Celebrate the raising of the Vasa

It’s been 59 years since the pristine wreck of Vasa, the Swedish warship commissioned by King Gustav II Adolf which sank less than a mile from dock on her maiden voyage on August 10th 1628, was salvaged from Stockholm bay. It  broke the surface of the waters on April 24th, 1961, where, floating on pontoons, sprayed constantly with harbour water, it was excavated for five months. For 27 years it was conserved at a temporary location at the Wasa Shipyard. In 1988 it moved into the Vasa Museum and ever since then has been one of Stockholm’s most visited tourist destinations with more than one million visitors each year.

As the museum is closed for the time being, you can celebrate the anniversary with some teletourism. Here is the Vasa Museum’s Director of Research Fred Hocker talking about the complex salvage operation that raised the Vasa while simultaneously giving us a tour of the ship.

Next up, Hocker’s guided tour of the king’s cabin, or rather, a replica of it.

Museum guide Lisa orchestra of carved wooden putti in steerage. I’m embarrassed to say this is the first explanation I’ve heard of why the space was called steerage and I appreciate that a term now synonymous with the cheapest, least comfortable passage possible described the antechamber of the king on the Vasa.

In this video museum Educational Officers Lotta Wiker and Emilie Börefeldt explain how the Vasa was raised, illustrated with models of various stages of the salvage.

That’s just the tip of the contact iceberg. The Vasa Museum broadcasts live streaming video  of tours, stories, concerts from the museum every weekday at 4:28 PM, ie, 16:28, the year the ship was launched to its immediate demise. The broadcasts are live on Instagram and are also uploaded to the museum’s Facebook page. English-language videos air on Tuesdays and Thursdays.

Ancient Egyptian teenager found buried with fine jewelry

Archaeologists from the Spanish National Research Council (CSIC) have discovered the mummy of a teenage girl who was buried wearing a collection of fine jewelry. The wooden anthropoid coffin was found in front of the courtyard of the tomb of 18th Dynasty official Djehuty in the Draa Abul Naga hill on Luxor’s West Bank. It dates to the 17th Dynasty.

The 5.7-foot-long coffin was carved from a single sycamore tree trunk, whitewashed and painted in red. It was found next to a small mud brick chapel dating to around 1600 B.C., abandoned there by ancient grave robbers who for some reason never broke into it and who placed it on that spot with some care.

Researchers X-rayed the coffin and found it contained the mummified remains of girl about 15 or 16 years old resting on her side. The mummy was in a poor state of conservation. She was wearing two earrings on the left ear, both spiral in shape with a metal leaf coating believed to be copper. She also wore two finger rings, one of bone and other a blue glass bead mounted on a metal band. A string was tied around the band.

On her chest were four necklaces in a little pile. Two of them were made of faience beads, one in alternating light and dark shades of blue, one multiple-strand necklace tied together at both ends with a ring. One was made of alternating beads of faience and green glass. The fourth was the most elaborate and expensive. It is made of 74 beads of amethyst, carnelian, amber, blue glass and quartz, and five faience amulets. An amber falcon representing the god Horus is at the center, flanked by two scarabs. This is an unusually rich funerary assemblage for a young girl with a modest coffin.

On the other side of the mud brick chapel, the team discovered a small clay coffin about 9 inches long and six inches wide. It was tied with a rope to keep it closed. Inside was a wooden shabti with four linen bandages wrapped around its neck and ankles. One of them has a hieratic script inscription that reads “El Osiris, Djehuty.” The same inscription was written vertically down the body of the shabti.

This Djehuty bears no known relation to the later official of the same name whose large tomb is near the find. The name was relatively common in that era, and the 18th Dynasty Djehuty lived more than a hundred years after the young girl was buried.

In the same area where the girl’s coffin was found but inside a funerary shaft, archaeologists found a pair of leather sandals and a pair of leather balls. They too date to the 17th Dynasty. The sandals were dyed red and embossed with images of two cats, an ibex, a rosette, the hippo goddess Tawaret and the dwarf god Bes, both deities associated with pregnancy and childbirth. The color, decorative motifs and size of the sandals suggest they belonged to a woman.

The leather balls were stitched together in six orange-like segments and filled with barley shells. The two completed balls were tied together with a string. Images of quotidian activities found in the 12th Dynasty (1991 – 1802 B.C.) Beni Hassan tombs show similar balls used by women to play a sport or as accessories in a choreographed dance.

Rare Avar graves found in Croatia

Two rare Avar graves have been unearthed by archaeologists in the city cemetery of Vinkovci, eastern Croatia. This is the first Avar grave ever found in Vinkovci. The former Roman city of Cibalae in southeastern Pannonia was under Avar control in the 7th and 8th centuries, but until now, none of their graves had been discovered.

Fittingly enough, the ancient graves were discovered by workers expanding the Roman Catholic Cemetery of Vinkovci to make room for more burial plots. When they bumped up against a grave made of old tiles, they stopped work and called in archaeologists from the city museum. They unearthed a tile cist with a tile tent roof containing skeletal remains of an adult. When inclement weather and even more inclement pathogens struck Croatia, all archaeological investigations were suspended, but because the tomb had already been partially exposed and was in danger from the elements and from looters, the excavation was given a dispensation to continue.

Graves made from recycled roof tiles, bricks and slabs were fairly common in the late Roman period. They came in a variety of forms — simple cut graves with tile floors, cists with roofs of curved tiles placed convex-side up, curved tiles tilted against each other to cover the body, tiles used to make floors, walls, placed at head and feet and against each other in a tent-shaped roof. They have been found in Italy as well as France, Greece and other parts of the Empire. They generally date to late antiquity

Because the tile grave in Vinkovci is an elaborate version with complete walls, end pieces and gabled roof made of Roman brick and marble slabs taken from what had once been a luxury property, archaeologists first thought this was a late Roman burial. A few pieces of bronze found inside the tomb dated it stylistically to the the turn of the 7th to the 8th century, the Avar period. That means the invaders, having destroyed many Roman towns and driven their residents to flee west, used the ruins of their architecture to copy a Roman burial. That’s rarely found so late, and indicates there may have been some continuity of population in the area from late antiquity through the migration period and into the early Middle Ages.

The second is a cut grave containing the remains of a man and a horse complete with copper bridle ornaments. The grave had been looted in antiquity, but the thieves only stripped the warrior’s body of its adornments. The horse buried with him still had its finery, including an iron bit, iron stirrups and iron saddle braces, the first Avar saddle remains ever found in Croatia. The bronze ornaments on the harness include bronze rosettes, gilded circles and six fittings in the shape of a boar’s head.

This is a very rich Avar warrior burial, of a type found in important military cities that were part of a defensive ring along the southern Avar border in the turbulent 8th century. Its presence in Vinkovci opens up the possibility that it too may have been for some time one of the defensive strongholds on the southern border.

There are at least five more graves at the site and archaeologists will continue to excavate. They will remain on site to supervise the expansion of the city cemetery in case any more finds are revealed.

Medieval church walls found in Ethiopia

The remains of a medieval church have been discovered at the archaeological site of Debre Gergis in the Tigray Region of northern Ethiopia.  Archaeologists from the Polish Centre of Mediterranean Archaeology at the University of Warsaw (PCMA UW) had begun to excavate the site last month when the fieldwork season was cut short after just eight days. Before the team was pulled out to beat coronavirus travel restrictions, the team deployed drones to record their discoveries for later analysis.

Visible above ground at Debre Gergis are ruins from the Aksumite Empire (100 A.D. – 940 A.D.), several sandstone pillars and a monumental obelisk 20 feet high. The obelisk, a uniquely Axumite architectural feature, is likely a grave marker, part of a vast ancient cemetery at the site.

The ruins of Debre Gergis have been visually surveyed and photographed, but the site had not been excavated. The goal of this first excavation of Debre Gergis was to thoroughly map and document the surface remains and to look for other potential spots of interest.  Locals report that there was a Christian church from the late Aksumite period, but there are no records of its precise age, design or layout. The team hoped to find remains from the church.

In two archaeological excavations, researchers noticed damaged walls probably constituting the outer part of a medieval church. One of them still contained wooden piles. In addition, a fragment of the apse was discovered, in the form of stone floor blocks with a semicircular layout.

The researchers also noticed a block with engraved inscription in Ethiopic. A preliminary analysis of its age based on the fragments of ceramic vessels discovered next to the block suggests that it dates back to 700-1100 AD. Works on translation are underway.

Earliest (good) evidence of a death by meteorite

Researchers have discovered the earliest credible evidence of a person being killed by a meteorite. The event took place on August 22nd, 1888, in what is now Sulaymaniyah, Iraq, then part of the Ottoman Empire. The event was recorded by Ottoman officials in contemporary reports that have recently been digitized.

While meteorite debris striking the surface of the earth is not particularly rare, the odds of any of it hitting and killing someone are slim, approximately 1 in 250,000. Still, you’d think at some point in human history there would be solid evidence of a fatal meteorite hit, but the stories that are out there are notably unreliable. No established death from a meteorite hit exists on the historical record.

Most injuries that have occurred during meteorite fall are caused by shock waves, most notably the 2013 Chelyabinsk meteorite impact which sent more than 1600 people to the hospital for cuts suffered when the windows broke. Media reports of a man killed in an explosion in India in 2016 claimed that was the first meteorite death, but scientists put the kibosh on that story as there was no meteor activity that entire month, plus the description of the explosion and the crater left behind are not consistent with meteorite fall.

The only actual meteorite-to-human strike incident that is fully evidenced was not fatal. Mrs. Ann Hodges of Sylacauga, Alabama, was hit by a meteorite that fell into her house on November 30th, 1954. The fragment bounced off her radio and hit her leg. She suffered bruising on her thigh, but recovered without permanent damage. The rock that hit her was collected by George Swindle of the United States Geological Survey and he was able to prove conclusively that the object was a meteorite.

We do not have the full-circle evidence from the meteorite debris for the 1888 Sulaymaniyah event. What we do have are three detailed reports in written in Ottoman Turkish explaining the event to the authorities. They are not sensationalized, overblown, based on rumor or hearsay or dressed up for public consumption. They are bureaucratic records, dry and factual, from a government that recorded and kept copies of everything.

The first manuscript describes how a meteoroid impact at a village near Sulaymaniyah created a “fireball” (an airburst in modern parlance) and meteorites fell on a pyramid-shaped hill for 10 minutes “like rain.” A bright light and smoke was were seen in a neighboring village. The crops growing in the fields were destroyed and one man was killed. Another man was severely injured and survived but was paralyzed.

The letter was sent by the local governor, Mustafa Faik Mustafa Pasha, to the Ottoman equivalent of the Interior Minister, Ahmed Munir Pasha, on September 13th. It reached Constantinople on October 8th and it was taken seriously right away. The report was forwarded to the sultan the very next day, October 9th.

The second manuscript is a basically a forward.  Ahmed Munir Pasha repeats the summary of the event and relays the governor’s request for instructions from the sultan on how to respond to the event. It was forwarded to the sultan by Grand Vizier Mehmed Kâmil Pasha. Any reply the sultan might have sent has not been discovered yet, but there are millions and millions of documents in the Turkish national archives that have yet to be digitized.

The third manuscript again summarizes the event and notes that Ahmed Munir Pasha sent “a stone piece” to the grand vizier on October 18th, 1888.

This event is the first report ever that states a meteor impact killed a man in history ever with the support of three written manuscripts that report an event in a such detail up to our knowledge. Due to the fact that these documents are from official government sources and written by the local authorities, even grand vizier himself as well, we do not have any suspicion on their reality. At this stage, it is obvious that we cannot speculate these stones sent to the administration are really meteorites since we do not have any real physical evidence and even a real sample/(s). However, we are still covering the archives regularly and encounter some documents (unpublished data yet) state that some samples of meteorites in different events were delivered to the Muze-i Hamayun (Archaeology Museum in Istanbul, today).

That is a small needle in a very giant haystack, but it would be so cool if researchers managed to find the sample and confirm its extraterrestrial nature. Even if it did turn up, it wouldn’t be incontrovertible evidence of a deadly meteorite strike because there’s no way to link the man who died in the meteorite fall to that particular specimen as was done with Mrs. Hodges. Still cool though!