That belongs in a museum!

April 16th, 2011

In a confluence of movie magic, archaeological research and technological innovation that has been way too long in coming, Lucasfilm, the Penn Museum and the National Geographic Society have created a new travelling exhibit that showcases both the fictional wonderland of Indiana Jones and the factual reality of how archaeology is practiced.

Since the first thing they tell you in any archaeology class is “DON’T DO THIS IF YOU WANT TO BE LIKE INDIANA JONES,” and yet, Indiana Jones has ignited a passion for archaeology in the breast of many a young dreamer, it seems only fair that a museum exhibit be put together that offers both the irresistible allure of the great adventurer and corrects the many misconceptions about archaeology (not to mention actual crimes like theft and destruction of ancient sites) that Indy’s adventures have promoted.

Enter Indiana Jones and the Adventure of Archaeology. It puts on display a huge collection of props, models and art from the Lucasfilm Indiana Jones archives, along with the real deal: ancient artifacts from the Penn Museum and National Geographic Society archives. All visitors will receive handheld multimedia guides, an interactive tool that will allow visitors to customize their experience according to their interests. There’s also a quest game element that will give children both in age and at heart the chance to explore the exhibit as if they were Indiana Joneses themselves.

The exhibit is divided into four sections. The first, Quest for Treasure, displays some of the shiny things Indiana Jones has discovered at risk to life and limb, like the Chachapoyan Fertility Idol who is not deceived by any bags of sand you might try to put in his place, next to the shiny things real archaeologists have discovered with trowels and little tiny brushes, like an embossed gold plaque from Panama dating to 500-900 A.D. (courtesy the Penn Museum).

The guide explains how the film’s designers used different archaeological inspirations to create the Headpiece of the Staff of Ra, and while making it very clear that there is no genuine artifact that combines Phoenician script, a menorah-looking thing, and Ra’s falcon symbol, it points out the similarity between the Headpiece’s ultimate look and a pair of elaborate earrings found in King Tutankhamun’s tomb. Archaeologist Michel Fortin then explains that to archaeologists, “treasure” doesn’t mean precious metals and gemstones, but is instead defined by the historical significance of a piece, how much information it can give us about the past.

The next section, Dig into the Past, explores the importance of context for an object. Since Indy plays more than a little fast and loose with archaeological context (he’s basically a looter), this part focuses on his understanding of the history of the pieces he’s looking for, and Michel Fortin explains that importance of placing an artifact in its proper archaeological context. You learn something very different from a piece that you find in a home versus one you find in a temple, for example. The Lucasfilm collection in this section includes the Sankara stones, while the genuine archaeological artifacts come from Machu Picchu, Angkor Wat, and Tepe Hissar, among other places.

The third section is called Investigate, and it covers how Indy and real archaeologists put together many small clues to come to an understanding of a discovery. Protip: X never, ever marks the spot. (Unless it does.) Fortin explains that the bulk of investigation work doesn’t happen following trails to the Holy Grail, but rather once researchers bring artifacts they’ve found on an archaeological site back to the lab. There chemical analysis fills in blanks — dates, materials, etc. — and other elements, like inscriptions and designs, are explored in detail, translated, interpreted.

In the last section, Solve the Mystery, Indiana unravels the mystery of the crystal skull and archaeologists explain that the very definition of their discipline is to discover facts about our past by interpreting the material remains the ancients have left behind. Through artifacts archaeologists explain the unexplained.

The exhibit opens at the Montreal Science Centre on April 28th and continues there through September 18, 2011. More sites will be added to the schedule soon. Keep an eye on this page to find out when it will be coming somewhere near you.

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Golden phallus found in Norfolk

April 15th, 2011

A gold pendant in the shape of a phallus has been declared officially treasure by Norfolk coroner William Armstrong at a treasure trove inquest at Lynn County Court on Monday. It was found by metal detectorist Kevin Hillier on January 30th. He reported the wee gold pen0r as possible treasure to the Portable Antiquities Scheme, and now the inquest has confirmed its status. (Any found gold and silver objects over 300 years old must be reported to the authorities under the Treasure Act.)

According to Erica Darch, a Finds Liaison Officer from Norfolk, the pendant is:

“hollow, formed from sheet metal soldered together lengthways, rounded at the terminal with a small aperture left open at either end. A loop formed from triple ribbed sheet is soldered into position at the top, with separately applied solid globular testicles to either side. Separately applied wire with irregular transverse grooves on the underside (perhaps to act as keying for the solder) defines the edge of the foreskin.”

There is no native English tradition of phallus-worship, so this piece most likely belonged to a Roman soldier. Other phallus amulets have been found in areas with a Roman military presence, but most of them are bronze. A gold one is a rare find.

Phallic pendants in ancient Rome were talismans used to ward off the evil eye. The phallic deity was called Fascinus (from “fascinare” meaning “to cast a spell” which is the root of our word “fascinate”) and the charms and amulets shaped like penises and testes were worn to invoke his protection against evil spells. This kind of sorcery was thought to be caused primarily by envy, aka “invidia,” and was targeted against other people’s greatest fruitfulness: the fertility of animal, crop and person. Phallus pendants were thus often given to babies and children to avert curses intended to blight their growth, and a large phallic image was carried to crossroads in the countryside outside of Rome, then through the city proper during the March Liber Pater festival to protect newly-planted crops.

The phallus also had an official role in Roman state religion. The Vestal Virgins tended the fascinus populi Romani, the sacred phallic image that ensured the safety of the city, along with the sacred fire of Vesta. The sacred phallus was the masculine counterpart of the female generative power represented by Vesta’s hearth. The Vestals were also responsible for attaching a phallus to the bottom of a triumphing general’s chariot to ward off any invidiousness directed his way.

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Four more looted Tut pieces recovered in Cairo

April 14th, 2011

Zahi Hawass (center) and staffers holding recovered King Tut statue (right) and fan (left)Four objects looted from the Tutankhamun collection at the Cairo Museum on January 28 during the political unrest that toppled the Mubarak regime have been recovered, Zahi Hawass announced in a press conference on Tuesday. They were found by an employee of the Ministry of State for Antiquities Affairs in a bag in an Egyptian metro station, which I suppose is an improvement from being dumped in the trash.

MSAA public relations employee Salah Abdel Salam saw an unmarked black bag sitting unattended on a chair in Cairo’s Shubra Metro station during his daily commute. He didn’t think it was an explosive, so he (recklessly) looked inside and found a gold statue of King Tutankhamun looking back at him. He promptly picked up the bag and brought it with him to work.

“We brought back four pieces first, then 12 pieces after that and five pieces after that and four now. What we are missing now are only 33 objects, are mainly from the late period and I’m very happy to announce that this came to us this morning are very beautiful artefacts from the collection of Tutankhamen,” Hawass said.

Recovered gold Tut statueThere is some damage, especially to the gold statue of King Tutankhamun standing in a boat throwing a harpoon. The statue is missing a piece of its crown and pieces of its legs. The boat remains in the museum (it was never stolen in the first place). The figurine will be reunited with the base, restored and put back on display.

Damaged facade of Tut fanAnother recovered artifact that will require some restoration is the top part of Tutankhamun’s fan. The decorative facade on one side of it is intact, while the other side has been broken into eleven pieces. Other parts of it remain missing.

Recovered Yuya and Tjuya ushabtiThe good news is one of ten missing ushabtis belonging to Yuya and Tjuya, Queen Tiye’s parents (Tiye was the mother of Amenhotep III, father of Akhenhaten, grandfather of Tutankhamun), was recovered in excellent condition. It does not need any restoration and will be returned to the museum exhibit immediately.

The final returned object is a gilded bronze trumpet and its wooden core. Both parts are in fine condition and ready to go back on display as well. This trumpet might have played a role in its own disappearance. According to legend, whenever someone blows into the trumpet, war breaks out. Zahi Hawass says that a museum staffer who was photographing and documenting the artifact had blown into it a week before revolution broke out. The same thing happened right before the 1967 Six-Day War and right before the 1991 Gulf War. Apparently not one of these blowers ever saw The Mummy. :no:

Tut gilded bronze trumpet and wooden core

Hawass declared at the press conference an amnesty of sorts for anyone returning looted artifacts. “If anyone is afraid of handing over such objects they can put it at the MSAA entrance gate or the Egyptian Museum’s door and we will take care of them,” he said. No civil or criminal charges will be filed, and in fact there may be rewards for returned antiquities.

Hawass also said that he has met with Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, head of the Supreme Council of Army Forces, and they have agreed to establish a security department dedicated to the protection of antiquities and archaeological sites. A force of armed guards will be trained specifically in the safeguarding of ancient objects and sites and will be assigned to museums, open-air sites and storehouses to prevent any further looting.

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One of earliest printed books found in Sandy, Utah

April 13th, 2011

The Sandy Museum in Sandy, Utah is a small local museum dedicated to displaying historical artifacts from Sandy’s settlement and founding in the late 19th century onwards. To raise funds, they invited people to bring their antiques to be appraised by professionals for a small donation, like a mini-Antiques Roadshow. Rare book dealer Ken Sanders was one of the volunteer appraisers and since he’s done this kind of thing before, he wasn’t expecting much.

Nuremberg Chronicles, cover in foreground, uncollated leaves in backgroundImagine his surprise when one of the locals (who at this point has chosen to remain anonymous) presented him with a 1493 edition of the Nuremberg Chronicles, an extremely rare book from the early era of European movable type known as “the cradle of printing.” An illustrated world history, the Nuremberg Chronicles was printed 38 years after the first Gutenberg Bibles and its view of history is structured in parallel to the history of man as described in the Bible.

It was published by Anton Koberger, godfather of woodcut master Albrecht Dürer. There are an astonishing 1,809 woodcut illustrations in the Chronicles, most of them created by the workshop of Michael Wolgemut, Nuremberg’s premier artist at that time. Young Albrecht Dürer had been an apprentice in the Wolgemut shop between 1486 and 1489, and since Koberger first commissioned the woodcuts in 1487-88, Dürer could very well have had a hand in some of the original drawings.

As was common for books at that time, some of the images are duplicated. They’d make an illustration of a town, then on one page label it Town X, while on another page label the same drawing as Town Y. There were also some reprints of illustrations made for earlier books and some reused stock engravings.

“Well it’s very important,” Sanders said. “It’s considered to be one of the world’s first illustrated books printed with movable type.”

The book was that era’s equivalent of a history and travel book. But for its day, it was exceptionally lavish in its illustrations. “It has some 1800 woodcut illustrations in it,” Sanders said. “Every page has an illustration, which is highly unusual for a book of that antiquity.”

The owner requested anonymity from Sanders and the museum. He told Sanders he inherited the book from an uncle in Pennsylvania.

“It passed the smell test. Just, ‘yeah, this is real!’” Sanders said. “Outside of a museum or a library, I’d never seen one before. And I’d never got to touch one.”

How a book that was printed the year after Columbus stumbled on the Bahamas found its way to Sandy, Utah is a tantalizing mystery. The owner’s uncle was an estate attorney from Pennsylvania Dutch Country, an area of southeastern Pennsylvania that was settled beginning in the late 17th century by German immigrants (Dutch being an Americanization of Deutsch). It’s certainly plausible that one of those early immigrants might have carried the precious volume with him to the New World.

If it is authentic, its monetary value could reach the $100,000 mark. The binding has long since degraded, however, and the pages are out of order. It will have to be carefully collated and conserved before any sale price determinations are made.

Right now, there’s a tentative deal in place for Ken Sanders to sell the book if it proves authentic and the owner chooses to sell, but he hasn’t made up his mind about what he plans to do. The book needs professional care, that much is clear, and the owner has said that he isn’t interested in converting it into a financial windfall so much as ensuring it is properly tended to and available for public viewing. Let’s hope all the media attention doesn’t result in an offer he can’t refuse that’ll hide this beauty in a private collection.

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First shots of Civil War fired 150 years ago today

April 12th, 2011

Attack on Fort Sumter, Currier and Ives lithographOne hundred and fifty years ago today, at 4:30 in the morning, Captain James fired a shell from a ten-inch mortar across Charleston harbor at Fort Sumter. The garrison had been running desperately low on supplies, and since South Carolina had been the first state to formally secede from the Union months before (on Christmas Eve, 1860, in reaction to the election of Abraham Lincoln), Union troops weren’t going to be able to just waltz into Charleston and buy what they needed. Lincoln ordered a relief expedition and so informed the governor of South Carolina.

Confederate commander General P.G.T. Beauregard decided the fort had to be abandoned before the relief came. He demanded that the garrison surrender Fort Sumter or be fired upon. U.S. Army Major Robert Anderson, Fort Sumter’s commanding officer, offered to leave on April 15th, but only if relief didn’t arrive first and if he did not receive orders contradicting the plan. Beauregard did not accept and notified him in return that they would open fire an hour from that time and so they did. It was all very civilized and officer-and-a-gentlemanly. Anderson had been Beauregard’s artillery instructor at West Point 30 years earlier.

The Fort Sumter storm flag from 1861Confederate batteries fired for 34 hours straight. Fort Sumter returned fire at 7:00 A.M., but to no avail. The fort was surrendered and the garrison evacuated on April 13th. Major Anderson lowered the Union flag on April 14th, the day of his official surrender, and took it with him to New York. The flag would be used as a patriotic rallying symbol in the North for the duration of the war. It was auctioned off regularly to raise money for the war effort, with the expectation that everyone who “bought” it would immediately return it so it could be auctioned again. On April 14, 1865, Major General Anderson raised the flag over Fort Sumter again, in celebration of the end of the war. That same night, Abraham Lincoln went to the theater and never returned.

There were no Union nor Confederate fatalities in the first battle for Fort Sumter, although two Union soldiers and one Confederate died from their own misfires. The fort was not so lucky. It was ruined by the heavy shelling and ruined even harder two years later when the Union barraged Charleston from the water. It would be partially rebuilt by the US Army after the war and is now a national monument, along with the Fort Sumter Visitor Education Center in Charleston, and Fort Moultrie on Sullivan’s Island in the harbor.

The National Park Service is commemorating the sesquicentennial with a variety of events and services. Their website is packed with information, not just about Civil War parks and national monuments, but also about the war itself. They have made their entire National Park Civil War Series of books available online for free. If you were to buy the series in print, it would cost you $186, so I suggest you get downloadin’ now while the downloadin’ is good, then make a donation to the NPS and/or volunteer to help preserve our national monuments. (There are 54 national parks related to the Civil War maintained by the NPS. Click “by topic” and “Civil War” on this search page for links to all of them.)

Speaking of preserving history, the Civil War Trust is dedicated to the preservation of Civil War battlefields. To further their goal in the long term, they have put together an impressive group of educational resources so that future generations can grow up to be as properly obsessive about preserving these sites as they are. They have an entire Civil War Curriculum on their website, including freely downloadable lesson plans, exams and in-class presentations for elementary, middle and high school students. There’s a coloring book (pdf), crossword puzzles, links to primary sources, contemporary pictures, maps, and best of all, lessons based on visiting Civil War battlefields.

Stereoscopic photo of Fort Sumter, 1865Did you know that 70% of the pictures taken during the war were actually shot in 3D for viewing through a stereoscope device? The Civil War Trust also has an extensive collection of digitized stereoview photographs. You can order 3D glasses free of charge from the website. They also have many galleries of period and contemporary non-3D pictures of the battlefields they are working to preserve.

If you’re planning a trip to Washington, D.C., the Smithsonian has set up a website featuring all the current and upcoming events and exhibits on the occasion of the 150th anniversary of the Civil War. If you’re staying put but would like to learn out more about the Civil War, Smithsonian magazine has reposted articles from their archives about the Civil War in honor of the sesquicentennial.

There are some excellent new pieces as well. Fort Sumter: The Civil War Begins is a good place to start today. Then there’s The Women Who Fought in the Civil War, an interview with author Bonnie Tsui about the hundreds of women who disguised themselves as men to enlist and fight, How We’ve Commemorated the Civil War, a retrospective on how Americans have remembered the Civil War on past milestone anniversaries, and two articles on the first Union officer to die in the fighting, The Death of Colonel Ellsworth and How Col. Ellsworth’s Death Shocked the Union.

In the pictures worth a thousand words category, Smithsonian offers a slideshow of select Civil War artifacts in the Smithsonian museums, and an interactive timeline of the Civil War (click on the question mark icons for more information).

I can’t let a national commemoration pass without a nod to the history nerd paradise that is the Library of Congress. The Last Full Measure: Civil War Photographs from the Liljenquist Family Collection opens today at the Library of Congress. I blogged about the donation of this impressive collection of over 700 ambrotype and tintype portrait photographs of Civil War soldiers and civilians last fall. Now almost the entire collection has been digitized. A selection of about half of the pictures will be part of the exhibit.

You can also read Slave Narratives from the Federal Writers’ Project on the LoC website. The narratives can be browsed by narrator or by state, and the pictures are arranged by topic. There’s a thorough introduction very much worth reading to get an idea of the historical context of the project, its approach to recording of narratives and its limitations.

Preserving the history of slavery is also the mission of National Trust for Historic Preservation program officer Joseph McGill who spends the night in slave dwellings all over the South to publicize the need to preserve slave quarters as well as the big fancy plantation buildings. Since they were constructed out of flimsy materials to begin with, slave dwellings are even more endangered than their architecturally sound contemporaries.

The Most Serene Republic of San MarinoFinally, if you’ve kept reading this wall of text, here’s a little payoff. After Lincoln’s inauguration in March 1861, he received piles of congratulatory letters. One of them was from the Most Serene Republic of San Marino, the wee little statelet of 24 square miles in the middle of Italy that according to legend was founded in the 4th century A.D. as a monastic community by Marinus, a Christian stonecutter and Deacon. It has retained its sovereignty since then, making it the oldest sovereign nation in the world, and since its constitution (which codified a political system already in place since 1300 or so) was written in 1600, San Marino is also the oldest constitutional republic in the world.

Surrounded by an almost-unified Italy in 1861, San Marino was sweating a little when its Capitani Regenti (elected leaders) wrote to Lincoln. The letter expressed solidarity with the Union — six Southern states had already seceded by the time Lincoln was inaugurated — and conferring honorary citizenship on the American president. From the letter:

We have wished to write to you in our own hand and in English, although we have little knowledge and no practice in the language. It is a some while since the Republic of San Marino wishes to make alliance with the United States of America in that manner as it is possible between a great Potency and a very small country. As we think not extention of territories but conformity of opinions to procure friendly relations, so we are sure you will be glad to shake hands with a people who in its smallness and poverty can exhibit to you an antiquity from fourteen centuries of its free government.

Now we must inform you that to give to the United States of America a mark of high consideration and sincere fraternity the Sovereign Counsel on our motion decreed in its sitting of 25th October … that the citizenship of the Republic of San Marino was conferred for ever to the President pro tempore of the United States of America and we are very happy to send you the diploma of it.

We are acquainted from newspapers with political griefs, wich you are now suffering therefore we pray to God to grant you a peaceful solution of your questions. Nevertheless we hope our letter will not reach you disagreeable, and we shall expect anxiously an answer which proves us your kind acceptance.

Secretary of State William Henry Seward personally brought the letter to Lincoln’s attention. After some weeks, the President replied accepting the honorary citizenship and describing the key issue of the war in terms that presage his Gettysburg Address. From Lincoln’s reply:

Although your dominion is small, your State is nevertheless one of the most honored, in all history. It has by its experience demonstrated the truth, so full of encouragement to the friends of Humanity, that Government founded on Republican principles is capable of being so administered as to be secure and enduring.

You have kindly adverted to the trial through which this Republic is now passing. It is one of deep import. It involves the question whether a Representative republic, extended and aggrandized so much as to be safe against foreign enemies can save itself from the dangers of domestic faction. I have faith in a good result.

Abraham Lincoln’s letter is now one of San Marino’s most treasured historical artifacts. It is on display in the National Museum. In 1937, San Marino issued an Abraham Lincoln stamp, quoting the “most honored” line. They also dedicated a bronze sculpture to him, and the letter was read aloud at the ceremony inaugurating the bust. It was the first time in history Lincoln appeared on a foreign stamp. In 1959, they issued another set of Abraham Lincoln stamps, this time in honor of the sesquicentennial of his birth. Abramo Lincoln looms large in little San Marino.

1938 San Marino Lincoln stamp, scarlet San Marino bust of Lincoln San Marino Abramo Lincoln stamp, 1959

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Talk like a Flapper (and support local booksellers)!

April 11th, 2011

This is why patronizing your local used bookstore is so vitally important, because nobody’s digging through piles of weird old mildewy tomes in the Amazon warehouse and squealing with delight when they come across a stack of Flapper magazines (not for old fogies) from the 1920s. Okay, I may be projecting a little there. I don’t know if Jim Lewin of the Bookflaps blog and The York Emporium used bookstore actually squealed when he found the near-mint lifestyle magazines of the fast-car, bathtub-gin, Charleston-dancing party girls of the Jazz Age, but he probably did on the inside at least.

The magazine’s mission is downright feminist:

“What the FLAPPER stands for: short skirts, rolled sox, bobbed hair, powder and rouge, no corsets, one-piece bathing suits, deportation of reformers, non-enforcement of Blue Laws, no censorship of movies, stage or the press, vacations with full pay, no chaperons, attractive clothes, the inalienable right to make dates, good times, [and] honor between both sexes.”

Rock on, sisters! (Please to observe the Flapper cover girl above right making the appropriate “rock on” gesture long before Ronnie James Dio was a twinkle in his father’s eye.)

One of the issues contained a glossary of Flapper slang that is so truly exquisite, I intend to make every effort to memorize it all and speak only in Flapperese from now on.

The July 1922 edition of Flapper contained “A Flapper’s Dictionary.” According to the uncredited author, “A Flapper is one with a jitney body and a limousine mind. The Shifter is a new species who flaunts as his banner, “Something for nothing and then very little.”

“The flapper movement is not a craze, but something that will stay,” the author maintained. “Many of the phrases now employed by members of this order will eventually find a way into common usage and be accepted as good English.”

That turned out to be an unfulfilled prophecy, I’m sad to say, although a few of the phrases have indeed become part of our lexicon. Bee’s knees, cat’s pajamas, blaah, dogs (meaning feet), and ducky (describing something good) are all still in common parlance. “A jitney body and a limousine mind” do not appear in the dictionary, but if we take the vehicular metaphors at face value, it’s actually quite racy. A jitney was a small bus that charged only a nickel for passage, while of course a limousine is a big fancy expensive car. I guess that makes a flapper a cheap ride with an expensive wit.

Here are a few choice entries from the dictionary that are in desperate need of revival:

Brush Ape—Anyone from the sticks; a country Jake.
Dingle Dangler—One who insists on telephoning.
Noodle Juice—Tea.
Nosebaggery—Restaurant.
Strike Breaker—A young woman who goes with her friend’s “Steady” while there is a coolness.
Trotzky (sic)—Old lady with a moustache and chin whiskers.
Wurp—Killjoy or drawback.

I found a few scans of articles from Flapper magazine on Old Magazine Articles’s excellent website, but the dictionary is not among them. A highly amusing pro-knee manifesto (pdf) is, however, and yet again, it concludes with what looks to me like quite a raunchy bit of innuendo.

See what I mean? The knees get calloused after the first hundred what, exactly? Also lol @ something new under the sunburn.

If you wish to immerse yourself further in the world of biscuits and sheiks, you simply must check out Carrie, a ’20s comic strip by Wood Cowan that follows the adventures of stylin’ flapper girls and the men they use for their entertainment.

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Roman art seized from looters on display in Sofia

April 10th, 2011

The ancient Roman site of Colonia Ulpia Traiana Ratiaria in northwestern Bulgaria has been thoroughly looted for the past 20 years. Huge holes pit its surface. Unemployed and with few other opportunities to make a living since the fall of Communism, people from nearby towns use the ancient site as their personal piggy bank, supported by an apathetic populace, a fatalistic (at best) police force and active organized crime rackets who bring in heavy machinery to dig up artifacts for sale on the black market. Experts estimate the profits derived from the underground trade in antiquities as equal to those derived from the illegal drug trade, and the antiquities business is far less dangerous to the criminals.

Roman sarcophagus in Ruptsi back yardSadly, there is virtually no police protection of Ratiaria and many other ancient Bulgarian sites; however, police have ramped up efforts to intercept looted artifacts before they disappear into private collections. This past February, an anti-organized crime raid in the town of Ruptsi found a mini-museum of Roman antiquities in the back yard of a local businessman, hidden behind a concrete privacy fence. He was widely known as someone who would buy from looters.

1st c. A.D. carving of Romulus and RemusAmong the finds were an almost complete, richly decorated Roman sarcophagus, columns, a carved altar stone, rare Roman glassware and a relief of the she-wolf suckling Romulus and Remus. These artifacts are now on display at the National Museum of History in Sofia. This will be the first time a representation of the founding myth of Rome goes on display at a Bulgarian museum.

The highlight of the collection, containing some 100 pieces including exquisite examples of Roman sculpture and ceramics, is a marble sarcophagus from the first century AD, richly carved with garlands, floral ornaments, women’s faces and figures of death.

“The sarcophagus, with an early Roman inscription, is the most beautiful of its kind found in Bulgaria,” archaeologist Elka Penkova said.

Archaeologists have dated the rest of the seized items as from around the first century A.D. as well.

Workers unload 1st c. A.D. Roman sarcophagus at National Museum in Sofia

Learn more about Ratiaria and its near-destruction by looters on the Bulgarian Archaeological Association’s website. You can see actual looters in action raping the land in a story that aired on an Australian newsmagazine in 2009: Plundering the Past. Watch the whole thing.

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Bones of leper warrior found in Lombard cemetery

April 9th, 2011

Skull of warrior with Hansen's disease, characteristic wasting of bone visible in nose, upper jaw areaArchaeological excavations of the early medieval necropolis in Morrione, in the central Italian region of Molise, have uncovered the bones of a warrior with leprosy. He was approximately 50 years old, and appears to have died from one sword blow to the head. Since lepers were treated like, well, lepers (i.e., societal outcasts separated in life and death from the “clean” population), it’s a surprising discovery to find someone with Hansen’s disease who lived, fought, died and was buried with his comrades.

The skeleton of a female between 40 and 46 years old was also found in the necropolis. There is very little osteological data about leprosy in the archaeological record of Italy. The two skeletons discovered might be able to provide a great deal of new information about the pathological and sociological history of the disease in Italy.

The cemetery was in use between the sixth and eighth centuries. There was no permanent settlement at that time, so the burial ground had to have been used by the Lombards, a Germanic people who invaded Italy in 568 along with their allies the Avars, a Eurasian confederation of nomadic warriors, who had a military outpost in the area.

[The warrior's] bones show the telltale wasting and mutilation of leprosy, now known as Hansen’s disease. In ancient times, leprosy sufferers were often banished from society. Apparently the Lombards and Avars took a more tolerant approach, Rubini said, because this man, who died around age 50, was buried in the cemetery along with the other dead. [...]

“The Avar society was very inflexible militarily, and in particular situations all are called to contribute to the cause of survival, healthy and sick,” [Foggia University anthropologist Mauro Rubini] said. “Probably this individual was really a leper warrior who died in combat to defend his people against the Byzantinian soldiers.”

Horse and rider buried togetherSo far 234 graves have been excavated. We can learn a great deal more we don’t know about Lombard and Avar cultures from their buried dead. There is evidence of successful battlefield surgery, for example. One skull has a 2-inch hole in it, probably made by a Byzantine mace, whose edges were cleaned and abraded until smooth. Regrowth of bone indicates that the surgery was successful. Another skull with a wedge-shaped dent, possibly made by a Byzantine battle-axe, also shows signs that the recipient of the blow survived it and lived for some time after.

Many of the warriors were found buried with their horses, a common practice among nomadic Asian peoples that must have continued to be practiced by the Avars in Italy.

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Bedlam gives up hundreds of long-dead lunatics

April 8th, 2011

Bedlam skeletons found under Liverpool Street stationArchaeologists surveying a future site of the massive Crossrail project next to the Liverpool Street railway station have uncovered over a hundred skeletons in a burial ground that was used to inter patients from the infamous St. Bethlehem Hospital, aka Bedlam, starting in 1569.

So far they’ve only dug a trial pit and found over a hundred skeletons starting just five feet below street level. Since the site is far larger than the small exploratory trench, lead archaeologist Jay Carver calculates that they will find hundreds more once the entire site is excavated, maybe even thousands.

This isn’t the first time the area has burst forth a glorious danse macabre courtesy of Bedlam’s hundreds of years of continuous use, first as a priory for the religious of the Order of the Star of Bethlehem in the 13th century, until the insane asylum that would become synonymous with a maddening racket moved to that location in the late 17th century. Four hundred skeletons were found next door when the office pedestrian complex Broadgate Centre was built during the 1980s.

The burial ground continued to be used until the 19th century for local residents when other intown cemeteries ran out of space, so not all of these skeletons are mental patients who died in the famously deplorable conditions of Bedlam; however, the huge numbers involved means there will be a high concentration of 16th century remains, both of the hospitalized and of the city poor.

‘It’s interesting on the archaeological side because the 16th century is a time of immense poverty really in the outer areas of the city of London. Sites of this type haven’t always been fully investigated,’ Carver said.

The team also uncovered pottery fragments, clay pipes, animal bone artefacts, including knife handles, and, as yet, unidentified implements in association with the burials.

The bodies will be studied at the Museum of London prior to reburial. Researchers will examine the gender distribution, their ages, and signs of chronic and terminal illness. The remains will then be re-interred locally, as per government regulations, but where exactly hasn’t been determined yet. Most of the bodies found in the ’80s were reburied under Broadgate Centre itself. East London Cemetery has accommodated past archaeological remains, but even they may not have the space for the numbers of skeletons expected to be found over the next two years of excavation.

St. Bethlehem Hospital was the world’s first hospital dedicated to the treatment of mental illness. I use the word “treatment” loosely, however, since mainly patients were kept in a chaotic, filthy, prison-like environment. They weren’t even called patients until 1700. Before that they were all “inmates” and there was no distinction made between curable and incurable cases.

In the 18th century, rich people would pay to visit the crazies and hoot at the spectacle behind their fans. Satirist William Hogarth depicted just such a scene in the last painting from his A Rake’s Progress series, where the titular rake’s moral degradation leads him from foppery to gambling to whoremongering to debtor’s prison to an ignominious naked finale as a shackled madman among the madmen of Bedlam, their wretchedness providing entertainment for his one-time society equals.

"A Rake's Progress," by William Hogarth, 1733

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Shackleton’s whisky lives again and it’s delicious

April 7th, 2011

Last summer, researchers from the Canterbury Museum in Christchurch, New Zealand thawed a crate of whisky found frozen solid under the floorboards of explorer Ernest Shackleton’s hut on Ross Island, Antarctica, in 2006. Whisky experts were all agog over the prospect of being able to analyze these spirits purchased for the expedition in 1907 because the original recipe for this brand, Mackinlay’s Rare Old Highland Malt Whisky, was long since lost. The bottles had been preserved in the deepest of deep freezes for a century and thus might provide all kinds of information about historical blends and distillation methods that you can’t get from whisky of the same age but that has lived a more active life.

Master Blender Richard Paterson looks at a bottle of Shackleton's whisky like he's about to make sweet, sweet love to itIn January of this year, Richard Paterson and Dr. Vijay Mallya, respectively the master blender and owner of Whyte & Mackay, the company that owns the former Mackinlay’s distillery, flew to New Zealand on a private jet, picked up three bottles of Shackleton’s whisky then flew back with them to Scotland on the private jet. The cargo hold of a commercial plane would not have been able to provide the proper conditions for the safety and conservation of these precious, rare bottles, and obviously there are more than 3 ounces of liquid in the bottles, so they couldn’t fly in the passenger cabin either. Mallya volunteered his private plane for the task.

Paterson literally handcuffed himself to the protective cases the bottles were kept in for the duration of the voyage. He only detached himself from them under duress when customs made him. As a master blender and a nose, Paterson has an emotional bond to these bottles from a bygone era and the mysterious blend they contain. He’s the one who got to sample the whisky as part of the analytical process. The only other person allowed to taste it was whisky writer Dave Broom.

Here he is being adorably passionate about the whisky in a video from when it first arrived in Scotland. You can see the safety crates and the handcuffs in it:

After that video was filmed, the bottles were taken to Whyte & Mackay’s laboratories in Invergordon where samples were extracted from each bottle by a syringe inserted through the stopper. Eight weeks of chemical and palate analysis ensued. The bottles were not opened or tampered with in any way, and they will be returned to the Antarctic Heritage Trust to be preserved along with their unsampled brothers.

Now Whyte & Mackay have announced the results of their study and their recreation of a replica of the Shackleton whisky. In two to eight weeks, 50,000 bottles of the replica whisky will be sold, starting in the UK then on to mainland Europe, the US, Australia and New Zealand.

Paterson expected the whisky to have a heavy, peaty flavor, which was the fashion at the time. Instead, according to his tasting notes, he discovered a Scotch with “delicate aromas of crushed apple, pear and fresh pineapple. It has a whisper of marmalade, cinnamon and a tease of smoke, ginger and muscovado sugar.”

[Rob Bruce, Whyte & Mackay's head of global public relations] wouldn’t say much about the process Paterson used to create the replica.

“He used existing single malts, including liquid from the original Mackinlays distillery,” Bruce wrote in an email, referring to the company that made Shackleton’s stash. “We are not revealing any more than that at this stage.”[...]

Paterson’s tests revealed that the forsaken whisky has a 47.3 percent alcohol content, which is high. He believes this was to help prevent the liquid from freezing. The result, he said in his notes, is that it “gives plenty of impact, but in a mild and warming way. It has whispers of gentle bonfire smoke slowly giving way to spicy rich toffee, treacle and pecan nuts.”

The bottles will cost about $160 each, and 5% of the proceeds will be donated to the Antarctic Heritage Trust. If, as expected, the full run sells, the Trust will receive almost $400,000.

You can hear Dave Broom’s glowing review in this interview with Radio New Zealand. I’m not a whisky person but I have to admit it sounds delicious (although of course I wouldn’t care at all if it hadn’t come from Ernest Shackelton’s ice cellar).

Bottle of Shackleton's Mackinlay's Replica Mackinlay's made by Whyte & Mackay

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