A lady’s bag at the court of Mosul in 1300

February 21st, 2014

The ancient city of Mosul on the west bank of the Tigris in what is today Iraq, once home to the palace of King Sennacherib and Library of Ashurbanipal, has had many different rulers seek to profit from its location as a hub in trade routes connecting Persia, India and the Mediterranean. In 1262, it was conquered by the Mongol forces of Hulagu Khan, grandson of Genghis Khan who expanded the southwestern Mongol empire from Uzbekistan to Syria.

Hulagu was not known for his light hand. Any cities where he encountered resistance were destroyed and their inhabitants slaughtered. When the Mongols conquered Baghdad in 1258, they virtually leveled the city. It’s said that the waters of the Tigris turned black with the ink from the thousands of books from the Grand Library of Baghdad that the Mongols threw into the river. Mosul was spared, however, because governor Badr al-Din Lu’lu’ agreed to support Hulagu’s invasion of Syria. The Mongol Ilkhanid and Jalayrid dynasties ruled Mosul through the 15th century until it was conquered by the Turkic Aq Qoyunlu Confederation.

Even before the arrival of the Mongols, Mosul was famed for its exceptional metalworking tradition. The technique originated in Persia, but Mosul’s location at the cross-roads of trade influenced the craft, introducing new forms of vessels and designs from the Byzantine Empire. Brass containers were inlaid with silver and copper creating intricate geometric decoration and scenes of courtiers hunting, traveling, adorning themselves, drinking, eating and listening to live music. The Blacas Ewer, now in the British Museum, is an exceptional example of Mosul metalwork. Made by Shuja’ ibn Mana al-Mawsili in 1232 (he signed and dated the piece, for which we were eternally grateful), the ewer may have been commissioned by Badr al-Din Lu’lu’ or one of his courtiers. He is known to have commissioned a number of pieces that bear his name.

As noted by Spanish Muslim author Ibn Said al-Maghribi in his 1250 book Geography, Mosul metalwork vessels were so highly prized they were used as diplomatic gifts, a high honor considering they were made out of brass instead of the gold and silver that were the expected standard of gift-giving between rulers.

The Courtauld Gallery in London is the proud owner of another example of Mosul metalwork, a piece made in the first century of Mongol reign around 1300-1330. This form is one of a kind, so exceptional that it is rarely included in studies of the craft. The artifact has been part of the Courtauld’s permanent collection since 1966 when it was bequeathed to the institution by the grandson of collector and museum patron Thomas Gambier Parry. Experts have debated its function for decades. It’s shaped like a clutch purse, but they weren’t making brass ladies’ handbags in 1300s Mosul. Some proposed functions include wallet, saddlebag and document carrier.

The Courtauld is putting on a new exhibition centered around this beautiful piece. Court and Craft: A Masterpiece from Northern Iraq proposed a new function for the Courtauld wallet: a lady’s shoulder bag. Exhibition curator Rachel Ward found an important clue in the decoration of the bag itself.

The key to unlocking its secret is an unusual panel on the top showing a nobleman and women and their attendants. One of those, a smiling page boy, has the bag around his shoulder.

Wider research by Ward has turned up considerable visual evidence of bag-carrying page boys next to noblewomen but never alongside men.

“Other people in the past have called it everything from a work basket to a document wallet and inevitably male academics always assume it was for a man.

“What I’m saying is it’s a lady’s bag. It is the forerunner of a designer bag. The only difference between a modern and expensive designer bag and this one is that you get a bag carrier to go with it.”

The bag will be on display along with 40 other relevant works from collections around the world, including the Blacas Ewer. The exhibition will look at how Mosul society was depicted before and after the Mongol conquest in its art. The museum will also recreate the scene from the top of the bag, building a life-sized display of the courtly festivities from artifacts similar to the ones depicted.

The exhibition opened on Thursday and will run through May 18th.


1800s douche found under New York City Hall

February 20th, 2014

Archaeologists excavating the National Historic Landmark New York City Hall in lower Manhattan have unearthed a rare early 19th century vaginal syringe, a sort of proto-douche. Made from the bone of an unidentified mammal, the device was found in parts and the Chrysalis Archaeology team weren’t sure what its function was. Its three-inch hollow cylinder with rounded tip looks sort of like a pestle; a needle case was another possibility.

The discovery was made in 2010. The eureka moment wouldn’t happen for another three years. It wasn’t until archaeologist Lisa Geiger saw a group of late 19th century glass vaginal syringes at Philadelphia’s Mütter Museum (is there anything the Mütter’s collection can’t do?) that she realized what the City Hall tool was and began researching the history of these devices.

The syringe was found in a buried garbage pile that dates to between 1803 and 1815. The garbage begins three feet under street level and goes down another three feet. It’s filled with liquor bottles and food waste and may be the impressive remains of a single epic party. Construction on City Hall began in 1810 and ended in 1812, so right around the time this infamous liquor and douche party may have taken place. Before that, the area was the city commons, known as “The Fields,” site of public pasture land, the old Debtor’s Prison, run as a POW jail by the brutal British Provost Marshall William Cunningham during the Revolutionary War, the Bridewell prison and the poorhouse.

Vaginal syringes were used by women for contraceptive purposes to flush out sperm after intercourse and to treat gynecological ailments from venereal diseases to menstrual cramps to “the Whites,” aka vaginal discharge. Although they became increasingly popular in the 19th century, syringes were in active use in modern Europe as early as the 17th century. The civic museum in Zwolle, the Netherlands, has two rare 17th century wooden ones that are rather more artistically designed (read: penis-shaped, one complete with decorative scrotum) that were also found in historical garbage, namely in the cesspit of a private home.

They make an appearance in 17th century Dutch art as well. Jan Steen was overtly fond of painting domestic scenes of swooning women being treated by questionable doctors for “lovesickness.” He made multiple versions of these tableaux, all of them with details like cupid statues, boys holding arrows or herrings meant to convey phalluses, background paintings of mythological sexytimes and unmade beds suggesting that taking the pulse of the lady wasn’t going to cure what ailed her. Two of them, The Sick Woman (1660-70) and The Doctor’s Visit (ca 1665), both now in the permanent collection of the Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen in Rotterdam, feature figures holding vaginal syringes. A particularly formidable example is wielded by an old lady, a midwife perhaps, in the first painting, while a little boy holds a slightly less endowed version in the second. Both characters are snickering, because, as the paper on the floor of The Doctor’s Visit notes, “No medicine is of use, for it is lovesickness.”

Medicine was certainly deemed of use by doctors, apothecaries and herbalists. English botanist Nicholas Culpeper wrote in his 1653 compendium Complete Herbal about the appropriate herbal remedies for various women’s troubles to be applied directly into the afflicted region: Lady’s Mantle, Amaranth, Plantain and Feverfew, among others.

Monsieur Pierre Pomet, owner of an apothecary shop and chief druggist to King Louis XIV, wrote extensively about what kind of nostrums women should inject into their vaginas via syringe, and he didn’t stick to herbs. From the 1748 translation of A Complete History of Drugs by Pierre Pomet, first published in French in 1684 and translated into English in 1712:

The Aqua Styptica Composita, or the Compound Styptick Water, is made of this [white] Vitriol, and other Ingredients in the following Manner. Take purified white Vitriol, Roch Alum, of each an Ounce; Saccharum Saturni, half an Ounce; Spring Water, two Quarts, mix and dissolve over a gentle Heat, digest close stopt ten Days; decant the clear, filtrate, and keep it for Use. This is an easy Preparation, and of few and simple Ingredients, but of no mean Use. It is a good Injection (Universals being first premised) against the Whites in Women, and the Gonorrhea in Men, though of never so long standing, and possibly may do more in two, three, or four Days Time, being injected, than all other Medicines could do in as many Years.

By the late 19th century, home medical care assumed the easy availability of vaginal syringes. Here is a treatment for leucorrhoea (the so-called “Whites”) from Gunn’s Newest Family Physician by John C. Gunn, published in 1883:

The first is cleanliness, by bathing freely with cold or tepid water, and injecting it up the birthplace three or four times a day with a female syringe, which can be purchased at any drug store. The glass syringe is preferable. […]

I have used an injection of Green Tea with much benefit, which may be substituted for the simple water, either cold or tepid, which ever appears to be most beneficial. Injection of Sugar of Lead forms one of the most cooling and astringent injections in this disease, in the commencement of the discharge, and should be injected two, or three, or four times a day; this remedy will, in mild cases, be attended with much benefit, and in those of plethoric or full habit, this injection, with a dose of Salts occasionally, combined with the Bath, will be found very beneficial. The proportion of the injection is from 5 to 8 grains of Sugar of Lead, medically called Aceti Plumbi, to three or four table-spoonfuls of Rain Water; or an injection made with 5 or 6 grains of White Vitriol, medically called Sulphate of Zinc, to the same quantity of Rain or Soft Water; or an Alum wash in similar proportions to the last, or a decoction of Oak Bark, or the Green Tea, as before mentioned, or a strong tea of Nut Galls; either one of these astringent articles, used as an injection, four or five times a day, will, if used regularly, remove the discharge, which few women, particularly if they are married, or mothers, escape completely, for, of all the diseases peculiar to the sex, there is none so common as the Whites.

Yes, I’m quite sure injecting lead and zinc sulphate into your vagina five times a day will work all kinds of wonders. It often amazes me that anyone ever survived their doctoring.

As common as vaginal syringes were in the middle class households of the Victorian era, there were rumblings against their use, primarily in the nascent males-only profession of gynecology. In 1875, Dr. Thomas More Madden presented a paper to the Dublin Obstetrical Society advocating that gynecologists abandon the DIY vaginal syringe which could cause (admittedly very rare) complications in favor of the vaginal irrigator to be operated only by the doctor. Later that year, Dr. Alexander Padlock addressed the questions raised by the Dublin doctors in a paper read before the East Tennessee Medical Society. He gets into some pretty gruesome detail about his patients’ experiences with vaginal syringes. Lots of “uterine colic” which does not sound at all fun followed by peritonitis which in addition to not being fun was also frequently fatal.

Probably not coincidentally, the syringes fell out of favor in the 20th century, replaced by douches on a minor scale and gynecologists on the larger issues.


Looter caught with Roman gold, silver hoard

February 19th, 2014

An unnamed and unauthorized metal detectorist found a late Roman gold and silver hoard in the forest near Ruelzheim in Germany’s southwestern Rhineland-Palatinate state and dug it up so he could sell it on the black market. The authorities are not releasing specifics on how this scofflaw was discovered hoarding an ancient hoard except to note that “the looter rendered up [the pieces] himself – but only under pressure from investigators.” That means they caught him first and persuaded him to surrender the loot. The police have reason to believe he may have already succeeded in selling some of the pieces overseas. They will continue to investigate the case, looking for missing artifacts. No announcement was made regarding whether the looter would be charged with any crimes.

By German law, all excavations for archaeological material must be authorized in advance by the government heritage authority. Different states have differing laws on the particulars. Some allow finders to keep half the value of a find, if not the find itself. The Rhineland-Palatinate is not one of them. Searching for ancient artifacts with a metal detector is a misdemeanor offence. Removing any artifacts discovered without reporting them rises to the level of fraud, and selling them can result in a charge of receiving stolen property.

Certainly if monetary value plays a part in determining the severity of a property crime in Germany as it does in the US, this looter is going to be in big trouble. The hoard includes three dozen beautifully detailed solid gold brooches shaped like leaves, even more gold square pyramids that archaeologists believe all once ornamented a ceremonial tunic of an important Roman official. There’s also a silver dish with the remains of gilding still visible that was cut into pieces, possibly to be used as hacksilver, a solid silver bowl with gold accents inset with semi-precious stones, a crumpled and folded highly decorated silver plate that may have been a chest cover. A set of silver and gold statuettes and pieces of fittings are the remarkable survivors of what was once a curule seat, a commander’s portable folding chair.

The hoard dates to the early part of the fifth century A.D., a time when Germanic tribes banged away at each other and at the weakening Roman Empire. The Battle of Mainz took place in 406 A.D. not far from where this treasure was buried and it was a watershed event in the collapse of Roman control of Europe. Pressured by Huns in the east, migrating allied tribes including Alans, Suevi and Vandals assembled on the east bank of the Rhine. The Franks sent a raiding party across the river and succeeded in killing the Vandal king Godigisel, but the Alans turned the tide and defeated the Franks. The tribes then crossed the Rhine into Gaul on December 31st, 406, breaching what had been for centuries one of Rome’s strongest boundaries and pillaging Mainz, Rheims, Amiens and Strasbourg among many other Roman cities. It marked the end of Roman political and military control in northern Gaul and ushered in the Migration Period.

It’s no wonder why someone might have sought to bury his most precious treasures under these circumstances. The jewels from ceremonial clothing, the elaborate silver and gold folding chair and the exquisite silver tableware all point to them having been the belongings of an important magistrate or even royalty. These were the highly recognizable attributes of Roman political authority. They were buried near a former Roman road, whether by its original owner of by marauders who wanted to keep it safe from competing marauders, in a relatively shallow hole. It’s a testament to how dangerous the roads were that nobody made it back to reclaim so vast a treasure.

The age and nature of this hoard makes it a unique find in Germany, worth at least a million euro on the market and worth far more than that in historical value. It would be worth inestimably more if it had been excavated with respect for its context. Instead, the looter pulled whatever he could out of the ground, having no care whatsoever for archaeological integrity. According to state archaeologist Axel von Berg, the curule chair, for example, was “brutally torn out of the earth and destroyed.” The site itself was deliberately damaged. Boy would I love to see this thief prosecuted just for doing that.

Meanwhile, some people are getting excited over the prospect that this could be part of the legendary Nibelung hoard, the Rhine gold that features in Norse and German sagas and Richard Wagner’s opera cycle based upon them. The evidence for this is nonexistent, of course. The fifth century dating and the location somewhere in the vague area where the Rhine may have once flowed but doesn’t any longer is all it took for the legend buzz to start.

The treasure will soon go on display in Mainz and Speyer.


Unusual Aztec dog burial found in Mexico City

February 18th, 2014

Archaeologists excavating underneath an apartment building in the Aztacapozalco neighborhood of Mexico City have unearthed an unusual group burial of 12 dogs dating to the Late Post Classic period of Aztec history (1350 to 1520 A.D.). Although dog burials are not in and of themselves uncommon in Aztec culture, these are unusual because they stand alone. Previous canine remains have been found in conjunction with human remains, or coupled with an important structure as sacrificial offerings. So far, archaeologists have found no human burials or building connected to any of the dogs.

In the Aztec religion, dogs played important roles is rituals and mythology of the underworld. Dogs acted as guardians and escorts for their masters’ souls as they traveled to the underworld. The deity Xolotl, often depicted as dog-headed, created a dog specifically to aid the dead in their voyage. It was the Xoloitzcuintli, also known as the Mexican hairless dog, that Xolotl gave to humanity instructing them to guard the dogs during life in exchange for the dogs guiding them through the nine levels of Mictlan, the main underworld destination. Dogs also played a less sanctified role in Aztec culture: as a dietary protein supplement.

The remains were found between 4.2 feet and 5.5 feet under street level in a pit 6.5 feet square. They are in good condition, skeletons almost entirely intact and articulated. They don’t appear to have been laid to rest in any particular pattern or orientation, but they were buried all at one time on their sides. No artifacts were found in this pit. Ceramics discovered in other trenches around the dog burial provide a contextual date. Their black geometric designs on orange pottery identify the pottery as Aztec III style, household goods that were ubiquitous in Late Post Classic Mexico.

Michael E. Smith, an anthropology professor at Arizona State University who was not involved in the project, said the discovery is important because it is the first such find.

“This is not the first time a burial of a dog has been found, but it is the first find where many dogs were carefully buried together, in a setting that is like a cemetery,” Smith said.

[Archaeologist Rocio] Morales Sanchez said they will need to dig deeper to see if there are other items that could help them find out why the animals were buried in that area.

Smith said it will be important to see the results of the analysis of the bones.

“That work will tell us about the breed of these dogs, and it may tell us how they were killed,” he said. “The full significance of the finds is rarely obvious at time of excavation; the analysis will give the full story.”

Osteological examination suggests these were common dogs, ie mutts, rather than one of the native pure breeds like the small Techichi and the hairless Xoloitzcuintle. The Techichi have unmissable short legs that none of the 12 dogs have and the Xoloitzcuintle lose their premolars in adulthood. The buried dogs were all adults at the time of death with full sets of teeth.

There’s some excellent footage of the excavation in this Spanish language video:



One-cent stamp could cost $20 million at auction

February 17th, 2014

The rarest stamp in the world, the 1856 British Guiana One-Cent Magenta, is going up for auction in a dedicated evening sale at Sotheby’s New York office on June 17th. The pre-sale estimate is $10 million to $20 million, either of which would blow away the previous record for a single stamp set by the Swedish Treskilling Yellow when it sold in Zurich for $2.3 million in 1996.

Printed in black ink on magenta colored paper, this simple stamp was an emergency issue. British Guiana, on the northern coast of South America, had been a British colony since the Napoleonic Wars. Originally three separate colonies — Essequibo, Demerara and Berbice — it was united as a single colony in 1833. It was almost 20 years before British Guiana began to receive regular shipments of English postage stamps manufactured by Waterlow & Sons. When one of those shipments was unavoidably delayed in 1856, postmaster E.T.E. Dalton commissioned the printers of the Royal Gazette newspaper in Georgetown to run off a contingency supply of stamps: one-cent magentas, four-cent magentas and four-cent blues.

The one-cent magenta is an octagonal stamp one by 1.25 inches in dimension. It is printed with the image of a three-masted ship in the middle with the colony’s Latin motto “Damus Petimus Que Vicissim” (We give and expect in return) above and below the ship. Postmaster Dalton was apparently unimpressed with the issue, believing them susceptible to forgery. To thwart any attempts to forge the stamps, Dalton had post office workers initial every stamp. The one-cent magenta going up for auction was initialed E.D.W. by the postal clerk E.D. Wight.

Very few of the small emergency run of stamps from a remote colony survived. There are a few examples of the four-cent stamps left, but only one of the one-cent. This sole survivor was rescued for history by a 12-year-old boy. L. Vernon Vaughan, son of a Scottish family living in British Guiana, discovered the stamp in 1873 amidst a group of family papers. He was an amateur stamp collector already, and although he didn’t recognize the stamp’s rarity, he did recognize that it was a stamp he didn’t have in his collection yet. He cut the stamp out and put in his album.

Shortly thereafter, Vaughan sold the stamp to another local collector, Neil McKinnon, for a few shillings. In 1878, McKinnon sent the stamp to Glasgow, Scotland for inspection by experts. From there he sold it to a Liverpool dealer Thomas Ridpath who recognized what a rare and precious piece it was. Ridpath sold it for £150 to Count Philippe la Renotière von Ferrary, a stamp collector of near legendary status who at one point owned both the One-Cent Magenta and the Treskilling Yellow.

Ferrary’s left his vast philatelic collection to the Postmuseum in Berlin after his death in 1917. After World War I ended, the collection was seized by France as part of German war reparations and sold off piecemeal, very much against Ferrary’s wishes (he had wanted his magnificent collection to stay together forever and even willed the museum an endowment to care for the stamps in perpetuity). The British Guiana One-Cent Magenta was sold at auction in 1922 to textile magnate Arthur Hind for a then world record price of $35,000.

That set the course for every other auction of the One-Cent Magenta. The next time it came up for auction was 1970, when it sold to a consortium for a record $280,000. Ten years later it sold at auction for yet another record: $935,000. The buyer was John du Pont, ornithologist, naturalist, amateur sports enthusiast, heir to the du Pont chemical fortune and an avid stamp collector. The last time it was on public display was 1986, when du Pont allowed it to be exhibited at the Ameripex ’86 International Stamp Show in Chicago.

Ten years after that, John du Pont shot his friend, 1984 Olympics champion wrestler Dave Schultz, and killed him. He was found “guilty but mentally ill” of third degree murder. He was sentenced to 13 to 30 years at a minimum security prison in Pennsylvania. In 2010, he died still incarcerated. It’s his estate that is now selling the stamp.

The British Guiana One-Cent Magenta will be traveling to London and Hong Kong this spring, its first public exhibition in 28 years. Then it will return to New York for its special night in June.


3,600-year-old “feathered coffin” found in Luxor

February 16th, 2014

A joint Spanish and Egyptian archaeological team excavating the area around the tomb of 18th Dynasty official Djehuty in the Dra Abul-Naga necropolis on Luxor’s west bank has unearthed a beautifully preserved wooden sarcophagus decorated in an elaborate feather design. This coffin type is known as a Rishi coffin, rishi meaning “feathers” or “wings” in Arabic. Anthropoid wooden coffins shaped like humans with linen-wrapped bodies painted in feathers first appeared in 13th Dynasty (1803 – ca. 1649 B.C.), but the oldest ones surviving date to the 17th Dynasty (ca 1600 – 1550 B.C.). Archaeologists believe this coffin dates to around 1600 B.C.

The range when feathered coffins were in regular use is known as the Second Intermediate Period (1800 -1550 B.C.), a turbulent time when the Canaanite Hyksos invaders ruled the eastern Nile Delta and the central monarchy was too weak to assert its control over local governments. According to the Spanish National Research Council’s (CSIC) excavation team leader José Manuel Galán, “This style of coffin is rare because it was in use for only a short period of time when Egypt was not unified. Thus, very few have been found in its original place and have been well documented in the archaeological context.”

This is the 13th season of excavations in the north section of Dra Abul-Naga where Djehuty, overseer of the treasury of Queen Hatshepsut (ca 1470 B.C.), was buried. This year’s work began in January. The team found three burial shafts, the first two of which had been broken into in antiquity. The third burial shaft was dug four meters (13 feet) into the bedrock ending in a chamber that was found still sealed with uneven mud bricks. When excavators removed the bricks, they discovered the rishi coffin inside.

The coffin is two meters (6’6″) long, 50 centimeters (20″) wide and 42 centimeters (16.5″) high. It was discovered intact with the paint colors still brilliant. The feathers drawn on the lid represent Maat, the Egyptian creation goddess of truth, order and law, who weighed the soul of the dead against an ostrich feather to determine whether they would reach the afterlife. The sarcophagus is painted to look like the body is being wrapped in paid of wings, like Maat, who is sometimes depicted with feathered arms, is holding the deceased from behind in a protective embrace.

A funerary inscription stretches from the chest of coffin lid to the foot. It prompts offerings to a man named Neb, presumably the inhabitant of the coffin. His full name and exact titles have yet to be deciphered, but he was a high ranking official of the 17th Dynasty. The mummy is still encased within the sarcophagus and appears to be in good condition.

This finding, along with others conducted in the same area, confirm that Dra Abu el-Naga was where were buried the members of the royal family and their courtiers Dynasty XVII, 1600 B.C. A little known period and at the same time, key to understanding the origin of the Egyptian empire, and the structure and functioning of the administration in the new capital city of Thebes.

For more about the Djehuty Project, including excavation diaries for each season and photo galleries (almost all of which is in Spanish), check out the website.


Richard III’s genome to be sequenced

February 15th, 2014

The course of our Richard III nerdathon last Saturday did not run smooth, I’m afraid to say. I’ll just tear off the band-aid and state up front that the recording of the colloquium is as messed up as the live stream was. Right now, it doesn’t look like there is much of anything salvageable. St. Louis University’s Jonathan Sawday was kind enough to confirm the sad news in the comments. He apologized too, because he is a scholar and a gentleman, not because whatever went wrong was his fault.

We shall have to feed our Richard III habit with something else, like, say, that a team led by University of Leicester geneticist Dr. Turi King will attempt to sequence the full genome of Richard III and of Michael Ibsen, his relative down the female line from Richard’s sister Anne of York. All they may have in common is in their mitochondrial DNA, but there’s always a chance they share other genetic links.

There’s a chance all of us share some genetic connection to Richard III, and we’ll get the chance to check it out for ourselves once the sequencing is done. Richard’s full genome will be posted online for scholars to study and the rest of us to geek way out over. He will be the first identified historical figure to have his genome sequenced.

Analysis of Richard III’s genome will allow insight into his genetic make-up, including susceptibility to certain diseases, hair and eye colour, and as the genetic basis of other diseases becomes known, these too can be examined for. It is also expected to shed light on his genetic ancestry and relationship to modern human populations. In addition, next generation sequencing technologies will allow the researchers to detect DNA from other organisms such as pathogens. Whole genome sequencing from Otzi the Iceman found the first known human infection with Lyme disease, for example.

Turi King is particularly interested in looking for DNA evidence of a predisposition to scoliosis. Since there are no surviving contemporary portraits of Richard III — the oldest were painted 40 or 50 years after his death — whatever information they can find regarding his appearance and physical traits will be an interesting confirmation or denial of the dead king’s posthumous press.

The sequencing project is being funded to the tune of £100,000 ($165,000) by the Wellcome Trust, the Leverhulme Trust and Alec Jeffreys, the genetics professor at the University of Leicester who developed genetic fingerprinting. It will done at the University of Leicester and in collaboration with Professor Michael Hofreiter at the University of Potsdam.

Although the question of where to reinter the remains has become a thorny one thanks to the legal challenge brought by the Plantagenet Alliance, a group of distant relatives of Richard’s who believe he should be buried in York rather than in Leicester, the king’s remains and all the samples taken from him will have to be buried sooner or later. Once they’re gone, there will be no going back to get a second look. Have a fully sequenced genome will provide new information well into the future. As scientists identify more genes and determine which are responsible for any given feature, researchers will be able to return to the recorded genome to find them there.

Here’s Turi King giving a brief introduction to the genome sequencing project:


Here’s Leicester’s pitch to keep Richard’s body in the city where he was buried:

The next movement on the burial issue will be a judicial review at the High Court in London March 13th.


A4s together one last time for The Great Goodbye

February 14th, 2014

After smashing attendance records at The Great Gathering, the reunion of all six surviving A4 Class Pacific steam locomotives held at the National Railway Museum in York last July, Bittern, Dominion of South Africa, Dominion of Canada, Sir Nigel Gresley, Dwight D. Eisenhower and Mallard, holder of the world land speed record for steam locomotives, will come together one last time for The Great Goodbye at the National Railway Museum in Shildon.

2013 was a banner year for the A4s. Mallard reached the record speed of 125.88 miles per hour on July 3rd, 1938. To celebrate the 75th anniversary of the locomotive’s still unmatched accomplishment, the four A4s in museums in the UK were restored and refurbished. The two remaining were shipped back from Montreal, Canada, and Green Bay, Wisconsin, in an immensely complex operation, giving train lovers a chance to see the six A4s refurbished to original condition and all together for the first time.

The six were on display together at The Great Gathering in York from July 3rd to July 17th before splitting up for events around the country. They regrouped at York on October 26th for The Autumn Great Gathering where, among other events, students from York College bathed the A4s in beautiful colored lights for the Locos in a Different Light display. There are some beautiful pictures of the A4s looking even more like works of art than they do just being themselves in this Flickr album.

Also not to be missed are this National Railway Museum blog entry about the Heritage Painting team that restored Mallard — I love the picture of it in its somber matte black war time livery — and this entry summarizing the highlights of Mallard‘s 75 years.


The year of the A4s is coming to a close now, sadly. The Great Goodbye opens Saturday, February 15th and lasts just a week, closing on Sunday, February 23th. Exhibit hours are 9:30AM and 5:00PM and admission is free. If it’s anything like the other Great Gathering events, crowds will flock to see the locomotives so expect lines. All the special photography events and four of seven curator talks are already sold out, but there are still tickets available for the formal Gala Dinner on February 21st (book online here).

There are no firm dates yet because it will depend on weather conditions, a very tricky proposition right now in England which is suffering from horrendous floods, but some time this Spring or Summer, Dominion of Canada will return to the Canadian Railway Museum, in Saint-Constant, a suburb of Montreal, and Dwight D. Eisenhower will return to the National Railroad Museum in Green Bay. The chances of them ever crossing the Atlantic again are slim to none.


Ichthyosaur fossil captures oldest reptile live birth

February 13th, 2014

University of California, Davis, paleontologists have found the oldest fossil to capture a vertebrate live birth. The specimen contains the fossil of Chaohusaurus, a Mesozoic marine reptile that is one of the oldest ichthyosaur species, and her three babies in the process of being born. It is 248 million years old, about 10 million years older than any other such fossils. The particular moment captured also strongly suggests that, contra the traditional view, live births in Mesozoic aquatic reptiles first evolved on land rather than in the sea.

The fossil was discovered in the lab attached to another fossil, a predatory fish called Saurichthys, that had been excavated from a quarry in south Majiashan, Chaohu, Anhui, eastern China. The two were separated by layers of mudstones; they were not alive at the same time. Because nobody realized mother and her babies were there when Saurichthys was collected, the mother is missing her skull, the front of her body and the end of her tail. Paleontologists were able to estimate her length and dimensions comparing her to more complete specimens that have the same size vertebrae and pelvic bones. Her body was about a meter (3’3″) long and her skull about 12 centimeters (4.7″) long.

Fortunately, most of the birthing action was captured and the bones are very well preserved. There are three offspring in the fossil frame: one neonate, its body largely underneath the mother’s, one embryo inside the mother’s body cavity and one literally in the middle of being born, with the head outside of the pelvic girdle and the body still inside. Very rarely for an embryonic fossil discovery, the two embryos have clearly articulated skulls, and the one mid-birth even has 23 upper teeth and 16 lower teeth preserved.

“The reason for this animal dying is likely difficulty in labor,” said Ryosuke Motani, lead study author and a paleobiologist at the University of California, Davis. Motani believes the first baby was born dead, and the mother may have died of a labor complication from the second, which is stuck half-in, half-out of her body. “Obviously, the mother had some complications,” he said.

The embryonic skulls are pointing towards the mother’s tail and it’s highly unlikely that all the embryos were in breach position. That means Chaohusaurus were born head first, a feature of live births on land since having the head come out first in water would result in high rates of suffocation. This is why marine mammals today are born tail first.

That’s not to say that this particular family tragedy occurred on land. All evidence, including the fish fossil it was found with, suggests it was a marine birth. What it means is that live birth evolved from land-lubbing ancestors of Chaohusaurus rather than having evolved after the reptiles moved into the sea full time. By the Middle Triassic, ichthyosaurs like Mixosaurus had embryonic skulls that faced the mother’s head, which means they were born tail first, an adaptation that must have developed in the water.

Being in the middle of this evolutionary process may have made birth a particularly dangerous proposition for Chaohusaurus, leading to high infant mortality and attendant danger for the mother. That’s speculative, however, until more fossil evidence is found to support it. Perhaps we’ll be lucky and there will be additional information on the question found in one of the more than 80 new ichthyosaur fossils found in the south Majiashan fossil quarry.

The paper on this fascinating and poignant discovery can be freely read online in the journal PLOS ONE.


Medieval Scandinavian runic code cracked

February 12th, 2014

University of Oslo runologist K. Jonas Nordby has cracked an obscure runic code called jötunvillur. Nordby studied the 80 or so coded runic inscriptions that have been discovered in Northern Europe. Out of those 80, nine were written in jötunvillur code which dates to the 12th or 13th century. One of the nine turned out to be a miniature Rosetta stone. Carved on stick found at the old Hanseatic wharf in Bergen, southwest Norway, the inscription features the name of two men, Sigurd and Lavrans, written in both standard runes and jötunvillur.

Each rune has a name. For instance, the rune for “u” is named “urr,” and the rune “m” is named “maðr.” By studying the Sigurd and Lavrans stick, Nordby discovered that the jötunvillur code worked by replacing the rune sign with the last sound in the rune’s name. As you can tell from the two examples, however, many runes end with the same sound, so jötunvillur is very difficult to read unless you have a handy straight rune original right next to it. You have to guess and re-guess to try to make sense of the code, which is why despite the code mechanism now being exposed, the other eight examples of it still haven’t been translated, although Nordby thinks two of them might also be inscribed with proper names: Thorstein on one and Einar on the other.

Because of how difficult it is to read and the prevalence of names, Nordby believes jötunvillur wasn’t used to send secret messages, but rather as an educational tool to teach people the runic alphabet. It was meant to be written, not read, an exercise to help people learn the rune names. There were no schools that taught runes; it was a system passed down from person to person, and what better way to teach it than to make it fun, a game or a code to crack.

Henrik Williams, a professor at Uppsala University’s Department of Scandinavian Languages and a Swedish expert on runes, says that Nordby’s discovery is important.

“Above all, it helps us understand that there were more codes than we were aware of. Each runic inscription we interpret raises our hopes of soon being able to read more. This is pure detective work and each new method improves our chances,” says Williams.

He agrees that the codes could have been used as a tool for learning runes. But he is uncertain how big a role this would have played in the learning process. In any case, Williams thinks the codes were used for much more than communication.

“They challenged the reader, demonstrated skills, and testify to a joy in reading and writing.”

The most commonly used was digit code which divided the alphabet into a matrix of three rows and six columns. The coded figures had a vertical bar with small diagonal ones on either side. The number of bars on the left side of the symbol indicated which row the rune was in; the number of bars on the right side identified the column. Most of the other codes use Caesar Cipher, a relatively simple system named after Julius Caesar who is said to have used it to communicate with his military officers. It just shifts the letters three of four places to the right.

There is a great deal of playfulness evinced in the rune codes that have been cracked. A challenge to decipher the code is a frequent message. They also played with the format itself, hiding runes in the beards of carved figures or in the decoration of an altar. Some appear to be riddles. They’re games, brain teasers, like medieval Scandinavian Sudoku more than magical incantations or secret communications.

They do that job well, too, as Henrik Williams’ reaction to the recently cracked code underscores:

“But personally I think jötunvillur is an idiotic code, because whoever made it chose a system that is so hard to interpret. It’s irritating not being able to read it.”

I know that irritation well. I bet he stabs the crossword with his pencil when he can’t complete it.





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