Sweet potato pie, 17th century style

While menu planning for the upcoming meal events that traditionally feature any number of pies, consider Elizabeth Grey, Countess of Kent’s potato pie from her 1653 cookbook
A True Gentlewomans Delight: Wherein is contained all manner of Cookery: Together with Preserving, Conserving, Drying and Candying, Very necessary for all Ladies and Gentlewomen.

Elizabeth Grey was one of Queen Elizabeth’s attendants before her marriage, and one of Queen Anne of Denmark’s favorites after. She was also a good friend of the indomitable Lady Anne Clifford. As an aristocrat at the courts of two queens, Elizabeth Grey didn’t really do a lot of hands-on cooking herself. She was, however, an avid collector of recipes both medicinal and culinary. After her death in 1651, her collection of medical recipes was published and was so popular it went through 22 editions. Piggybacking off the countess’ posthumous success as a home pharmacologist, publisher W.J. Gent had a runaway success with her collection of cooking recipes. It was a huge best-seller as well, going through 21 editions in 55 years.

She didn’t actually write any of these books, as she was dead at the time, and there’s a solid chance the cookbook’s recipes weren’t so much collected by her as written by her chef, Robert May, or made up by Gent himself. Attribution to Elizabeth Grey mattered far more as a promotional tool than on any factual basis. Increasing literacy and average incomes created a burgeoning market among consumers with a little money in their pockets hoping to get their piece of the lifestyles of the rich and famous.

So back to her potato pie. The potato was a recent arrival on European shores, imported from the Americas. The ones Elizabeth used would have been more like a sweet potato than the Yukon golds we see on the Thanksgiving table today. It was an exotic vegetable, expensive and in this pie paired with other pricey imports like spices, dates and sugar. The recipe:

A Potato Pie for Supper

Take three pound of boyled and blanched Potatoes, and 3 Nutmegs, and half an ounce of Cinnamon beaten together, and three ounces of Sugar, season your Potatoes, and put them in your Pie, then take the marrow of three bones, rouled in yolks of Eggs, and sliced Lemon, and large Mace, and half a pound of butter, six Dates quartered, put this into your pie, and let it stand an hour in the oven; then make a sharp caudle of butter, Sugar, Verjuyce, and white Wine, put it in when you take your Pie out of the oven.

Three whole nutmegs seems like it would be, well, insane, so I hope she means three measures of some sort. Verjuice is a sour juice derived from squeezing crab apples and unripened grapes. It was common in 17th century cooking. A caudle is a hot, thick drink ranging from an eggnog consistency to a thin porridge consistency.

The Getty has drawn up a simpler modernized version of Elizabeth Grey’s potato pie. There’s no bone marrow in it (sad) and a lot less nutmeg (happy!), so it’s a sweet potato pie that is very much congruent with modern iterations. I vote put the marrow in and see what happens.

House of the Vettii reopens

The House of the Vettii, one of the largest and richest homes in Pompeii, prodigiously endowed with a fresco of Priapus that has become an icon of the city, reopens to the public on Tuesday after years of complex restoration.

The House of the Vettii was the home of Aulus Vettius Restitutus and Aulus Vettius Conviva, freedmen brothers who made a fortune as wine merchants and ascended the social ladder. Restitutus was a candidate for aedile, a magistrate responsible for holding public games and the maintenance of public buildings. Conviva was an Augustalis, a priest of the cult of the deified Augustus, a position of civic importance that was more akin to a magistracy. In this role he would have funded major public works projects.

The Vettii bought the house, originally built in the 2nd century B.C., after the earthquake of 62 A.D. It was in a tony neighborhood that many of the wealthy homeowners had left rather than rebuild. When the rich moved out, the nouveau-riche moved in. Freedmen who had made big bucks in trade like the Vettii were a prime example of the trend. They bought the aristocratic villa, repaired it and expanded it, adding a huge peristyle garden with statues and fountains. Every room was lavishly painted with frescoes on mythological motifs, telegraphing their wealth and the new status it bought them. Priapus, his massive phallus balancing on a scale against a bag of money, welcomed visitors in the vestibule of the house. Two large bronze strongboxes were placed in the atrium so everyone who got past Priapus would be confronted with the the most literal possible representation of the wealth of the Vettii.

The frescoes are mostly in the Pompeiian Fourth style, a combination of the previous three styles (faux marble veneers from the first, architectural trompe l’oeil from the second, ornate, stylized ornament from the third). The Vettii frescoes provide unique insight into the transition between the Third and Fourth style of mural painting. There is also a remarkable series of striking black and red frescoes depicting groups of cupids performing a variety of tasks, mythological ones like celebrating a festival of Bacchus and a festival of Vesta, sure, but of particular note are the representations of daily work, including the gathering and pressing of grapes, buying and selling the wine, dyeing and cleaning clothes in a fullery, picking flowers and making garlands for sale, making perfumed oil and making coins. The cupids are also captured at leisure, hunting on goat-back, racing in chariots pulled by deer and taking part in an archery contest.

The room adjacent to the kitchen was painted with a series of explicit erotic frescoes. It may have been a visual menu of options offered by an enslaved prostitute Eutychis who advertises her services for two asses (plural of as, the lowest-value Roman coin) on a graffito at the entrance of the house.

The domus was first excavated between late 1894 and early 1896. In the 1950s reinforced concrete roofs were added to the peristyle to protect the architectural remains from the elements. It was no longer protecting it, however. On the contrary, the flat concrete roof was unsound and directly contributing to water infiltration and damage.

Already affected by works in 1995, when the problem created by the concrete roofs of the 50s was evident, the house was partially reopened in 2016, after 12 years of closure and then closed again after 3 years for further restoration. Interventions that involved the roofing but also the paintings, with the removal of the patina created by previous restorations.

The old concrete roofs have now been replaced with sloped roofs formed from hollow blocks on metal frameworks. The wooden roofs added in the 1990s are still functional but needed refurbishment, and a new rainwater drainage system was devised to integrate the new roofs with the existing drainage system.

Conservators also cleaned and conserved the wall and floor decorations and the fixtures of the garden. It was a painstaking process of cleaning, regrouting and integrating interventions from different periods with the aim of recovering the legibility of the images and colors.

Ötzi the Iceman is more of a snowman

Ötzi, the 5,300-year-old ice mummy found by hikers in the Tyrolean Alps in 1991, is one of the oldest and best preserved mummies in the world. Much of his soft tissue, including his tattooed skin, survived, as did his clothing, quiver of arrows and other equipment, some of it damaged. Since his discovery, the prevailing theory explaining this exceptional state of preservation is that after a violent conflict, Ötzi fled to what is now the Tisenjoch Pass in the fall and froze to death in the gully where his remains were soon covered with glacier ice. In the deep freeze, the man and his belongings, damaged in the conflict before his flight, were preserved until they emerged from the thawing ice in 1991.

A new study published in the journal The Holocene by an international team of scientists has found the prevailing theory is wrong on pretty much all counts: Ötzi didn’t die where he was found; it wasn’t autumn; he was not quickly covered in ice nor did he stay frozen under a glacier the whole time; his equipment was not damaged before he died, but rather by natural activity in the millennia since. The study examined data recovered from other glacial archaeological sites, analyses of the finds assemblage and radiocarbon dates from the Alpine gully to investigate Ötzi’s archaeological context.

Glacial archaeology didn’t exist when Ötzi was found. His discovery, followed by several glacial melt-offs over the next decade, spurred the development of the new archaeological discipline, and in the last 20 years archaeological knowledge of high-altitude ice fields has expanded geometrically. Backed by the data, processes and knowledge of glacier archaeology, the new research into Ötzi’s death and mummification found that Ötzi died in the spring or summer when there was snow on the ground. His body and possessions only fell into the gully where they were found when the snow melted. For at least 1,500 years after his death, there were several smaller melt events that exposed Ötzi’s body and artifacts until around 3,800 years ago when the gully was finally sealed by an ice field of stationary “cold ice.”

This re-interpretation of the depositional and post-depositional history of the Ötzi find is not the clear narrative provided by the original interpretation, which combined a series of serendipitous circumstances to preserve a unique moment of the past. Maybe this is why the original story is still being told, even after scientific publications (from 1995 onwards) have repeatedly indicated that it was unlikely.

Ötzi continues to be the most important archaeological find from ice, even after glacial archaeological finds have appeared in the thousands. However, the find circumstances are not as special as originally imagined. Artefacts of organic materials dating from the Neolithic to the Roman period have now been found in nearby passes. In addition, the find circumstances of Ötzi are quite normal for glacial archaeology. The chances of finding another prehistoric human body, in a similar topographical setting as the Tisenjoch, should therefore be higher than previously believed, since a string of special circumstances is not needed for the preservation of this type of find, and relevant locations are now affected by heavy melt events.

Rare medieval bone flute found in Kent

Excavation of a development site at Herne Bay, Kent, on the southeastern coast of England, has unearthed a rare medieval bone flute. The instrument was discovered within the bounds of a rectangular enclosure bounded by a ditch. It was found in a layer with pottery dating to between the 12th and 15th centuries.

It’s a fipple or duct flute, an end-blown flute like a recorder or slide whistle. The form is an ancient one — the world’s oldest confirmed flute was carved from the bone of a griffon vulture 40,000 years ago, and the Neanderthal Flute, a partial flute carved from a bear bone is 20,000 years older than that  — but there are long gaps on the archaeological record between the prehistoric flutes and the ones that emerged in the early Middle Ages and the latter are still rare finds. Only around 120 archaeological examples have ever been discovered in Britain, ranging in date from the 5th century to the 16th.

The flute was carved from the tibia shaft of a sheep or goat. Five finger holes were bored out of the top, and a thumb hole out of the bottom of the shaft. Archaeologists believe it may have had a mouthpiece of some kind that is now lost, but other than that, the flute it intact and in excellent condition.

Offerings to Demeter found in archaic temple on Crete

Excavations of the ancient city of Phalasarna in western Crete have unearthed hundreds of offerings to the goddess Demeter in the remains of an ancient temple. The temple dates to the late 4th century B.C. and was built in Doric style on natural rock with two fluted columns, capitals, metopes and pediment. Estimates indicate it was more than 25 feet high and 16 feet wide. It is the only temple of its kind in Crete.

The temple was built at the junction of two mountain peaks where a natural cave was formed. The cave had abundant water and archaeologists believe an Archaic temple dedicated to a chthonic (related to the Underworld) deity was built there before 650 B.C. It was destroyed when the cave collapsed. Another temple was built in the 6th century, but it was destroyed in an earthquake. Then in the 5th century another was built and you guessed it, it too was destroyed. The last attempt was the 4th century temple.

The remains that are present today were from a reconstruction of the temple after the cave collapse. The perimeter of the enclosure is still in place, as is a monumental staircase leading to two buildings with a shared wall between them. The eastern building was the primary temple.

The sanctuary of the temple had a tiled floor, as did the rest of the floors of the temple. On the floor were five offering cases, inside which were revealed vases of good quality with elegant shapes, some of ceremonial character, one of which was inscribed in the Doric dialect with the name of the goddess to whom the temple was dedicated: A K E S T O I D A M A T R I , Akestoi dedicates to the goddess Demeter. […]

The rocky areas and the ancient deposits in excavated pits revealed findings mainly from the Archaic times. Daedalic art seems to dominate the early Archaic period (650 BC) in the form of nude female figures with Daedalic headdress and high pole. From the findings of the 6th c. e.g. Egyptian and Phoenician glass objects, terracotta bird and animal figurines, arrowheads and spearheads, miniature vases, enthroned female figures, and a female figurine holding a poppy and pomegranate stand out. Regarding the findings of the 4th and 3rd c. BC the hydriai stand out, a beaked ritual prochos with a red representation of a flying Cupid, iron spikes and alabaster vessels.

This was a physically challenging dig. The remains are on a high, rocky hill overlooking the sea. Archaeologists had to build a road to even reach the dig site, and then had to dig as quietly as possible so as not to trigger falling stones from above. The site itself was covered with rocks that the team had to remove with crowbars.

Phalasarna was settled going back to the Minoan period (3500 B.C. – 1100 B.C.). Its natural harbor made it an important stop in the maritime trade routes of the Aegean and Mediterranean. It reached its peak of prosperity in the 4th century B.C. when the monumental harbor was built. It consisted of four towers linked by defensive walls and quays. The enclosed harbor was connected to the sea by two channels, a shallow one for small boats, a deeper one for larger vessels.

The ancient city was destroyed in 67 B.C. by Roman forces under Pompey Magnus (then not yet Magnus) tasked with routing out and destroying the Mediterranean strongholds of Cilician pirates. They blocked the two harbor channels by dropping massive blocks of stone into them, and the city was abandoned. In 365 A.D., a massive earthquake, one of the greatest seismic events in earth’s history, raised the west coast of Crete by 30 feet. In an instant the ancient harbor was thrust inland and buried. They would remain hidden under tons of soil until excavations began at the site in 1966.