Archive for March, 2021

Genetic analysis reveals oldest indiscriminate massacre

Thursday, March 11th, 2021

Genetic studies of prehistoric massacres have found instances connected to warfare (all male, likely died in battle), targeted executions of families, migrants in conflict with local groups and ritual killings for religious purposes. The massacre in the Copper Age burial in Potočani, Croatia, doesn’t fit any of these categories.

The mass grave was discovered during construction of a garage on private land in 2007. In a small pit about 6.5 feet in diameter and three feet deep, archaeologists unearthed the skeletal remains of 41 individuals. Many of the bones were comingled, some still articulated. Radiocarbon dating of the remains dated the burial to 4200 B.C. and some pottery fragments recovered from the pit identify the deceased as members of the Lasinja culture of the Middle Copper Age.

Researchers cleaned and documented the bones, recording age, sex and any evidence of trauma or illness. Of the 41 individuals, 20 were female, 21 male. There were 21 children with the youngest between two and five and the oldest between 11 and 17. Of the 20 adults, 14 were younger (18-25), five middle-aged (36-50) and one’s age could not be determined. They had good teeth and were generally in good health, aside from a case of meningitis and five of scurvy.

A total of 28 perimortem injuries were found on 13 skulls. Most of those were from blunt force trauma, with a smaller numbers of stabbing and piercing wounds and cuts. The trauma was inflicted regardless of age or sex. Little boys and girls were struck just as the adults were. All 41 were buried at the same time, so while the remains only confirm violent death for 13 of them, it’s almost certain the others died by violence too, the marks of it just didn’t make it to the bones.

The research team was able to extract ancient DNA from 38 of the 41 individuals from the Potočani mass grave. Genomic analysis found that they were a homogeneous community with predominantly Anatolian Neolithic ancestry and a soupcon (~9%) of Western European hunter-gatherer ancestry. They were not a close kinship group, however. Only 11 of the deceased were related to each other in four distinct lines: a young man with two daughters and his nephew, two young sisters with a young man who was a 3rd degree relative, a father and son, a boy with his paternal aunt or half-sister.

These results indicate a large and stable population (estimates based on the DNA data put it from 20,100–75,600 people at the time of the burial) was attacked indiscriminately. No families were deliberately targeted. It wasn’t a battle between two armed factions.

The study also considered the potential role of climate change in the mass burial event. When climate changes, resources such as water, vegetation — including feed for cattle and other livestock — and game animals become less predictable. Furthermore, hazards, such as unpredictable extreme weather, become more common.

“These factors tend to disrupt human lifeways, and groups sometimes try to take over others’ territories and resources,” [University of Wyoming anthropology professor James] Ahern explains. “Increases in population size cause groups to overextend their local resources and require expansion into other areas. Both climate change and population increase tend to cause social disruption and violent acts, such as what happened at Potočani, that become more common as groups come into conflict with each other.”

The study has been published in the journal PLOS One and can be read here.

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Medieval parchment used as birth girdle

Wednesday, March 10th, 2021

Scientists have confirmed that a 500-year-old manuscript in the Wellcome Collection believed to have been worn by women for divine protection during childbirth was indeed used as a “birth girdle” in pre-Reformation England when the postpartum death toll and infant mortality were extremely high.

Among the relics and talismans seized during the Dissolution of the Monasteries were numerous birthing girdles. Abbeys and monasteries lent them out to parishioners (gross) for a fee that priced most women out of the market. Girdles made of silk, iron, snake skin and parchment are on the lists of confiscated devotional objects from the Dissolution.

Between the destruction of the Reformation, very few birth girdles have survived. Most of them are made of parchment, including the Wellcome Collection manuscript in the recent study. Unusually among surviving girdles, this parchment roll makes the link to childbirth explicit in its prayers that appeal to protective mothers (Mary, Anne). It was made of four strips of vellum sewn together and is incredibly long and thin (10’10” x 4″), a hint of how it may have been worn, for example, wrapped around the body with key prayers placed against the belly for maximum effect.

MS. 632 features iconography of the Passion of the Christ drawn in red and black ink — the crucifix, nails, drops of blood, the I.H.S. Christogram, the five wounds — and prayers and invocations to God, Jesus, Mary and a panoply of Saints, including Anne (mother of Mary), Margaret (swallowed by a demon dragon and burst out of its stomach) and Julitta and Cyricus. Julitta was Cyricus’ mother and according to hagiograhies, they were both martyred in the early 4th century when Cyricus was just three years old. They are the patron saints of family happiness and restoring health to sick children.

The prayers and invocations are written in Latin and English on both sides, although some of the text has been abraded from heavy wear and tear. They seek the protection of God against a variety of evils like being slain in battle, struck by lightning, wrongfully convicted of a crime, robbed at sea or on land and dying of pestilence. Then there’s the specific instructions for use in childbirth:

And yf a woman travell wyth chylde gyrdes thys mesure abowte hyr wombe and she shall be safe delyvyrd wythowte parelle and the chylde shall have crystendome and the mother puryfycatyon. [And if a woman travailing with child girds this measure about her womb, she shall be delivered safely without peril and the child shall be christened and the mother purified.]

It’s childbirth-specific features, abraded surface and a few reddish stains indicated it was likely worn during delivery, but there was no direct evidence. The manuscript is extremely fragile, so in order to confirm whether it was actually used by women during childbirth, researchers at the University of Cambridge turned to that greatest of school supplies, the Staedtler Mars eraser.

This form of non-invasive proteomic analysis has been used before on delicate ancient parchments to determine their animal source, but this is the first time it was used to identify the source of stains on the parchment. The analysis found a total of 54 human-exclusive proteins, 50 of which are present in cervico-vaginal fluid.

They also found animal-derived proteins including honey, milk, eggs, cereals and legumes (broad beans or peas), all of which were are ingredients in herbal treatments for issues in childbirth. Oh, also mouse pee. Plenty of mouse pee, but thankfully that wasn’t part of the delivery pharmacopoeia; just the inevitable result of it being stored somewhere where mice could get to it.

The study has been published in the journal Royal Society Open Science with a pretty great title: Girding the loins? Direct evidence of the use of a medieval parchment birthing girdle from biomolecular analysis.

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Unlooted Migration Period grave found in East Bohemia

Tuesday, March 9th, 2021

Archaeologists have discovered a rare unlooted grave from the 5th century near Hradec Králové in Eastern Bohemia. It was one of six graves from the early Migration Period found in the village of Sendražice during a 2019 excavation. The other five had all been looted in antiquity, but the intact grave contains a rich collection of elite grave goods that make it an unprecedented find in the Czech Republic.

The six individuals ranged in age from 16 to 55. The deceased in the unpillaged grave was a woman between the ages of 35 and 50. She was buried in a wood chamber tomb, only the second chamber tomb from the Migration Period ever found in Eastern Bohemia. The other was found in 1960 at a site about five miles away.

Among the treasures found in the woman’s grave are a gold-decorated headdress, four buckles of gold and silver inlaid with semi-precious stones, glass beads, an iron knife, a bone comb, egg shells and a ceramic vessel. A small animal was buried with her. A pair of silver buckles placed in the area of her lap have fragments of a textile with canvas and twill weave still attached.

One of the fabrics belonged to the garment fastened by the buckles, the other to a coat or cloth that covered the woman. Remains of leather and fur were also found on the buckles, according to research by Helena Březinová from the Institute of Archeology of the Czech Academy of Sciences.

Remains of some funerary offerings were found in the looted graves, including of a scramasax short sword, iron knives, metal belt fittings, shoe fittings, antler combs, amber and glass beads. One ceramic vessel survived the looting intact. Analysis of residue inside the container revealed that the meat of a ruminant had been cooked in it.

Osteological examination has thus far only been able to confirm the sex of the woman in the intact grave as the remains in the other graves were damaged during the robberies. Based on what’s left of their grave goods, archaeologists believe a man was buried in grave 3 and a woman in grave 6. Evidence of arthritic changes were found on some of the bones, indicating they may have been of older age and/or worked strenuously in life. Traces of cancer were found in the skull and pelvis of one individual. Another had asymmetrical muscle development the lower limbs. Not enough of the skeleton has survived to make a determination as to the cause of this asymmetry, but it may have been the result of a stroke. Tooth decay and damage to the joints was also found.

The skeletal remains will continue to be studied. Radiocarbon dating will be performed to narrow down the ages of the graves. Stable isotope analysis will reveal their diets and areas of origin. DNA analysis will be performed to determine if any of the people buried were related to each other.

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Intact 62-foot petrified tree found on Lesbos

Monday, March 8th, 2021

A petrified tree 62 feet high complete with branches, leaves and roots has been discovered on the Greek island of Lesbos. It was found during salvage excavations at the site of roadwork in western Lesbos. While the island is famed for its vast petrified forest, a national park, monument and designated UNESCO Global Geopark, most of the trees are trunks, either upright with their roots intact or fallen. Trees with branches are rare — the last one before this was found in 1995 — and a tree of this scale with branches has never been found before.

The trees were mineralized and preserved in a series of massive volcanic eruptions that struck the northern Aegean 17 to 20 million years ago. The trees on the western part of the island were covered by volcanic lava and ash. Heavy rains turned the ash to fast-moving mudflows that blanketed the forest. The subtropical forest of pines, oaks and Sequoia-like giants, plus leaves, fruits and roots were fossilized.

The latest discovery was preserved almost to its last leaf thanks to a coating of fine-grained volcanic ash which coated the whole thing and kept it intact in one piece exactly where it fell in the eruption. It was not moved or dragged by the mudflows. It simply toppled over where it stood, was covered by a thick layer of fine ash and gradually turned to stone. Underneath it was a bed of fruit leaves, also preserved and mineralized by the volcanic ash. Nearby the excavation team unearthed a spectacular cache of 150 petrified logs one on top of the other in a single pit.

The discovery of an entire tree lying on a bed of leaves was not only unprecedented but down to pure luck. “Constructors were about to asphalt that part of the highway when one of our technicians noticed a tiny branch. The road work stopped, we starting excavating and quite quickly realised we had chanced upon an incredible find,” said [University of the Aegean geology professor Nikolas] Zouros. “It will now form part of the open-air museum we intend to create.”

Geologists around the world have described the find as a breakthrough. “We have a case of extraordinary fossilisation in which a tree was preserved with its various parts intact. In the history of paleontology, worldwide, it’s unique” said the Portuguese palaeontologist Artur Abreu Sá. “That it was buried by sediments expelled during a destructive volcanic eruption, and then found in situ, makes it even more unusual.”

Because the road will still be built over the find site, the tree will have to be moved. Staff of the Natural History Museum of the Petrified Forest have been working assiduously for the past few weeks to complete the excavation of the tree and preserve it. A custom splint has been wrapped around the trunk and branches to support them and ensure the tree remains intact. A metal grate has been built to transport the tree to an area 100 feet away where a protective shelter is being constructed for its display.

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Most ancient pile carpet made of fermented wool

Sunday, March 7th, 2021

The secret to the persistence of the brilliant colors in the world’s most ancient pile carpet has been discovered: fermented wool. The sheep wool carpet now in the collection of the Hermitage Museum dates to around 400 B.C., making it six centuries older than the next oldest dated examples of pile carpets. The carpet is in exceptional condition, preserved in the permafrost with only small areas of loss. The reds, blues and yellows are still vivid.

It was discovered in a 1947 excavation of the largest burial mound of the Pazyryk culture in the Altai mountains of what is now Kazakhstan. It is unique on the archaeological record, although there is a comparable piece of Persian origin, suggesting that it may have reached Altai region via trade networks or perhaps been made locally by copying a Persian piece. It was knotted with the symmetrical double knot, a technique also known as the Turkish knot, which creates an exceptionally dense pile.

In the central field has six rows and four columns of boxes, each containing stylized lotus buds arranged in a cross shape. Around the central field are five borders. The first features 28 boxes containing griffins. The second is a wide band with 24 fallow deer bucks grazing. The third is a thinner band with lotuses again but smaller and red against a yellow background. The fourth is the widest to make room for 28 horsemen, both mounted and dismounted, against a rich crimson background. The outer band features the boxed griffins of the inner border.

To investigate the remarkably enduring color of the carpet’s colors, researchers at Friedrich-Alexander-Universität Erlangen-Nürnberg (FAU) penetrated deep into the knots of the carpet using high-resolution X-ray fluorescence microscopy (µ-XRF) to analyze the distribution of pigments in a cross-section of individual fibers. This is the first use of the technology on carpet fibers; previous studies in the field have all used scanning electron microscopy (SEM). Indeed, FAU researchers already had samples of the carpet because they had been sent to them for SEM analysis in 1991.

SEM imaging can identify fermented wool from its raised outermost cuticle layer, but that only works with newer textiles because the outer cuticle layer wears off over time. The surface of the Pazyryk  carpet’s fibers is damaged with the cuticle layer missing entirely in some areas, as one would expect for a textile that was woven 2,400 years ago.

Into the breach stepped µ-XRF. Samples of fibers from the Pazyryk carpet dyed with red madder were embedded in epoxy and cross-sectioned for scanning. For comparison, recently prepared wool was obtained from Anatolian weavers and fermented according to the traditional technique, and samples were taken from an 18th century Konya carpet.

We conclude from our studies that both the eighteenth century Konya carpet and the Pazyryk carpet have been manufactured from wool that was fermented prior to dyeing. This means that the people of the Pazyryk culture not only already had sophisticated knowledge about pile carpets, but were also highly skilful textile dyers achieving colour fastness superior to modern industrial production. Our results also proof that the fermentation technique was in ancient times not only restricted to Eastern Anatolia and may have played an important role in traditional dyeing craftsmanship.

The way fermentation works is the wool is soaked in a suspension in sourdough and wheat bran which feeds a beneficial culture of G. candidum yeast. The microorganisms keep the pH steady at 4.4, prevent putrefaction and after about three weeks, decompose the fats inside the cuticle layer greatly enhancing the wool fibers’ ability to absorb the dye. It is a more effective and cheaper means to maintain color fastness than bleaching, but it does have certain downsides. It takes a long time and if you don’t get the fermentation balance, you end up with putrefied wool. (I had a batch of fermented hard boiled eggs go wrong once, and my ferments were messed up for months after that. Fermentation is beautiful and terrible as the dawn. All shall love it and despair.) The Pazyryk carpet’s intense, vibrant color shows why it’s a risk worth taking.

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585 burials found in Egyptian pet cemetery

Saturday, March 6th, 2021

Excavations of the pet cemetery in the Red Sea port town of Berenike have unearthed the remains of 585 clearly identified individuals. There were even more, but those remains were destroyed or too incomplete to count.

The pet cemetery was discovered in 2011 northwest of the walls of the Roman-era town. Unlike other Egyptian sites where the remains of animals were found, these animals were not mummified, nor temple offerings, nor deliberately killed. Other animal burial sites in the Nile Valley also include human burials; this one does not.

The site on the outskirts of town was used a trash dump but the animals were not thrown away like garbage. They were lovingly buried, intentionally posed in a sleeping position, and often covered with pieces of pottery. Most of them were individual burials, although there are several group burials, mostly of kittens. There are no grave goods, but they were frequently buried wearing collars of iron (only found on cats and monkeys) and bronze and beaded necklaces. Some of the burials included the remains of other animals, like the cat buried on the wing of a large bird.

The trash layers were useful in dating the pet burials, narrowing down its use as a pet cemetery from the mid-1st century through the mid-2nd century. During that period, people buried 536 cats, 32 dogs, 16 monkeys, one Rüppell’s fox and one Barbary falcon.

Most of the dogs are of medium size comparable to a Spitz type. One exception was taller with a longer skull, similar in morphology to modern-day Pharaoh hounds which are sighthounds used to hunt small game. Another exception went in the other direction: it was a miniature breed of a Maltese type. It is the only toy dog ever found in Egypt. The majority of the dogs lived to maturity, several to old age, long past the time when they could be used as hunting and sporting dogs.

Analysis of the remains found that the vast majority of the cats roamed outdoors, but they were definitely pets. They had their wounds treated, wore ornamental collars and were fed with selected foods. There’s even written evidence found on an ostracon at another site from early Roman Berenike: “Herennius to Satornilus his dearest, greetings (…) Concerning the cats, Ourses is taking care of them in accordance with what I also wrote you on another occasion.” Even so, the cats died a lot younger than the dogs did. This is likely due to infectious diseases that spread easily among the much larger feline population, resulting in high mortality among young animals.

In broad perspective, the discoveries from Berenice make it possible to test the theses dominating scientific discourse on the human-animal relationship in antiquity. In particular, the concepts of ‘pets’ and ‘companion animal’ need to be a subject of new debate. Of course, one cannot clearly transpose the situation in a socially and culturally specific peripheral port to the general situation in the ancient Roman world. Nevertheless, strong evidence, archaeozoological, veterinary and textual, clearly indicate that the people living in Berenice nearly two thousand years ago looked after ‘non-utilitarian’ animals in similar ways as today. We are able to clearly identify and recognize the relationships between humans and animals whose only task could have been providing a person with companionship, perhaps emotional entertainment. In this respect, the results of our research enrich our knowledge of the ancient world not only in the field of archaeozoology and veterinary medicine, but also classical archaeology and ancient history.

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Stolen 16th c. armor returned to Louvre

Friday, March 5th, 2021

Two pieces of opulent 16th century armor stolen from the Louvre almost four decades ago have been recovered. Bequeathed to France by Baroness Adèle Von Rothschild in 1922, the helmet and backplate were stolen from the Paris museum the night of May 31st, 1983. The circumstances of the theft have never been explained, and there was no trace of the pair until earlier this year.

A military antiques expert alerted police after being called in to give advice regarding an inheritance in Bordeaux in January and becoming suspicious about the luxurious helmet and body armour in the family’s collection.

Police officers from the Central Office for the Fight Against Trafficking in Cultural Goods looked up the helmet and cuirass back piece in TREIMA, France’s national database of stolen cultural property, and confirmed that they were the objects stolen from the Louvre 38 years ago. Bordeaux prosecutors are now investigating how they came into the possession of the family.

The two pieces are made of iron damascened with gold and silver relief decorations including nudes, floral swags, grotesques and a mounted warrior on a rearing horse in the foreground of an architectural cityscape. They were part of a complete set of ornamental armor made in Milan between 1560 and 1580. They were luxury goods, not practical protective devices, used by the elite for ceremonial purposes or parades.

The helmet is of the burgonet type, named the Duchy of Burgundy where the design originated. It is characterized by a rounded dome with a peak above the face opening a crest running from just above the peak to the back of the head. It was lightweight compared to the close helmets and did not obscure the wearer’s vision.

“I was certain we would see them reappear one day because they are such singular objects. But I could never have imagined that it would work out so well — that they would be in France and still together,” said Philippe Malgouyres, the Louvre’s head of heritage artworks.

The recovered armor will go on display in the Objets d’Art rooms in the Richelieu wing of the Louvre after the museum reopens.

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Byzantine doorway found in Lesbos castle

Thursday, March 4th, 2021

Archaeological surveys at the medieval castle of Mytilene on the island of Lesbos have discovered a massive Byzantine-era doorway. The doorway is 3.2 meters (10’6″) high, 2.05 meters (6’9″) wide and two meters (6’7″) deep. It was was made of nine slabs of locally sourced gray-white marble mortared together. There was a wooden door attached originally, although all that remains attesting to it are cavities in the lintel where it was hinged. There are some areas of decorative carving surviving —  ribbons and a convex wave on the sides, a convex cornice across the top. Coins found date it to the 7th century A.D. making it the oldest

The urban settlement Mytilene dates back at least to the 7th century B.C. (Pseudo-Herodotus’ entirely unreliable Life of Homer places its founding way earlier, in the 11th century B.C.). In its long history it has been conquered by Persians, Romans, Byzantines, Genoese, Venetians and Ottomans before becoming part of modern Greece in 1923.

The earliest confirmed building phase of the castle took place in the 6th century in the reign of Justinian I (r. 527-565), but it may have been constructed on top of what was once the city’s acropolis incorporating elements of its ancient sanctuaries. Much of the medieval castle was built by Francesco I Gattilusio, a Genoese pirate who was given Lesbos by Byzantine Emperor John V in 1355 as a dowry when Gattilusio married the emperor’s sister Maria Palaiologina. The fortress fell to Ottoman forces under Mehmed the Conqueror in 1462 and it took heavy damage from Ottoman bombardment. Sultan Bayezid II repaired and expanded the castle in the early 16th century. Lesbos remained an Ottoman territory until late 1912 when it was taken by Greek naval operations in the First Balkan War.

Today the castle complex is one of the largest in the Mediterranean covering 60 acres. The complex is divided into three parts: the Upper Castle is at the top of the hill where the ancient acropolis stood; the Middle Castle mostly dates to the Gattilusio expansion; the Lower Castle was believed to be an Ottoman addition, built in 1644 by Sultan Ibrahim to strengthen the fortifications of the northern port as he embarked on what would become a 24-year-long war in the Aegean against the Republic of Venice.

Very few remains from the early Byzantine period are extant. They include a small gate on the northeastern wall, the eastern wall of the Upper Castle and the cistern in the Middle Castle. The discovery of the doorway, therefore, sheds new light on the architecture of the castle in its first phase. Archaeologists also believe it may be connected to the Byzantine settlement of Melanoudi, a residential settlement within the castle’s defensive walls whose location was previously unknown.

The doorway had been buried for centuries under layers of ash generated by another discovery made at the site: a 16th century bathhouse built by another pirate, Ottoman admiral and Lesbos native Hayreddin Barbarossa whose father had fought with  Mehmed the Conqueror and settled on the island after the conquest. The remains of vaulted hot, warm and cold rooms of the bath complex were found, as well as the remains of the fire pits beneath. It is the oldest bath found on Lesbos, which has quite a few thanks to its centuries under Ottoman rule.

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Longest longship installed in Copenhagen museum

Wednesday, March 3rd, 2021

The world’s longest Viking longship, the Roskilde 6, is being installed for a new exhibition at the National Museum in Copenhagen that starts June 25th. The Roskilde 6 has been traveling for years, touring Germany, England, Canada and the US. Last Friday it arrived packed in 27 boxes and curators have been piecing it back together.

At 37.4 meters (123 feet) long, twice the length of Columbus’ flagship La Santa Maria, it is the longest Viking ship ever discovered. The keel alone is 32 meters (105 feet) long, the longest keel ever found on a Viking ship. It was 13 feet wide at the widest point and had a shallow draught of just 33 inches.

Roskilde 6 was discovered in February 1997 by workers dredging the Roskilde harbor before construction of an extension to the Viking Ship Museum. Nine shipwrecks from the late Viking and early Medieval periods were discovered at the site. Roskilde 6 had been dragged into the shallows and partially dismantled along with a half dozen ships to serve as defensive barriers in the harbor of Roskilde Fjord.

Today about 20-25% of the longship survives, the timbers preserved for centuries in the waterlogged mud of the fjord’s shoreline. Dendrochronological analysis indicates the ship was built after 1025, and the type of oak points to it having been built not in Denmark but in Norway, near Oslo. It was in active use for at least 15 years, as there is evidence of repairs using timber felled from the Baltic area in 1039.

Roskilde 6 was an ocean-going warship, not a ceremonial one like many of the ship burials which were built solely for funerary purposes, and the high quality of its materials and workmanship points to it having been part of the royal fleet. Its large size required adaptations to ensure it would be flexible enough to navigate the choppy water. The keel was actually made of three parts connected by long scarves. The planks of its hull were barely more than an inch thick, which made it comparatively light in weight for its length.  The floor planks were riveted together and half-frames placed on top of them. The keelson, of which a 10-foot section has survived, was fastened to the hull with meticulously carved horizontal double knees.

The ribs over the hull at regular interviews correspond to where the thwarts (the rowing benches the oarsmen sat on) were placed, making it possible to calculate the full length of the warship and the size of its crew. Early Viking ships were small, fitting crews of 40 men. This one had a crew of 100, 80 rowers, two men per oar.

The preserved timbers have been mounted on a steel skeleton to give visitors a realistic view of its impression dimensions when it was intact.

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Locked letter virtually opened by dental X-ray scanners

Tuesday, March 2nd, 2021

X-ray microtomography (XMT), a scanning technology used in dental research, has virtually opened a letter that has been securely closed for 300 years. The technology more intense X-rays than CT scanners that are able to read the metals — iron, copper, mercury — in traditional inks. Once the volumetric dataset was produced, computer modeling was able to “unfold” the letter without damaging the document itself.

Dated July 31, 1697, the letter was written by Jacques Sennacques of Lille to his cousin Pierre Le Pers, a merchant in The Hague, asking for a relative’s death certificate in flowery prose that fails to mask his impatience at how long cousin Pierre has been ghosting him.

Dear sir & cousin,

It has been a few weeks since I wrote to you in order to ask you to have drawn up for me a legalized excerpt of the death of sieur Daniel Le Pers, which took place in The Hague in the month of December 1695, without hearing from you. This is {…} I am writing to you a second time in order to remind you of the pains that I took on your behalf. It is important to me to have this extract you will do me a great pleasure to procure it for me to send me at the same time news of your health of all the family.

I also pray that God maintains you in His Sainted graces & covers you with the blessings necessary to your salvation. Nothing more for the time being, except that I pray you to believe that I am completely, sir and cousin, your most humble & very obedient servant,

Jacques Sennacques

I beg you to send your response to Mr Sennacques, king’s councillor in the bailiwick of Lille, Rue St Etienne in Lille

From Lille, the 31st of July 1697

The intricate folding of letters so they become their own secured envelopes, a practice known as letterlocking, was widely used before the introduction of the Uniform Penny Post spearheaded by reformer Rowland Hill in 1840 and the invention of the first machine to fold and gum envelopes by his brother and Controller of Stamps Edwin Hill. The folding methods could be incredibly complex, some with tabs and adhesives to deter any unauthorized attempt to open a letter. Before this study, the only way historians could read locked letters was to cut them open.

X-rays have been used before to scan historical documents for hidden or illegible text, but they were either single layer documents like scrolls and pages of books, or were folded once or twice and most. The letterpackets are far more complex, folded many times in multiple directions and often creating dense layers of text.

The four letterpackets examined in the study are part of a great collection of undelivered mail recently rediscovered in the Museum voor Communicatie in The Hague. The wooden trunk lined with waterproof sealskin belonged to The Hague postmaster Simon de Brienne and his wife, deputy postmaster Marie Germain, who together were responsible for delivering mail to recipients in The Hague. At the time, recipients paid postage, which was determined based on number of pages and distance, and if a letter was refused or the addressee was dead or could not be reached for whatever reason, the letters were supposed to be returned. The Briennes saved them, hoping that somebody would eventually claim them and pay the charges owing.

In his will, Brienne bequeathed his earthly goods to the administrators of estates of Delft until his descendant should “renounce the errors of the Roman church,” convert to Protestantism and move to Holland. They never did, so the trunk stayed in government hands until the estate was finally liquidated in 1922. The trunk entered the collection of the newly-created museum in 1926.

Since then, a few of the letters were accessed by researchers, a few more went on display on occasion and the assemblage was partially catalogued, it was not generally known until 2012 when it was rediscovered by scholars researching the lives of French actors and Huguenot exiles in the Dutch Republic. It contains 3,148 letters sent between 1689 and 1707 from France, Spain, Flanders and Brabant. The senders represent a vast cross-section of professions and classes, from dukes to merchants, actors to spies, refugees to ambassadors, and are written in English, Dutch, Spanish, Italian, Danish, French and Latin. Of the letters in the trunk, 577 are unopened letterpackets.

The study has been published in Nature Communications and can be read here (pdf). Explore the Brienne Collection on the Signed, Sealed & Undelivered website dedicated to this treasury of early modern correspondence.

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