Oldest tattoo tool in North America identified

An artifact stored in the Washington State University (WSU) Museum of Anthropology for 40 years has been identified as the oldest tattooing device in North America. The tool, two prickly pear cactus spines inserted into the soft middle of a lemonade sumac stem and bound with yucca leaf strips, was excavated in 1972 from a midden at the Turkey Pen site in the Greater Bears Ears Landscape of southeastern Utah. One of the points of the spines was broken off, which is probably why it was discarded into the midden pile. Coprolites and corn cobbs in the midden layer that included the artifact were radiocarbon dated to a range of 79-130 A.D. during the Basketmaker II period (ca. 500 B.C. – 500 A.D.).

There are historical accounts of tattooing practices in Native American peoples of the southwest after the arrival of Europeans, but colonial authorities generally considered it a barbarous cultural expression and suppressed it actively. It was poorly documented and traditional tattooing was frequently prohibited. It largely died out in North America after European contact.

Evidence of indigenous tattooing before that is very slim. No tattoos have been found on pre-contact mummified human remains and there are no ancient written accounts of the practice. Rare surviving tattoo tools and depictions in ancient iconography are all scholars have had to go on when studying body modification and adornment in southwestern Native American cultures before they were disrupted by European colonization, and it’s unclear whether the artworks depict tattoos, body paint or scarification.

The device was discovered by WSU anthropology PhD candidate Andrew Gillreath-Brown during an inventory of the Turkey Pen material. Cactus spine tattoo tools have been found before at Native American sites in Arizona and New Mexico, but the oldest of them date to between 1100-1280 A.D. This device looked like ones found elsewhere in the southwest only it was used a thousand years before them.

The tool consists of a 3 ½ inch wooden skunkbush sumac handle bound at the end with split yucca leaves and holding two parallel cactus spines, stained black at their tips.

“The residue staining from tattoo pigments on the tip was what immediately piqued my interest as being possibly a tattoo tool,” Gillreath-Brown said.

Encouraged by Aaron Deter-Wolf, a friend and co-author of the study who has done studies on ancient tattooing and edited several books on the subject, Gillreath-Brown analyzed the tips with a scanning electron microscope, X-ray florescence and energy dispersive ray spectroscopy. For good measure, he did several test tattoos using a replica on pig skin.

He saw the crystalline structure of pigment and determined it likely contained carbon, a common element in body painting and tattooing.

The find, said Gillreath-Brown, “has a great significance for understanding how people managed relationships and how status may have been marked on people in the past during a time when population densities were increasing in the Southwest.”

The study has been published in the Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports and can be read in its entirety for free online.

Roman soldier graffiti phallus comes to light

Archaeologists documenting graffiti carved by Roman soldiers near Hadrian’s Wall in the 3rd century uncovered a large phallus concealed for centuries behind vegetation. Soldiers left their distinctive marks in 207 A.D. when cutting stone from the quarry in Cumbria to supply material for major repairs and strengthening of Hadrian’s Wall ordered by the emperor Septimius Severus. He was in Britain launching an invasion of Scotland at the time, so refortifying the northern border was a top priority for him.

The site is known as the Written Rock of Gelt and inscriptions were first discovered there in the 18th century. It became a popular attraction and a path was built to allow people to view the ancient graffiti on the 30-foot rock face. The path collapsed in the 1980s and was not rebuilt, making the inscriptions largely inaccessible. Overgrowth of plant matter and erosion of the soft sandstone has obscured the graffiti and steadily worn away at the surface.

As well-known as the site it is, because of the difficulty in accessing it the inscriptions have never been documented to modern archaeological standards. A team from Newcastle University is in a race against time to fully explore and record them all before they are gone forever. They have found more than they expected.

It was thought ‘The Written Rock of Gelt’ included a group of nine Roman inscriptions, of which only six were legible, however more are being discovered, some are new and others were previously thought to be lost. Four new written and figurative inscriptions were discovered while preparations for this new project were being made, including a relief sculpture of a Phallus – a Roman ‘good luck’ symbol.

The site is one of only a handful of Roman quarries in England to feature these kinds of inscriptions. The information recorded is of particular importance because it gives the names of men and in some instances, their rank and military units. One datable inscription ‘APRO ET MAXIMO CONSVLIBVS OFICINA MERCATI’ referring to the consulate of Aper and Maximus, offers proof of rebuilding and repair work to the Roman frontier in the early third century AD.

The inscriptions also identify the legions deployed to the quarry. One reads C IVL PECVLIARIS VEXILATIO LEG XX VV, which translates to “The century of Julius Peculiaris; detachment of the Twentieth Legion Valeria Victrix.” Another reads “VEX LI EG II AVG OF APR SVB AGRICOLA OPTIONE,” meaning “a detachment of the Second Legion Augusta, working April under Agricola, Optione [the NCO designated by the centurion to command the detachment]”. There’s a smiley face next to that inscription, possibly a cheeky nod at Agricola.

There’s another image, a profile head and shoulders that may have been been a more elaborate caricature of a commanding officer. And because the classics are classics for a reason, one carving notes “Publius Aelius Hadrianus est hic,” the Roman legionary version of “Kilroy was here.”

Archaeologists are collaborating with climbers to abseil down the rock face. Hoisted on ropes and pulleys, the team is cleaning the surface first and then recording it using structure-from-motion (SfM) photogrammetry. The high-resolution images will then be used to create a detailed 3D record of the incriptions. The 3D models will be made available to the public later this year on Historic England’s Sketchfab page.

12th c. triple toilet seat goes on display

Move over, Vindolanda with your single-ass toilet seat. Medieval London is giving you three times the run for your money. A unique three-seater wooden toilet seat from the 12th century is going on display at the Museum of London Docklands. The rough hewn oak plank was preserved for centuries in the waterlogged environment of the Fleet River, one of the tributaries of the Thames that were “lost” to the development of the London sewage system in the Victorian era. It was unearthed in excavations near Ludgate Hill in the 1980s but the discovery wasn’t announced before because the money ran out before the thousands of artifacts from what was then the largest archaeological dig in London history could be published. (Besides, even experts didn’t appreciate scatological archaeology three decades ago as much as we do now.)

The communal toilet seat was once perched over a cesspit that emptied into the Fleet. It served the needs of people who lived and worked in on what was then a small island. Archaeologists even know its name, amazingly enough.

Remarkably, archaeologists have even been able to identify the owners of the building, which was known at the time as Helle: a capmaker called John de Flete and his wife, Cassandra. “So what I love about this is that we know the names of the people whose bottoms probably sat on it,” said Kate Sumnall, the curator of archaeology for the exhibition.

They would probably have shared the facilities with shopkeepers and potentially other families who lived and worked in the modest tenement block, she said. “This is a really rare survival. We don’t have many of these in existence at all.”

The toilet seat will be part of an exhibition dedicated to London’s lost rivers: Effra, Fleet, Neckinger, Lea, Wandle, Tyburn, Walbrook and Westbourne. Remains preserved in the loving embrace of the city’s rivers will go on display alongside the seat exemplifying how said rivers were used by Londoners as open sewers before they were diverted into culverts to be used as closed ones today. Bronze Age weapons deposited in the Thames as ritual offerings, a dog collar, animal skulls, discarded porcelain will represent the archaeology of the rivers while photographs, paintings, poems and film represent its history. Secret Rivers runs from May 24th through October 27th. Admittance is free, and just in case seeing the toilet seat isn’t worth the ticket price, a plastic replica will be available for visitors to perch upon. That’s a group selfie opportunity not to be missed.

Restorative deboning at iconic Czech bone chapel

The Sedlec Abbey ossuary in Kutná Hora, Czech Republic, is known worldwide for its extravagant towers, massive central chandelier and decorative flourishes constructed of human bone. The Sedlec Ossuary is one of the greatest tourist draws in the Czech Republic, attracting a half million visitors a year.

The church was originally built around 1400 after the monastery’s cemetery became a major regional draw due to its having been sprinkled with soil from Golgotha in the 13th century. Death’s rich harvest during the Bubonic Plague of the mid-14th century and the Hussite Wars 50 years later gave the cemetery more business than it could handle, and the church included an ossuary on the lower level so bones could be stored to make room for new graves.

For hundreds of years monks collected bones in stacks in the ossuary, but the artistic bone structures as they exist today were created by woodcarver Frantisek Rint in 1870. (He signed his work, yes, in bone.) It’s estimated that the skeletons of 40,000-70,000 individuals, 60,000 or so skulls and 450,000 long bones, were used to create four large pyramidal mounds in each corner of the chapel and the other decorations in the nave and on the walls.

Now those famous pyramids are being dismantled as part of a major restoration project to repair structural issues of the mounds and of the church building itself. Without dismantling the pyramids, it’s not possible to repair plaster walls, floors and windows and dehumidify the space.

Restorers began to dismantle the first of the four pyramids in November. The bones are being placed in paper boxes one at a time and removed to a conservation laboratory where each bone will be surface cleaned, soaked in a weak lime solution and dried. They won’t be scoured or even cleaned as thoroughly as restorers cleaned the hanging elements like the chandelier and the Schwarzenberg coat of arms

The biggest concern is that over time the pyramids have suffered damage at the base. The deformation of the lower layers poses a danger to the entire structure and the deconstruction will hopefully help identify the root cause of the problem. It could largely be a matter of weight, the towers being too massive for the bones on the bottom to bear. Endemic mold and moisture also play a part.

It’s already clear that some of the bones have been irreparably damaged by moisture and will have to be replaced. What material will be used is undetermined at this juncture. Bones from a neighboring church with a small ossuary could be borrowed, or copies could be made out of mineral materials.

In order to rebuild the pyramids so they look exactly the same as they used to, experts will have to replace and shore up damaged parts in ways that do not alter the original design. The firm Nase Historie has been engaged to scan the bone towers using photogrammetry, thousands of high-resolution images mapped and stitched together to create an extremely accurate 3D model.

Conservators estimate that it will take at least four months to dismantle each tower, but that’s speculative at this point. Nobody really knows what’s in these pyramids, the real number of bones, whether there is any debris or osseous material shoring up the intact bones. Being able to count precisely how many bones were used to create these towers is another unique opportunity afforded by the restoration project.

As restorers work on the towers, visitors continue to be allowed access to the chapel. A dust-proof barrier separates the pyramids and chapel, but there are windows in it to give people a chance to see the reconstruction.

Rare Brazilian feathered cloak restored, exhibited

An extremely rare surviving feathered cloak from the northeast coast of Brazil has been restored and will go on display at the Pinacoteca Ambrosiana in Milan starting Tuesday, February 26th.

The cloak dates to between the late 16th and early 17th century. Triangular in shape and complete with a small hood that originally was decorated with yellow macaw feathers (now almost entirely lost), it was made by tying feathers to a net woven of cotton. Most of the feathers are bright orange-red plumes from the scarlet ibis. Yellow and blue accents were created with macaw feathers. The materials, cotton and feathers, are so delicate very few feathers cloaks have survived until our time. This is the only one known to have a distinctive geometric pattern on the back, believed to be a stylized line representation of a bird.

The Ambrosiana has held the mantle in its collection for almost its entire life. It was donated by Milanese cleric and collector Manfredo Settala (1600-1680). He was one of the greatest collectors in 17th century Europe, going far beyond the cabinet of curiosities popular among the aristocracy of the period into a full-on museum replete with art, ancient pottery, China, sculpture, exotic animals, fossils, shells, clocks, optical devices, corals, gemstones, minerals, jewelry, foodstuffs (nuts, beans, spices, cacao) skeletons, mummies and just about anything else you can imagine. His collection was so vast that the Bibliteca Ambrosiana was unable to accommodate Settala’s offer to donate it in its entirety because they didn’t have the space.

In a 1666 catalogue of the Settala Gallery, there was a whole chapter dedicated to “Pilgrim Curiosities of Indian Bird Feathers Ingeniously Woven.” The artifacts in this category include several Christian icons made of colored feathers in “Peru” (which may be more of a catch-all term for Spanish America rather than a specific origin), a belt and crown, a sash of Chilean ostrich feathers, another of “Indian crow” feathers “the color of fire.”

The mantle is described as an “Indian priestly vestment of sanguine color, a fiery weaving of many feathers naturally colored. A very remarkable work and worthy of being admired.” Settala had received it as a gift from Prince Federico Landi, scion of a noble family in northern Italy whose princely title had been granted by the Holy Roman Emperor. Landi was a political figure of some importance — he had ties to Philip III of Spain, Duke of Milan — and he and Settala shared an interest in collecting natural (and manufactured) wonders. His connection to the King of Spain likely provided him access to exceptional artifacts from Spain’s colonies. The feathered belt and crown in the Settala Gallery were donated by Prince Landi after Manfredo’s death in his memory.

It’s not labelled so I don’t know for sure, but I believe the mantle, its hood still richly feathered, is hanging on the front right wall in this drawing of the Settala Gallery from the 1666 catalogue:

Settala’s own records identify the “ceremonial mantle” as having been created by the Tupinambá people of Brazil. They record that it was a gift from Prince Landi and note that the the Tupinambá wore these garments during a ceremony depicted in a drawing by Belgian engraver Theodor de Bry in the late 16th century. (De Bry’s works were based on the writings of other people; he never traveled across the Atlantic himself, and there are numerous errors, inconsistencies and scenes more dramatic than factual in his oeuvre.)

Early European accounts of encounters with the Tupinambá published in the second half of the 16th century describe multiple uses of feathers in adornment: boiled chicken feathers used in tattooing, Toucan feathers worn as ear pendants and ostrich feathers strung on cotton thread worn as hip belts.

These accounts often remarked on the Tupinambá people’s reluctance (read: refusal) to wear clothing no matter how hard the colonizers and converters tried. The few indigenous garments the population did enjoy were worn for ceremonial purposes and had nothing like the full coverage the priests were so anxious to instill. Headdresses, cloaks and sashes adorned with the brightly colored feathers of different native birds were highly prized and handled with utmost care to preserve them from wear and tear.

Researchers hypothesize that mantles like this one may have been used by priests during the most important ceremony to the Tupinambá community: a cannibalistic ritual in which the flesh of sacrificed prisoners of wars was consumed to give warriors access to a paradiasical “World without Evil” after death.