“Pregnant mummy” not pregnant after all

The pregnancy of the 1st century B.C. mummy in the collection of the University of Warsaw turns out to have been a false alarm. The (premature) pregnancy announcement was made in an April 2021 article by some members of the Warsaw Mummy Project who based their conclusions on their analysis of new high resolution X-rays and CT scans. The results were questioned at the time by other scientists, including the WMP co-founder Kamila Braulińska and the radiologist who CT scanned the mummy, Dr. Łukasz Kownacki.

Now another team from the Warsaw Mummy Project has published a paper that decidedly contradicts the pregnancy interpretation. They contend that what looked like a head, arms and legs of third term fetus are actually bundles of mummification material, and they have the receipts in full-color and 3D.

“Our article contains a number of spectacular images and links to films depicting the interior of an ancient mummy, including those made with the use of holographic techniques, which are the latest trend in medicine” – told PAP the main author of the publication – bioarchaeologist, co-founder of the WMP – Kamila Braulińska from the University of Warsaw .

The researchers found that there is no fetus in the pelvis at all – as suggested by the authors of the 2021 report – but four bundles.

“They were placed there by ancient embalmerists. In the bundles there is probably at least one mummified organ of the deceased. It is a well-known practice in ancient Egypt” – emphasized Braulińska. The remaining ones may contain body fragments or other remnants of the mummification process.

The authors of the new publication think the first team misinterpreted three of the bundles as fetus parts because they did not consult an expert in radiology to interpret the images. Perhaps in part because of this lack of specific expertise, they were not able to extract the richest, most detailed models from the imaging data, even though both teams used the same data and the same software.

“In this way, we showed how much the analysis of three-dimensional effects and their interpretation depend on the skills of the software user, who can achieve excellent visualization effects also without being a radiologist” – Dr. Kownacki told PAP.

For the needs of the latest study, the possibilities of radiological analyzes available at the Imaging Diagnostics Department of the European Health Center Otwock were used, including unique medical holographic software for the so-called Mixed Reality, as well as radiological server solutions.

Muses in the Getty lab

The J. Paul Getty Museum has created a fascinating online exhibit about the challenging conservation of a group of reliefs from a lost Roman sarcophagus. Muses in the Lab: Conserving a Roman Sarcophagus on Google Arts & Culture is an easily scrollable, annotated and illustrated play-by-play of the conservation of a fragmentary high relief from a large sarcophagus that features a woman seated next to three standing muses.

The seated woman was likely the deceased. Facing her is Terpsichore, muse of dancing and choral song holding a lyre. Beside her in the center of the composition is Thalia, muse of comedy, holding the top of a comic mask. She wears a netted catsuit similar to ones seen in sculpture of comedic actors in costume. On the right is Euterpe, muse of music and lyric poetry, holding her double-pipes in both hands.

A second group of fragments from this sarcophagus are from the right front corner. Melpomene, muse of tragedy, stands in front of a draped curtain holding a tragic mask. The right end of the sarcophagus is attached to this fragment. It features a low relief of a beaded man holding a book roll. There’s also a bundle of book rolls at his feet, suggesting he may be a representation of a writer, likely a tragic poet given his location next to Melpomene.

The main group is 54 inches high by 88 inches wide and would have been the central scene in the front of a massive sarcophagus.  Its style dates it to the mid-3rd century A.D. The Getty acquired it from a New York art dealer in 1972. They knew nothing of his history before that and there is still no information about its origin. Both the front scene and the right corner were on display together from 1974 until the 1980s when they were taken down and put in storage.

Conservators revisited the reliefs in 2018 as part of the reinstallation of the museum’s antiquities collection. They found that the quality of the carving was exceptional, almost entirely in the round and every single surface, even the ones in the background behind the figures, is polished and shaped. The marble sculpting is so extraordinary that conservators believe it was done in Rome itself. If that is true, it would be the largest sarcophagus of its type known to have been produced in Rome.

Unfortunately, the fragments had not fared well in storage. They were in poor condition, with cracked, discolored joins from all kinds of different materials applied in past restorations. The pinning methods used to hold the reliefs together had damaged the marble and were no longer stable.

In order the correct past mistakes and reassemble the reliefs with modern conservatorial principles of non-invasive reversibility, the Getty team had to separate all of the fragments, remove the bad joins and pins, then put it all back together again. There were almost 50 fragments so it was a challenging job. During the painstaking cleaning of the fragments, conservators were delighted to discover the remains of the ancient polychromy, mostly purple, that added detail and vivacity to the sculpture.

When it came time to piece the fragments back together again, the conservation team took an innovative approach. They inserted steel sleeves into the already existing holes and fitted pins into the sleeves. Magnets were placed inside the ends of the pins and the sleeves. That way the fragments connect via the magnetic pins, meaning there is no need for adhesives and the fragments can be dismantled in minutes. Lastly, they created a custom mount that works with the new pinning system to keep the group secured.

The right corner group with Melpomene and the bearded man was not added to the display for practical reasons. The corner piece would make it necessary to block out a display place the equivalent of the large sarcophagus, most of that empty space. The group of four are discretely mounted to the wall.

The online exhibit lays out the complications of the restoration process, how conservators have to devise new solutions to fix their predecessors’ mistakes, the role modern design and technology can play to improve the display and long-term care of formerly abused antiquities.

4,000-year old shell tools found in Taiwan

Archaeologists have discovered a 4,000-year-old burial ground and shell tool processing site in Kenting National Park on the southernmost tip of Taiwan. This is the first prehistoric shell tool processing site discovered in Taiwan, and the oldest and largest found in any Pacific island.

The site was discovered in 2017 during a renewal project to convert the crumbling shopfronts in Eluanbi Park into new green buildings. Contractors stumbled onto human remains, some in slate coffins, and shell tools just under the surface of the soil. Construction work was stopped while archaeologists from National Tsing Hua University’s (NTHU) Institute of Anthropology surveyed the site.

Between 2019 and 2021, the team unearthed a large number of relics and artifacts, including 51 skeletons, 10 of which were buried in slate coffins with coral funeral objects, [Chiu Hung-lin, NTHU Institute of Anthropology associate professor] said.

Among the findings were several finished and unfinished shell tools, as well as relics that indicated it was a site for making those tools, which provided proof that the early inhabitants of Eluanbi used “unique” shell-crafting techniques, Chiu said.

The site also offered insights into the funeral customs of the people in those times, he said, adding that anthropologists could also make new discoveries by studying the human remains found at the site.

The processed shell finds range widely in design and function. There are practical tools like a shell adze used for cutting, as well as ornaments like shell and shark tooth pendants. The presence of intermediate stages — semi-finished objects, blanks — and processing waste is evidence of an extensive manufacturing operation.

Bed burials in England may be tied to Christian conversion

A new study of bed burials in early medieval Europe has found evidence that the practice may have been imported by Christian women from the Continent who traveled to England to convert the 7th century Anglo-Saxon elite.

Bed burials, a funerary ritual in which the dead were laid in a bed rather than a coffin, are rare in terms of numbers, but they have been found across a wide geographic range, as far west as England to Slovakia in the east and Scandinavia in the north. Most of them date to the 6th and 7th centuries, with the earliest dating to the early 5th century and the last to the early 10th century. Wooden bed frames were a luxury only the wealthy could afford in life. Burying a bed, whether it be one the deceased had slept in or one custom-made for funerary purposes, was downright extravagant, so bed burials had to have been solely the province of the elite.

Previous studies of bed burials have focused on a selection of well-preserved examples from Continental Europe, primarily southern Germany where anaerobic conditions preserved the organic remains of beds in excellent condition. The recent study by University of Cambridge researcher Emma Brownlee compares 72 bed burials found across Europe, including 17 of them in England.

There are marked differences between continental examples and English ones. Beds found in continental Europe are of two types — crate beds (basically boxes) and baluster beds (turned corner posts with side balusters) — both identified from extensive surviving wood elements. The beds from the burials in England, on the other hand, are identified by their surviving metal fittings because very little of the wood is preserved. English beds had headboards. The bases of the English beds were not constructed of wood planks but of a net or lattice suspended from metal eyelets.

Bed burials on the Continent are diverse. Men, women, adults and children were buried in beds in Germany and Scandinavia, but the bed burials in England are all of women, either adults or, as in the case of the Trumpington bed burial, a teenager but old enough to have passed a cultural line into adulthood and therefore be laid to rest in an adult bed.

That the burials in England are so much more restricted in date range and exclusive to women suggests the practice was imported by women on the move. In the 7th century, conversion was a major motivator for women’s mobility, as high-status Christian women were wed to elite/royal men who either hadn’t converted yet or were freshly converted. Christian women also moved from their hometowns to enter religious communities in other countries.

There is a possibility that the unusually restricted nature of the rite in England is related to women’s mobility, that bed burial was not a local rite, but one introduced by women who migrated to England, possibly as part of a system of exogamy. There is plenty of evidence for high rates of feminine mobility; isotope studies have shown higher feminine mobility than masculine in some cemeteries, and written and epigraphic sources also support narratives of women moving long distances for marriage, across Frankia, Alamannia, Scandinavia, England, and as far east as the Carpathian Basin.84 Women’s movement may also be related to networks of religious houses that existed in the 7th century, with elite women moving between Frankia and England to join religious establishments. […]

At the same time as burials of women in beds appeared in England, the continental Church was rapidly growing in influence. Bed burials appeared in England alongside the appearance of small numbers of other richly furnished feminine burials, such as at Rollright Stones, and Westfield Farm, Ely. This appearance of rich feminine burials has been linked to a wider change in the role of women associated with Christianity. In conversion narratives across the early medieval world, queens and elite women played an important role by marrying into non-Christian families. It is possible that the women’s bed burials in England represent migrants in a Christian context, who were buried according to a rite which was common in their place of origin.

Matthew Paris’ Book of St Albans digitized

The Library of Trinity College Dublin has digitized one of the greatest medieval masterpieces in its collection: The Book of St. Albans, handwritten and illustrated by chronicler, scribe and illuminator Matthew Paris. The artwork and verse text was previously only available in a black-and-white facsimile edition made in 1924 that cannot begin to convey the bright colors of the original.

Born in England, Matthew Paris was still a teenager when he entered monastic life as a monk at the Benedictine abbey of St. Albans in Hertofordshire. He lived at St. Albans from 1217 until his death in 1259, where he wrote all of his known works including his seminal history of the world, the Chronica Majora (ca. 1240-53) and the Book of St. Albans (ca. 1230-1259).

Alban lived in the 4th century and is venerated as the first English Christian martyr. The monastery dedicated to him was founded by King Offa of Mercia at the end of the 8th century. It was an important site of pilgrimage in the Middle Ages, attracting the nobility and aristocracy of England. They even offered accommodations for royal women, the only monastic house in England to do so.

The Book of St. Albans, which included also a Life of St Amphibalus (according to some sources the man who converted Alban) and other writings about the history of the abbey, is composed of 77 leaves with 54 illustrations. Matthew’s drawings are narrative scenes that take up a third of the top of the page. Some are in comic book-style double panels. He enhanced his line drawings by coloring them with washes of green, red, blue and silver and gold accents. The colors are brilliantly preserved in the manuscript.

Each scene is peopled with human figures in dynamic motion, and they are not just saints, kings and extras. Matthew Paris included people from all walks of life — sailors, soldiers, bell ringers and builders. His illustration of Offa directing the construction of the first St. Albans church is a unique graphic representation of medieval construction techniques, tools and materials. It also features some solid gore like Alban’s severed head and his executioner’s eyeballs falling out into his hand.

The text is in both Anglo-Norman French, the language of the secular ruling class, and in Latin, the language of the clergy. It is a small enough volume to be portable, and there is evidence the monastery did lend it to important patrons. A note on Folio 2r records that the volume was loaned on one occasion to Sanchia of Provence (d.1261), the Countess of Cornwall, who was the sister of Queen Eleanor of Provence (1223-1291).

The note says she kept the book until Whitsuntide and must have returned it because the manuscript remained at St. Albans Abbey until the monastery was dissolved by Henry VIII in 1539. Unlike the relics of saints Alban and Amphibalus, the manuscript survived the orgy of destruction. It was owned by astronomer John Dee (1527-1609) at some point, and then by Bishop James Ussher who bought it in 1626. (Ussher’s claim to fame is having counted up the generations in the Bible to determine conclusively that the world was created on October 22, 4004 B.C.) Ussher bequeathed his library to Trinity College and the Matthew Paris manuscript officially entered the library’s rare book collection in 1661.

Browse the digitized Book of St. Albans here.