Archive for June, 2019

What the Celts drank

Thursday, June 20th, 2019

A vast quantity of vessels used for feasting, many of them imports, have been unearthed from Celtic settlements and graves. The large numbers, origins and distribution of the feasting vessels have primarily been interpreted as evidence that the Celtic elite was imitating the Mediterranean practice of wine banquets, mimicking the lifestyle of southern elites north of the Alps. To determine what the Celts were actually consuming in those fine imported vessels, a research team led by scientists from Ludwig-Maximilians-Universitaet (LMU) in Munich and the University of Tübingen embarked on a large-scale examination of organic residues inside the feasting vessels.

The team focused on artifacts found at one the most significant Early Iron Age sites in Western Central Europe: Vix-Mont Lassois in Burgundy, France. The site is best known for the intact princely grave unearthed in 1953 that contained the Vix Krater, an imported Greek bronze volute krater of such gargantuan proportions that at 5’4″ high, 450 lbs in weight and with a capacity of 1,100 liters, it is the largest surviving metal vessel from antiquity. Excavations have recovered hundreds of fragments of Mediterranean pottery, mainly Attic black- and red-figure, amphorae from the Greek colony of Marseille and a broad variety of other imported Mediterranean vessels.

Organ residue analysis was performed on 99 vessels, 16 imported and 83 locally made. Of the local production, 68 are fine ware, high quality vessels on a par with the imports, and 15 are coarse ware. The vessels include both low forms — drinking cups, bowls and beakers — and high forms — amphorae and kraters used for transporting or mixing large quantities.

 The finds included pottery and bronze vessels that had been imported from Greece around 500 BCE. “This was a period of rapid change, during which vessels made in Greece and Italy reached the region north of the Alps in large numbers for the first time. It has generally been assumed that this indicates that the Celts began to imitate the Mediterranean lifestyle, and that only the elite were in a position to drink Mediterranean wine during their banquets,” says LMU archaeologist Philipp Stockhammer, who led the project. “Our analyses confirm that they indeed consumed imported wines, but they also drank local beer from the Greek drinking bowls. In other words, the Celts did not simply adopt foreign traditions in their original form. Instead, they used the imported vessels and products in their own ways and for their own purposes. Moreover, the consumption of imported wine was apparently not confined to the upper echelons of society. Craftsmen too had access to wine, and the evidence suggests that they possibly used it for cooking, while the elites quaffed it in the course of their drinking parties. The study shows that intercultural contact is a dynamic process and demonstrates how easy it is for unfamiliar vessels to serve new functions and acquire new meanings.”

Chemical analysis of the food residues absorbed into the ancient pots now makes it possible to determine what people ate and drank thousands of years ago. The group of authors based at the University of Tübingen analyzed these chemical fingerprints in the material from Mont Lassois. “We identified characteristic components of olive oil and milk, imported wine and local alcoholic beverages, as well as traces of millet and beeswax,” says Maxime Rageot, who performed the chemical analyses in Tübingen. “These findings show that – in addition to wine – beers brewed from millet and barley were consumed on festive or ritual occasions.” His colleague Cynthianne Spiteri adds: “We are delighted to have definitively solved the old problem of whether or not the early Celts north of the Alps adopted Mediterranean drinking customs. – They did indeed, but they did so in a creative fashion!”

That is more than borne out by the combination of and customization of the vessels found in elite graves, most recently the princely tomb unearthed in Lauvau, Champagne, in 2015. Among the exceptional grave goods were a wine feasting service that included an Attic black figure ceramic oinochoe. The oinochoe was made in Greece, rimmed with gold decorated in Etruscan motifs and silver elements with Celtic designs. The bronze cauldron found in the Prince of Lavau’s grave is of Etruscan manufacture and is the second largest known surviving metal vessel from antiquity.

The study has been published in the open access journal PLOS ONE.


Unexpected Roman lead sarcophagus found in Granada

Wednesday, June 19th, 2019

Archaeologists excavating a historic site in downtown Granada unexpectedly discovered a lead sarcophagus from the Roman era. They were excavating under the Villamena building, a modern structure next to Granada Cathedral that was built after a 14th century building on the site was demolished in 1938. Under the Nasrid dynasty (1228-1492) Emirate of Granada, it was the Alhóndiga de los Genoveses, a warehouse used by Genoese merchants to store trade goods like silk and sugar. After the Reconquista, their Catholic Majesties turned the building into a prison. It would remain one for four centuries until all the inmates were moved to the new, much larger provincial prison in 1930. Dilapidated and on the verge of collapse, the Alhóndiga was demolished in the last year of the Second Spanish Republic. Only the front gate was left standing. It still stands today, integrated into the modern structure which houses a bank.

When excavations began, therefore, archaeologists expected to find remains from the Middle Ages, at most. They were doing an archaeological survey as required by law before underground construction work. They did find a few minor remains from the Emirate and Christian eras, nothing of particular significance, and decided before the excavation ended to go down a little deeper. Eight feet below the surface under a slab of muddy sandstone, they unearthed a grave. That wasn’t necessarily exceptional in and of itself, but when the slab was removed, head archaeologist Ángel Rodríguez was stupified to see a lead sarcophagus

Rodríguez believes the sarcophagus dates back to the 2nd or 3rd century AD, a time when lead sarcophagi were not at all common. In Andalusia, they were expensive as well as difficult to obtain, because the industry only existed in Córdoba, over 200 kilometers away. “Córdoba is the only place where they made lead sarcophagi,” Rodríguez explains. […]

The lead sarcophagus … weighs between 300 and 350 kilograms, and has the same dimensions of a classic coffin: 1.97 meters long and 40 centimeters high. It is slightly wider at the head (56 centimeters) than at the foot (36 centimeters). On first inspection, Rodríguez says there is no sign of an inscription, but adds that “it still has a lot of clay and sand,” and “we’ll see when we clean it.” The outside of the sarcophagus has already given researchers many insights, and the inside is expected to give many more when it is opened in a few weeks.

It had to have belonged to a wealthy person as lead sarcophagi were extremely expensive even in places where they were made locally. In the 2nd and 3rd centuries, what is now downtown Granada was the countryside outside of the Roman town. The Albaicín district, where the Alhambra is located, was the center of a modest Roman settlement. While it was out of town, there was no cemetery on the site either. The lost river Darro ran through it. Another lead sarcophagus was reportedly found by workers at the site in 1902, but it was looted to nothingness before archaeologists could get there. It’s possible the riverside held some funerary significance for the residents of the Roman settlement and its Iberian founders.

The sarcophagus is now being cleaned and conserved at the Archaeological Museum of Granada. Researchers are deciding how best to approach opening the coffin with the least amount of damage. A team of anthropologists, restorers and archaeologists will attend the opening to document its contents.

Because lead preserves its contents very well, it’s possible the sarcophagus still holds human remains, grave goods, perhaps even textiles which will shed new light on funerary practices of Roman Granada. Any human remains found at the opening will be transferred to the forensic anthropology laboratory at Granada University. The sarcophagus itself and contents will remain in the museum for further study.


Chippendale tables, mirrors accepted in lieu

Tuesday, June 18th, 2019

A set of matching pier tables and mirrors by Thomas Chippendale have been acquired for the nation under the Acceptance in Lieu scheme. The pair of marquetry inlay tables and Neoclassical looking glasses were given to government by the Trustees of the 7th Earl of Harewood’s Will Trust in lieu of inheritance tax. They have been allocated to the Victoria and Albert Museum, but will not budge from their current location, the Music Room at Harewood House, Yorkshire.

Chippendale was commissioned by Edwin Lascelles, 1st Baron Harewood, to furnish and decorate his newly-built estate. Harewood House was constructed from 1759 to 1771, and the nouveau baron spared no expense on his new seat. Lascelles hired Thomas Chippendale, recognized as the greatest furniture-maker in England, in 1767, before the mansion was even complete. Chippendale visited Harewood that summer and began making preparatory designs.

Chippendale’s Harewood House commission was the most extensive in range of objects, quality of materials and decoration of his career. It was also the most expensive. The surviving records are spotty, but estimates place the value of the contract to more than £10,000 (about $2 million in today’s money).

The first furnishings arrived from Chippendale’s London workshop in April of 1769 and kept coming, literally by the ton (the transportation bills have survived), on a regular basis for years. We know from Chippendale’s records that his team fully furnished three major rooms on the principal floor (the State Bedchamber, State Dressing Room, the Yellow Damask Sitting Room ) and the main staircase area. Harewood’s Day Work Book, kept by steward Samuel Popelwell, record the Chippendale workmen installing furniture in the Dining Room, Library and Music Room. A 1795 inventory records Chippendale pieces in the entrance hall, back stairs and passages, the superior rooms in the basement (Billiards Room, Coffee Room, Stewards Room) and top floor apartments for family and guests.

He didn’t just make the furniture. Chippendale was also tasked with creating window cornices, borders and finishes on the wall coverings, paper and damask (which his workmen hung in all the main rooms), and chimney pieces. While the elaborate plaster moldings in the Music Room were designed by Robert Adam, Chippendale collaborated with Adam and carved the gilded reliefs of the tables and frames of the mirrors to match the ones in the room.

The table tops are rosewood with satin-wood, tulip-wood and other veneers inlaid in patterns of acanthus and anthemion leaf spirals. Marquetry inlay in floral patterns became fashionable in the mid-1750s in France, but it didn’t cross over to England until the dawn of Neoclassicism a decade later. Thomas Chippendale was one of the pioneers of the technique in England. The legs and frames are gilded in a two-tone style, gold and silver, that was popular in French furniture of the time. The mirrors frames also match the plasterwork motifs with carved anthemion and scrolling acanthus leaves on the apron and cresting.

The views of ancient ruins reflected in the mirrors are by Neoclassical painter Antonio Zucchi who collaborated with Robert Adam on the decoration of several stately homes. They can be seen in Adam’s original plan for the room. The mirrors are in the plan too, with only small differences from the final pieces.

Over the centuries pieces of Harewood House’s Chippendale furniture have been sold, chipping away (no pun intended) at the greatest single collection of his works in their original context. The Acceptance in Lieu scheme allows the Trust a financial benefit without losing the pieces Thomas Chippendale made specifically for the space. The V&A has formalized the arrangement with a long-term loan that will keep the Music Room almost exactly as Robert Adams designed it.

The tables and glasses will undergo a programme of conservation by the V&A’s conservators to restore the surface finish closer to Chippendale’s original intention.

Tristram Hunt, Director, V&A said: “It is exceptionally rare to find Thomas Chippendale furniture as well documented as that at Harewood House – the most lavish commission Chippendale ever received. Of superlative quality, the tables and glasses are welcome additions to the V&A’s world-class collection of English furniture. We are delighted that they can remain in their original location to be seen and appreciated by visitors to Harewood House for years to come.”


17th c. Samson restored to strength

Monday, June 17th, 2019

A 17th century wood statue of Samson, last judge of the Israelites, single-handed slayer of the entire Philistine army armed only with the jawbone of an ass, has been restored to its former strength. It wasn’t a stealth haircut from a temptress that enfeebled him this time, but years of exposure to the less-than-dulcet elements in Norwich covered up with thick layers of paint.

The statue of Samson and a matching figure of Hercules were commissioned in 1657 by Christopher Jay, the mayor of Norwich, as atlantids (carved columns) to flank the entrance of his new home facing Norwich Cathedral in the city’s historic center of Tombland. (Jay had the house built in 1656 incorporating a 15th century home on the site that had belonged to Sir John Fastolf, the inspiration for Shakespeare’s Falstaff.) So iconic did the two statues become that despite the mansion’s many illustrious owners over the years, it became known as the Samson and Hercules House.

Christopher Jay enjoyed his fine guardsmen for twenty years. After his death in 1677, the house lived many lives. It was used as a private home, a surgery, a wool-combing concern, among other functions. In the 20th century, it was a YWCA for a spate before turning into a dance hall in the 1930s, which is what it would remain in various iterations of the concept until 2003. Today it is a Mexican restaurant franchise.

After Samson’s right arm, the one holding the jawbone of the ass, fell off 1992, residents rallied to the heroes’ defense and in 1993 Samson and Hercules were replaced with fiberglass replicas and the originals removed to the care of Norfolk Museums. That’s when researchers discovered that while the old Hercules was also a replica — a late 19th century replacement for the decayed original — Samson was the original 17th century piece. X-rays showed that under the thick layers of white lead paint were intricately carved details long obscured.

He was in such fragile condition — dismembered arm, literally rotten at the core — that it was not possible to put him on display, so Samson would remain in storage for another 20 years. After much negotiation and back-and-forth, Norfolk Museum Services officially acquired the statues in the late 1990s, but the ambitious project of restoring Samson to his 17th century glory would have longer to wait. The lead paint made him heavy  and as long as he was coated in it, assessing the true extent of the rot would be difficult. You can’t just strip off lead paint, however, as it is a hazardous material, and the need to preserve any original features and traces of original color required extreme caution.

In 2014, the Norfolk Museums Service finally got the funding for essential conservation of the Samson statue. It engaged restorers Plowden & Smith to take on the dangerous and daunting task of removing the gross, bulbous cocoon of lead paint and enamel that had made the Biblical hero look like an amorphously lumpy Michelin Man. He was moved to Plowden & Smith’s conservation studio in London and experts embarked on the difficult job.

Conservators discovered a sizeable gap between the outer core and the inner, which they presumed had been caused by the figure drying out over time indoors. There was now a gap wide enough to fit a pencil into at some points, making it possible to remove much of the paint in fairly large pieces without using toxic and messy paint strippers. This was done rather like removing a plaster cast from a broken leg, by cutting carefully in the right places, in this instance with a hammer and a sharp chisel rather than an electric saw. Latterly, a scalpel was used for the finer work.

After four years of painstaking efforts by decorative arts and wood conservators, Samson’s features, carved from a single piece of oak, were seen once more: the long curls spilling down his back, his ripped, veiny forearms, the fine hairs of his moustache and beard, the bushy-tailed fox carried in his left arm, a grotesque-like head serving as the clasp on his robe, even traces of early gilding and colored paint. The crumbling, spongey areas of the wood were injected with a liquid consolidant and areas of loss filled with cellulose fiber to make him structurally sound again.

In February of 2018, the museum launched a crowdfunding campaign with a target of £15,000 for a new custom-built, environmentally controlled display case that would allow Samson to stand guard again, secure and stable inside the museum’s first gallery. The humidity and light controls of the new case would allow curators to keep the wood from expanding and contracting and highlight his fine features for visitors. A rod inserted through the core of his body would make it possible for him to stand, even though his feet have rotted away. The target was achieved before the deadline.

The restored Samson was officially unveiled to the public in his new display case at the Bridewell Alley Museum of Norwich on April 3rd of this year.


New timeline for Must Farm settlement

Sunday, June 16th, 2019

Must Farm quarry in the Cambridgeshire fens near Whittlesey, southeast England, is the site of a Late Bronze Age pile-dwelling settlement so well-preserved that it the press gleefully dubbed it the Pompeii of the Fens. Like all of the myriad “Pompeii of the X” out monickers out there, it’s an entirely inaccurate comparison, but the site is unprecedented on its own terms. The excavation of the 3,000-year-old settlement unearthed the largest group of Bronze Age artifacts ever found in Britain, and that was just the beginning. Beyond the thousands of objects — textiles, beads of amber, jet and glass, fineware and coarseware pottery, spear points, a bronze sickle or bill hook, swords, tools, weirs, eel traps, a wooden bowl with the remains of nettle stew, eight intact log boats, an absolutely incredible intact wooden wheel, and much more — the structure of the settlement itself was revealed in the remains of collapsed roundhouses built on stilts, complete with wattle walls, a large wooden platform and a wooden palisade.

Organic materials were exquisitely preserved in the waterlogged river-silt of what is now the Flag Fen Basin, making the Must Farm settlement the site of the most completely preserved prehistoric domestic structures in Britain. Only the Neolithic lake-dwellings of the Circum-Alpine can compare with Must Farms’ diversity of artifacts, surviving architecture and clear definition of how the settlement was organized.

When excavations ended in 2016, archaeologists had a rough idea of the settlement’s timeline based on their field work. The first stages of construction took place around 1300 B.C. in the channel of the ancient Nene River. This was not a settlement, but a causeway used to cross the channel and for fishing. As groundwater levels rose, the causeway was flooded and in around 1000 B.C. new piles were sunk and the palisade added to help keep water out. Then, between 920 and 800 B.C., the settlement was struck by a catastrophic fire which put an end to human habitation of the site.

In the first publication since the end of excavations, archaeologists from the Cambridge Archaeological Unit present a new, much shorter window of time in which Must Farm was occupied before its destruction by fire.

The oak piles discovered in a 2006 archaeological survey of the site pre-date the pile-dwelling settlement. They were the supports for a causeway across the southeastern end of the Flag Fen Basin. By the time the settlement was built, all that would have been visible of the causeway were the rotted tops of the oak piles showing above the water.

The pile-dwellings were constructed during a period when the river, still active, was shallow and wide from silt build-up. The settlement consisted of at least five buildings on stilts, four circular, one trapezoidal, a palisade and a raised walkway. They were built over deep-set concentric rings of piles strong enough to support heavy roof timbers. The floors were relatively lightweight, built using slim poles and hurdle panels. Pathways of mortis-jointed timbers connected the structures and lined the inside of the palisade.

The thin stratigraphy, architectural clarity and highly structured artefactual and biological assemblages all suggest a brief occupation. The settlement’s limited life span is most vividly expressed by the close stratigraphic relationship between the woodchips from construction and the collapsed, charred structural remains of its demise, with the latter resting more or less directly on top of the former.

The emerging evidence suggests that one year is a reasonable estimate for the length of settlement occupation. Ongoing dendrochronological analysis of the structural timbers reveals that the settlement was built in a single construction phase, using wood of a similar felling year. The same analysis also shows differential sapwood shrinkage on areas of individual oaks protected from, and exposed to, the fire, which suggests that the timbers were still green, or unseasoned, when the settlement was destroyed by fire. Oak timber is broadly accepted to require one to two years to season under natural conditions in Britain. This would provide a terminus ante quem for the duration of occupation, if confirmed by experimental charring of green oak. During excavation, it also became clear that wood-boring insect damage was nearly absent on the structural timbers, despite the retention of sapwood and bark on many elements, including the hurdle gangway. Insects are known to colonise timber structures rapidly; this includes synanthropes, which are also absent in the Must Farm assemblage.

So instead of decades of occupation, it seems the settlement was active for less than a year when disaster struck. The density of artifacts, some of which could not have been locally sourced and must have come from impressively extended trade networks, in dwellings that were only occupied for a matter of months attest to the remarkable richness of daily life in an entirely routine Bronze Age fenland settlement.

The study is fascinating and exceptionally readable and has been published in open access form so everyone can enjoy its contents free of charge. I highly recommend it.


Earliest evidence of inhaled psychoactive cannabis found in tomb

Saturday, June 15th, 2019

Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the main compound in cannabis that causes its psychoactive effects, residue has been discovered on braziers in a burial ground in western China. The graves where the braziers were found date to 500 B.C., making them the oldest evidence of cannabis being smoked for consciousness-altering purposes.

There is evidence of the cannabis plant being used for its oil and fibers going back 4,000 years, but not that it was cultivated, and wild cannabis has negligible quantities of  THC. Cannabis plants have been found in burials dating to between 2,400 and 2,800 years ago in China’s Turpan Basin indicating a ritual significance, but again, there is no evidence of them having been consumed in any way.

It’s unclear from the archaeological record when cannabis began to be selectively bred and cultivated to enhance its psychoactive properties. The first historical account of the use of inhaled cannabis is in Herodotus’ Histories. In Book IV, he describes a Scythian king’s funeral thus:

Such, then, is the mode in which the kings are buried: as for the people, when any one dies, his nearest of kin lay him upon a waggon and take him round to all his friends in succession: each receives them in turn and entertains them with a banquet, whereat the dead man is served with a portion of all that is set before the others; this is done for forty days, at the end of which time the burial takes place. After the burial, those engaged in it have to purify themselves, which they do in the following way. First they well soap and wash their heads; then, in order to cleanse their bodies, they act as follows: they make a booth by fixing in the ground three sticks inclined towards one another, and stretching around them woollen felts, which they arrange so as to fit as close as possible: inside the booth a dish is placed upon the ground, into which they put a number of red-hot stones, and then add some hemp-seed.

Hemp grows in Scythia: it is very like flax; only that it is a much coarser and taller plant: some grows wild about the country, some is produced by cultivation: the Thracians make garments of it which closely resemble linen; so much so, indeed, that if a person has never seen hemp he is sure to think they are linen, and if he has, unless he is very experienced in such matters, he will not know of which material they are.

The Scythians, as I said, take some of this hemp-seed, and, creeping under the felt coverings, throw it upon the red-hot stones; immediately it smokes, and gives out such a vapour as no Grecian vapour-bath can exceed; the Scyths, delighted, shout for joy, and this vapour serves them instead of a water-bath; for they never by any chance wash their bodies with water.

Herodotus lived around 484 – 425 B.C. and is believed to have written The Histories between 440 and 430 B.C. So far, this thin sourcing is the most historians have had to go on regarding the origins of the inhalation of psychoactive cannabis in Eurasia.

Researchers unearthed 10 wooden braziers containing stones with traces of burning from eight graves at the Jirzankal Cemetery in the eastern Pamir mountains. Using gas chromatography–mass spectrometry (GC-MS), researchers tested samples of organic material from 10 brazier fragments and four of the stones inside the braziers. They found cannabis biomarkers on all the wooden vessels, on nine of the vessels’ burned residues and on two of the four stones. This is strong evidence that cannabis plants were burned by placing them on hot stones inside wooden braziers.

Not only that, but the cannabinoids found in the braziers contained higher levels of cannabinol (CBN), the oxidative metabolite of THC, than of cannabidiol (CBD), which is not psychotropic. If the plants burned had been wild, the levels of CBN and CBD would be roughly equivalent. The greater levels of the former indicate this was a plant either recognized and foraged as being a better high, or deliberately cultivated for it.

Some of the skeletons recovered from the site, situated in modern-day western China, have features that resemble those of contemporaneous peoples further west in Central Asia. Objects found in the burials also appear to link this population to peoples further west in the mountain foothills of Inner Asia. Additionally, stable isotope studies on the human bones from the cemetery show that not all of the people buried there grew up locally.

These data fit with the notion that the high-elevation mountain passes of Central and Eastern Asia played a key role in early trans-Eurasian exchange. Indeed, the Pamir region, today so remote, may once have sat astride a key ancient trade route of the early Silk Road. The Silk Road was at certain times in the past the single most important vector for cultural spread in the ancient world. Robert Spengler, the lead archaeobotanist for the study, also at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History, explains, “The exchange routes of the early Silk Road functioned more like the spokes of a wagon wheel than a long-distance road, placing Central Asia at the heart of the ancient world. Our study implies that knowledge of cannabis smoking and specific high-chemical-producing varieties of the cannabis plant were among the cultural traditions that spread along these exchange routes.”

The study has been published in the journal Science Advances and can be read in its entirety here.


Museum acquires USCT battle flag for $196,800

Friday, June 14th, 2019

The battle flag of the 127th Regiment United States Colored Troops sold at auction yesterday for $160,000 hammer price, just above the low end of its pre-sale estimate. The total cost including buyer’s premium is $196,800. The winning bid was made by the Atlanta History Center, home of the newly restored Battle of Atlanta Cyclorama (which is up and running as of February, btw). This is the most the AHC has ever paid for a single object.

The Atlanta History Center is one of the largest museums in the country in terms of square footage, a 33-acre campus that features thousands of artifacts in the museum’s permanent collection, extensive gardens, the historic Swan House, Smith Family Farm and the Wood Family log cabin. Objects associated with the United States Colored Troops are extremely rare, and the museum has very few of them.

Objects specifically identified with soldiers or regiments of the United States Colored Troops are extraordinarily scarce.  Atlanta History Center Military Historian and Curator Gordon Jones called this flag the definition of rare. “It’s an iconic knock-your-socks-off artifact,” Jones said. “Even an enlisted man’s USCT uniform wouldn’t be as historically significant as this flag.”

Black soldiers in the U.S. Army were issued the same uniforms and equipment as white soldiers, making collecting to interpret the USCT story a significant challenge. “So unless a soldier put his name on a piece of gear or it came down through the family, we will never know who used it,” Jones noted. […]

Among at least 11,000 Civil War objects in the Center’s collections are a dozen objects identified specifically with African American soldiers or regiments. These include a brass drum belonging to a drummer boy of the all-black 55th Massachusetts Regiment, a knapsack used at the Battle of Olustee, Florida, by a soldier in the 8th USCT, and a recently acquired canteen bearing the stenciled mark of the 15th U.S.C.T., which guarded railroad lines in Tennessee during the 1864 Atlanta Campaign.

The acquisition of the battle flag dovetails neatly into the Center’s long-term strategical goal of making the museum an inclusive representation of city’s demographics with a focus on attracting new members and visitors among non-white people under 50 years old who live inside the perimeter of metro Atlanta.


Intact 40,000-year-old wolf head found in Siberia

Thursday, June 13th, 2019

The perfectly preserved decapitated head of a Pleistocene wolf has been found above the Arctic Circle north of Yakutia, Siberia. It was discovered last summer by Pavel Efimov on shore of the Tirekhtyakh River, but the find was only announced this week at the opening of a Woolly Mammoth exhibition in Tokyo.

The soft tissue is in excellent condition. Muscles, brain, fur, skin are all intact, preserved for 40,000 years in the Siberian permafrost. The fur is very thick, described by researchers as “mammoth-like.” It is brown now, giving rise to questions from the public that it looks more like a bear rather than a wolf. That was not its original coloring; its an effect of burial in the permafrost which has permanently altered the fur’s color. Even if the fur were thoroughly washed, it would still look brown, and there’s no way to determine the original color.

The wolf was a fully grown adult between two and four years old when it died, and was rather petite compared to most modern wolves. The head is 40cm (15.7″) long. The head of modern Arctic wolves varies in length from 66cm to 86cm (26-34″). Interestingly, a CT scan of the head revealed that some parts of the skull are more developed than those areas are in the skulls of today’s wolves. 

“This is a unique discovery of the first ever remains of a fully grown Pleistocene wolf with its tissue preserved. We will be comparing it to modern-day wolves to understand how the species has evolved and to reconstruct its appearance,” said an excited Albert Protopopov, from the Republic of Sakha Academy of Sciences. 

How the wolf’s head became detached from its body is unknown, but it was almost certainly not cut off by people as there is no evidence humans inhabited the gelid region 40,000 years ago. Its likely that it was severed by ice. Expanding ice often beheads dead animals trapped in it, leaving characteristic traces on the soft tissue. Researchers in this area have seen this phenomenon at work. The ice acts like an axe or a knife, cutting cleanly through necks. It’s possible some other force was involved in the decapitation of this wolf, however, because the cut is more ragged than ice expansion cuts usually are. A trace expert will be called in to examine specimens taken from the sever point under a microscope.

No other parts of the wolf have been found so far. Researchers plan to visit the find site to excavate it looking for additional remains.

Here’s a brief but amazing video of the head being turned and examined by researchers:


Watch the Penn Museum sphinx move live!

Wednesday, June 12th, 2019

The largest sphinx in the western hemisphere is on the move right now! The Penn Museum’s 25,000-pound sphinx from the reign of Rameses II is being moved to its new location in the Main Entrance Hall. This is the first time it has seen daylight since it was installed in the museum’s Lower Egypt Gallery in 1926.

See it all go down in real time in the video below.

Posted by Penn Museum on Wednesday, June 12, 2019

They’re using a system of air dollies to raise it just enough above the ground that it moves at a hover. There are four dollies under each corner that use pressurized air to lift the sphinx. The ramp is at a slight incline to enlist the aid of gravity while still keeping the rate of movement under close control.

The museum is undergoing a major transformation of its exhibition spaces, so you won’t be able to see the sphinx in its new home until the grand reopening on November 16th.


Unique 1864 Black regiment flag for sale

Tuesday, June 11th, 2019

A one-of-a-kind Civil War flag from Pennsylvania’s 127th United States Colored Infantry Regiment is going up for auction this week.

Its imagery is remarkable, depicting a Black troop waving goodbye to Columbia, the Goddess of Liberty, beneath a banner that reads: “WE WILL PROVE OURSELVES MEN.” Below the cartouche is a banner that says: “127th REGt. U.S. COLORED TROOPS.”

The flag was designed and hand-painted by Philadelphia portraitist David Bustill Bowser. He was the son of a fugitive slave father and grandson on his mother’s side of prominent Philadelphia baker, brewer and civic leader Cyrus Bustill, a former slave owned by his own Quaker father. Cyrus Bustill was able to buy his freedom before the Revolutionary War. Like many members of his extended family, David Bowser was politically active in his community. His home was a stop on the Underground Railroad and he made portraits of important abolitionist figures, most famously John Brown a year before the Harper’s Ferry raid. He also designed flags, banners and regalia for political parties, civil rights organizations, fraternal groups and fire companies.

[Entirely random historical flagmaker connection:

David Bowser’s father Jeremiah was a member of the Society of Friends. He had escaped slavery and become a successful businessman in Philadelphia as owner of a popular oyster house and beer seller. His former owners had him arrested in Philadelphia and Friends raised funds to buy his freedom. When his son was born, he named him David after David Newport, one of the Friends who had worked indefatigably to secure Jeremiah’s freedom. David Newport’s grandson, also named David, who had known Jeremiah and David Bowser from early childhood, married Susan Satterthwaite, granddaughter of Betsy Ross.]

As soon as Congress passed the act allowing African Americans to serve in the military, Bowser actively worked to recruit black soldiers. That was July of 1862, but President Lincoln didn’t allow any black troops to serve in combat until the Emancipation Proclamation was issued on January 1st, 1863, and then it took another six months before the War Department created the Bureau of Colored Troops to recruit and deploy black units in an organized fashion. Racism was deeply ingrained in the process. Commissioned officers all had to be white; black soldiers were paid laborers’ wages; their families were rarely granted the financial support white soldiers’ dependents received.

In June of 1863, the Union Army issued an appeal for black soldiers to enlist: “The Government of the United States calls for every able-bodied African-American man to enter the army for three years’ service, and join in fighting the battles of Liberty and the Union.” A week after that proclamation, Camp William Penn, the first federally operated recruitment and training center for black troops, was established on property outside Philadelphia owned by prominent Quaker abolitionist and women’s rights activist Lucretia Mott.

A month later, a Meeting for the Promotion of Colored Enlistments was held in Philadelphia where speakers including Frederick Douglass promoted black men enlisting in the Union Army. Douglass’ clear-eyed, thoughtful explanation of why African Americans should fight for a government and army that had shown such active contempt for them was extremely well-received and recruitment took off in a big way.

Almost 11,000 volunteers made their way to Camp William Penn. Eleven of the new United States Colored Infantry regiments mustered there and the camp’s Supervisory Committee for Recruiting Colored Regiments commissioned Bowser to create their regimental battle flags. Somebody, there are no surviving records indicating who, lodged an objection. All we know about this event is from a letter written by John Weil Forney, an influential Philadelphia politician, to Thomas Webster, chairman of the committee, on March 29th, 1864. Forney wrote:

“While in Philadelphia two days ago, I learned that an effort was being made to deprive Mr. D. B. Bowser of the work of painting the flags of the colored regiments, and I would have called upon you to make an appeal on his behalf had not the weather been so bad. He came to see me, but I was much too occupied to give him a hearing, and he writes me this morning, begging me to intercede with you — which I most earnestly and cheerfully do. He is a poor man, and certainly professes very remarkable talent. He has been active in the cause and is himself a colored man, and it seems to me there would be peculiar hardship in taking away this little job from him and giving it to a wealthy house. Will you do your best for him, and greatly oblige.”

That did the trick. Bowser kept the commission and created one flag for each of the 11 Camp William Penn regiments. The image of Columbia, the personification of the United States as symbol of liberty and justice, accompanied by a black soldier was a recurring motif on Bowser’s flags, perhaps a deliberate needling of Confederate troops who, symbolism aside, would surely have been triggered by the images of a white woman being defended/touched/closely accompanied by a black man. Other low-key burns include the 45th regiment’s flag featured a black soldier waving a US flag in front of a bust of George Washington under the slogan “One Cause, One Country,” and the flag of the 22nd regiment which showed a black soldier bayoneting a Confederate soldier under the banner “Sic semper tyrannis,” (thus always to tyrants), the motto of Virginia and the phrase yelled by John Wilkes Booth on the stage of Ford’s Theater after he shot Abraham Lincoln in the head.

Of the 11 flags Bowser created, only the 127th regiment’s is known to survive today. Seven of them are known from photographic prints. Because United States Colored Troops flags were not issued by state and/or federal government as every other unit’s was, when the Mustering Office closed in June of 1866, the physical flags were returned to the USCT. They were stored in Washington, D.C., until 1906 when they were moved to the museum of the United States Military Academy at West Point. Never exhibited, they were taken out of storage and destroyed in 1942.

The 127th flag is believed to have been given to David Bustill Bowser after the war by Camp William Penn’s commander Louis Wagner. Bowser gave it to Post 2 of the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR), a fraternal organization of Union veterans, which eventually became the GAR Civil War Museum and Library. The museum did some work restoring the flag. They are now putting it up for sale via Morphy Auctions, which has done further restoration work to stabilize and preserve this precious and unique survivor. It will go under the hammer on June 13th with a pre-sale estimate of $150,000-$250,000.






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