Archive for February, 2019

Dublin Apocalypse goes online

Friday, February 8th, 2019

The Dublin Apocalypse, a 14th century illuminated manuscript of the Book of Revelation, is one of the greatest medieval treasures in the collection of Trinity College Dublin. It is also one of the least seen. Now the whole world can see it in high resolution thanks to a digitization initiative.

In medieval Europe illuminated manuscripts containing the Book of Revelation were hugely popular among royalty and the wealthy elite. These devotional aids were designed to help the faithful understand one of the most dramatic and difficult Christian texts.

The beautiful Dublin Apocalypse manuscript represents one of the most lavish examples of this tradition and is among the finest illuminated volumes in the Library of Trinity College Dublin. The 14th-century Latin manuscript of the Book of Revelation is accompanied by exquisite illustrations in gold and vivid colours and depicts scenes of the horsemen of the Apocalypse, battles with many-headed beasts and the heavenly Jerusalem for its readers to enjoy.

The Dublin Apocalypse was produced in East Anglia in the early 1300s, likely by an illuminator known as the Ormesby Master. His highly individual style is characterized by intricate geometries in the borders, backgrounds and architectural features, complex compositions with remarkably soft flesh tones and a palette rich with pinks, blues, greens and greys applied in multiple layers of translucent washes. The illuminations in the Dublin Apocalypse are particularly stellar examples of his talents because unlike other Apocalypses of the period which have half-page illustrations, the Dublin manuscript’s illuminations take up almost the entire page.

Most of its history is unknown. Sometime in the early 19th century it was acquired by Franc Sadleir, Triny College fellow, professor and librarian, and he gave it to the university in 1837 in exchange for a bunch of uncatalogued annuals. A rather unbalanced deal, it would seem, but de gustibus non est disputandum and all that.

Anyway his loss is our gain. Peruse the digitized Dublin Apocalypse here. You can leaf through the manuscript page by page, using the viewer to zoom in on the details, or you can open each page as a jpg and examine the whole thing at maximum resolution. There’s also an open as pdf function, but I got an error when I attempted to use it. In the upper left is a “Click for more information” link which explains the scene and verses of Revelation it depicts. The scans are wonderfully high in resolution so you can dig deep into the intricate illuminations.


Sewer workers find 14th c. sword under Denmark street

Thursday, February 7th, 2019

Crewmen working on a sewer project in Aalborg, northern Denmark, unearthed a 14th century sword on Tuesday. Plumber Jannick Vestergaard and machine operator Henning Nøhr were digging on the west side of Algade, a street in the city’s downtown, when a long blade emerged from the ground. They contacted the Northern Jutland Historical Museum which dispatched archaeologist Kenneth Nielsen to examine the artifact and find site.

It is a double-edged sword with a blade three feet long (93 centimeters) that is still sharp. The entire sword, hilt included, is 44 inches long. Both sides of the blade have a fuller (inaccurately known as a “blood groove”) down the full length which was used to lighten the weight of the sword without weakening it. Indeed, the whole swords weighs just over a kilo (2.2 lbs). The hilt has a circular pommel and a straight cross-bar with a round cross-section. It is of extremely high quality.

This style of sword was in use as early as the 12th century through the early 15th century. Museum archaeologists have been monitoring the municipal sewer excavations, documenting the stratigraphy of Aalborg. The sword was found in a waste layer on top of the street’s oldest paving. Previous findings in that layer date to the 1300s, which is the basis for the preliminary dating of the sword.

Swords like these were enormously prized, the property of the warrior elite and so expensive that only noblemen could afford them. They were not, as a rule, dropped, forgotten and buried on city streets. The few that have been unearthed were found in graves, buried with their owners as emblems of their status as fighters of noble rank. There is a cemetery nearby, but no trace of a grave was discovered at the find site.

The unusual location may be an indication that the sword was lost during a violent encounter and buried under the thick mud of low-lying ground before it could be recovered. There are marks from combat on the blade, and there were certainly plenty of opportunities for battle in the 1300s. During the first half of the century, the city was part of the Germanic province of Holstein and there were numerous clashes between the Danes and Saxons before Denmark’s King Valdemar IV received the province as part of his bride’s dowry when he married Helvig of Schleswig in 1340.

(I can’t help but speculate wildly and irresponsibly based on nothing at all but the wide possible date range that it might have been lost during the chaos wrought by the Black Death, which tradition has it reached Denmark when a ghost ship wrecked on the coast of northern Jutland in 1349. A full complement of rotting corpses failed to deter people from stripping the ship of its valuables and carrying some nasty little Yersinia pestis stowaways onto dry land along with the loot. Aalborg first received trading privileges from Valdemar in 1342 and quickly became a prosperous port city. Algade is but a few blocks away from the narrowest part of the Limfjord which bisects the northernmost tip of Jutland.)

The sword is now in the process of being cleaned and conserved. Once stabilized, it will go on display at the Aalborg Historical Museum on Algade a hop, skip and a jump away from where it was discovered.


Stolen Swedish royal jewels found on garbage can

Wednesday, February 6th, 2019

Three priceless pieces of Swedish royal funerary regalia stolen from Strängnäs Cathedral last year have been found on top of a garbage can in Åkersberga, 20 miles outside of Stockholm. A security guard discovered the loot at 1:00 AM yesterday and alerted the police. Experts are currently confirming that all of the stolen objects are present and assessing their condition.

The purloined regalia were a gold crown and an orb made for the funeral of King Karl IX in 1611, and a bejeweled crown made for his Queen Consort Kristina’s funeral in 1625. Karl’s crown and orb were buried with him but later exhumed and exhibited in a locked and alarmed display case.

The objects were stolen on July 31st, 2018, in a daring lunchtime heist by two men who smashed the glass display case and ran. With the security alarm blaring and the authorities rapidly descending upon the cathedral, the thieves rode women’s bicycles to the shore of Lake Malaren and fled in a getaway boat, a small white or blue motorboat had moored just below the cathedral. It’s possible they may have also used jet skis to flee further.

Witnesses described one man as being about 5’11” of slim build wearing a light beige jacket and dark pants. The other was slightly shorter and more muscular in build wearing a dark jacket and with either a dark head covering or dark hair. They were seen heading east, but there are hundreds of little islands in Malaren, Sweden’s third largest freshwater lake, and therefore plenty of hiding places.

The crowns and orb are priceless objects of cultural patrimony. The gold, silver, pearls and gemstones are technically worth around $7 million, but there is no amount of money that can replace them even though they are insured. Nobody in their right mind would buy such hot goods anyway, as the thieves doubtless discovered.

Investigations are ongoing. They have focused on a criminal group centered in Stockholm. One 22-year-old man was arrested last September after his blood was found at the crime scene and on one of the bicycles. The man, whose identity has not been revealed, claims he is innocent of the theft of the jewels, that he just had the incredibly bad luck to steal the bike and motorboat used in the heist. His trial was underway when the pieces were found. It has been temporarily put on hold and will resume on February 15th. Meanwhile, police are still looking to bring accomplices and other involved parties to justice.


Tomb with 50 mummies is Egypt’s 1st find of 2019

Tuesday, February 5th, 2019

Egypt’s first archaeological finding of 2019 is a tomb containing 50 mummies from the Ptolemaic era (323-30 B.C.). A joint mission of the Research Centre for Archaeological Studies of Minya University and the Ministry of Antiquities unearthed the tomb at the Tuna El-Gebel necropolis in Minya province, about 210 miles south of Cairo.

The mummies were found in a series of rock-cut burial chambers 30 feet deep. It’s believed to be a large family grave and the mummification methods suggest they were members of the upper middle class. They are of different ages (12 of them children) and genders and in a relatively good state of preservation. Some were wrapped in linen and buried in the sand or inside niches. Others were placed in limestone coffins, still others in decorated wooden sarcophagi. Only fragments of painted cartonnage that once covered several of mummified bodies were discovered.

There are no names or hieroglyphic inscriptions in the tomb that might identify any of the deceased. Demotic handwriting was found on some of the linen wrappings; it has yet to be translated.

The preliminary dating of the tombs to the Ptolemaic era comes from ostraca and papyrus fragments found in the tomb. That needs to be confirmed, however, as it’s also possible that some of the burials date to the early Roman period.

While this is the most significant finding yet, the team began excavating at Tuna El-Gebel in February of 2018 and discovered a single rectangular chamber at the bottom of a sloping staircase containing multiple burials. On the west side was a chamber containing mummies and stone sarcophagi. On the north side was another burial chamber with stone sarcophagi placed in niches. These burials predated the most recent find. The style was typical of late New Kingdom and early New Intermediate Period tombs found at Tuna El-Gebel when it was the official necropolis of Upper Egypt’s 15th nome.


WWI grenade found among potatoes at chip factory

Monday, February 4th, 2019

A World War I hand grenade found a perfect disguise in a shipment of potatoes sent to a Hong Kong chip factory. The potatoes were harvested in France where for four years artillery rained down on the fields of the Western Front in brutally futile attempts to gain a few inches of ground. Unexploded ordnance from the First World War is regularly churned up during agricultural work. This one was of German manufacture, weighs two pounds and is three inches in diameter, so the dimensions of a potato but much heavier.

According to military historian Dave Macri, the field where the potatoes were harvested was believed to contain a trench during the first world war.

“If it was covered in mud, the grenade was likely to have been left behind, dropped by soldiers there during the war, or left there after it was thrown [by enemies].

The ditch was then filled up and used as a growing field, and the explosive was tossed into the mix of harvested potatoes … and sent to Hong Kong.”

Whatever machine digs up potatoes for the global market can’t tell the difference between a bomb and a bomb-shaped root vegetable, so it went on its merry way to Hong Kong. By some stroke of luck, none of the jostling, conveying, dumping and stevedoring it experienced on its long journey woke it up from its long slumber. It was only when it arrived at Calbee Four Seas Company’s chip factory that its sorting machines detected that one of the potatoes was actually a bomb caked in rust and mud.

The University of Hong Kong professor said the grenade could still be dangerous even if it was not triggered. “If you’re standing close, within five feet, you could get wounded or even killed [if the device somehow went off], but it’s not the kind of thing that can bring down a whole building.

“But chances are, the weapon was never armed because to ignite it, you have to withdraw the safety pin and release a lever. And since it didn’t go off, it was probably never triggered,” Macri added.

Hong Kong firefighters and police were called in to disable and remove the device safely. On Saturday, explosive experts used a high-pressure water firing technique to detonate the grenade outside the factory. They did us the courtesy of recording the event.


Three graves of Moche elite found in Peru

Sunday, February 3rd, 2019

An excavation in Chiclayo, northern Peru, has unearthed three richly outfitted tombs of elite members of the Moche culture. Archaeologists from the Tumbas Reales de Sipan Museum discovered the tombs in Huaca of El Pueblo de Ucupe, the archaeological complex where the tomb of a high-ranking individual dubbed the Lord of Ucupe was discovered in 2009. The team returned to the site in December to do a follow-up dig.

The tombs are made of adobe brick and are different sizes. They date to the middle Moche period, around 600 to 700 A.D., and were later modifications to an earlier religious complex.

The first burial chamber was damaged by a sequence of heavy rain events that destroyed part of the funerary complex. The skeletons of one adult, probably female, and one child were found inside, their burial bundles covered with cinnabar which had ritual significance for the Moche. Grave goods include copper crowns, head/hairbands and breastplates and several ceramic objects, most notably three highly sculptural pottery vessels. One of them depicts a snail, another a man sitting on a throne, the third an explicit erotic scene.

From the early period of Moche civilization in the 2nd century, pottery production was exceptionally varied. There were practical forms and decorative ones which depicted a wide panoply of people, animals, activities and aspects daily life. Preferred motifs included crafts, war and sex. Of the sex acts captured in Moche ceramics, heterosexual anal sex is the most frequently depicted.

The second tomb was created by dismantling an early period Mochica wall to build a funerary enclosure 6.5 feet long by five feet wide. One person, an adult male, was buried in this tomb alongside a camelid believed to have been a llama. There were a great many grave goods buried with him. He was garbed in copper plate with copper crowns and headbands and more than 50 pottery vessels with very finely worked and decorated sculptural bottles.

The third tomb is a large chamber with adobe walls. It had a roof made of wooden beams which has disintegrated over time. In the space underneath the roof, archaeologists initially found a human skull and one ceramic vessel. When the team reached the level where the funerary bundle was placed, they found more than 150 pottery vessels arranged in three groups and the remains of another camelid. The body of the deceased was placed on a wooden platform supported by bricks. The platform has rotted away, but his splendid adornments — a crown, two headbands, a plate dress, two earplugs, a nosepiece, two clubs, two banners and a funerary mask similar to the one found in the Lord of Ucupe’s tomb — survive.

The two burials with full sets of copper attire and accessories indicate these were individuals of high status and they were laid to rest with the emblems and regalia of their rank and command.

“These findings will allow us to establish the origins, development and links of the Mochicas in the Zaña Valley, with Sipán in the Lambayeque Valley and with the development of this town in the Jequetepeque Valley. The style of the archaeological assets seems to present a certain sequential order within the stage known as Moche Medio,” explained the project director, Walter Alva Alva.


Facial Recognition for Coins

Saturday, February 2nd, 2019

Researchers at the Fraunhofer Institute for Factory Operation and Automation IFF in Magdeburg, Germany, have developed a specialized scanner and software akin to facial recognition technology to record historic coins in heretofore impossible detail. Coins collections poise significant inventory and conservation problems for the institutions that hold them. They can’t be labelled or barcoded. They can’t be marked in any way without interfering with the surface.

The Saxony-Anhalt State Office for Heritage Management and Archaeology has 20,000 coins in its archives. Keeping proper track of them for loans to museums, preventing damage, even ascertaining their authenticity pose significant challenges to the staff. The ever-expanding collection has to be documented by hand, a Herculean labour that is never complete and highly prone to error. In conjunction with a larger project of digitization of the State Office’s archaeological materials, the Fraunhofer Institute was employed to devise a system that would scan the coins in its collection.

“The State Office aimed to digitize its complete numismatic collection. This gave rise to the idea of creating a digital fingerprint with which individual coins can be recognized and classified – much like facial recognition of people. The fingerprint replaces the barcode as it were,” says Dr. Christian Teutsch, research scientist at the Fraunhofer IFF, recounting the first contact with the State Office for Heritage Management and Archaeology. The closely collaborating partners designed a visual data acquisition system and software analysis system in their project “Digital Fingerprints of Archaeological Finds: Artifact Identification and Recognition Prototype”, which does this by digitizing and exactly describing the old coins and obtaining unique signatures from the coins. The scanning system had to achieve a recognition rate of ninety-eight percent or more, operate contactless, and acquire the data of both faces. Gold, silver, bronze and copper coins with diameters of five to seventy-five millimeters were tested.

The novel scanner O.S.C.A.R., short for Optical System for Coin Analysis and Recognition, not only scans coins’ visual features but also the minutest signs of wear such as scratching, clipping, contours, edges, pitting and denting, which render an object unique. This is indispensable for being able to identify many coins of the same type. “Obviously, changes can be detected when a coin is scanned twice. This makes it possible, for instance, to check upon the return of loaned coins whether scratching has occurred, the artifact has been damaged or even if it is a fake,” says the engineer, an employee of the Measurement and Testing Technology Business Unit.

It’s a simple process that takes no more than a few seconds. The barcode on the bag that holds a coin is first scanned, then the coin is put under the scanner. With the push of a button, the scanner records base color and surface features, more than 1000 of them, of both sides of the coins. Measurements and color charts standardize the data which is then transferred to the software. It analyzes the data to create a digital signature that is saved in a searchable database. That makes the coins themselves and everything known about them instantly accessible even if the barcoded bag is lost. It also makes it a simple matter to make this rich data available to scholars and the interested public. Numismatists and collectors can use the scan information to make new connections between coins, their find locations and all the history that is writ on their surfaces.

The project has been such a smashing success that 10,000 coins in the State Office collection have already been scanned. The remaining half will be digitized shortly.

This is a major breakthrough and not just for numismatics collections. The scanner is targeted to coins, but it could be modified for use with paintings, artifacts, documents, ephemera, anything in heritage collections.


Mummy remains studied for rheumatoid arthritis

Friday, February 1st, 2019

The naturally mummified remains of an adult male found in the town Guano, in Ecuador’s Chimborazo Province, is being studied to learn about the spread of rheumatoid arthritis.

The Guano Mummy was discovered after an earthquake struck the town on August 5th, 1949. In the rubble of the Asunción Church, rescuers found the well-preserved remains of a man wedged between two of only three sections of walls that remained of the 400-year-old church. The man was positioned vertically, as if standing, between the walls. He had not deliberately mummified, and neither was the mummified mouse found next to him. It seems the body was sprinkled with lime to speed decomposition but instead the dry, cold conditions preserved his tissues (and those of the unfortunate rodent) in excellent condition. His clothing also survived in remarkably fine fettle. There was a purple scarf wrapped around his jaw (perhaps to keep his mouth from gaping open) and a long white robe covering his body.

After its discovery, the mummy was moved to the town library where it was displayed in less than adequate conditions which caused some deterioration of the organic remains. In 2003, a team of researchers from the US did a thorough study of the mummy, X-raying and carbon-dating it to the 16th century. The date coupled with archival research pointed to a possible candidate for the identity of the mummy: Fray Lázaro de la Cruz de Santofimia, a Franciscan monk who traveled to Guano from Spain to take charge of the religious community there.

Asunción Church was built between approximately 1560 and 1572, commissioned by the Franciscan missionaries who were evangelizing the indigenous Puruhá culture. Later a monastery and cemetery would be built next to the church. Fray Lázaro’s position as the first guardian of the church and monastery could have been the reason he was buried in such an unusual position and location, standing guard over his charges for eternity, as it were.

French pathologist Dr. Philippe Charlier and his team spent two days studying the mummy and taking samples at the laboratory of the National Institute of Cultural Heritage in Quito. One major draw is the evidence of rheumatoid arthritis found in the surviving tissue.

Rheumatoid arthritis was first found in America before the arrival of Christopher Columbus.

Dr Charlier explained: “The mummy of Guano may be the link missing that will allow us to understand how this disease, which was originally American, then became a global disease by hybridisation, by the confrontation between two worlds.”

The examination has found a likely cause of death: a chin fistula that became infected and caused fatal sepsis.

Charlier’s study will also perform a new radiocarbon analysis and DNA analysis (RA is associated with several genetic markers). The dating and genetic testing may help confirm or deny the mummy’s identity. He questions the Fray Lázaro identification because the man was not dressed in the usual Franciscan garb — the textiles are more expensive than the brown homespun of the monk’s habit — nor was he interred with expected Christian accouterments like a rosary and coffin.





February 2019


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