Homo heidelbergensis throwing stick illuminates evolution of hunting

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.

Last-minute visit with Michelangelo

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. 

Exeter to repatriate Blackfoot regalia to Siksika Nation

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.”

Church #16 with warrior saints mural found in Bulgaria

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.

Lendbreen ice patch was a mountain pass, also SHEEP

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.