21 royal Han tombs unearthed in China

An archaeological survey of a real estate development in Changsha, Hunan Province, China, has unearthed 21 tombs from the Western Han Dynasty (202 B.C.- 9 A.D.) More than 234 groupings of grave goods have been discovered in the tombs since excavations began in October.

The 21 tombs are small vertical pit tombs of two types: convex ones with passages and rectangular ones with no passages. Several of them are paired tombs or lined up in rows of three or four. The paired tombs placed side-by-side in the same orientation are believed to be spouse or family burials.

Tomb M12 is unusual in that it contains the surviving elements of the outer coffin that is shaped like a Roman number II. The traces of five pillars, now decomposed, run down the middle of the floor of the tomb. The pillars probably supported a second floor, which would make M12 an extremely rare double-layer tomb. Han Dynasty tombs with double layers have been found before in other cities — Guangdong, Guangxi, Sichuan, Hubei — but this is the first one found in Changsha.

Most of the grave goods found in the tombs were earthenware and pottery in a variety of different forms. M12 also contained two pieces of ironware and a talc disc with a kite and dotted circle pattern known as a “bi.”

During the Han Dynasty, the city of Changsha was known as Linxiang and was the capital of the Changsha Kingdom, a vassal state of the Han Empire. Important Western Han-era tombs have been discovered before in Changsha, most notably the paired tombs of Liu Sheng, known as prince of Zhongshan, who was the son of Emperor Jing of Han and brother of Emperor Wu of Han, and his wife Dou Wan. This was the first intact Western Han tomb ever discovered and it was incredibly rich, containing more than 2,700 precious artifacts and complete jade burial suits worn by both Sheng and Wan.

After finding out the assemblage of 21 tombs, that are all of the same age, the archaeologists concluded they possible belonged to “a royal family buried together in an ancient mausoleum”. […]

It is thought that “couple burials” emerged as the usual type of royal burial in the course of the late Han interval, together with the pairing of male/feminine motifs in the styling of the tombs. This is why the archaeologists level in the direction of their discovery of a uncommon “paired tomb” because the smoking gun for this being the burial website of a Han “royal” household.

Previous owner of Voynich Manuscript revealed

The Voynich Manuscript, a book written in an unknown language with mysterious botanical illustrations, has yet to be cracked, despite centuries of scholarly research and regular “this time they’ve done it!” headlines that turn out to be dead ends. The contents of the book have taken the lion’s share of researchers’ attention, but the origins and ownership history of the manuscript are just as mysterious. A new study has revealed the name of an earlier owner to fill in one of the many blanks in this book’s history.

The manuscript got its name relatively recently in its long history, when it was rediscovered in 1912 at the Jesuit College at Frascati near Rome by Polish antiquarian and book dealer Wilfrid Voynich. The vellum pages radiocarbon date the folio to between 1404 and 1438, but the earliest reference to it on the historical record dates to 1639. It’s a letter from Prague alchemist Georg Baresch to Jesuit linguist Athanasius Kircher. Baresch was the owner of the manuscript at that time, and sent a copy of the glyphs to Kircher hoping he might be able to translate. Kircher was just as unsuccessful as everyone else who has tried, but he was hooked and wanted to buy it. Baresch refused.

Kircher ultimately did receive the book when Baresch’s good friend Jan Marek Marci inherited the manuscript and forwarded it to Kircher in 1665. The letter Marci wrote to Kircher contains another precious hint to the manuscript’s ownership history. He said that the book had at one point been bought by Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II (r. 1576-1612) for the enormous sum of 600 ducats.

The problem is there is no evidence in the imperial archives that Rudolf acquired this expensive enigma. The budget for the imperial librarian at that time was 1000 florins (another gold coin with equivalent value to the ducat) over three years, so dropping 600 on one book would have been out of bounds. The manuscript does not appear on any inventories in the public imperial library or in the Emperor’s personal library, nor does it appear in any records of the Royal Swedish Library after Swedish troops looted the Emperor’s library in 1648.

Now, after scouring imperial account journals kept by Rudolf’s court, Stefan Guzy of the University of the Arts Bremen, Germany, has identified records that could shed further light on the manuscript’s sale to the emperor, tracing its ownership back a little further.

“My idea was to compile all book-related transactions by analysing the imperial account books of the Hofkammer (Imperial Chamber) in Vienna and Prague, where all ingoing and outgoing letters were registered,” Guzy says. “If there was any transaction involving 600 gold coins, then the chance was pretty high that this acquisition was the one mentioned in the Marci letter.”

Luckily, out of almost 7,000 journal entries, including 126 book transactions, only one case involved a book sale for 600 gold coins.

The records revealed that in 1599, the physician Carl Widemann sold a collection of manuscripts to Rudolf for 500 silver thaler, an amount cited in another record by its equivalent in gold, 600 florin—another type of gold coin. A further record refers to the collection as “remarkable/rare books” and that they were transported in a small barrel, Guzy writes….

“Almost all of the emperor’s money transactions were made in guilders (florin), usually Rhenisch guilders, with only very few in thaler or ducats; so I believe that the information in the [Marci] letter was just meant to be ‘gold coins,’ which both florin and ducats are,” Guzy says. “Even if a deal was made with ducats or thaler, florins were usually used for the final transaction.”

Guzy even has a possible candidate for the owner of the manuscript before Widemann. Widemann lived in the home of Leonard Rauwolf, a 16th century Bavarian botanist and physician who was the first in the modern era to collect and document the flora of the Near East. They appear to have been related in some way, and Widemann may have inherited Rauwolf’s books after his death as that is when he started selling books to the Emperor. The Voynich Manuscript with all its fanciful plant illustrations would of course have been of great interest to a botanist.

Stefan Guzy’s research has been published (pdf) in the proceedings of the first International Conference on the Voynich Manuscript 2022. You can attempt to decipher it yourself by browsing the digitized pages of the manuscript on Yale’s Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library website.

Alexander Graham Bell recordings to be restored

The Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History has embarked on a new project to recover and restore its collection of 300 experimental audio recordings made by Alexander Graham Bell and his laboratory between 1881 and 1892. These are some of the world’s oldest sound recordings and they have never been heard by living ear.

Bell and his colleagues, including his cousin Chichester Bell, created the recordings first at the Volta Laboratory in Washington, D.C. and later at his summer home, Beinn Bhreagh Estate, in Nova Scotia. They used a variety of recording media, all of it in its infancy, some of their own invention, and stored pretty much everything — the sound recordings, the devices used to record and play them, their notes — with the Smithsonian as soon as they were produced to ensure they had an unimpeachable documentation and ownership trail to support any patent applications that came out of the experiments.

The recordings were never published, and quickly became unplayable as the devices stopped working and the delicate materials used made the recordings far too fragile to even attempt to play. Technology opened a new door when the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory successfully employed optical imaging and a “virtual stylus” to play the earliest recording of sound in the world, a recording so experimental that it couldn’t even be played when it was made. The sounds were recorded on paper with a phonoautograph device, like a sort of audio braille.

Beginning in 2011, the NMAH collaborated with the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory to recover sound from the Bell experimental recordings. In 2013 they hit wonderful paydirt: the first known recording of Alexander Graham Bell’s voice. It was labeled as a test of the “reproduction of numbers” by A.G.B. and C.A.B., and those auspicious initials were confirmed in the voice of the man himself. The numbers test closed with a sign-off so explicit and clear that it was practically a gift to posterity. “This record has been made by Alexander Graham Bell and in the presence of Dr. Chichester A. Bell on the 15th of April 1885 at the Volta Laboratory 1221 Connecticut Avenue, Washington D.C. In witness whereof, hear my voice. Alexander Graham Bell.”

All told, the 2011, 2013 and 2019 investigations were able to recover 20 of the Volta recordings. There are hundreds more to go.

“Over the three-year duration of this remarkable project, ‘Hearing History: Recovering Sound from Alexander Graham Bell’s Experimental Records,’ we will preserve and make accessible for the first time about 300 recordings that have been in the museum’s collections for over a century, unheard by anyone.” said Anthea M. Hartig, the museum’s Elizabeth MacMillan Director. “We are grateful to this public-private partnership in funding this dynamic and innovative work.” […]

The grants will permit the museum to acquire and operate the specialized equipment needed for the upcoming work on the rest of the collection.

The sound recovery work uses a noninvasive optical technique that was first conceived by Berkeley Lab staff in 2002 and jointly developed in collaboration with the Library of Congress and other institutions over the past 15 years. The process creates a high-resolution digital map of a disc or cylinder. This map is then processed to remove evidence of wear or damage (e.g., scratches and skips). Finally, software calculates the motion of a virtual stylus moving through the virtual record’s grooves as represented by the map, reproduces the audio content and makes a standard digital sound file.

Headless skeletons found in Neolithic mass grave

More than three dozen headless skeletons have been unearthed in a mass grave at a Neolithic settlement in Vráble, Slovakia. Archaeologists discovered the remains of 38 individuals, all but one of them, a young child, were missing their heads.

The Vráble-Ve`lke Lehemby site contains three settlements from the Linear Pottery Culture (5,250-4,950 B.C.). The villages were occupied around 5110 B.C. and a geophysical survey identified 313 dwellings within the boundary lines of the three villages. That makes Vráble one of the largest Early Neolithic settlements in Central Europe. Not all of the homes were inhabited at once. At its peak of population, there were about 600 people living in 80 homes, which is a very large community for the Early Neolithic.

The village to the southwest was encircled by a double ditch with palisades that marked its boundary line. The skeletal remains were found inside the ditch.

One on top of the other, side by side, stretched out on their stomachs, crouched on their sides, on their backs with their limbs splayed out – the position of the skeletons does not suggest that the dead were carefully buried. Rather, the positions suggest that most of them were thrown or rolled into the ditch. All of them, with the exception of one infant, are missing their heads, including their lower jaws. “In mass graves with an unclear positioning, the identification of an individual is usually based on the skull, so for us this year’s find represents a particularly challenging excavation situation,” says Martin Furholt. […]

“Several individual bones out of anatomical position suggest that the temporal sequence might have been more complex. It is possible that already-skeletonised bodies were pushed into the middle of the trench to make room for new ones,” elaborates Dr Katharina Fuchs, an anthropologist at Kiel University. “In some skeletons, the first cervical vertebra is preserved, indicating careful removal of the head rather than beheading in the violent, ruthless sense – but these are all very preliminary observations that remain to be confirmed with further investigation.”

The first cervical vertebra still attached to the skull points to post-mortem removal of the head some time after death when the body had begun to decompose. It’s not clear if the deceased were elsewhere during those few weeks or if they were in the ditch the whole time and dug up for the head removal.

This is not a burial practice that has been encountered before in Linear Pottery settlements. Some time around 5000 B.C. a major shift occurred that led to the abandonment of ancient settlements and the founding of new ones. This marked a transitional period before the final disappearance of Linear Pottery culture around 4900 B.C. Funerary rituals also changed in this time. After centuries of relatively uniform burial styles, new rituals were introduced, including partial inhumations and burial in settlements rather than cemeteries.

An interdisciplinary group of researchers will study the skeletons employing archaeological DNA analysis, radiocarbon dating and stable isotope analysis to answer questions about the dead — age of death, whether they were raised in the area or came from somewhere else, any familial relationships, their diet, illnesses and possible causes of death.

Look on my Face, ye Mighty, and despair!

The face of Pharaoh Ramesses II at the end of his life and at the height of his reign has been digitally reconstructed. Researchers created two realistic portraits of Ramesses II using a CT scan of his mummy as the departure point. The latest computed tomography data was used to create a 3D virtual model of Ramesses’ skull and forensic software used to reconstruct the pharaoh’s face as he looked when he died at age 90. Age regression techniques created a second portrait as he would have looked when he was around 45 years old.

Ramesses II was born around 1303 B.C. and was just 24 years old when his father Seti I died making him pharaoh. He reigned for 66 years, a warrior king who enlarged Egypt’s empire and built or expanded some of its most important monuments, including the Temple of Karnak. His mummy was discovered in 1881 and is now in the National Museum of Egyptian Civilization in Cairo.

Cairo University radiology professor and mummy expert Sahar Saleem, who in 2019 used CT scans and digital imaging software to virtually unwrap the mummy of Pharaoh Amenhotep I, worked with Liverpool John Moores University’s Face Lab, a multidisciplinary research group that uses forensic techniques to recreate the faces of historical figures as accurately as possible from skulls, death masks or portraits. Their subjects range from top-of-the-bill notables like King Richard III and Robert the Bruce to complete unknowns like the Goucher Mummy and a medieval Norwegian woman.

For the latest facial reconstruction, Saleem made a three-dimensional virtual model of the pharaoh’s head and skull from new CT scan data — effectively, thousands of X-rays assembled into a 3D image — which Wilkinson then used to reconstruct his face with computer software used in criminal investigations.

Next, Wilkinson used computer-generated imagery (CGI) techniques to add skin, eye and hair textures, based on what Saleem reported would have been common among Egyptians at the time — which showed what the pharaoh may have looked like when he died — and finally used the age regression software to show how he had likely appeared decades earlier. “The age regression was challenging, as this was in 3D,” she said.

Wilkinson explained that the field of estimating the face of someone from their skull is dominated by two approaches: “facial approximation,” which uses average data, templates and biological profiles to produce an “average” face, which might result from several different skulls; and “facial reconstruction,” a more detailed attempt to determine what a particular person looked like, based on anatomical standards, measurements and morphological analysis. A related term is “facial depiction,” which adds colors and textures, she said.

In this case, the team used the more detailed approach. “The face of Rameses II was produced using 3D facial reconstruction and then a 3D facial depiction process,” Wilkinson said.

(Credit and apologies for the title go to Percy Bysshe Shelley, who was inspired by a fallen colossus of Ramesses II to write the verse I butchered in his poem Ozymandias.)