“Weary Herakles” gets his legs back

October 10th, 2011

The torso of Herakles that the Boston Museum of Fine Arts recently admitted after decades of shameless, self-serving denial was the other half of a statue whose legs were in the Antalya Museum in Turkey has finally been rejoined to its limbs and put on display.

The torso flew back accompanied by no less a dignitary than the Prime Minister of Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. He was in New York last month to attend the UN General Assembly and he volunteered to pick up Herakles top half and carry it back to Turkey in his plane. Herakles and Erdoğan flew back together on Sunday, September 25. Museum workers immediately began to put humpty dumpty together again.

The two parts of the statue were reunited by experts and went on display at the Antalya Museum following a ceremony. Speaking at the event, [Turkish Culture Minister Ertugrul] Günay said, “Today was a special day for all people who attach importance to history and archeology.”

The lower half of the statue was found by Professor Jale İnan during excavations near Perge, Antalya province, in 1980. İnan searched extensively for the upper half of the statue, a feat that took 10 years, until she was finally able to locate it in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, in 1990, at the age of 76.

The Antalya Museum’s “Weary Herakles” display looks a lot better now.

P.S. – Seeing the statue back together really puts to the lie to all the huffing and puffing the Boston Museum of Fine Art did to pretend the halves could have come from two completely different copies of Lyssipos’ original “Weary Herakles.”

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World’s oldest running car sells for $4,620,000

October 9th, 2011

The world’s oldest running car, an 1884 De Dion Bouton et Trepardoux Dos-a-Dos Steam Runabout, sold at RM Auctions‘ Hershey, Pennsylvania, sale on October 7th for a world record $4,620,000. There are a couple of older motorized vehicles that might vie for the title of oldest car (depending on how you define car), but they are in museums and are not in running condition. This particular car is not only 127 years old and still running, but it’s also street-legal, an impressive achievement considering it runs on steam generated by a coal-fed boiler.

In 1881 the dashing young Comte de Dion, a roguish fellow famed for his skill with the dueling pistol and the ladies, encountered an impressive model steam engine in a toy shop in Paris. The engine was built by Georges Bouton and Charles-Armand Trepardoux who were earning meager ducats creating toy models and scientific instruments. De Dion hired them on the spot to build him a steam engine big enough to power a carriage, but compact enough to allow passengers besides just the driver.

Bouton and Trepardoux, after an initial failed attempt, came up with a relatively compact car — nine feet long weighing 2,100 pounds — that ran off of twin compound steam engines fueled by coal that was fed automatically through a hopper. The “spade handle” steering controlled the front wheels which in turn drove the back wheels through a connecting rod motion, like a locomotive. It seated four people, back to back (hence the dos-as-dos in the name), and was driven by one driver, so despite its train-like engine and wheel arrangement, it really is a fully recognizable family sedan as we know them today.

De Dion called the prototype “La Marquise” after his mother (who PS, thought he was crazy) and by 1886 he had sales materials and a small production line including a three-wheel model, a dog-cart, even an 18-seat bus. Of course, these were extremely pricey (a new quadricycle went for 4,400 francs ($850) in 1889) so few were ordered and made. As far as we know, De Dion sold a total of 30 of his steam vehicles, 20 tricycles, four or five quadricycles, and a handful of the larger carriages. Only two other quadricycles and six tricycles are known to exist today, but none of them run.

This particular “La Marquise” wasn’t one of the ones sold. It was the prototype, the first one ever made, and it bears clear marks to that effect. You can see that the brackets which hold the water tank to the frame were re-cut to clear a lug and it has the original brass plate attached to the boiler on which the mandatory 5 year inspections of the boiler were recorded. The first one was in 1889.

Another claim to fame of this vehicle is that it was driven in the first official car race in 1887. Georges Bouton drove this prototype from Paris to Versailles and was clocked at a top speed of 37 miles per hour.

“La Marquise” stayed in De Dion’s hands until 1906 when he sold it to French army officer Henri Doriol. It remained in the Doriol family for 81 years, but they never drove it because in 1914 its brass and copper fittings had been extensively cannibalized for the French government’s war effort. For decades Doriol and his son tried to restore it but were unable. They sold it in 1987 to Tim Moore, an enthusiast who tracked down an 1890 model at the museum in Le Mans and copied the missing fittings. He had it up and running within a year. Moore sold it to collector John O’Quinn in 2007 and it is O’Quinn’s estate that put it up for auction Friday.

Behold its steam chugging greatness in action:

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Roman statue found at Epidaurus

October 8th, 2011

The torso of a larger-than-life male sculpture was discovered during restoration work on the Little Theater of Ancient Epidaurus, the Greek city famed for its acoustically brilliant large theater. The statue is the figure of an idealized muscular male standing with a cloak wrapped around his arm and thrown over his shoulder.

Archaeologists think it’s a second century AD Roman copy of an original Hermes by leading Greek Classical sculptor Polycleitus. The enhanced musculature marks it as an Imperial-era Roman copy and although none of Polycleitus’ original works have survived, they were widely copied which is why we have enough of an inkling of what they looked like to determine which statue may have inspired any given copy.

Roman Emperor Hadrian went on a state visit to Epidaurus in the second century A.D., inspiring beautification and flattery projects in the city. This torso could have been a Hermes originally that was then modified in Hadrian’s honor to bear the imperial visage, or modified to bear the visage of another high official. This was a common practice at the time, and is one of the reasons heads so often go missing, because they had already been replaced at least once.

The statue had been built into the wall of a 4th century A.D. building near the Little Theater. The building is in cross proximity to more ancient ones that are thought to have been part of the city Agora.

The Little Theater was built in the same century (4th century B.C.) as the famed Epidaurus Theater. It was rediscovered in 1970 under a field olive trees. As per its diminutive monicker, the Little Theater had 9 tiers and 18 rows of seats and could seat about 2,000, whereas the big one started out with 34 rows (the Romans added another 21 rows) and could seat 15,000 spectators. The large theater, to this day fascinating to all performers and engineers because of its astonishing acoustics that allow anyone seated anywhere to hear with complete clarity the sound of a match being struck on stage, was designed by Polycleitus the Younger, the son of the sculptor who made the original Hermes this torso is thought to have been copied from.

The statue has been transferred to the Museum of Asklepios Epidaurus for cleaning and maintenance.

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Aztec ceremonial platform found in Mexico City

October 7th, 2011

Archaeologists excavating Mexico City’s Templo Mayo have discovered a circular platform studded with snake heads that they hope might be a clue to finding an Aztec emperor’s tomb. It is 15 yards in diameter and dates to around 1469.

The team has been digging for five years looking for what would be the first tomb of an Aztec ruler ever found. The Spanish priests who accompanied Cortés and his troops to the Aztec capital then known as Tenochtitlan recorded that Aztec kings being cremated at the foot of the Templo Mayor on a structure called the “cuauhxicalco.” This platform could well be the cuauhxicalco, and if it is, then perhaps an imperial tomb is nearby.

There are no other extant sources that describe how the Aztecs buried their royalty, however, so the archaeological team doesn’t have a lot to go on. On the other hand, the Spanish conquistadors did provide themselves with a rare opportunity to see the death of three Aztec kings — Montezuma II, his brother Cuitláhuac, and Cuitláhuac’s nephew, Cuauhtémoc — within six years of their arrival, so an argument could be made they are expert witnesses.

[National Institute of History and Anthropology archaeologist Raul Barrera] said the platform, which is still being unearthed, was gradually uncovered over the preceding months. It is covered with at least 19 serpent heads, each about a half-yard (meter) long.

Barrera said accounts from the 1500s suggested the platform was also used in a colorful ceremony in which an Aztec priest would descend from the nearby pyramid with a snake made of paper and burn it on the platform.

Records indicate there were a total of five such platforms in the temple complex. One was found several years ago, but that platform was farther from the ritually important spot at the foot of the pyramid, where the most recent finding was made.

In 1997 archaeologists found underground chambers using ground penetrating radar very near the spot of the snakehead platform. They thought perhaps those chambers would prove to be the tomb of Emperor Ahuizotl who ruled at the end of the 15th century, but when they excavated all they found was a staircase and some offerings.

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Giant 50-ton replica of Ramesses needs new home

October 6th, 2011

Memphis — the one in Tennessee — has a 50-ton, 25-foot-tall homeless pharaoh on its hands. It’s a fiberglass replica of a colossal statue of Ramesses the Great found in pieces in Memphis — the one in Egypt — and is the only officially permitted replica of the original Colossus of Ramesses in the world. It stands outside the Pyramid Arena, a sports arena in downtown Memphis on the banks of the Mississippi which is no longer in use as a sports venue and will instead be the locus of a new Bass Pro Shops megastore (plus other retail outlets, office space, even a river museum). Neither Bass Pro Shops nor the Memphis City Council think Ramesses the Great should have a second career as a mall cop, so the city is looking for a new home for their giant.

The City Council ran multiple advertisements in local press outlets looking for any takers who would keep Ramesses on display for the benefit of the people of Memphis. Only the University of Memphis, whose men’s basketball team once played in the Pyramid Arena, responded. The university offered to pay a token dollar and move the statue to its campus. Some people on the City Council are not thrilled with the idea, though, because the university is state-owned rather than city-owned. Also, the campus is in East Memphis; the ideal location would be more centrally located.

There’s also the small matter of the original agreement with Egypt. The Memphis City Council brought in Glen Campbell, the former curator of the Wonders series that brought the ancient limestone Ramesses colossus to Tennessee, and former Memphis mayor Dick Hackett to testify to the stipulations of the deal.

Campbell said that he, Hackett and the rest of Memphis delegation first saw the original statue in the Egyptian city called Memphis in 1986. It was lying in a ditch in about three big pieces and about a thousand smaller pieces.

When Hackett proposed moving it to the Bluff City for what would become the first Wonders exhibit, he suggested that it be displayed in pieces, just as it was in Egypt. Campbell recalled the response from an Egyptian antiquities official: “Pharaohs do not recline outside of the sands of Egypt.”

So the Memphis delegation agreed to restore the statue with funds from the Coca-Cola corporation, display it in Memphis and send it back to Egypt when they were done. They also won agreement to create a fiberglass replica to keep in the city. But there were conditions. The Americans had to agree to destroy the mold used to make the statue and send the Egyptians a videotape of the destruction, Campbell said.

And there were stipulations that are relevant to the current discussion: They also had to agree to keep the statue on public display somewhere in the city of Memphis, not to sell it and not to give it away, Campbell said.

Shall we bet on who that pithy Egyptian antiquities official was? I won’t name names, but I’m guessing his initials are Zahi and Hawass.

The agreement was signed by Hosni Mubarak, so an argument could be made that it’s invalid now and Memphis can do whatever it wants with the replica, but thankfully they’re not taking it that way. Keeping the statue on display for its educational and aesthetic value to the city of Memphis is their priority.

Bass Pro Shops is scheduled to begin renovations and construction of Pyramid Arena this month. The statue will remain in place until the matter is resolved.

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Unique Roman-era mosaic found in Bulgaria

October 5th, 2011

Archaeologists have found an intricate Roman-era mosaic floor in the southern Bulgarian town of Stara Zagora. According to Dimitar Yankov, chief curator of Stara Zagora’s Regional Museum of History and leader of the archaeological team, the mosaic dates to around the 3rd century A.D. and nothing like it has been found in Bulgaria before. The scene is a Bacchanalian revel and thus far the figure of Semele, Bacchus’ mortal mother, and two dancing women have been revealed. Semele is leading the revels and the dancing women follow her.

“The complex figures of dancing women suggest the mosaic was done by a great master. The clothes are in five shades of blue and the red color varies from pink to dark red. The figures are very fine. One of the women holds castanets in her hands and the other one holds other music instruments. The folds of their clothes suggest their knees are bent. Their ankles are bare and their legs move. There is play of light and shade.”

The building in which the mosaic was found was a temple to Bacchus located a hundred feet from the walls of the ancient forum. Yankov hopes that more of the mosaic remains and that continuing excavations will reveal the god Bacchus himself.

Restorer Nikola Stoyanov notes that the mosaic was created using the opus tessellatum technique where the mosaic tiles (tesserae) in the background are laid out so they align either vertically or horizontally, but not both. The tesserae are just one centimeter square, which give the mosaic its complexity and detail, but will also ensure that any future attempts to remove the mosaic for conservation and display will be an enormous challenge.

It has to happen, though, because the property being excavated is privately owned. In order to ensure that the mosaic is preserved and shown to the public, somebody is going to have to peel thousands of one-centimeter tiles off the floor.

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Medieval inscribed slates found in Welsh castle

October 4th, 2011

A team of archaeologists on their fourth year of excavations at the 12th century Nevern Castle in Pembrokeshire, Wales, have unearthed 12 slates inscribed with a variety of designs. Found at the south entrance to the castle, the scratched symbols were probably made by laborers to keep evil spirits from crossing its threshold.

Inscribed slates from this early on are a rare discovery. There’s a later Welsh tradition of scratching curses or blessings on slate tiles and throwing them down wells, but what you usually see are the initials of a cursee or blessee inscribed, not symbols.

“Scratched images from the medieval world are rare, and we can confidently date these to the period 1170-1190 when the stone phase of Nevern Castle was built,” added [Lead archaeologist Dr. Chris] Caple.

“These drawings connect us with the lives and beliefs of masons or labourers who built the castle. We hardly ever recover evidence about the peasants of the medieval world, and never information about their beliefs and ideas, but these scratched designs are from the imagination of a serf, a farm labourer or a man at arms.”

Welsh slate had been quarried and used as a building material, particularly roof tiles, since the Roman period. The south entrance was made of slate bedded with clay, a local building technique that creates a strong structure as long as you ensure the bedded slate walls are capped with large stones or wide eaves to ensure rain doesn’t wash the clay away.

On top of the clay bedded slate, the doorway was built out of blocks of local sandstone. Finely chiseled, evenly faced square blocks of sandstone were not a local building technique at this point. That style was imported by the Anglo-Norman invaders, and in fact it was Anglo-Norman lord Robert FitzMartin who built Nevern castle as we know it today in the first decade of the 12th century. That makes the doorway an extremely early fusion of native and invader construction.

Control of the castle shifted over the century between FitzMartin and Welsh prince Rhys ap Gruffudd. During the period in which those slates were inscribed, 1170-1190, the castle was in FitzMartin’s hands. Most of the masonry was built onto the timber and earthenworks castle by The Lord Rhys between 1135 and 1170, but FitzMartin is thought to have added some new stone structures after he regained control. By 1195 it was back in Welsh hands, but Rhys died in 1197 and his son Hywel Sais demolished much of it and left it to decay.

Its short lifespan and connection to Rhys ap Gruffudd makes the castle an important site for Welsh history. Not only was Rhys a powerful figure in his time, but if archaeologists can pinpoint buildings that he added on to the castle, that will make Nevern the earliest excavated remains of a stone castle built by the Welsh themselves.

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Portsmouth slaves petitioned for freedom in 1779

October 3rd, 2011

Pivoting off the language in the Declaration of Independence three years earlier, 20 slaves in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, signed and submitted a petition for their freedom to the New Hampshire General Assembly. One of the signers, Prince Whipple, was the slave of William Whipple, a New Hampshire delegate to the Continental Congress and a signer of the Declaration of Independence.

It’s not known who wrote the petition, but it was signed in November of 1779. The petition was submitted to the General Assembly six months later, in April of 1780. The legislators ordered that it be published in the newspaper “that any person or persons may then appear and shew (sic) cause why the prayer thereof may not be granted.” The New Hampshire Gazette duly published it (pdf copy) on July 15th, 1780, but they added a disclaimer that it was printed for their readers’ “amusement.” The petition lost steam. The General Assembly postponed the hearing they had scheduled and that was the end of that.

This was not the only petition of its kind, of course. Revolutionary fervor spread throughout the colonies making the language of freedom and natural rights common vernacular. Slaves could hardly have heard the words and not applied them to their circumstances, which some might argue were far more aptly described in terms of tyranny and oppression than wealthy colonial leaders’ struggles with the Stamp Act.

The signers of the petition, although slaves, were people of importance in their community, often ranked socially according to the importance of their master. They actually ran a shadow justice system called the Negro Court which adjudicated disputes and punished slaves who committed petty crimes. As property, slaves couldn’t be convicted of crimes in the colonial judiciary, so the Negro Court stepped up to the plate. The members of the bench were elected by the slaves of Portsmouth, and this wasn’t done in secret or even quietly. They were out and proud.

“Arrayed in brilliant clothes, the region’s black population assembled, then processed out of the city center to the outskirts and returned some hours later with festive music and boisterous gunfire to a grand celebration of their newly elected monarch and court,” Cunningham and Sammons wrote.

The court was led by a king — likely a nod to the royalty of tribes in Africa. In the period when the petition was written, the court consisted of “King” Nero Brewster, owned by Col. William Brewster; Viceroy Willie Clarkson, owned by Peirse Clarkson; Sheriff Jock Odiorne and Deputy Pharaoh Shores. [...]

“It was a way within slavery to maintain social order and a sense of community,” Watters said. “They replicated the white hierarchy and power structure, and it is obvious that there was at least some cooperation and perhaps even some status within white families of having a slave on the court.”

Fascinating, isn’t it, how complex the social dynamics were?

Judging from the first line of the petition, the Negro Court was certainly involved in it, if not directly responsible.

The petition of Nero Brewster, and others, natives of Africa, now forcibly detained in slavery, in said state, most humbly theweth, That the God of Nature gave them life and freedom, upon terms of the most perfect equality with other men; that freedom is an inherent right of the human species, not to be surrendered, but by consent, for the sake of social life; that private or public tyranny and slavery, are alike detestable to minds conscious of the equal dignity of human nature; that in power and authority of individuals, derived solely from a principle of coersion, against the wills of individuals, and to dispose of their persons and properties, consists the completed idea of private and political slavery; that all men being amenable to the Deity for the ill improvement of the blessings of his providence, they hold themselves in duty bound, strenuously to exert every faculty of their minds, . . .; that thro’ ignorance & brutish violence of their native countrymen and by similar designs of others, (who ought to have taught them better) & by the avarice of both, they, while but children, and incapable of self defense, whose infancy might have prompted protection, were seized, imprisoned, and transported from their native country, where (tho’ ignorance and inchristianity prevailed) they were born free to a country, where (tho’ knowledge, christianity and freedom, are their boast) they are compelled, and their unhappy posterity, to drag on their lives in miserable servitude. . . .

Notice that although their forcible and violent removal from Africa is the opening salvo, they fully identify with and support the nascent Revolutionary ideal of the United States as the land of the free.

New Hampshire’s state constitution was passed in 1783. It declared that “all men are born equal and independent,” the same language that led to the abolition of slavery in Massachusetts pursued through the courts, but there was nothing specific about manumitting slaves and there are census records indicating the presence of slaves in the state off and on through 1840. Officially, slavery in New Hampshire was only abolished with the passage of the 13th amendment to the US Constitution in 1865.

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Frome Hoard on display in new Museum of Somerset

October 2nd, 2011

The Frome Hoard, the second largest coin hoard ever found in Britain and the largest ever found in a single container, has gone on display for the first time at the newly refurbished Museum of Somerset in Taunton.

The hoard was discovered last April by hospital chef and metal detector enthusiast Dave Crisp in a field near Frome in Somerset. He found twenty or so copper coins just 14 inches under the surface but when he realized that beneath the loose coins was a large pot-bellied vessel packed to the brim with thousands more, he reported the find to the authorities. His conscientiousness ensured that this extraordinary find could be excavated properly by professionals, saving the two-foot-tall clay vase and the order in which the coins were added to it. Archaeologists were therefore able to determine that this was not savings hastily buried during troubled times with the expectation that the owners would return. The vessel’s base is too small to have supported the weight of all the coins. It was in all likelihood buried first, and then filled with coins gradually, probably as an offering to the gods.

The vase and coins went to the British Museum where they were examined in detail. There were 52,503 coins dating to the 3rd century, almost all of them made from copper alloy. Almost 800 of the coins were minted by quasi-emperor Carausius who revolted against Rome and declared him emperor of Britain and Gaul in the late 3rd century A.D. Five of them are silver, extremely rare Carausius silver denarii minted by the usurper. Carausius’ coins were the first Roman coins struck in London, and the coinage he issued is our primary source of information about his reign. Such a large group of Carausius coins found in one place may increase our understanding of the emperor and of the early London mint.

The museum has chosen to clean some of the coins thoroughly to show them as they would have looked when first placed in the vessel, but left most of the copper ones close to the condition in which they were found. The five silver denarii are in a separate display on their own.

The Museum of Somerset has spent three years and approximately $11 million on the renovation. In addition to the Frome Hoard, exhibits include dinosaur fossils, Stone Age artifacts, another immense hoard — the Shapwick Hoard of 9,238 silver coins, the largest hoard of Roman silver coins found in Britain — the bronze age South Cadbury Shield and the Low Ham mosaic, a mid-4th century mosaic floor from the baths of a Roman villa that is a 14 foot square representation of the story of Aeneas and Dido in five panels. It’s the earliest narrative art ever found in England.

The Museum of Somerset’s YouTube channel has a great introductory video about the Low Ham mosaic’s discovery and removal:

Here’s a neat time-lapse of the excavation of the Frome Hoard:

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Germany returns skull from genocide to Namibia

October 1st, 2011

In 1904, the Nama and Herero tribes of what was then the colony of German South West Africa revolted against their imperial oppressors. Herero killed between 123 and 150 German soldiers in a surprise attack in January. Governor Theodor Leutwein requested reinforcements which arrived in May under the command of Lieutenant-General Lothar von Trotha. Trotha was not interested in surrender or negotiation. His experience of slaughtering other African tribes circularly confirmed that the only way to deal with this set of African tribes was by slaughtering them too.

After General Trotha defeated 5,000 Herero soldiers at the Battle of Waterberg in August of 1904, he ordered his troops to chase the fleeing tribespeople into the Kalahari Desert (called the Omaheke by the Herero) and kill them all, combatant or civilian, armed or unarmed, men, women and children. What rifle and bayonet did not accomplish, the desert would.

On October 2, Trotha read a proclamation to his officers:

I, the great general of the German soldiers, send this letter to the Hereros. The Hereros are German subjects no longer. They have killed, stolen, cut off the ears and other parts of the body of wounded soldiers, and now are too cowardly to want to fight any longer. [...] The Herero nation must now leave the country. If it refuses, I shall compel it to do so with the Groot Rohr [literally "long tube" meaning cannon]. Any Herero found inside the German frontier, with or without a gun or cattle, will be executed. I shall spare neither women nor children. I shall give the order to drive them away and fire on them. Such are my words to the Herero people.
The great General of the mighty German Kaiser.

The German command was aware of and approved the plan, describing it in Der Kampf, the official newsletter of the general staff, as a “bold enterprise [that] shows in the most brilliant light the ruthless energy of the German command in pursuing their beaten enemy. No pains, no sacrifices were spared in eliminating the last remnants of enemy resistance. Like a wounded beast the enemy was tracked down from one water-hole to the next, until finally he became the victim of his own environment. The arid Omaheke was to complete what the German army had begun: the extermination of the Herero nation.”

It worked. Between 1904 and 1907, the Herero population plummeted from 80,000 to 15,000. Half of the Nama (about 10,000 people) were killed during the uprising, many of the rest imprisoned. According to a 1985 United Nations report, the Namibian genocide bears the dubious distinction of being the first genocide of the 20th century and the first organized state-run genocide ever.

Although by the end of 1904 the official policy towards the Herero changed from kill-on-sight to capture and imprisonment in concentration camps, the mortality rate in the camps was astronomical. As in later German camps, prisoners were systematically raped, starved, beaten, shot, hanged, worked to death, and subject to medical experimentation including deliberate infection with smallpox and typhus.

Eugen Fischer, the scientist who performed these experiments, also used prisoners to pursue his racial theories, studying them when they were alive and decapitating them once they were dead so their skulls could be sent back to Germany for further study. Contemporary reports describe women prisoners being made to prepare the skulls for shipment, boiling the flesh and stripping it off with glass shards. Fischer would later teach medicine at the University of Berlin where at least one of his students, a certain Josef Mengele, would take his teachings very much to heart.

Those skulls remained in German hospital and university archives for a century until three years ago when a German reporter discovered a number of them at the Berlin Medical History Museum of the Charité Hospital and at Freiburg University. The discovery made international news, spurring the Namibian government to officially request repatriation of any Herero and Nama skulls. Identifying which skulls came from which area was a challenge. Finally 20 skulls from Charité were identified. Eleven of them are Nama and nine Herero, four of them from women, 15 from men and one from a boy.

On Friday, the 20 skulls were returned to a delegation of 55 Namibian Herero and Nama dignitaries in a formal ceremony at the Charité Hospital. This is probably just the first of many such ceremonies to follow. There are thousands of skulls from the colonial period and other times in German collections still to go through.

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