Archive for June, 2020

Livestream summer solstice at Stonehenge

Saturday, June 20th, 2020

Stonehenge is closed right now and won’t open until next month, leaving hundreds of disappointed pilgrims and tourists who would otherwise have flocked to the ancient site to see the dawn break over the Heel stone. English Heritage is offering an alternative experience open to everyone in the world: a livestream of sunset today and sunrise tomorrow morning.

The sunset broadcast begins in less than two hours, 8:26 PM GMT (4:26 PM EDT). Sunrise kicks off at a bracing 3:52 AM GMT, which will be shortly before midnight tonight EDT. The video streams will go live a half hour beforehand.

If weather cooperates, and so far it looks good, this is going to be a unique opportunity to view Stonehenge’s interactions with the sun on the longest day of the year because English Heritage will have cameras set up to capture the scene to its best advantage and there will be no people there to get in the way. This is what it looked like last year, just to give you an idea of what a mob scene it usually is:

To join in the remote revelry, simply go to English Heritage’s Facebook page. You don’t need to sign up, sign in or do anything at all other than click and watch. If you’d like to enhance your enjoyment of the moment by learning more about Stonehenge and summer solstice, the excellent weekly English Heritage podcast recently dedicated an episode to it which you can listen to here.

If you aren’t able to view the livestreams, the recorded videos will be posted later on English Heritage’s Facebook page.

And the sunrise (albeit a little short on sun):

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Museum acquires Roman lead pig ingot of national importance

Friday, June 19th, 2020

An inscribed Roman lead pig designated of national importance has been acquired by the Wrexham Museum. It was discovered last September by metal detectorist Rob Jones in a field near Rossett, northeastern Wales. He dug up a corner of the object, saw that it had an inscription on it and alerted the local finds liaison officer.

Archaeologists from the Wrexhamn Museum and Clwyd-Powys Archaeological Trust fully excavated the find and surrounding area. The object turned out to be a large lead ingot or pig. It is a rectangle on the long sides with a trapezoid cross-section. At its maximum dimensions, it is 21 inches long, 6.3 inches wide and 4.3 inches high. Some of the lead is missing from one end of it and there are copious cut marks on the surfaces. It weighs 140 pounds.

Lead was mined and processed in several areas of the new province including in north-east Wales where lead processing sites have been excavated near Flint, presumably smelting ores extracted from the nearby Halkyn Mountain. A number of lead ingots of slightly later date are known from these works, often marked with the name of the local pre-Roman tribe called the Deceangli.

Susie White, the local Finds Officer (NE Wales) commented “It has been suggested in the past that similar exploitation took place in the Wrexham area around Minera and particularly Ffrith, where there is a known Roman site, although clear evidence is absent, probably as the result of more recent mining activity.

“We don’t yet know where this ingot has come from and we will probably never know where it was going to. However given the find spots of other ingots from Britain of similar date, it may have been destined for continental Europe, perhaps even Rome itself. The object could tell us a great deal about this important period of our past, a period which is still poorly understood in this area of the country.”

Fewer than a hundred such lead ingots from Roman Britain are known today, and the inscription on this one makes it undisputably one of a kind. It is almost intact, missing only the very beginning which we can interpolate easily from the information in the rest of the inscription. It reads: CAES ^ AVG ^ BR͡IT ^ X ṂAGVL ^ F̣VSVM ^ OP I͡N ^ P͡ROV ^ T͡R͡EB͡E͡L ^ MAXIMO ^ LEG ^ AVG. In full words: [Neronis] Caes(aris) Aug(usti) (plumbum) Brit(annicum) (e)x Magul(…) fusum op(eribus) in prov(incia) Trebel(lio) Maximo leg(ato) Aug(usti). Translation: (Property) of Nero Caesar Augustus, British (lead) from Magul(…), smelted at the works in the province when Trebellius Maximus was imperial legate.

Inscription on Roman lead pig, mid-60s A.D. Photo courtesy the Portable Antiquities Scheme.

Marcus Trebellius Maximus served as governor of Britannia under Nero from 63-69 A.D. In the wake of the Boudiccan revolt of 60/1, Trebellius’ aim was to pacify and stabilize Britain and get to the business of exploiting the province’s rich mineral resources, one of the main motivations for Claudius’ conquest of the island.

He is known from ancient literary sources, primarily Tacitus who mentions him in the Annals, Agricola and the Histories, but very few inscriptions from the empire record his name. This is the only archaeological reference to Marcus Trebellius Maximus ever discovered in Britain.

It is among the earliest dated inscriptions recording Roman seizure of Britain’s mineral wealth and testifies to its rapid exploitation following the spread of Roman power across the island. The production of the ingot presupposes prospection for metals, expropriation of mining sites and the mobilisation of labour, forced or voluntary, to mine and process metal-rich ores. The inscription also illustrates the bureaucratic control exercised over the production of valuable metals.

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Hercules Segers motherlode online

Thursday, June 18th, 2020

Visionary printmaker of the Dutch Golden Age Hercules Pieterszoon Segers (ca. 1589 – ca. 1638) inspired artists whose names are much more famous than his today, most notably Rembrandt van Rijn who was an avid collector of Segers paintings and prints. Very few Segers works are known to survive today — 183 unique impressions from 53 plates and 18 paintings — and the Rijksmuseum has the largest single collection of them with 74 impressions, two oil sketches and one painting.

Segers’s prints are at the heart of the artist’s later fame. With an array of techniques whose identification has puzzled artists and scholars alike, he etched unusual colourful landscapes, seascapes, biblical scenes and other subjects. Rejecting the idea that prints from a single plate should all look the same, he produced impressions in varied colour schemes, on grounded paper or textiles, colouring his prints with the brush and altering his etching plates by adding lines in drypoint. Employing a variety of unusual techniques and materials, he turned each impression of his etchings into an individual work of art.

The collection formed the core of the landmark Segers retrospective exhibited at the Rijksmuseum in late 2016, early 2017 and subsequently at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. That exhibition brought together almost all of the extant works known to exist today, including 110 prints and all 18 paintings. In preparing for the retrospective, researchers, scientists and art historians at the Rijksmuseum carried out an unprecedented in-depth study of Segers’ works. The study, which revolutionized understanding of his highly experimental techniques, was published in a new comprehensive oeuvre catalogue in 2017.

The Rijksmuseum has now made much of that information available for free in a new online collection catalogue. All of the museum’s Segers pieces can be viewed in the glorious high resolution to which the Rijksmuseum has made us accustomed with entries summarizing the results of the research and lending new insight into the artist’s process, materials and the dates of his works. The catalogue entries include all known information about the works from measurements to techniques to inscriptions and collectors’ marks usually found on the versos of prints. There are also links to works in the Rijksmuseum, other public collections and private ones that are connected in some way to the Segers prints.

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WWII silver cache found in 14th c. castle

Wednesday, June 17th, 2020

A hoard of silver objects likely buried in World War II has been discovered on the grounds of a 14th century castle in Nowy Sącz, southern Poland. A group from the Nowy Sącz Historical and Exploratory Association were surveying a site near the castle tower when their metal detector alerted them to the presence of what turned out to be a rusted out chest. The crate was corroded almost to nothingness, but the treasure it contained was in excellent condition.

They first unearthed some paperwork — apparently passes and receipts — in poor condition. Under the pages the chest was filled with silver tableware, including goblets, stemware, cups, flatware, serving vessels and candlesticks. In total 103 silver objects were found in the disintegrating chest. The pieces date from the turn of the 19th-20th centuries and the design style identifies them as Jewish ceremonial art.

Local archaeologist Bartłomiej Urbański, who was present at the search site, said: “It is Judaica, probably from the turn of the 19th and 20th century, connected to Jewish ritual and was probably buried during World War Two.

He added: “Is it connected with the buildings that used to be in this part of the city, or was it stolen by the Germans, who were then unable to take it away?”

The town of Nowy Sącz was founded by Wenceslaus II of Bohemia in 1292, eight years before he became King of Poland. Its location near an important trade route to Hungary garnered it significant privileges. Wenceslaus replaced a wooden watchtower perched on a hill within the city’s fortifications with a castle. In the mid-1300s, King Casimir III the Great greatly expanded the royal castle, integrating it into the new defensive wall he had built around the city. This grander castle of Nowy Sącz had two corner towers, at least one other tower, a residential building with multiple stories, and probably a moat separating it from the city proper. For the next 300 years, Polish kings and queens and visiting Hungarian and Danish royalty stayed in the castle. It was devastated by fire twice, once in 1522, once in 1611. After the second fire, the castle was rebuilt and expanded again in Renaissance style by Count Sebastian Lubomirski and, after his death, by his son Stanisław. That phase ended in 1655 when the castle took heavy damage during the Deluge (Sweden’s invasion of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth). It was patched up a couple of times by Austrian authorities after the Partition, but it never really recovered.

It was rebuilt again on a much smaller scale in 1938 just in time for the Nazi invasion of Poland. German forces occupied the castle and used it as a barracks. Under German occupation, 20,000 Nowy Sącz Jews were forced into a ghetto. The ghetto was liquidated in 1942 and all of the town’s Jewish community was sent to slaughter in Bełżec extermination camp. German forces stored large quantities of ammunition at the castle and Polish resistance fighters blew up the depot in 1945, destroying what little was left of the castle. The tower was reconstructed one more time in 1959.

After so beleaguered an existence, only a smattering of walls a few feet high remain of the original 14th century structure. The town of   Nowy Sącz wants to rebuild the castle (yes, again) and convert the tower into a museum. The Sądecki Regional Development Agency contracted with the Nowy Sącz Historical and Exploratory Association to explore the castle ruins assisted by professional archaeologists. They were scanning for shrapnel and metal parts from the explosion when they discovered the silver cache.

The objects will now be transferred to archaeological conservators who will clean, conserve and catalogue them for future display in the local museum.

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2000-year-old map carved into volcanic rock

Tuesday, June 16th, 2020

Thousands of years ago, an eruption of the Fuego de Colima volcano hurled a lava bomb nine miles south near the town of Colima, Mexico. The large basalt rock attracted the attention of local inhabitants who carved an elaborate petroglyph on the largest surface which faces the volcano that birthed it.

The stone, 5.5 feet high, between seven and nine feet wide and between two and 5.5 feet thick, is currently on private property. The presence of the petroglyph was reported to  the National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH) who dispatched a team of specialists to register the find on June 7th. They determined that it was a “stone map,” a carved overview of the area with topographical, geographical and population markers.

The identification is based on the designs and patterns and a comparison with other similar petroglyphs found in the region. At least three different techniques were used — polishing, pecking and wearing — to represent different features of the volcano’s landscape. Carved hollows represent populated villages and towns. Lines represent water routes down the mountainside.

Inspection of the map has been conducted by Archaeologist Rafael Platas Ruiz who has found that some features also correspond with the geographical landscape of the southern slope of the Colima volcano, with ravines and rivers clearly apparent.

Rafael Platas Ruiz said: “Without a doubt, these ‘map-stones’ helped to understand and facilitate the management of the land. Furthermore, they were a way of preserving knowledge from one generation to another, at a time when writing did not exist in the territory that is today Colima”.

Archaeologists estimate the carving was done between 200 B.C. and 200 A.D., the Late Preclassic and Early Classic periods, based on the motifs and carving techniques. Ceramic sherds found nearby are much more recent, dating to the  Chanal or Postclassic Colimense phase (1000–1500 A.D.), but they were churned up over centuries of sugarcane cultivation so there is no usable stratigraphic context.

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Happy birthday, Alfa Romeo!

Monday, June 15th, 2020

Venerable automaker Alfa Romeo celebrates its 110th anniversary in less than 10 days. In honor of the occasion, the company has released an e-book about its history from car models to its iconic logo incorporating the famous dragon eating a man, the emblem of the Visconti family which once ruled the city of Milan.

The first car was manufactured in 1910 when the company was still an acronym, A.L.F.A. (Anonima Lombarda Fabbrica Automobili, meaning “Lombard Automobile Factory, Public Company”). The 42 HP could reach an impressive-for-the-time top speed of 62 miles per hour. Fifty of them were sold in the first year. The engine was strong enough to power a prototype biplane made of bicycle tubes.

A.L.F.A. built on the success of the 42 HP and quickly grew. By 1915 it had 2,500 employees manufacturing three models. Then came World War I. The factory was converted to wartime production — aircraft engines, munitions, compressors — until 1919 when Alfa resumed car production. With the new cars came a new name as Nicola Romeo, an engineer and entrepreneur who had acquired a majority of shares in 1915 and all of them by 1918, added his name to the brand. The first car to come off the line bearing the Alfa Romeo imprimatur was the 1921 Torpedo 20/30 HP.

This was the decade when Alfa made its bones in racing. Its first racing team included a certain Enzo Ferrari as a driver. Alfa’s innovations won it the most prestigious races of the time, the Le Mans, Mille Miglia and a myriad Grands Prix. They also made for some amazing looking cars, ones like the Tipo B Aerodinamica (1934) and the 8C 2900 Le Mans (1938) that wouldn’t be remotely out of place in a superhero’s secret cave lair.

Automobile production came to a halt again during the Second World War, but when it resumed in April 1945, it resumed with a bang. The first post-war Alfa Romeo was the Freccia d’Oro (Golden Arrow) produced in 1947 and beloved by crowned heads and Hollywood stars alike. Icons like the Spider and Giulia followed.

But it’s the prototypes that thrill me the most. The 1952 prototype Disco Volante (“flying saucer”) really does look like it should be dropping from the belly of a mothership. The greatest discovery in this ebook for me, however, is the 40-60 HP “Aerodinamica,” which was a private commission from Count Marco Ricotti in 1914. It was made entirely of lightweight aluminum and was shaped like a torpedo with porthole-style windows. The chassis and engine were exactly the same as the ones in the 40-60 HP production series, but the body was a pioneering attempt to harness the principles of aviation design for a land-going vehicle. It could reach a top speed of 86 mph, 12 miles faster than the standard 40-60 HP, thanks to its unique body confirmation. The tear-drop shape earned it the moniker Siluro (“torpedo”) Ricotti.

Alas, Count Ricotti chose … poorly. He had the car modified, some might say butchered, into a goofy roofless excursion vehicle. What was left of it after that did not survive. Alfa Romeo sought to remedy this cruel state of affairs and in 1979 commissioned an exact replica of the great Siluro recreated from the original designs. Recreating that torpedo body was more challenging as it had been produced by a separate company, the Carrozzeria Castagna, and no original designs for it exist. The Carrozzeria Castagna did have a photo in its archives of the Siluro’s manufacture, which gave the reconstruction team the information needed to replicate an accurate skeleton and external form. The new Siluro, a copy of the original in all its details including the unbelievable “damascene” finish of the aluminum, is now on display at the Alfa Romeo Museum in Arese, Milan. The museum reopens after the long Italian lockdown on June 24th, Alfa Romeo’s 110th birthday.

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Longhouse remains rewrite Iceland’s settlement history

Sunday, June 14th, 2020

The Landnámabók (the Icelandic Book of Settlement) records that the first Norse settler on Iceland was one Ingólfur Arnarson who left Norway in 874 and built a farmstead on the site what is today Reykjavík. Remains of longhouses from around that time have been discovered under the city, as we know from the high-precision dating made possible by the layer of volcanic tephra ash deposited in 871 A.D. (plus or minus two years margin of error) by an eruption at the Torfajökull volcano field. A site on the Stöðvarfjörður fjord has not one but two structures that significantly predate the tephra ash and the official settlement of Iceland.

Archaeological remains were discovered at the Stöð farm by accident in 2003 and the first excavations began in 2015. Since then, archaeologists have found the remains of two structures, both of them under the tephra layer. They are Viking Age longhouses. The most recent one dates to between 860 and 870 and is 103 feet long, conspicuously larger than other early Settlement Era longhouses found in Reykjavík. The one discovered during hotel development in 2015 was 66 feet long.

Excavation leader Bjarni F. Einarsson:

“It is also the richest longhouse ever excavated in Iceland. We have found 92 beads and 29 silver objects, including Roman and Middle-Eastern coins.” The bead horde at Stöð is twice as large as the next two largest found in Iceland combined. In fact, it is one of the very largest ever found at a Viking-Age site in all of Scandinavia.

The older of the two longhouses is even huger at approximately 130 feet long. Radiocarbon analysis of barley grains found in the longhouse layer dates it to around 800 A.D., seven decades before Ingólfur Arnarson set food on Iceland’s shores. The younger farmhouse was built within the collapsed walls of the older one.

Bjarni’s theory is that the older longhouse was a seasonal hunting camp. He believes such camps were operated in other parts of Iceland as well. “We have found several sites in Iceland where we can confirm human presence before the year 874. The site on Aðalstræti in downtown Reykjavík is one. Another is Vogur in Hafnir [Southwest Iceland].”

Seasonal camps would have played a vital role in the settlement of Iceland, extracting valuable resources and thus financing further exploration and settlement. Recent paleoecological research suggests the valuable resource that drew them there was walrus ivory. Walrus ivory was in high demand in Europe in the ninth century, as were the animals’ blubber and hides. It was also valuable: a single walrus tusk was worth the annual wages of one farm worker.

The very name of the farm supports Einarsson’s position. Stöð means camp or base.

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The Maya wall paintings from Chajul, Guatemala

Saturday, June 13th, 2020

A study of early Colonial wall paintings found in private homes in Chajul, Guatemala, has revealed they were painted by local Ixil Maya artists using a combination of traditional techniques and European motifs. They are rare surviving glimpses into the shift in cultural practice and iconography from the pre-Hispanic Maya to the Spanish Colony.

Chajul was an important regional center before it was conquered by Spain in 1530. A vase from the Late Classic period (600-800 A.D.) names a high official of the Chajul king, so it was a politically prominent city with its own dynasty of rulers. Most of the ancient city is believed to lie underneath the modern city, with only a few Maya structures marking the perimeter of a ballcourt found northwest of modern Chajul.

Colonial-era murals were first discovered in Chajul during a house renovation in 2003 and archaeologists from the Institute of Anthropology and History of Guatemala (IDAEH) determined they dated to the Colonial period (1524-1821). The largest and best-preserved wall paintings were discovered in the home of the Asicona family who still live there today. It was dubbed House 3.

House 3 is an adobe brick structure bound with a mixture of pine needles and mortar. The interior walls were covered with white stucco and murals painted on the surface. The presence of old murals was first detected in the 1990s but they were only small glimpses of the still-hidden whole. It was only when owner Lucas Asicona Ramírez removed the outer layers of plaster on the wall in the course of replacing the roof that the full surviving murals were revealed.

The murals decorate the north, east and west walls of the central room of House 3. The original south wall was demolished long ago, but it probably had murals as well. They depict musicians playing instruments, both local and Spanish-introduced, dancers, some wearing European clothes, some wearing mixed Indian-Spanish fashions. Chajul locals believe the murals represent dances, either the Baile de la Conquista (Dance of the Conquest), or the Baile de los Moros y Cristianos (Dance of the Moors and Christians), which are performed stories from the Spanish conquest of the Maya highlands.

In 2011 almost all the houses with murals were photographed and documented. In 2014 the large, well-preserved murals in House 3 were 3D laser-scanned. In 2015, Polish researchers undertook a physical and chemical study and conservation of the extensive murals in House 3.

Using techniques including scanning electronic microscopy, X-ray powder diffraction and gas chromatography-mass spectrometry, researchers found that the methods and materials used to make the murals were the same ones used for centuries before the Spanish conquest. The color palette is type of pre-Hispanic Maya wall paintings found in the Maya Lowlands — white lime, ochre, Maya blue. The blue no longer looks blue today; it’s more like grey. The fading was caused either by a conservation problem, and/or a decline in the color-fastness of the pigment due to the loss of traditional knowledge about how to prepare it, specifically which mineral was the source of the blue color and what temperature to heat it. The underlying stucco is also the same type — local calcium carbonate mixed with ground seashells — as the stucco in widespread use during the Maya Postclassic period.

Our research to date, including interviews with Chajul inhabitants about local history and tradition, suggests that houses with murals were originally owned by important members of the local community—possibly members of the cofradías. These individuals were involved in the organisation of religious events, both those connected with Catholicism and those linked with costumbre (or Maya spirituality, related to the cult of the Maya pre-Columbian calendar and to agrarian rituals). Prior to the recent civil war in Guatemala (c. 1960–1996), there were approximately 10 cofradías in Chajul, although their number has decreased in recent years. The rooms with paintings probably served as places for important cofradía meetings and dances (cf. Howell 2004: 35).

Although the murals are currently located in domestic spaces, it is possible that in the past, painted rooms (or whole houses) might have played a different role. According to Lucas Asicona, the three rooms of house 3 had different functions in the early twentieth century. The northernmost room served as a space for receiving visitors; the central room, with the murals (at that time completely covered by later stucco), served as a place for special events, such as meetings, ceremonies and dances for the cofradía. Finally, the southernmost room was a kitchen and living room. A large patio in front of the house provided another space for dances. This division seems to reflect the original seventeenth-/eighteenth-century layout and function of the house. It should be noted that some other Chajul city houses with wall paintings have been—or still are—used as meeting places for cofradía members. Thus, it is very plausible that most, if not all, of the houses with murals belonged to cofradía members and served as important places for meeting and dance. As such, the paintings from these locations may commemorate special events, particularly dances, practised by these important religious and social organisations.

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Inorganic lead white pigment radiocarbon dated

Friday, June 12th, 2020

As plants and animals absorb carbon dioxide during their lifetimes, they absorb the unstable isotope carbon-14 with it. When they die, the carbon exchange stops and the C14 isotopes start to decay at a steady rate. Radiocarbon dating works by measuring the amount of carbon-14 present in organic archaeological materials and comparing it to reference standards. Now for the first time, researchers have been able to radiocarbon date an inorganic pigment to date wall paintings from the Late Middle Ages. This breakthrough technique makes it possible to get absolute dates for paintings from antiquity through the 19th century, a huge boon to conservators, art historians and authenticators.

Paintings made before the 20th century usually incorporate organic ingredients like vegetable oils or egg binders, but binders are often contaminated over the years by varnishes and retouches and the carbon content is too low to test. The wood of panel paintings, the wood supports of canvas paintings, the canvas itself can be radiocarbon dated and indeed frequently are in authentication investigations, but the C14 information pertains to the date the wood or plant was harvested, not when the painting was made per se.

Murals have no organic backings or binders, so the only possible route for absolute dating are the pigments in the paint layers themselves. Most ancient pigments have no carbon content. Only carbon black, made from charcoal, has been radiocarbon dated before.

Two widespread white pigments – calcium carbonate and lead white – are carbonate-based pigments and contain carbon. Both are considered as mineral pigments, but are produced differently. Calcium carbonate (CaCO3) is a natural pigment extracted from quarries. It was formed several million years ago from micro-organisms, but due to the 14C radioactive decay of 5700 years, geological CaCO3 no longer contains enough 14C to be radiocarbon dated. Conversely, lead white is synthesized. Lead white, composed of cerussite (PbCO3) and hydrocerussite (Pb3(CO3)2(OH)2), has been artificially produced by lead corrosion since Antiquity. This corrosion process, involving metallic lead, vinegar and organic substances such as horse manure or tan bark, was also named the stack or Dutch process when mass production started from the 16th century on.

Lead white was widely used by painters from antiquity to Van Gogh, so being able to derive an absolute date from the pigment would open up all kinds of new possibilities. The trick was to develop a technique to separate the carbon in lead white that would leave it uncontaminated and testable. The research team devised a thermal separation system that heated the sample to 400 °C, high enough to break apart lead carbonates but low enough for the carbon release process to be monitored and controlled.

Researchers deployed the process on samples of wall paintings from the 14th century dressing room of Margaret of Bavaria in the Château de Germolles in Burgundy, and fragments from the medieval rood screen of the Church of the Cordeliers in Fribourg, Switzerland. The rood screen was destroyed in 1745 and the rubble used as fill to raise the floor for a new pavement. A 1985 restoration removed the floor and recovered 14,000 painted fragments.

The radiocarbon dates of three samples from the Château de Germolles are 1292–1401, 1283–1397, and 1300–1419. The nine fragments of the Cordeliers rood screen range in date from 1262 to 1630. These results are all consistent with the known history of the château and the church.

In this study, we demonstrate that it is possible to extract all the carbon from lead carbonates by thermal decomposition in order to date lead white pigments and paintings by the radiocarbon method. The synthesis process of lead white is identified according to the 14C content and we show that the 14C isotope is therefore an important marker for reconstructing the history of lead white production. The process most commonly used over time is the corrosion process occurring in a fermenting environment. Metallic lead and vinegar were placed in pots embedded in horse manure or other organic substances. By fermentation, organic substances degrade and release CO2 that carries 14C. The organic substance are thus the key component to obtain a reliable and absolute radiocarbon date. Medieval paintings are a perfect example showing that recipes reported in historical manuscripts were applied. The radiocarbon measurements date the pigment production and provides new insights into the creation of the wall paintings.

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Bone songbird is East Asia’s oldest carved figurine

Thursday, June 11th, 2020

A tiny songbird carved 13,500 years ago in China is the oldest figurine ever discovered in East Asia. It’s the oldest three-dimensional art in the region by 8,500 years, albeit not the earliest carved art overall since there are engravings on bone and stone and some worked ornaments made of animal teeth and shell that predate the bird.

The burned bone figurine was discovered in Lingjing, Henan Province, central China, at a prehistoric site with 11 layers ranging in date from 118,000 years ago (number 11) to the Bronze Age (number 1). Seven of the layers contain archaeological materials. The bird was not found in its original stratigraphic context, however. It was in a refuse pile where it was dumped when a well was dug there in 1958. Most of the fifth layer was stripped and dumped during the operation. Thankfully the pile remained intact, allowing archaeologists excavating the site to explore the spoil heap during the 2008 and 2013 campaigns. They found chert flakes, pottery sherds, animal remains, ostrich shell fragments, charcoal and the bird figurine.

The wee bird is just six tenths of an inch long and two tenths of an inch wide. Its short head and neck, rounded bill, short legs and long tail suggest it represents a bird of the Passeriformes order. Researchers were able to estimate its age by dating burned bone samples found with it, including one that was gouged using the same technique used to carve the bird.

[University of Bordeaux researcher Francesco] D’Errico said the bird was “exceptionally” well preserved, enabling researchers to trace the various carving methods used to create different parts of the figure, including gouging with a stone tool, scraping and polishing.

“Our observations show that the artist knew well which technique was the more adapted to carve the different parts of the animal,” he said.

“What is also remarkable is that the carving is not a fully realistic representation of a bird,” he said.

The figurine has an oversized tail, allowing it to balance on its pedestal.

“Without this trick the bird would fall on its head,” D’Errico said, adding that this shows the carving is not just a “casual experiment.”

The authors said that the craftsmanship suggests the advanced stage of an artistic tradition, which began much earlier.

The find has been published in the journal PLOS One.

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