Archive for February, 2019

Oldest tattoo tool in North America identified

Thursday, February 28th, 2019

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

Wednesday, February 27th, 2019

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

Tuesday, February 26th, 2019

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

Monday, February 25th, 2019

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

Sunday, February 24th, 2019

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.

The last witch to burn in central Norway

Saturday, February 23rd, 2019

During the European witch panics of the 16th and 17th century, more than 800 people were accused of witchcraft in Norway. Three hundred of them were found guilty and executed. The last to die in central Norway was one of the most pathetic victims and the domino effect of her case resulted in the longest and most widespread witch hunt in Trondheim. It dragged on for three years after her execution and ensnared more than 30 people.

Her name was Kirsten Iversdatter. She was a Sámi woman (the people historically known as Lapplanders) who drifted from town to town in the Gauldalen valley of Trøndelag county, begging for food and threatening people with curses when she was refused. She was commonly known as Finn-Kirsten, a reference to her Sámi origin. Her ethnicity played a large part in the fear she struck in the hearts of the locals, for the Sámi were reputed to have connections to the demonic world so powerful that not even the power of Christ could compel.

They could summon the spirits of their ancestors and gods of nature with their magical drums (the so-called ‘rune-drum’), enabling them to both see the future and divine news from distant places. Their percussive magic could find lost items and influence fortunes in life and business. Historical sources tell us that Norwegian farmers would pay the Sami for such magical services, but that one should be wary of their company. If one incurred the wrath of a Sami, so the Norwegians believed, the Sami could release a gand, an evil spirit and/or a physical object, which had the power to strike a man dead, even to split mountains.

So when Kirsten muttered imprecations or quickly appeared and disappeared in doorways, people got scared. Next thing you know, cows’ milk dried up, crops failed, family members got sick, horses died and Kirsten was blamed for it.

On February 18th, 1674, Kirsten was arrested in the village of Støren on suspicion of witchcraft. She was charged with harming people and animals in Gauldalen valley. She denied engaging in witchcraft, casting spells or causing any harm. In the absence of a confession, they came up with other charges that were more easily proven. The chaplain and villagers testified that she never went to church, which was a crime in those days. She also had two daughters, one 20, one two years old, neither of which were born in legitimate wedlock. Fornication was a crime too. So Finn-Kirsten was convicted of skipping church and having extra-marital sex and was condemned to die by beheading.

Her ordeal was far from over. Støren’s bailiff Jens Randulf had a reputation for being adept as getting witches to talk. His methods, one can imagine, were as brutal as they were effective. Even after denying the charges in her first trial and even though she was already condemned to death, Jens was so good at torturing her that she confessed to everything and more. She had “given herself to the Devil” who appeared to her as a dog. She traveled the mountains around Støren with Satan and his other human disciples, local ones this time.

Now that they had their confession, Kirsten’s previous infractions took a back seat and the witch trial started.

After this new confession, the case was transferred to Trondheim Court of Appeal. Finn-Kirsten was detained in ‘Kongsgården’ (the King’s royal palace) in Trondheim city – today known as the Archbishop’s Palace – under the custody of the county governor Joachim Vind. After torture and interrogation by Vind and the public officers of Støren, she named more than thirty people as accomplices, ranging from both wealthy and poor in Trondheim to prominent farmers in the valley of Gauldalen. Amongst other things, Finn-Kirsten ‘confessed’ that the son of Inger Rognessen had visited Hell three times; she claimed that another woman called Inger (who lived by the city bridge) had levitated through air with her, and that she knew both white magic and sorcery. Finn-Kirsten also claimed that Inger was eager to become an apprentice of the Devil, but that she refused her the same ‘honour’ as she had only served Satan for two years. Guri, a carpenter’s wife, was alleged to have been ridden into the mountains to meet the devil twice, but Finn-Kirsten could not say if Guri was the rider or if someone rode her! This was the end for Finn-Kirsten. Her punishment was increased from beheading to death by burning, as the statutes against witchcraft allowed[.]

On October 12, 1674, a great fire was set alight by the city gates of Trondheim. Kirsten was tied to a ladder and tipped into the fire. A large crowd watched her burn to death. As she had confessed to witchcraft, her estate was forfeit. The court records describe this estate as “a few ragged clothes,” a sad testament to a life of poverty ended in brutal fashion.

Of the people she named under torture as co-witches, three of them were put on trial, including one Gjertrud Berdal who like so many “witches” was an herbalist who made home remedies for people (and their animals). Her most notable tool of witchcraft was apparently the ability to magically milk the cream of people’s cows so when they milked their cows all they got was skim. Neither Gjertrud nor the other two were convicted.

Even though it lasted years and marked the conclusion of the witch frenzy in central Norway, the trial of Kirsten Iversdatter and its aftermath was soon forgotten. Other burned witches became folk heroes of sorts. The story of Finn-Kirsten was rediscovered and published in 2014 after Norwegian University of Science and Technology researcher Ellen Alm found surviving accounts of her case in Norwegian court records and county financial statements from the 1670’s.

Grenades from last battle of Revolutionary War detonated

Friday, February 22nd, 2019

A group of hand grenades from the Revolutionary War have been detonated 238 years after the last shot was fired. The 25 balls filled with gunpowder had slumbered quietly in the stores of Virginia’s Department of Historic Resources (DHR) for 30 years, or so it seemed.

The grenades came from the wreck of The Betsy, a British collier built in Whitehaven in 1772 that transported coal during the Revolutionary War. In September of 1781, General Charles Cornwallis ordered it scuttled along with dozens of other British ships along the shore of the York River during the Siege of Yorktown in the attempt to prevent the French fleet controlling Chesapeake Bay from attacking British forces on land. The attempt failed and Corwallis, hemmed in on land by the Continental Army and reinforcements by sea blocked by the French navy, surrendered on October 19th, 1781. It was the last major battle of the American Revolution.

The French were granted title to all the British ships after the surrender, including the wrecks. They spent the winter of 1781-2 salvaging what they could. Two centuries later, a team of DHR archaeologists investigated the wrecks to see if there were any artifacts left to recover. A cofferdam was built around the Betsy, the water filtered out and a suprising number of objects spotted. Half of the ship’s contents remained in situ. About 5,000 objects were recovered, inventoried and stored in the DHR collection.

Budget cuts interrupted the arduous process of fully documenting the finds and conservation of maritime archaeological materials wasn’t as sophisticated in 1982 as it is now. The grenades, corroded and caked with concretions, weren’t recognized as grenades. They were about the size of balls for small cannon, so they were temporarily classified as “shot,” bagged, placed in cardboard boxes and shelved until they could be X-rayed. The budget axe dropped before the X-rays could show that they weren’t solid lead balls.

Last fall, DHR’s conservation lab got a grant from the National Park Service to study and conserve the Betsy‘s many artifacts. Their focus was on the organic materials — leather, rope, wood — which quickly deteriorate once removed from a waterlogged environment and preservation techniques are vastly improved now. The box with the “shot” wasn’t high priority because metal doesn’t decay, so it was set aside for later examination.

On Nov. 28, [DHR conservator Kate] Ridgway was working her way through that box in the lab when she pulled out a plastic bag labeled “shot.” Inside: a gray-ish round clump not much bigger than a golf ball.

“I knew right away something wasn’t right,” Ridgway said. “It wasn’t heavy enough to be lead shot. And it had these weird cracks in it. And what looked like crystals inside.”

When she opened the bag, she caught the scent of something ominous.

A whiff of gunpowder crossed 237 years and drifted up. […]

Ridgway figured it could be [live], especially after three decades of drying time. She carried that first strange ball to a microscope. Those were definitely crystals inside.

“I am not happy,” she told [head conservator Chelsea] Blake, before turning to her computer to search for information about weapons of The Betsy’s era. It dawned on her that this ball could be the core of a grenade, what was left after the iron shell had long dissolved.

Ridgway crossed the lab to another instrument that identifies chemical elements. Sulfur. And potassium. The ingredients of gunpowder.

“I am really not happy,” Ridgway said. “We’re done here. Call the police.”

The Richmond bomb squad removed the grenade to a bomb truck and detonated it. A white plume of smoke wafted up, the tell-tale sign of burning black powder. After two centuries underwater and 240 years since it was deployed, that grenade was still dangerous.

The bomb squad was called twice more within days as more of the grenades were found. Conservators realized they had to go through all the Betsy stores to deal with their explosive artifacts all at once. It was a huge production.

Most of December was spent crafting plans and preparing the lab. Guided by the bomb squad and following munitions factory rules, they removed anything that could produce a static spark — plastic, scraping chairs, squeaky carts. Tables were covered with cotton fabric. Extra humidifiers were brought in. Flammable chemicals were carried away.

On Saturday, Dec. 29, they came in just after dawn — Ridgway, Blake, collections assistant Andrew Foster and archaeologist Mike Clem.

All other employees had been told to stay away. Neighbors across the street had been notified with a letter. Experts from an alphabet soup of agencies — FBI, ATF, bomb techs from the city, county and state police — met the four at the lab, parking in a side lot to avoid causing a scene. The fire department and medics stood by.

“We didn’t want to endanger anyone else, but we didn’t want to panic them either,” Ridgway said. “We did whatever law enforcement advised us to do.”

The bomb squads provided helmets, vests and thick aprons for the staffers, who had come to work dressed only in cotton clothing and rubber-soled shoes. Each staffer was assigned a personal bomb tech handler.

“We had 18 people in here,” Ridgway said. “We couldn’t have asked for better help.”

Eight hours later, they’d combed through every single box. And found 20 more grenades. One was still wearing its iron jacket.

They were all detonated safely.

Huge Japanese urn “lost” for 100 years and found in fish restaurant sells big

Thursday, February 21st, 2019

A monumental Japanese cloisonné vase that represented in spectacular form the art of its country at the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago was recently rediscovered after hiding in glaringly plain sight for a century and sold at auction on Sunday. The masterpiece of porcelain, enamel and woodwork 8’8″ high went to a private buyer in New York for $135,000 hammer price, almost five times the high estimate of $50,000.

The vases were the largest examples of cloisonné enamel ever made up until that time, and they had a large statement to make at the Chicago World’s Fair. Placed in a group under a canopy in the East Court of the Palace of Fine Arts under a canopy were three exceptional pieces, the work of Japan’s greatest masters: two monumental vases and an incense burner. The combined effort of metalworkers, potters, wood carvers and painters, they were designed especially for the Exposition and took four years to make and decorate. Before they were shipped to Chicago, they were viewed and approved by the Emperor and Empress of Japan.

The designs on the vases and incense burner were conceived by Shin Shiwoda, Special Counsellor for Arts of the Japanese Commission to the Exposition. The ostensible motif is the seasons of the years: chickens symbolize spring, dragon summer, eagles autumn and winter. A full moon and flight of plover on the back of the dragon vase symbolize summer and fall. The birds under a snow laden branch on the back of the eagle vase represent winter. A cherry tree in blossom on the censer represents spring. The dragon, chickens and eagles also symbolize the three virtues of, respectively, wisdom, honesty and strength.

The vases and censer were placed on pedestals of carved keyaki, a hardwood native to Japan. These were not created from freshly hewn lumber, but from pieces salvaged from a temple that had been destroyed in an earthquake. The wood was more than 200 years old when it was carved with 70 different types of flowers in 1890-3.

There was political meaning embedded in the design that far eclipsed the innocuous seasonal imagery in significance. The dragon on one vase represent China. The two eagles on the other vase represent Russia. The chickens are stand-ins for the Korean islands. A rising sun represents Japan.

Japan’s concerned over China’s military and political influence over Korea was escalating in this period and would break out into the First Sino-Japanese War less than a year after the Columbian Exposition. Russia was a looming presence as well, having established the first diplomatic relations in 1884 and quickly gaining a political foothold in support of the Korean ruling dynasty against Japanese interests. That tension would come to a head in the Russo-Japanese War a decade later.

On the tops of the three pieces were designs symbolizing the friendship between the United States and Japan: the red and white stripes and stars of the US flag strewn with the chrysanthemums of Imperial Japan. A bronze eagle on top of the censer represents the United States.

The political implications of the imagery caused some difficulty at the World’s Fair. Organizers wanted to display the works in the Japanese pavilion of the Manufactures and Liberal Arts Building, but Japan’s commission wanted them in the Palace of Fine Arts with the finest examples of artistry from countries around the world. Ultimately Japan got its way and the three-piece garniture went on display in the Japanese Department on the ground floor near the central rotunda of the Palace of Fine Arts.

The censer is now at the Tokyo National Museum. One monumental vase is in the Khalili Collection at Oxford but is missing the original pedestal. The location of its pair was unknown from immediately after the World’s Fair until it was recognized sitting bold as brass in the center of the main dining room of Spenger’s Fresh Fish Grotto in Berkeley, California. The venerable restaurant is one San Francisco’s Bay oldest and most revered culinary icons. The gigantic urn in the middle of it somehow managed to go unidentified by experts, including the Vice President of Decorative Arts and Furnishings of the auction house that sold it, until the restaurant closed.

The story of the missing vase begins to unfold in 1892 when Michael H. de Young of San Francisco, a businessman and journalist who founded the San Francisco Chronicle newspaper and the de Young Museum, was appointed as a national commissioner to the 1893 Columbian Exposition by President Benjamin Harrison. Through this position, de Young saw the opportunity to stimulate California’s economy by proposing an 1894 California Midwinter Fair, which was held the following winter in Golden Gate Park in San Francisco, CA.

Following the Chicago World’s Fair, de Young brought one of the Japanese cloisonné vases to San Francisco for exhibition at the Midwinter Fair. It was at this point, following the fair, that Frank Spenger, avid collector and owner of Spenger’s Restaurant in Berkeley, bought this one vase from Michael de Young and placed it inside the main dining room where it has remained until October 2018.

Apparently he first tried to put it in the family’s penthouse apartment. According to Frank Spenger’s great-granddaughter Alicia, Mrs. Spenger thought the eight-foot vase on its wood pedestal four feet wide was a little much for the living room, so she asked him to move it down to the restaurant with the rest of his ever-expanding collection of art, artifacts and maritime memorabilia. Even the Spenger Diamond, all 34.28 carats of it, wound up on display in the restaurant.

Rare portrait of Mary, Queen of Scots, on display

Wednesday, February 20th, 2019

An extremely rare portrait of Mary, Queen of Scots, painted during her lifetime has gone on display at Hever Castle. The oil-on-oak panel painting depicts Mary “en deuil blanc” (in white mourning), wearing gossamer white veils instead of the heavy blacks of full mourning she wore in a later portrait.

It is believed to have been the work of the studio of François Clouet, a miniaturist and portraitist to the French royal family, made in late 1560/early 1561 when Mary was mourning the successive deaths of her father-in-law King Henry II of France (d. July 1559), her mother Mary of Guise (June 1560) and her husband Francis II (December 1560) of France. White had been a popular mourning color in France for centuries by the time Mary donned it. She had unusually bucked that association and worn white for her 1558 wedding to the then-Dauphin of France, only to find herself having to wear white again in its traditional symbolism after his death just two and a half years later.

Another Clouet portrait of her “en deuil blanc” shows her covered from chin to chest in a white pleated gauze “barbe” (beard). The original painting is lost but the image was widely copied. The Hever painting has the same head type as the other Clouet but depicts a less severe white veil with an open collar and tiny buttons down the bust. This may have been a less strict form of mourning worn after a certain amount of time had elapsed from the bereavement.

During her active reign in Scotland from 1561 to 1568, there were few artists of note and even fewer portrait painters of royal quality. If any solo portraits of her were painted during her time in Scotland, none have survived. A double-portrait of her and her second husband Lord Darnley now at Hardwick Hall in Derbyshire, is the only known extant portrait of Mary, Queen of Scots, painted when she was in Scotland ruling as Queen of Scots, ca. 1565.

After her forced abdication and imprisonment in England, she did get some access to court painters. Her caretaker/keeper/jailer George Talbot, 6th Earl of Shrewsbury, allowed her to sit for Nicholas Hilliard, the premiere miniature portraitist of the Tudor court. Copies of Hilliard’s work were distributed at Mary’s behest to her supporters during her lifetime, and after the ascension of her son James VI of Scotland to the throne of England and Ireland in 1603. He commissioned idealized versions of them to enhance his own position as king and the strength of the Stuart claim by depicting her as a martyr and victim of Tudor injustice. It’s those posthumous images of Mary that make up the bulk of her portraiture.

The Hever portrait was in a private collection in France (not Switzerland) for many years. It was thought to be a modified 17th century copy of the more famous Clouet. Dendrochronological analysis of the oak panels found that the wood dated to 1547. Coupled with stylistic examination, the age of the wood confirms that the portrait dated to the mid-16th century and was done in Mary’s lifetime.

Unique deviant burial found in Sicily

Tuesday, February 19th, 2019

The remains of an adult male were discovered in 2013 in Piazza Armerina, a medieval village in central Sicily that was built over the ruins of a Roman latifundia, one of the immense agricultural estates that Sicily was largely divided into by the 2nd century. The body was isolated, not part of a cemetery or burial ground. As a matter of fact, the remains weren’t even in or near a settlement as they date to the between the first and second half of the 11th century, a time when the area was still unpopulated. The village’s first appearance on the historical record dates to 1122.

The skeleton was buried face down in a shallow grave in a southwest to northeast orientation. The right arm was extended along the side of the body. The left arm was extended over the back; the ulna was found resting on the left pelvis. The feet were so close together that it’s highly likely they were tied. There were no funerary objects found in the pit.

The isolation, orientation and position of the body mark it as a deviant or atypical burial that it not in concert with Christian, Jewish or Muslim funerary practices. The skeleton is almost complete and in excellent condition, allowing researchers to study this unique burial in detail using a combination of osteoarchaeological analysis, forensic anthropology techniques and technology to study the remains.

They identified six stab wounds on the sternum with the shape of the blade tip impressed on the bone. The weapon appears to have been a single-edged knife or dagger, a close-combat blade that nonetheless managed to pierce the thorax and penetrate the posterior sternum from entry points on the victim’s back. A large bone fragment on the right side of the sternum was dislodged when the blade was twisted with significant force.

To get an accurate picture of the dynamics of this fatal stabbing, researchers used 3D modeling technology. They created a virtual model of the chest, the entry points and angles of penetration. They were steep, indicating the assailant was standing behind the kneeling victim. As the blade went through the thorax into the breastbone, it probably punctured his lung and heart, killing him quickly.

The injury pattern is unique. There is nothing like it known in the archaeological record. It is not the result of hand-to-hand combat. There is no evidence of contact anywhere else on the victim’s chest, which almost certainly would have been present during the chaos of a fight.

There was no evidence of other injuries on the man’s vertebrae or ribs that would suggest that the man was involved in some kind of “uncontrolled” fight, said lead author Roberto Miccichè, an archaeologist at the University of Palermo in Italy.

The goal of the man’s killer, it seems, was to attack the victim in a “very effective and rapid way,” Miccichè said; in addition, the assailant likely knew human anatomy “very well.” In fact, the cuts were so clean and smooth, that the man may have been immobilized, perhaps with binding, Miccichè said.

The clear, deep stab wounds, the lack of defensive, uncontrolled action, the evidence of binding, particularly in the closeness of the feet, and the relative positions of aggressor and victim indicate this was an execution.

It is also the first thoroughly documented, archaeologically excavated deviant burial found in Sicily. A number of atypical burials have been recorded by archaeologists on the Italian mainland, but only one appears in the scientific literature for Sicily and it was not well-documented. Atypical burials are believed to have been employed for religious or magical reasons — like to prevent the dead from rising to harm the living — or as a form of post-mortem ostracism, a reflection of the deceased’s marginal position in the social order.

Researchers believe this death occurred in the aftermath of the Norman conquest of Sicily in 1061. It was a period of turmoil, of social and political realignment as the island transitioned from Islamic to Norman rule.




February 2019


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