Archive for April, 2020

Homo heidelbergensis throwing stick illuminates evolution of hunting

Monday, April 20th, 2020

Prehistoric remains were first discovered in the open-cast lignite mine near the town of Schöningen in Lower Saxony, Germany, in 1992. Over time 13 distinct Paleolithic find sites have been unearthed at Schöningen which was the shoreline of a lake 300,000 years ago and replete with wildlife. Mammal, fish and bird remains, man-made stone tools and wooden weapons indicate that Homo heidelbergensis, the pre-Neanderthal early humans living in the area at the time, took full advantage of the natural resources available at the lake’s edge. More than 10,000 animal bones, almost all of them horse bones, found there bear cutting marks from the animals having been butchered with sharp stone tools.

The waterlogged soil and the thick layered depositions of silt and mud created ideal conditions for the preservation and dating of archaeological material. In 1994, archaeologists discovered a wooden throwing stick (a rod with a pointed end hurled at prey to injure them or direct their movement) in layer 13/11, sedimentary sequence 4. Seven more throwing spears were found there over the next four years. Dating to between 337,000 and 300,000 years old, these are the oldest known intact hunting weapons from prehistoric Europe.

In December 2016, archaeologists from the University of Tübingen and the Senckenberg Center for Human Evolution and Paleoenvironment unearthed a new throwing stick in layer 13/11-4. Like all but one of its predecessors, it was made of spruce wood. It is 25 inches long, an inch diameter and weighs half a pound. It is straight with one rounded side and one flatter.

Use-wear analysis conducted by Veerle Rots from the University of Liège shows how the maker of the throwing stick used stone tools to cut the branches flush and then to smooth the surface of the artifact. The artifact preserves impact fractures and damage consistent with that found on ethnographic and experimental examples of throwing sticks.

When in flight, throwing sticks, also referred to as “rabbit sticks” and “killing sticks” rotate around their center of gravity, and do not return to the thrower, as is the case with boomerangs. Instead the rotation helps to maintain a straight, accurate trajectory while increasing the likelihood of striking prey animals. Jordi Serangeli explains: “They are effective weapons at diverse distances and can be used to kill or wound birds or rabbits or to drive larger game, such as the horses that were killed and butchered in large numbers in the Schöningen lakeshore.” Remains of swans and ducks are well-documented in the find horizon.

Experiments show that throwing sticks of this size reach maximum speeds of 30 meters per second. Dr. Gerlinda Bigga, who studies the structure of the wood used for tools, remarked that “Ethnographic studies from North America, Africa and Australia show that the range of such weapons varies from 5 to over 100 meters.”

The find has been published in the journal Nature Ecology & Evolution.

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Last-minute visit with Michelangelo

Sunday, April 19th, 2020

On February 25th, the Getty Center in Los Angeles opened a new exhibition, Michelangelo: Mind of the Master, dedicated to exploring Michelangelo’s  sculpture, painting and architecture as seen through 28 of his drawings. It was a huge success with more than 2,500 visitors a day, but less than three weeks later, the exhibition came to an abrupt end when the Getty had to close its doors when Los Angeles issued the Safer at Home order. 

Of the 28 drawings on display, 25 of them belong to the Teylers Museum which has owned them since 1790 when the museum was just six years old. This is the first time its complete set of Michelangelo drawings has gone on tour.

They were first assembled by Queen Christina of Sweden, a passionate collector of art with a particular taste for Renaissance Old Masters whose collection was sold after her death in 1689 to Livio Odescalchi, nephew of Pope Innocent XI. Livio died in 1713 and his heirs sold off Christina’s former collection, by then known the Odescalchi collection, to the Duke of Orléans, the King of Spain, the Vatican library and the National Gallery of Scotland. In 1788, Dutch diplomat, politician and art lover Willem Anne Lestevenon acquired 1700 Renaissance and Baroque drawings by the likes of Michelangelo, Raphael and Guercino from the Odescalchi collection for the Teylers Museum.

Michelangelo made sketches and drawings of all of his projects from anatomical studies for sculptures to the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel to the dome of St Peter’s, but he often burned his preparatory drawings. According to Vasari, Michelangelo never wanted to show his work, the process, the roughing. He was concerned people would steal his ideas and anyway he wanted only the refined finished product in public view. Out of an estimated 28,000 drawings he made in his long life as an artist, today only 600 survive.

But try as he might, Michelangelo could not keep future art historians and curators from exploring the work process of the master. What he considered imperfections are today considered a window into his mind and method. That’s what Michelangelo: Mind of the Master explores.

It was supposed to run through June 7th. With only hours to go before the Getty Center was shuttered until further notice, curator Julian Brooks hastily shot a series of videos of the works on display, describing their significance as he would to happy groups of visitors in the now eerily empty gallery. 

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Exeter to repatriate Blackfoot regalia to Siksika Nation

Saturday, April 18th, 2020

The regalia of Blackfoot leader Chief Crowfoot, now held at the Royal Albert Memorial Museum (RAMM) in Exeter, will be returned to the Siksika Nation in Alberta, Canada, the Exeter City Council has decided. The regalia includes a buckskin shirt, two beaded bags, a horsewhip with beaded holsters, a knife with feather bundle and a pair of leggings.

Born in 1830, Crowfoot was a prominent Blackfoot warrior and diplomat. As chief of the Siksika Nation, he strove for peace between the peoples of the northern Great Plains and between the Blackfoot Confederacy, agents of the British government and traders like the Hudson’s Bay Company. He was instrumental in the negotiation of Treaty 7, an agreement signed by Crowfoot and other First Nations leaders in 1877 that was supposed to secure them part of their traditional lands in perpetuo and some supplies and money in exchange for allowing settlers.

Canadian officials promptly violated the terms of the treaty and by early 1882, tensions between the government/traders and the Blackfoot had escalated to the brink of violence. Crowfoot managed to stave off pitched battle and to mollify him, Lieutenant Governor Edgar Dewdney appointed a new  agent to administer the terms of Treaty 7: Cecil Denny of the North-West Mounted Police and one of the signatories on the treaty. Crowfoot knew and respected Denny and believed he would be a fair administrator, which he was, as far as that went. (Spoiler, not far at all.)

Crowfoot’s regalia are believed to have been acquired around the time of the signing of Treaty 7 in 1877. Sir Cecil Denny, 6th baronet of Tralee Castle before moving to Canada, bought them from Chief Crowfoot, but a year later they were already in Britain. Denny’s sister loaned them to RAMM in 1878. The museum bought the regalia from the Denny family for £10 in 1904 and they’ve held on tight ever since.

The Siksika have been trying since 2008 to get the regalia back. The first formal repatriation request was lodged by Blackfoot Crossing Historical Park (BCHP) in 2015. The request was supported by Alberta’s premier, but the Royal Albert Memorial Museum denied it on the grounds that the BCHP is not an accredited museum and therefore had to provide detailed conservation plans as well as information about the Nation’s governance to ensure another tribal organization wouldn’t lodge a competing claim on the objects.

After five years of wrangling, in February  RAMM suggested putting the matter of repatriation before the executive committee of Exeter’s city council. That meeting has now taken place and the council voted in favor of repatriation.

[Councillor] Rachel Sutton, Exeter City Council’s Portfolio Holder for Climate and Culture said, “When considering the claim for repatriation, the council recognised that the original injustices still reverberate today with First Nation Canadians. Giving back Crowfoot’s regalia returns control to the Siksika Nation over their cultural identity, dignity and authority and is the right thing to do.”

The objects will be repatriated to the Siksika Nation as soon as the coronavirus travel restrictions are lifted. Chief Ouray Crowfoot will go to Exeter to receive the regalia in a formal hand-over ceremony. The Siksika Nation will then transfer the regalia to the Blackfoot Crossing Historical Park where it will remain on permanent loan.

Chief Crowfoot said, “As a direct descendant of the Great Chief Crowfoot, I am pleased that the regalia will be returned to its rightful home, the Siksika Nation. The returning of this regalia will contribute to healing and reconciliation and the Great Chief’s spirit can rest easy once all his belonging are gathered from the four corners of Mother Earth and returned back to his home.

“The Siksika Nation will lend Chief Crowfoot’s belongings to BCHP for display and the education of all peoples around their significance as part of world history, together with their journey to the UK and their return to the Chief’s traditional homelands.”

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Church #16 with warrior saints mural found in Bulgaria

Friday, April 17th, 2020

Archaeologists excavating the medieval Bulgarian site of Cherven have unearthed masonry walls from a church with surviving 14th century murals. The church is the 16th discovered at the archaeological site of Cherven and was previously unknown.

“The full-fledged exposure of the church building led to the discovery of a preserved layer of murals on the temple’s walls,” the [Ruse Regional Museum of History] says.

“The preserved fresco fragments are parts of a painted drapery as well as a partly preserved scene with figures of warrior saints,” it adds. […]

The area of the surviving murals is about 12 square meters on the ruins of the walls of the church, which is dated, more specifically, to the first decades of the 14th century.

The late medieval church is described as one of the temples that are representative of the life of the medieval fortress of Cherven.

The medieval fortress of Cherven perched on a high cliff in northeastern Bulgaria was one of the most important military, religious and economic centers in the Second Bulgarian Empire (1185-1396). An urban settlement grew around the stronghold, first contained within defensive walls, then bursting their confines with a large outer that expanded to the nearby hills. It was made the seat of the Bulgarian Orthodox Bishopric of Cherven in the 1235.

Located at the junction of two major trade roads, by the second half of the 14th century, Cherven’s its military and religious importance grew to include commerce and trade, iron mining, metallurgy and the arts. Its prosperity and religious prominence are attested to by the 80 inscriptions dedicated to church donors that have been found there. Only 60 such inscriptions have been found in Veliko Tarnovo, the capital of the Second Bulgarian Empire where the royal family and the patriarch had their palaces.

Cherven was conquered by the Ottomans in 1388 and soon lost prominence. The old city was abandoned and the few residents that stuck around built the modern-day village of Cherven down the river gorge from the clifftop. The remains of the medieval city were first excavated in the early 20th century. Systematic excavations began in 1961 and are ongoing. Today the site of medieval Cherven is a national archaeological preserve inside the Rusenski Lom Natural Park.

Some of the frescoes have been removed to a restoration workshop so they can be conserved and stabilized on a new surface. The mounted frescoes would then be put on display at the museum. The frescoes and walls remaining in situ have been covered for their protection.

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Lendbreen ice patch was a mountain pass, also SHEEP

Thursday, April 16th, 2020

For more than a decade, archaeologists have been studying the rapidly melting Lendbreen ice patch in Norway’s Breheimen National Park as the receding ice exposes a wealth of ancient and medieval remains and artifacts. The latest results published in the journal Antiquity delve into the chronology and distribution of the finds which indicate the Lendbreen ice patch was a mountain pass, not just a reindeer hunting ground.

It was short cut over the Lomseggen ridge and while it would have been nigh on impossible to traverse the bare ice with pack animals, it was usually covered in snow which smoothed the way. The central track is dense with transport remains, including horse skulls, horse shoes, horse dung, tools used to clamp fodder on a wagon or sled and even an equine snowshoe. The pass was in active use from around 300 A.D. until the early modern period, with peak traffic around 1000 A.D. during the Viking era. At some point between 1500 and 1700, the pass fell into disuse and its very existence was forgotten until climate change and the retreat of the ice revealed the objects left behind by many travelers over more than a thousand years of use.

Lendbreen’s historical significance made worldwide news in 2011 when archaeologists discovered a wool tunic from the Roman Iron Age, 230-390 A.D., the oldest garment ever found in Norway. Since then, more than 800 artifacts (many transport-related like iron horseshoes, sleds and walking sticks), 150 bones and antlers, 100+ burial cairns delineating the route and the remains of a stone shelter at its top have been discovered, evidence of how extensively the pass was used from the Roman Iron Age through the Middle Ages into the 16th century. None of other passes over the Lomseggen ridge — and there are five known from local oral history or archaeological investigation — have a stone-built shelter, nor do they have anything like Lendbreen’s quantity of cairns.

Although similarities in function exist, Lendbreen’s use as a mountain pass occurred later than the earliest known Alpine examples. This chronological difference probably reflects low settlement density and low economic activity in the Lendbreen region before AD 300. Once the pass was in use, the radiocarbon dates from Lendbreen imply chronological variability in the intensity of high-elevation activity. Dates on objects probably associated with the site’s use as a mountain pass cluster in the Roman Iron Age and peak in the years around AD 1000. This chronology may reflect shifts in the demand for mountain products and in the motivation behind local and long-distance travel, based on a combination of environmental, social, economic and demographic influences.

The post-medieval and late medieval decline in the KDE distribution could, in part, relate to climatic deterioration during the Little Ice Age…, and to depopulation during the well-documented impact of the fourteenth-century plague…. That the dates cluster in the Viking Age, particularly around AD 1000, is unlikely to be coincidental as it was a time of high mobility, emerging urbanism and increasing political centralisation in Scandinavia, and a period in which markets around the Irish, North and Baltic Seas were growing…. The resulting demands on rural producers, and the need to transport outfield products, may explain the increased activity in the high mountains….

Speaking of the wool tunic found in the thawing ice, some of you old timers at this here blog might recall that in 2014 the Museum of Cultural History at the University of Oslo and the Norwegian Mountain Centre in Lom each commissioned a reconstruction the Lendbreen tunic using traditional techniques. This would give each institution the opportunity to exhibit the recreations and to research how woolen textiles were made in Iron Age Norway. Starting with wool from a Norwegian heritage breed of sheep that retain both the overhair and underwool that have been bred out of most modern domesticated sheep, experts investigated the materials, tools and weaving techniques used to made the 2/2 diamond twill textile, how the sleeves were sewn on and how the garment was finished.

The fascinating and complicated process was published in Archaeological Textiles Review in 2017, but I didn’t realize that until, driven by the new publication of the wider Lendbreen research, I sought out follow-up information on the tunic reproductions just now. I apologize for the unconscionable delay to all the textile craft aficionados who commented on the 2014 post with so much enthusiasm and additional information.

The whole paper can be read here and omg y’all seriously it’s amazing. I can’t sew a stitch and I was absolutely riveted. But wait! There’s more! There’s a video about the tunic starting with the discovery and then going into depth on the reconstruction. The Villsau sheep, total scene-stealers every one of them, were not shorn, incidentally. The farmer just plucked the fleece off when the animals were shedding on their own. That ensures the fibers are sealed at both ends and greatly increases the water-repellent and insulating capabilities of the wool. The before and after of the plucked sheep is priceless.

Just to give you an idea of what kind of work was involved here, each tunic required 2.5 kilos (5.5 lb) of underwool. Ten people timed themselves spinning the wool by hand and it took them 11 hours to spin 50 grams (.1 lb). Extrapolating from that experiment, it would have taken one hand-spinner 544 hours to make enough yarn for the tunic. No wonder the garment was extensively repaired; this was not a discardable consumer product. It was a treasured valuable.

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Tour 5,000 years of Egypt’s heritage

Wednesday, April 15th, 2020

Five of Egypt’s most spectacular heritage sites are open for virtual business with outstanding 3D models. The oldest of the four sites is the tomb of Queen Meresankh III, consort of the 4th Dynasty pharaoh Khafre, builder of the second largest pyramid at Giza. She was her husband’s niece and the granddaughter of Pharaoh Khufu, builder of the largest, the Great Pyramid of Giza. She died shortly after Khafre around 2532 B.C. Her elaborately decorated mastaba tomb, possibly built for her mother who ended up outliving her, is just east of her grandfather’s pyramid.

The next in chronological order is the tomb of Menna in the Theban Necropolis. Menna was an 18th Dynasty scribe and overseer of fields owned by the pharaoh and the temple of Amun-Ra. His duties included supervising the small army of scribes who recorded the size of fields and their crop yields and inspected the laborers at work. Menna would then report to the administration of the pharaoh’s granaries. These activities are recorded on wall paintings whose style identifies them as having been created during the reign of Amenhotep III. The tomb is one of the most visited sites on Luxor’s west bank because of how excellently preserved the paintings still are today.

The tomb of Menna underwent an ambitious conservation project from 2007-2009 during which it was precisely documented with high-resolution photography and precisely mapped. The paintings were analyzed using X-ray fluorescence, RAMAN spectrometry and colorimetry to help conservators determine how best to stabilize and repair them.

Still ancient but not quite so ancient is the Red Monastery, a Coptic Orthodox monastery built in the 5th century near the modern city of Sohag on the west bank of the Nile in Upper Egypt. Its main church, dedicated to Saint Pshoi, is built of red brick and has unique architectural features. Its portals and columns were custom-built instead of pilfered from ancient Roman or pharaonic monuments. The triconch sanctuary’s three apses are adorned with richly painted columns. Its walls are decorated top to bottom, with frescoes of saints in niches. It is still an active monastery today and is a site of pilgrimage for Coptic Christians.

Medieval Egypt is also on the virtual menu. The 14th century Mosque-Madrassa of Sultan Barquq is not open to tourists, so the virtual tour is a rare opportunity to view some pretty spectacular architectural features that you couldn’t see in person.

Rounding out the religious heritage of Egypt is Cairo’s Ben Ezra Synagogue. While the current building was completed in 1892, there were predecessor synagogues on the site going back at least to the 9th century, and the Ben Ezra congregation is even older than that, possibly predating Islam. Its antiquity was confirmed when a massive trove of almost half a million Jewish manuscript fragments were discovered in the synagogue’s geniza (storeroom). This extraordinary collection of documents date from 870 to the 19th century and include both secular and religious writings in several languages. They were removed to Britain in the late 19th century and are now scattered in libraries throughout the UK and the US.

Sadly, there is no Ben Ezra congregation anymore; there are only a handful of Egyptian Jews remaining in Cairo today. The synagogue is a museum now, no longer used for services.

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Ram’s skull found inside human clay head

Tuesday, April 14th, 2020

The remains of a ram skull have been found inside a clay funerary mask of a 2,100-year-old human head from Siberia’s Bronze Age Tagar culture. A Scythian people who inhabited southwestern Siberia between then 8th and 2nd century B.C., the Tagar farmed and raised livestock. They are also known for their fine bronze metalwork and left an indelible mark on the landscape with their large burial mounds. More than a thousand Tagar barrows have been excavated in the Minusinsk Hollow, now in the Republic of Khakassia and in the eastern part of the Kemerovo Oblast.

Low in height and edged with vertical stone slabs, the mounds started out as single burials for the societal elite. They contained one or two individuals in chambered graves. Come the 5th century B.C., the funerary tradition shifted. The mounds grew much larger, up to 100 feet high and exceeding 130 feet in diameter. Inside was a large single pit containing as many as 100 bodies.

The clay heads belong to the final stage of the Tagar culture, the Tesinsky stage (2nd-1st century B.C.). In Tesinsky crypts, believed to be large family tombs, the remains were treated with an attempt at mummification. Archaeologist Dr Elga Vadetskaya believes they were buried in two stages. First their bodies were placed in a stone coffin and buried in a shallow grave or under a pile of rocks. After a few years, the skeleton and any surviving soft tissues (mainly tendons and spinal cord) were wrapped with grass, leather and bark to make a sort of human-remain doll.

The skull was then fashioned into a clay head. The nose, eye sockets and mouth were filled with clay. A layer of clay was applied to the whole skull and the facial features sculpted with no care to replicating the real facial features of the deceased. The clay was coated in gypsum and painted. The paint patterns on the faces are believed to have been marks identifying family or clan membership.

The clay face of a young man was unearthed in 1968 from a Tagar tumulus in the Shestakovsky burial ground in Khakassia. It was X-rayed at the time, but the technology could only convey that the presence of skull bones and a hollow space smaller than the interior of a human skull. Researchers decided not to open the clay exterior as it would be damaged beyond the repair.

That head was recently given new X-rays using fluoroscopy imaging and this time the results were unambiguous: inside the human-featured head was the skull of a sheep. This is the first time a non-human skull has been found inside a Tagar clay funerary head. Researcher Natalya Polosmak has two hypotheses explaining this practice.

She believes the Tagar people ‘may have buried in this extraordinary manner a man whose body had not been found’.

She surmises that the man ‘could have got lost in the taiga, drowned, or disappeared in alien lands’.

For this reason he was ‘replaced with his double – the animal in which his soul was embodied’ and in this was sent to the afterlife alongside the remains of his fellow humans.

‘This must have been the only way to ensure the after-death life of a person who had not returned home.

‘Archaeologists know a number of such burials, referred to as cenotaphs, which have no human remains but may contain a symbolic replacement. As the latter, an animal could have been used.’

Her other theory for the ‘false burial’ is that it may have been done to give the man ‘a chance to have a fresh start, a new life in a new status.

‘Instead of a living man whose death was staged for some reason, an animal – a sheep in human disguise – was offered.’

Dr. Vadetskaya posits the mummy “dolls” and clay heads were returned to the family who kept them until a second funeral was held. The evidence for this is that the gypsum and paint of some of the clay heads has been repaired, sometimes repeatedly. This had to have been a precarious wait. The bodies and heads ran the risk of decomposing or being too damaged to rebury, in which case the families would have to recreate at least the clay heads.

That is what Vadetskaya thinks happened in this case; that the families used a ram’s skull as a placeholder for the lost human skull so that the second funeral could still take place.

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Synchrotron casts light on dino embryos

Monday, April 13th, 2020

The ultra-bright light of the European Synchrotron in France (ESRF) has been shone on dinosaur eggs, enabling scientists to create the first 3D reconstructions of dinosaur embryos. Synchronton X-rays are so high-powered that they can scan extremely dense material, including fossils.

An international team of scientists led by the University of the Witwatersrand in South Africa enlisted the aid of the ESRF in Grenoble to get a closer look at a clutch of seven fossilized eggs, two with visibly exposed embryos, discovered in South Africa’s Golden Gate Highlands National Park in in 1976. They were identified as Massospondylus carinatus, a sauropodomorph dinosaur from the Jurassic period that could grow to be as much as 17 feet long. The herbivore roamed what is now South Africa 200 million years ago.

Because the embryonic dinosaur bones are so tiny, very little information could be drawn from visual examination. They appeared to be fully developed skeletally. The ESRF scans revealed that in fact the embryos were only 60% developed. The team compared the tiny bones in their skulls with those from living descendants of the dinosaurs (crocodiles, chickens, turtles, lizards) which ossify in a similar way: starting at the tip of the snout and concluding with the top and back of the skull. The cranial ossification sequence indicated the dinosaur embryos were not close to hatching and that they had another 40% of their time in ovo left to serve.

The team also found that each embryo had two types of teeth preserved in its developing jaws. One set was made up of very simple triangular teeth that would have been resorbed or shed before hatching, just like geckos and crocodiles today. The second set was very similar to those of adults, and would be the ones that the embryos hatched with. “I was really surprised to find that these embryos not only had teeth, but had two types of teeth. The teeth are so tiny; they range from 0.4 to 0.7 mm wide. That’s smaller than the tip of a toothpick,” says [University of Witwatersrand researcher] Kimi Chapelle.

The researchers concluded that the dinosaurs developed in the egg just like their reptilian relatives, whose embryonic developmental pattern hasn’t changed in 200 million years. “It’s incredible that in more than 250 million years of reptile evolution, the way the skull develops in the egg remains more or less the same. Goes to show—you don’t mess with a good thing,” says Jonah Choiniere, professor at the University of Witwatersrand and also co-author of the study.

The study has been published in the journal Scientific Reports and can be read online.

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Bronze Age ostrich egg hunts

Sunday, April 12th, 2020

For thousands of years during the Bronze and Iron Ages, carved and painted ostrich eggs were traded around the Mediterranean, objects so highly prized by the elite of the region that they were buried with them. Up until now the decorative eggs have been classified by scholars according to style and motif, but a new study enlists state-of-the-art technology to determine where the eggs came from, the trade routes they took and the techniques used in their manufacture.

Eggs have been symbols of rebirth and renewal marking the transition from winter to spring in many religious and cultural traditions ancient and modern. Egg-shaped stones with a flattened base were used by Phoenicians as cippi (altar pedestals) or placed on top of pillar-style cippi, and ovoid sacred stones known as betyls have a very ancient lineage going back to the Bronze Age cultic traditions of prehistoric Egypt and Mesopotamia. Ostrich eggs have been found in funerary contexts dating as far back as the 2nd millennium B.C. in Cyprus and Syria and extending to Greece, Italy and Spain where there are no native ostriches.

For this study, researchers examined five whole ostrich eggs from the Etruscan Isis Tomb at Vulci (625-550 B.C.), now in the collection of the British Museum. This tomb belonged to people of very high rank, likely a wealthy family, who were buried with rich grave goods including the bronze bust of a goddess originally believed to represent Isis (now thought to be a local deity), gold jewelry, bronze vessels, Greek pottery and Egyptian scarabs. The combination of high-end local and imported objects is typical of the Etruscan Orientalizing Period (720-575 B.C.), characterized by intense contact between the Etruscans, Phoenicians, Egyptians and Greeks.

Four of the five eggs were decorated with both carving and paint. One was painted without carvings. The decorative motifs include sphinxes, wild animals, plants, geometric designs, warriors and chariots. Holes were drilled in the thick shells to drain the contents, then the empty eggs decorated. They were originally mounted with metal fixtures — spouts, stands — to convert the eggs into vessels.

In the study, published in the journal Antiquity, the researchers describe for the first time the surprisingly complex system behind ostrich egg production. This includes evidence about where the ostrich eggs were sourced, if the ostriches were captive or wild, and how the manufacture methods can be related to techniques and materials used by artisans in specific areas.

“The entire system of decorated ostrich egg production was much more complicated than we had imagined! We also found evidence to suggest the ancient world was much more interconnected than previously thought,” said Dr Hodos, Reader in Mediterranean Archaeology in Bristol’s School of Arts.

“Mediterranean ostriches were indigenous to the eastern Mediterranean and North Africa. Using a variety of isotopic indicators, we were able to distinguish eggs laid in different climatic zones (cooler, wetter and hotter, drier).  What was most surprising to us was that eggs from both zones were found at sites in the other zone, suggestive of more extensive trade routes.”

Ostriches are known to have been hunted and killed as well as captured. Assyrian texts document the practice and point to the birds having been kept for breeding, perhaps to stock exotic gardens, or as sources of feathers, leather and giant eggs.

Dr Hodos and colleagues believe eggs were taken from wild birds’ nests despite evidence of ostriches being kept in captivity during this period. This was no ordinary egg-hunt – ostriches can be extremely dangerous so there was a tremendous risk involved in taking eggs from wild birds.

“We also found eggs require time to dry before the shell can be carved and therefore require safe storage. This has economic implications, since storage necessitates a long-term investment and this, combined with the risk involved, would add to an egg’s luxury value,” said Dr Hodos.

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Virtual guided tour of Pompeii’s Regio V houses

Saturday, April 11th, 2020

There is a great deal of online content from museums and historical sites right now. I could never get enough of that kind of programming even before quarantine because most of the treasures of the world are out of individuals’ reach anyway just due to cost, time and distance. Virtual visits bridge those gaps, and while nothing can replace the in-vivo experience (is cyberStendhal Sydrome a thing?), they can open up vantage points that could not possibly be explored in person.

Today’s example of this comes to us from the eternal font of archaeological wonder that is Pompeii. The exploration of a previously unexcavated section of Regio V has been immensely production, discovering, among other big finds, a row of houses with balconies, the remains of a man found in a Wil E. Coyote-like posture under a stone and the beautifully frescoed walls of the House of the Garden.  The Archaeological Park of Pompeii has put together a video tour of two of the Regio V houses with stand-out features: the House with the Garden with its frescoes and the House of Orion, named after a floor mosaic of the mythical hunter being placed among the stars. 

Narrated by Director Massimo Osanna who is able to pack an incredible density of information in every sentence, the video uses high-definition film captured by drone to give us a fly-through view of both homes. It offers breathtaking bird’s eye views of Pompeii before swooping down into the House of the Garden and then on to the House of Orion. It’s like an archaeological Space Mountain with Walt Disney as your guide. The only negative is that it’s not twice as long and I’m hoping there will be more such videos to come.

The narration is in Italian and the auto-translated closed captions are as bad as ever, but you can follow along with the English transcript here

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