasions added yet more. A chronicler of the late 14th century records how the Tartars invaded Varna in 1399. Other Black Sea coastal towns also suffered their wroth, Kaliakra among them. It’s possible that the hoard was actually buried by a Tartar, in fact. The objects appear to have been collected from different people in one event rather than accumulated by a single individual over time. The Tartars of Aktav held the fortress in 1401 when they were defeated and dispatched. As the house in which the treasure was buried is a high-end one, it’s conceivable that a Tartar commander sequestered it for himself and was living there when the 1401 attack drove him out and burned down his dwelling.

Programming note/quickie

You may have noticed there was a bit of technology hiccup earlier today which disabled the site for a few hours. It was an IP address problem which has now been corrected. Regular programming will resume tomorrow.

Because I hate to leave y’all jonesing for your daily history fix, here’s a quick shot in the arm courtesy of Historic Royal Palaces. After a long period of neglect and decay left it closed to the public for decades, the Great Pagoda at Kew Gardens has been fully restored to as close to its original 18th century splendor as possible. The holes cut through its roofs for bomb testing during World War II have been repaired. The 80 dragons that have been lost for two centuries are back, a product of the efforts of 3D printing technology and fine wood carving craftsmanship. The results leave nothing to be desired, and visitors can now drink in two spectacular views: the top-notch revival of a sadly forlorn monument and London from on high.