Archive for June, 2019

Conserving the bibliographic patrimony of the Americas

Monday, June 10th, 2019

The Fray Ignacio de Quezada library in the San Augustin Monastery in Quito, Ecuador, is the only library in the Americas housed in its original late 16th century building. It contains 33,500 rare books, manuscripts and incunabula ranging in date from the 15th century through the 20th covering the sciences, literature, music and religion.

There are 26 extremely rare incunabula — publications created between 1450 and 1500, the first decades after the invention of the printing press in Europe — in the collection. This is the largest number of incunabula in Ecuador, which is one of the reasons the San Augustin library is the most important center of bibliographic heritage in the country.

The oldest book in the collection is an incunabula published in Venice in 1482. Another jewel in the incunabula collection is even more important because of a handwritten inscription that says it belonged to Fray Pedro Bedón (1551-1621), a renown muralist and one of the first artists of the Quiteña School of colonial art.

It also contains other books of immense historical significance, including the polyglot Bible of Paris (1645), a seven-volume Pentateuch written in the oldest known variants of Hebrew, Greek, Samaritan Aramaic, Syriac Aramaic, Targum Aramaic, Latin and Arabic. That’s not the only polyglot Bible in the library. There’s one published in England which features two additional languages: Persian and Ethiopian.

The monastery of San Augustin was damaged in the 7.8 magnitude earthquake that struck off the coast of Ecuador in April 2016. While the epicenter was 110 miles from Quito, some structures collapsed in the quake and there were widespread power failures.

The monastery was already in need of repairs before the earthquake, so it and the literary treasures it guards were highly vulnerable. The ceilings, walls and shelving of the archives were damaged. Leaking water and skyrocketing humidity levels put the books at great risk of destruction, and one strong aftershock could well have caused catastrophic loss. Attempts to restore the roof after the quake put the volumes at even more risk as dirt and debris fell into the monastery interior.

In 2017, the Fundacion Conservartecuador (FC), an NGO dedicated to the conservation of Ecuador’s cultural heritage, requested the aid of the Prince Claus Fund for Culture and Development’s Cultural Emergency Response (CER) program. With their financial support, FC was able to triage the collection. They selected the works in most urgent need of attention based on their importance, condition, age, content, author, printer and connection to the culture of the Americas and removed them to a workshop where they were documented, photographed and their immediate conservation needs assessed.

The first step in the ongoing conservation of the books was cleaning them, removing the accumulated dust of centuries and the recent additions in the aftermath of the earthquake. The books were placed in a plastic chamber connected to a filter hoses that gently absorbs particle matter. Working with their hands inside the chamber, conservators used soft, small brushes to carefully clean remaining dust from the pages. That step alone adds decades of life to the books.

Thornier issues can then be addressed. Some books have fungi contamination. Some, like 17th century choral books written on vellum and decorated with gold leaf, are highly susceptible to changes in temperature and must have specialized treatment to stabilize their supports. It’s an extremely expensive proposition. Restoring a single choral book, for example, costs around $30,000.

The project has generated unexpected benefits beyond the preservation of these priceless documents. The library’s contents were little known. Having to go through every single holding page by page gave researchers far more insight into and detailed knowledge of the vast resource. They discovered how much historic information was at their fingertips, and the publicity generated by the conservation has drawn international attention to largely forgotten writings documenting the colonization of Ecuador and the cultural practices of indigenous peoples before the Spanish conquest.

The publicity also gave the library access to more funding for the long-term management of the its assets, and has become a model for cultural heritage preservation in the country. Universities, museums, government entities and even the military, have all sent personnel to the Monastery to be trained in the latest methods and technologies in the conservation of documentary heritage.

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Dugout canoe found in Maine

Sunday, June 9th, 2019

A dugout canoe believed to be the oldest ever discovered in Maine has been unearthed in Cape Porpoise Harbor on the state’s southern coast. The canoe was found late last year by archaeologist Tim Spahr during a survey of the intertidal zone of the beach. The remains of the canoe had been exposed on the surface by shifting sands. The canoe, dug out of a birch tree trunk, has been radiocarbon dated to 1280-1380 A.D.

There’s an Algonquin fishing weir complex off Cape Porpoise’s Redin Island.  Spahr, who has written a paper about the weir complex, believes the dugout canoe is likely of Algonquin origin, used in the community’s fishing and trading activities.

The waterlogged sand had preserved the wood, but once it was exposed, the canoe was endangered. Spahr, principal archaeologist and investigator of the Cape Porpoise Archaeological Alliance, assembled a team of archaeologists and students from the University of New England in Biddeford and the University of New Brunswick to excavate the canoe.

“We started a few days before, building a custom crate to carry the canoe,” Spahr said. On Saturday morning, while they waited for the tide, the team conducted training and practiced how they would move the canoe.

“A few of us went in with wetsuits and snorkeling gear to move the sand before the tide subsided,” he said.

At around 2 p.m. the tide was low enough for crews to get handmade straps under the canoe, and they were able to lift it out and into the crate.

“It was incredibly volatile. It did suffer a few cracks in the wood, but we were able to get it into the crate in one piece,” Spahr said.

The canoe was transported to the Clement Clark Boathouse for the first phase of a long conservation process. It will be fully immersed in fresh water for a year to keep it from drying out and to gradually remove the salt content. It will have to be moved before winter to a location with climate control so the water bath won’t freeze.

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Allectus aureus sells for $700K

Saturday, June 8th, 2019

The gold coin of Allectus found by a metal detectorist in a freshly-plowed field near Dover, Kent, has sold for £552,000 ($703,000), far above its pre-sale estimate of £70,000-100,000. The auction at Dix Noonan Webb (DNW) in London on June 6th saw fierce bidding on the extremely rare coin, minted by the usurper Allectus between 293 and 296 A.D., driving the price way up until it finally went to a private collector bidding over the phone.

As Christopher Webb, Director and Head of DNW’s Coin Department noted: “I am delighted with the phenomenal price achieved in today’s sale. This is the most expensive coin that we have ever sold at Dix Noonan Webb – as well as being one of the world’s most expensive Roman coins, it is the most money ever paid for a coin of Allectus and it is now the most valuable Roman coin minted in Britain to have been sold at auction. It was a unique opportunity to acquire a stunning coin and the only other one known struck from the same pair of dies is in the British Museum.”

He continued: “There are only 24 aurei of Allectus known worldwide. Gold coins were initially produced to pay an accession donation in AD 293 but continued to be issued throughout his reign and were probably demonetized after his death in AD 296, as no coins of Carausius or Allectus are found in later hoards.”

The next time someone finds an ancient Roman aureus, they won’t be allowed to sell it to the highest bidder. Revisions to the Treasure Act of 1996 will plug the loophole that allows single coins, even ones of unquestionable museum quality due to their age, precious metal content, rarity and historical importance, to be kept or sold by finders at their whim so they can disappear into anonymous private collections like this one now has.

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Video recreates earliest Pictish fort

Friday, June 7th, 2019

A Pictish fort that once occupied the Dunnicaer sea stack off the coast of Aberdeenshire, Scotland, has been reconstructed on video. Located near the site of Dunnottar Castle, which was built on top of a later Pictish fort, Dunnicaer is today disconnected from the mainland at high tide but is believed to have been a much larger and connected outcropping before erosion from the crashing surf whittled it into a sea stack.

Pictish symbol stones had been discovered there by adventurous young men in 1832, but because it’s so difficult to access, Dunnicaer has barely been examined by archaeologists. In 2015, a team from the University of Aberdeen enlisted the aid of mountain climbers to reach the summit of the sheer cliff face and excavate the surface. They discovered evidence of a hill fort with stone ramparts framed with wood timbers, floors and stone hearths. Some of the hearths were built on top of each other, indicating space was extremely limited and dwellings were constructed on top of old ones.

Radiocarbon dating of the timber placed its construction between the 2nd and 4th century A.D. That makes it the oldest Pictish fort ever discovered in Scotland.

“Dunnicaer appears to have been home to a significant fort, even at this early date,” Dr Noble added. “We can see there were ramparts, particularly on the south side, constructed of timber and stone. This is consistent with the style of later Pictish forts.

“The stone is not from the local area so it must have been quite a feat to get it, and the heavy oak timbers, up to such an inaccessible site.

“It is likely that the sea stack was greater in size than it is today as the fort appears to extend over a large area. Dunnicaer was likely to have been a high status site for a structure of this scale and complexity to have been present as early as the 3rd century.” […]

Aberdeenshire Council archaeologist Bruce Mann said “The dates for this site are truly amazing, and hugely important for Scottish archaeology. Towards the end of the 3rd century AD evidence of how and where people were living largely disappears, leading to all sorts of speculation over what happened during the next 200 years. This discovery now starts to not only fill in that missing story, but also helps us to understand the early origins of the Picts in the north east.”

It was hard to access even in back then, and the radiocarbon evidence indicates it was inhabited for a short time, likely abandoned in favor of Dunnottar when erosion made the sea stack dangerous. Unfortunately the heavy erosion has continued, taking significant portions of any archaeological materials crashing into the sea along with the cliffs.

Now a new virtual reconstruction of what the fort might have looked like in the 4th century has been created using information from the University of Aberdeen’s excavation. It’s fascinating to see how intimately the archaeology is linked to the geology of this unique environment.

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Dracula’s cannonballs found

Thursday, June 6th, 2019

Archaeologists excavating the Zishtova Fortress in Svishtov, Bulgaria, have unearthed cannonballs likely used by Wallacian Voivode Vlad III Dracula, aka Vlas Tepes, aka Vlad the Impaler, during his assault on the fortress in 1461. The balls were shot from culverins, early cannons that evolved from hand-held weapons (ancestors of the musket) to field artillery. They were in use just up to the beginning of the 16th century. The balls were discovered in the layer dating to the 15th-16th century.

“What’s really interesting is that from the [early] Ottoman period we have found cannonballs. We rejoice at those small cannonballs because they are from culverins. These were the earliest cannons which were for the 15th century, up until the 16th century, they weren’t in use after that. These were still very imperfect cannons. That was precisely the time of Vlad Dracula, there is no doubt that they are connected with the siege [and conquest of the Zishtova Fortress] by Vlad Dracula in 1461,” [Prof. Nikolay Ovcharov from the National Institute and Museum of Archaeology in Sofia] says.

The fortress is on a hill in the center of the town. It dates to the 13th-14th century, but the hill’s strategic location with clear views to the east, west and north has ensured its constant occupation since the Romans built the first fortress there in the 4th century. In 1389 it was besieged by the Ottoman forces of Sultan Murad I commanded by Grand Vizier Çandarlızade Ali Pasha, only falling when the last of its supplies ran out. Pasha’s campaign forced Bulgarian tsar Ivan Shisman to surrender to the Ottoman Turks and while fighting would continue in some areas for another five years, Bulgaria would remain largely under Ottoman control from that point until the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-78.

Ottoman chronicles record Vlad Dracula’s capture of Zishtova Fortress, and in a letter Vlad wrote to the King of Hungary Matthias Corvinus in February of 1462 he boasts of having killed 410 Turks during the siege.  It seems he lived in the fortress for a few months that winter as well.

The fortress didn’t make it the Liberation of Bulgaria in 1878. It was partially destroyed during the Russo-Turkish war of 1806-1812 after the surrender of the Ottoman garrison. Russian General Kamensky ordered it burned down so that the Turks could never reoccupy it.  Sturdily built, the fortress held up quite well to the fire. Significant parts of it were still standing until 1850 when the stones were pillaged to build a new barracks for the Turkish army.

Even so, the ruins of the fortress are in better shape than you might think. Professor Ovcharov notes that Zishtova Fortress has high sections of wall still standing making one of the best preserved in Bulgaria.

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1,000-year-old sarcophagus opened in Mainz

Wednesday, June 5th, 2019

Lid of sarcophagus raised. Photo by ANDREAS ARNOLD/AFP/Getty Images.An international team of researchers has opened a 1,000-year-old sarcophagus buried under the floor of St. John’s Church in Mainz, Germany. The team had to work very quickly to document and analyze the contents and reseal the sarcophagus out of respect for the dead and to complete their work before exposure to air damaged any remains. It took months of planning to organize the complex procedure. First, the lid of the sarcophagus, which weighs 1,540 pounds, was lifted using a pulley system. Then 14 researchers from different specialties — anthropologists, metallurgists and textile experts, radiologists, etc. — went to work examining what was inside.

They were hoping to find the remains of Archbishop Erkanbald, Bishop of Mainz from 1011 until his death in 1021, but the only human remains were fragments of bones. It seems the body was covered in quicklime before the sarcophagus was closed to accelerate decomposition. It worked. Not even teeth remain. The radiologists on the team who were present to do immediate X-rays of the bones went home unfulfilled.

They did find sections of gold textiles near the head and lower leg, evidence that the individual was buried wearing very fine headgear and robes. Scraps of cloth shoes made from high quality fabric were also found. The gold fabric near the head could be all that remains of a bishop’s hat. The placement of the burial in the central nave pointed towards the altar indicates he was certainly a high church official.

St. John’s is the oldest extant church in Mainz and the only surviving example of late Carolingian cathedral architecture in the country. The Catholic diocese of Mainz and the Protestant church hoped opening the sarcophagus would reveal new information about the church’s early history. If the bishop was indeed inside that sarcophagus, that would confirm that St. John’s was the first cathedral church of Mainz, the seat of the bishop before it was moved to the current Cathedral of Mainz in 1036.

The sarcophagus may yet give up its secrets. In the next few days it will be scanned with a metal detector. If there’s a ring inside, it could confirm that the person laid to rest was indeed Bishop Erkanbald. Tissue and bone samples will be DNA tested and radiocarbon dated.

Furthermore, the sarcophagus itself is of singular interest. There is evidence that it was altered significantly before its burial in the church. The design of the interior was chiseled off. It’s possible it was used twice and had to be enlarged to make space for the clergyman. Whatever was done to it was done before the burial. The sarcophagus has not been opened or interfered with in any way since it was placed under the floor of the church 1,000 years ago.

The sarcophagus will be open in public view this weekend only.

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Long-lost Lewis Chessman for sale

Tuesday, June 4th, 2019

A Lewis Chessman whose whereabouts, nay, very existence, were unknown for almost 200 years has been identified and will be sold at auction next month. Picture it: the Isle of Lewis, Outer Hebrides, April, 1831. There, on the inlet of Uig Strand, a hoard of 93 objects was unearthed under nebulous circumstances that quickly became more legend than fact. It was a collection of 93 chessmen, pawns and tablemen (circular game pieces), plus one random belt buckle. That’s enough for almost four complete sets of figure pieces. Most of them were carved out of walrus ivory, likely in Trondheim, Norway, in the 12th or 13th century.

Whatever the true story of their discovery, the Lewis Chessmen made their international debut at the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland in Edinburgh in 1831. A merchant named Roderick Pirie was the first named owner. He sold them to an Edinburgh dealer for £30. That dealer sold 10 of them to antiquary and artist Charles Kirkpatrick Sharpe, and 81 of them to Frederic Madden, Assistant Keeper of Manuscripts at the British Museum. Sharpe was able to acquire an 11th piece after his original purchase. Today, Sharpe’s chessmen are part of the collection of the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh. The British Museum has a total of 82 of the original 93 pieces.

But were there really only 93 pieces unearthed? The mystery attendant the find and the five figure pieces (one knight and four warders, ie, rooks in the modern game) missing to complete the four sets left open the possibility that there could be floaters out there. That possibility has now become fact as for the first time a new Lewis Chessmen Warder has emerged.

It was bought for £5 in 1964 by an Edinburgh antiques dealer. He did not realize the treasure he had found. It has been his family ever since, beloved, even revered as an artifact with almost magical properties. His grandchildren, who prefer to remain anonymous what with having hit the antiquities lottery and all, took it to Sotheby’s for appraisal.

Sotheby’s expert Alexander Kader, who examined the piece for the family, said his “jaw dropped” when he realised what they had in their possession.

“They brought it in for assessment,” he said. “That happens every day. Our doors are open for free valuations.

“We get called down to the counter and have no idea what we are going to see. More often than not, it’s not worth very much.

“I said, ‘Oh my goodness, it’s one of the Lewis Chessmen’.”

The warder is being offered for sale at Sotheby’s Old Master Sculpture & Works of Art sale on July 2nd in London. The pre-sale estimate is £600,000-1,000,000 which looks way low to me, but we’ll see. This is the first time one of the Lewis Chessmen will have appeared on the auction block. Will it come to blows between the British Museum and the National Museum of Scotland? Will a deep-pocketed private party foil them both? Man, I hope they livestream the bidding.

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Hoard of 15th c. coins found in Dijon

Monday, June 3rd, 2019

A hoard of coins from the late 15th century has been unearthed in downtown Dijon. National Institute for Preventive Archaeological Research (INRAP) archaeologists were surveying a site near Saint Bégnine Abbey when they discovered 34 gold and silver coins buried in the remains of a stone house. The house was built in the late 15th or early 16th century and the coins were cached under the floor near a wall.

Of the 34 coins, 10 are gold, 24 silver. They were put in a small bronze box, now surviving only in part due to damaged by development in the 20th century. Also included in the box was a green and white enamelled gold pendant. Corrosion had clumped the coins together into a single group.

INRAP conservators were able to separate and clean them in the laboratory. They found that all the coins date to the second half of the 15th century and were issued from states in Italy (Papal States, Ferrara, Milan, Venice) and the Holy Roman Empire (Brabant, Savoy, the Palatinate). The oldest is a gold coin issued by Brabant between 1432 and 1467. The newest is a gold coin issued by Pope Innocent VIII (r. 1484-1492). Their condition suggests they were stashed before seeing much of any circulation.

There is only one French coin, issued by King Louis XI. Italian coins dominate, with silver testones issued by the Sforza in Milan the best represented.

This deposit is of great numismatic interest. Very few examples of some of these coins are known. They often testify, especially among the Italian princes, to a strong personalization of the iconography, inherited in part from the codes of the Roman Empire. This iconographic “revival” participates in the styles of the Italian Renaissance. These often heavy and high-quality coins show the power of these Lords and their motivation to make reference currencies.

Ercole II d’Este, Duke of Ferrara, Philip Ist of Palatinate, Pope Innocent VIII, Louis XI, the Doge Nicolo Tron, Philip the Good, Duc de Bourgogne, etc… This deposit resembles a catalog of the great princes of the late Middle Ages.

This set of coins also constitutes a precious testimony of the frequentation of the area at the end of the 15th century. The origins of the coins, the relative richness of the lot — perhaps the savings of a family gradually acquired over fifteen or so years — reflects the social market sphere and the European trading world. The issuing locations cover regions that played a major role in the European trade of the time or were in connection with the Burgundy world (Brabant, Northern Italy, etc.).

The pendant is a wedding medallion. It had two initials (a V and a C) connected by a golden cord. This was a popular type in the late Middle Ages and is common in wedding portraiture. It’s a handsome piece, but not made of the kind of expensive materials seen in aristocratic courts. It suggests the owners of the hoard were wealthy but did not mix in the highest ranks of the elite. They could have been petty nobility or members of the increasingly moneyed bourgeoisie.

The precise circumstances of the deposit remain uncertain, but this handful of coins reflects the end of the century in Dijon with the fall of Charles the Bold, the annexation of the Duchy of Burgundy, the arrival of the troops of the King of France in the walls of Dijon while beyond the Alps, the sounds of the wars of Italy are heard.

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The Benois Madonna’s Italian homecoming

Sunday, June 2nd, 2019

Leonardo da Vinci’s Madonna and Child with Flowers, also known as the Benois Madonna, is back in Italy for the first time in 35 years. On loan from the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg to commemorate the 500th anniversary of Leonardo’s death, it is at the Pinacoteca Comunale di Fabriano in Le Marche until June 30th and will be on display at the National Gallery of Umbria in Perugia from July 4th through August 4th.

Created between 1478 and 1480 when the artist was in his mid-20s, the painting is believed to be Leonardo’s first work fully independent of his master Andrea del Verrocchio. Leonardo had worked in Verocchio’s studio from the time he was 14 years old, starting out as a shop errand boy and working his way up to a full apprenticeship. Even though he received his qualification as a master from the artists’ guild in 1472 and opened his own studio shortly thereafter, Leonardo continued to collaborate with Verrocchio for years, creating works very much in his former master’s style.

With Madonna and Child with Flowers, Leonardo embraced a new style and eschewing the previous generation’s formal representations of the Mother of God as the serene Queen of Heaven, introduced Mary as a young mother at home playing with her baby. The warm, palpable love between them is a different kind of allegory, a highly relatable view of the bond of spiritual motherhood captured in one sweet moment. This was Leonardo coming into his own, investing a scene from daily life with the profundity and symbolism of genre painting. The little flower, for example, that Mary holds in her fingers while the infant Christ grabs at it, is a premonitory symbol of the Crucifixion.

The composition of happy mother, baby on her lap holding a flower, was immediately popular and preeminent artists of the era created their own versions. As famous as it was, the Madonna was lost for centuries. It wasn’t seen again in public until 1909 when it was exhibited by Russian architect Leon Benois. It had apparently left Italy in the 1790s, acquired by statesman and artillery general Alexey Ivanovich Korsakov who brought it to Russia. After his death in 1821, his son Nikolai tried to sell it at auction but failed to get the price he was hoping to get. Astrakhan merchant and art collector Aleksandr Petrovic Sapozhnikov waited patiently in the wings and finally got his mitts on it between 1823 and 1824.

Sapozhnikov had it removed from its original wood panel due its age and poor condition and transferred onto canvas. During the transfer process, an ink underdrawing was revealed. Sapozhnikov’s records indicate he never doubted its authorship, but the art historical community took a while to catch up. Its attribution was confirmed by the top authority in 1908 and since then the Benois Madonna has become firmly ensconced on the very, very short list of undisputed works by Leonardo.

It was acquired by the Hermitage Museum in 1914. Marija Aleksandrovna Sapožnikova Benois, Aleksandr Petrovic Sapozhnikov’s granddaughter and Leon’s wife, agreed they would sell it at a marked discount as long as the Hermitage agreed that it would always remain in Russia. The Hermitage only loans it out for very short trips very rarely.

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Highly polished Stone Age axe found in Wales

Saturday, June 1st, 2019

A rare highly polished stone axe head has been unearthed in an excavation in Llanllyr, central Wales. A team of staff and students from University of Wales Trinity Saint David (UWTSD) working on a module that allows undergraduates to get fieldwork practice in archaeology excavated mounds believed to date to the Neolithic era (4,000-6,000 years ago). Most of the artifacts recovered in this area date to the Middle Ages, so the discovery of a Neolithic stone axe in excellent condition was a happy surprise.

Dr Martin Bates, a geoarchaeologist at the University of Wales Trinity Saint David has been jointly leading the team.  He said:

“Running an excavation like this is an important part of our teaching here at Lampeter and giving our students the opportunity to gain the skills an archaeologist needs is very important.  When we began our excavations we did not anticipate finding Neolithic artefacts so this is a bonus for the team.  Hopefully, we can come back next year with a new group of students and continue our investigation of this important piece of Ceredigion’s history”.

Joe Neal a second-year student in Archaeology was the lucky student who found the stone axe.  He commented

“It’s a great find for us, I couldn’t have hoped to find anything better. This is my first dig and the first time I have found anything, so this is great”.

Dr Ros Coard, Senior Lecturer in Archaeology at UWTSD, added

“The University of Trinity Saint David has run excavations at the Llanllyr site over a number of years but mostly found later medieval material, so to find a much deeper pre-history is exciting and broadens our understanding of the Aeron Valley and this part of Ceredigion. It is a most unusual and unexpected find certainly warranting further exploration of the area”.

The mounds are shallow bumps in marshland now, but in the Neolithic they were dry ground. Evidence of human activity, namely flint knapping artifacts, have been found on the mounds. A whole axe head has never been found here before, and this one was very finely ground and still has a nicely polished edge. This took a great deal of work to produce and is still in excellent condition. It’s surprising that it would have been deliberately discarded on the mounds. The wooden handle it was probably hafted with is gone.

The team has collected core samples of the landscape. These will hopefully allow researchers to create a layer map of vegetation that can help date finds like the stone axe.

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