Medieval chess set DNA tested

The Sandomierz chessmen, a chess set from the 12th or 13th century discovered at Sandomierz Castle in southeastern Poland, were made from the bones of horses, cows and deer, DNA analysis has revealed. They were originally believed to have been carved from deer antlers, or the bones of an exotic large animal like an elephant.

University of Warsaw researchers were able to drill small samples from the underside of the pieces and extract an almost complete mitochondrial genome identifying the more elaborately decorated side of the set as having been made from horse bone while its opponents were made from cow bones. One pawn (believed to have been carved later than the others) was made from the bone of a red deer.

The chessmen were discovered in 1962 during archaeological excavations of what had been the heart of the medieval city. Only about 50 medieval chess pieces have been found in Poland, but most of them were individual finds. The Sandomierz chessmen, on the other hand, compose a practically complete matched set with only three missing pieces.

The pieces were carved by hand, ground down and polished to a gloss. It’s possible one side was originally dyed or painted another color, but all traces of that are gone so today they’re both just plain bone-colored. Some of them were created in twos, connected by a base that was then cut apart to separate the individual pieces. Carved in the abstract style typical of medieval Islamic chess sets in keeping with the religious prohibition against realistic depiction of human figures, they were embellished with incised parallel lines and dot-and-circle markings carved using a compass.

The Gothic-style Sandomierz Castle was built by King Casimir III the Great in the 14th century. All that remains of that castle today are some of the foundations of the tower. (The rest was blown up in the 17th century by Swedish troops during the Deluge.) It was preceded by an earlier stronghold dating to the 10th century. In the 12th century, the castle was the seat of Henry I of Sandomierz, Piast dynasty prince and son of Boleslaus III, ruler of Poland. Henry led the Polish troops in the Second Crusade (1147) and returned again to the Holy Land in the 1150s.

At the time of the find, archaeologists believe that Henry may have brought the chessmen back from his travels in the Middle East, but the DNA evidence that they were carved from the bones of native European animals opens other possibilities, even as it cannot conclusively determine where they were manufactured. For example, they could have been brought to the city by Dominican friars from Italy — the find site was next to the Dominican church of St. Joseph’s, founded in 1226 — or via the trade routes connecting Kiev to Western Europe. They could even be locally produced. The incised lines and compass decorations have been found on other early Polish antler and bone products.

Fiberoptic cable installation uncovers ancient mystery structure

An ancient structure of unknown purpose has been discovered during the laying of fiberoptic cable in the town of Torreano, near Udine in northeastern Italy. It is made of heavy stone slabs — two long walls and a short back topped by a “roof” — forming a rectangle. At first glance, archaeologists thought it was a burial cist, but an excavation of the structure found no evidence it had ever contained human remains. All it contains is silty, muddy soil typical of waterways.

Ancient stone structure of unknown purpose. Photo courtesy Ivano Dorbolo'.

The most plausible hypothesis right now is that it was a causeway, built to allow carts to pass through an ancient water course that flowed through the structure. A culvert or drainpipe is another possibility, but roughly-hewn, heavy stone slabs are not ideal for that job. Given the heavy weight and massive size of the stones, this was probably an infrastructure project of some significance requiring an investment of personnel and raw materials, not something erected quickly by a local farmer.

There is no stratigraphic information to be had in this find, and it is otherwise practically impossible to date a group of heavy stone slabs without associated artifacts or remains amenable to radiocarbon or dendrochronological analysis. In summary, we don’t know what it is or how old it is, but it’s cool anyway.

The structure has now been reburied for its own protection. The fiberoptic installation proceeds apace.

Unusual Maya stone tomb found near Palenque

Mexico’s National Institute of Archeology and History (INAH) has unearthed a Maya tomb near Palenque in Chiapas. Built of stone slabs in a style never before discovered in Palenque, the burial contains the remains of at least two individuals.

The burial chamber contained the skeletal remains of two individuals buried at different times. The primary burial is of an intact, articulated skeleton buried in supine position facing the north. The other set of remains, believed to belong to an adult woman, are a secondary burial. She was initially buried somewhere else and then her bones reinterred in this access space of the burial chamber. A cranium discovered in the mix of bones of the secondary burial shows the wisdom teeth mid-eruption, indicating the deceased was about 25 to 28 years old. (Because the bones were moved in antiquity, archaeologists cannot be certain the skull matches the rest of the second body, so there may actually be parts of two people in the secondary burial.)

The grave goods in the burial chamber consist of ceramic vessels that would have held offerings of food and drink. (The organic contents have long since decomposed.) There were also green stone figurines placed in a wall niche. The remains have not been radiocarbon dated yet, but the grave goods are consistent with Maya funerary practices from the Late Classic (9th century A.D.) period. Mayan burials are usually located inside temples or homes, so this chamber is unusually distant from the center of activity.

In other recent Palenque news, detailed analysis of a skeleton discovered last May in another atypical venue (inside a stone tool workshop in the city center) has found that she was between 45 and 50 years old when she died. Her skull had been intentionally deformed, marking her as a member of the elite, but the type of deformation employed in her case (erect tabular, in which the skull expanded both in width and height) was not the preferred iteration in Palenque. The city-state’s culturally approved form was oblique tabular cephalic modeling which elongates the skull backwards only. This suggests the Lady SAS, as she was dubbed last year, may have been a visitor from another area of the Maya kingdom.

Another anomaly of the Lady SAS burial is the green stone inlays in her teeth. The Maya filed their teeth and implanted green stone as a status symbol, but interestingly, the highest echelons of Palenque eschewed dental inlays. The remains of kings and aristocrats that have been unearthed there have no dental modifications.

Complete zodiac found on Temple of Esna ceiling

Archaeologists have uncovered a rare representation of the zodiac on the ceiling of the Temple of Esna near Luxor, Upper Egypt. It is one of only three complete zodiac groups found in Egypt. The ceiling paintings depict the 12 signs of the zodiac from Aries to Pisces, imports from Hellenistic astrology interpreted through Egyptian religious iconography.

The overall project is in the hands of Hisham El-Leithy of the Egyptian Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities and Professor Christian Leitz of the University of Tübingen.

“Representations of the zodiac are very rare in Egyptian temples,” Leitz says, adding “The zodiac itself is part of Babylonian astronomy and does not appear in Egypt until Ptolemaic times.” Researchers think the system of zodiac signs and their related constellations was introduced to Egypt by the Greeks and subsequently became popular. “The zodiac was used to decorate private tombs and sarcophagi and was of great importance in astrological texts, such as horoscopes found inscribed on pottery sherds,” says Dr. Daniel von Recklinghausen, a Tübingen researcher. “However, it is rare in temple decoration: Apart from Esna, there are only two completely preserved versions left, both from Dendera,” he says.

In addition to the zodiac and the star constellations, the restoration revealed colorful images of snakes, crocodiles and various fabulous beasts, including a snake with a ram’s head and a bird with a crocodile’s head, the tail of a snake and four wings.

The Temple of Esna was dedicated to Khnum, the god of the source of the Nile who made human children out of the river’s clay on a pottery wheel and then planted them in the uterus of the mother. Construction began in 186 B.C., but today only the pronaos (vestibule), built in the reign of the Emperor Claudius (41-54 A.D.), survives. It is covered in painted inscriptions and reliefs from the column bases to the ceiling. The intricate decoration of the Claudian structure took two centuries to complete, finally during the reign of the Emperor Decius in 250 A.D.

It survived the centuries thanks to its prime location in the middle of the city center and its conversion to different uses. It was handier to keep it as a working structure instead of mining it for building materials. The space was used as a caravanserai (a roadside or urban hostelry where travelers and their animals could find accommodations and nourishment) and in the 19th century as a cotton warehouse. Centuries of torches and cooking fires and candles left thick layers of soot on the interior ceiling of the temple. Between the grey soot and the bird droppings, the ceiling decoration was completely obscured.

The reliefs on the columns and walls were rediscovered by Egyptologist Serge Sauneron who excavated the temple in the 60s and 70s and published the inscriptions in full. Or, rather, what he thought was in full. The Roman-era hieroglyphic reliefs were roughly chiseled in outline. With no depth to the relief, constellations were painted directly on the ceiling and were all but invisible under the grime.

A comprehensive restoration of the painted surfaces of the temple began in 2018. The team cleaned the walls, removed centuries of layered filth, stabilized the colors, removed salts and revealed the original colors and shapes of the decoration. In the course of the restoration, the team discovered depictions of the planets Jupiter, Saturn and Mars, stars and constellations including the Big Dipper in the shape of a bull’s leg, Orion as Osiris and Sothis as Isis. They also discovered previously unknown constellations, including the Geese of Ra, and constellations like the “seven arrows” which the Egyptians used to measure time.

Silhouette album, now without arsenic poisoning

A ledger book containing 1,800 cut-paper silhouette portraits made by English immigrant William Bache in the early 1800s has been digitized by the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery. Portraits of luminaries like George and Martha Washington keep company with Virginia tavern keepers and Caribbean priests, people from all income levels and professions.

This unique record of Federal-era social history was acquired by the NPG in 2002. In 2008, conservators discovered that the album contained arsenic which made it unsafe for display, never mind allowing researchers to leaf through it, a’ la The Name of the Rose.

The National Portrait Gallery used Getty’s support to overcome these limitations by fully digitizing the entire volume. Robyn Asleson, the lead curator and curator of prints and drawings at the National Portrait Gallery, also completed extensive research that confirms the identities of hundreds of sitters in New Orleans and generates a new understanding of traveling portrait artists at the turn of the 19th century. […]

Asleson and research assistant Elizabeth Isaacson scanned through, digitized newspapers, history books, baptismal records, wills and other legal documents to unveil the identity of sitters, including many of Afro Caribbean descent for whom no other likeness is known to exist. Users of the microsite can now “flip” through pages of the album and click on high-res images of each portrait to learn the sitter’s full name, lifespan or years active and the date their portrait was created.

William Bache had no artistic training, but he was able to develop a successful career as a silhouette maker, traveling to cities all over the eastern seaboard of the United States and reaching as far south as Cuba. He used his own patented version of a physionotrace, a mechanical drawing frame first invented in France in the waning days of the Ancien Régime, to capture the outline of people’s profiles and reproduce them quickly and cheaply. His newspaper advertisements emphasized the cheap part, offering “four correct profiles for 25 cents,” about $5 in today’s money.

The fixed features of the face like the shape of the nose, jaw and brow were subject of intense study in the late 18th century. Pioneered by Swiss poet and minister Johann Kaspar Lavater, author of the seminal work on physiognomy (1775-1778), the pseudoscientific pursuit correlated the physical features of the face to a person’s character and personality. In order to document the physiognomy of an individual in the most objective way possible, Lavater advocated tracing the “lines of countenance,” the contours of a person’s head and face, to measure their proportions and angles and thereby “scientifically” determine their character.

To ensure the most accurate possible record of the lines of countenance, Lavater devised a method to trace a profile from life by mounting a wood frame to the side of a chair. The subject sat facing forward, gripping the frame and its rigid mounts to stay as still as possible. A piece of tracing paper was fitted into the frame and a candle lit on the other side of the chair. He would then trace the shadow cast by her face onto the paper.

An even greater leap forward in removing artistic interpretation from portraiture was achieved by engineer and engraver Gilles-Louis Chrétien in 1784. He invented the physionotrace, a wooden frame large enough for a person to sit in turned to the side. The person’s chin was supported and fixed the head so it would not move. The artist/machinist would then trace a life-sized or scale portrait using a pencil connected via a metal arm to another pencil that made a copy on a separate sheet of paper.

Within a week, that drawing could be quickly reproduced in scaled-down sizes. They became a popular fashion trend in the French Revolutionary and First Empire period. Sitters would buy portrait packages of the large likeness and smaller prints, which could be filled in with extremely precise details. Each portrait was identical, unlike the painted portrait miniatures.

This mechanism was very well-suited to the production of silhouettes. You got an outline of the profile on the spot, and an easy and fast means to reproduce the exact profile on a smaller scale. Unfortunately the patent records of Bache’s 1803 physiognotrace were destroyed in an 1836 fire, so we don’t know exactly what his machine was like. His partner Isaac Todd wrote that it was different from its predecessors in its ability to “trace the human face with ‘mathematical correctness’ without touching it.”

Flip through the digitized Ledger Book of William Bache’s silhouettes on this website. Each silhouette is clickable for individual identification. You can also navigate it by name using the index.