There’s gold in them thar Thracian tombs

November 10th, 2012

Thracian gold busts of womenArchaeologists excavating a tomb in a Thracian burial complex about 250 miles northeast of Sofia, Bulgaria have unearthed a collection of beautifully worked gold artifacts. The pieces date to the end of the 4th or the beginning of the 3rd century B.C. and include four bracelets decorated with snake heads, a tiara or necklace decorated with lions and fantasy animals, 44 small gold busts of women which could have been horse trappings or clothing accessories, 100 gold buttons, a large gold ring or brooch with a female face in high relief and an incredibly life-like miniature golden horse head that once decorated the end of a bit.

Thracian gold horse headThe high quality of workmanship indicates that these were adornments of the elite, and indeed the tomb in which this treasure was discovered is the largest out of the 150 tombs in the complex near the village of Sveshtari. The complex was built by the Getae people, a Thracian tribe of warrior horsemen who inhabited the Lower Danube region in areas now part of Romania and Bulgaria. They initially used their famed cavalry skills in the service of other Thracian kingdoms, but by the late 4th century had splintered into principalities of their own.

Thracian gold ring or broochThe Getic kings had access to the gold deposits at the mouth of the Danube, one of the largest sources of gold in ancient Europe. As early as the 7th century B.C., the Getae traded with the Greek colonies on the western shores of the Black Sea, and later with the Macedonians to the southwest of them and the Scythians north of the Danube. The style of the gold work discovered in the tomb reflects this variety of cultural influences from the peak of Getic rule in the area.

Thracian gold tiara or necklaceDiana Gergova, head of the excavation team, thinks the size of the tomb and the richness of its contents suggest a connection to one of the earliest Getic princes.

“From what we see up to now, the tomb may be linked with the first known Getic ruler Cothelas,” said Gergova, a renowned researcher of Thracian culture with the Sofia-based National Archaeology Institute.

Thracian gold horse head, side viewCothelas is known for having struck a treaty with King Philip II of Macedon in 341 B.C. while the latter was fighting the Balkan peoples to the west of Thrace. He became Philip’s vassal and sealed the deal by marrying his daughter Meda to the Macedonian king. She was his fifth wife, coming six years after his marriage to his fourth wife, Olympias, mother of Alexander the Great. When Philip died in 336 B.C., Meda committed ritual suicide to accompany him to the afterlife, a gesture that was not Greek or Macedonian practice and thus secured her a place in Philip’s tomb at Vergina.

According to ancient sources like Strabo’s Geography, Book VII, Chapter 3, the Getae worshiped their rulers, which might explain why Meda killed herself when her king and consort died. The military and political king would take on as co-ruler a religious leader with divination abilities who would then give his divine imprimatur to the king’s decisions.

Thracian gold braceletsThe find is also remarkable in its survival in context. Thracian gold has been a consistent lure for looters from its time of burial to the present. Most of the tombs in the Sveshtari complex were looted in antiquity, and Bulgaria’s cultural patrimony has been devastated by a massive increase in looting since the fall of the Iron Curtain in 1989. The Getae tried to keep their tombs safe from robbers by building vast networks of underground burials with no decoration or construction whatsoever above ground. This tomb appears to have been hidden with particular thoroughness.

Caryatids and relief from Thracian tomb of SveshtariAnother tomb from the Sveshtari complex has garnered fame and a place on the UNESCO World Heritage List for its one-of-a-kind decoration: a chorus line of ten caryatids that are half human and half plant. Though clearly inspired by the caryatids who supported some of the most famous temples in the Hellenist tradition, these ladies with their inverted palmette chitons were a new Thracian design and entirely unique.

Dating to the mid-3rd century B.C., the tomb’s archaeological wealth also provides material support for the ancient writers’ claims that the Getae worshiped their kings. Above the caryatids is a relief depicting a goddess presenting the horseback ruler with a gold wreath while processions of servants on either side carry offerings. A mural again shows the ruler on horseback, heading toward a god who is holding out a laurel wreath for him. The skeletal remains of horses inside the tomb indicate the king’s mounts were ritually sacrificed to carry him once again on the other side.

Byron’s copy of Frankenstein sells to UK collector

November 9th, 2012

A first edition of Frankenstein sent to George Gordon, Lord Byron by Percy Bysshe Shelley and signed by Mary Shelley “To Lord Byron from the author” has sold to a private collector for an undisclosed sum. The good news is that the collector, who prefers to remain anonymous, will allow the book to go on public display in the UK. No exhibits have been organized as of yet, but I’ll keep you posted.

Here’s a little something special about the find to tide you over as you wait. Peter Harrington, the rare book shop which sold the volume, had a private preview on September 25th which included a presentation about the writing of Frankenstein, Mary Shelley’s relationship with Lord Byron and the discovery of this signed copy. As I so often yearn for and so rarely find, they had the foresight and kindness to film the event and post a video of its highlights.

It starts with a brief introduction by Adam Douglas, Peter Harrington’s specialist in early books. This discovery is clearly the highlight of his career. “I’ve been a book seller for nearly 25 years now and I’ve been privileged to handle a number of exciting books, but I can honestly say that this copy of Frankenstein is the single most thrilling item that’s ever passed across my desk.” It didn’t occur to him or anyone else that this copy, which was known from a letter Percy Shelley wrote to Byron from Milan on April 30th, 1818, might have survived and be squirreled away in the library of a former Labour minister.

Enter the floppy-haired youth, Sammy Jay. In November 2011, Sammy was one of a phalanx of unemployed Oxford graduates with an English degree loitering around with nothing but time on his hands. His step-grandmother Mary, the second wife of his late grandfather Douglas Jay, generously put him to work sorting through his grandfather’s papers for the archives of Oxford University’s Bodleian Library. Among other roles, Douglas Jay was President of the Board of Trade (a committee of the Privy Council which is now part of the Department of Trade and Industry headed by a Secretary rather than a President) for three years (1964-67) under the Harold Wilson government. His papers would therefore be of interest to current and future historians of the period and were going to be kept in a proper archive at his alma mater.

Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne holds up his red ministerial box outside 11 Downing StreetSammy says he almost missed the “little volume lying at an angle in a corner on the top shelf.” Thankfully he didn’t, and when he opened the thin leather-bound book missing its spine, he saw the inscription. He and Mary Jay stared at it jaws agape, then realized they had to get it to the Bodleian stat. Justifiably paranoid that they were holding an incredible literary and historical treasure, they carried it through the streets of Oxford to the Bodleian vaults in the only secure briefcase they had: Douglas Jay’s ministerial red box.

Detail of inscription "To Lord Byron from Author"Once it arrived at the library unmolested, the Bodleian’s Keeper of Special Collections and Western Manuscripts Richard Ovenden verified that the dedication was in Mary Shelley’s distinctive hand. The multiple loops on the capital letter “t” in “To” are famously characteristic of Mary Shelley’s handwriting. Less than a year later, the discovery was announced to the public and the book put on sale at Peter Harrington.

Miranda Seymour, a past visiting professor at Nottingham Trent University and biographer of Mary Shelley’s, introduced a fascinating glimpse into the relationship between Mary Shelley and Lord Byron. I don’t mean “relationship” in the sense of sexual relationship, although certainly at the time many, many people thought there was some form of threesome going on, whether it was Byron, Mary and her stepsister Claire Claremont, or Byron, Mary and Shelley. In fact, when the four of them (plus Doctor John Polidori) spent that famous summer of 1816 on the south shores of Lake Geneva at Villa Diodati, the English colony in Geneva on the north shores of the lake spent their time spying on the party through the new telescope at the hotel and tittering about the goings-on.

Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, by Richard RothwellAlmost a decade later, that gossip still held enough sway that it informed the private journal entry Mary Shelley wrote after she heard that Lord Byron had died in 1824. Shelley had been a widow for two years by then, and Byron had been of great help to her after Shelley’s tragic drowning off the coast of Liguria, sending her money and giving her work as a transcriber. Upon hearing the news that Byron had died of a fever (probably sepsis brought on by bleeding with non-sterile instruments) in Missolonghi, Greece while fighting for Greek independence, she wrote:

This then was the coming event that cast its shadow over my last night’s miserable thoughts. Byron too has become one of the people of the grave, that miserable conclave to which the beings I love best belong. I knew him in the bright days of youth, when neither care nor fear had visited me, before death had made me feel my mortality and when the earth was the scene of all my hopes. Can I ever forget our evening visits to Diodati, our excursions on the lake when he sang the Tyrolese hymn to freedom and his voice was harmonized with the winds and the waves? Can I forget his attentions and consolations to me during my deepest misery? Never. Beauty sat on his countenance, and power beamed from his eye. His faults being for the most part weakness induced one readily to pardon them. Albe, the dear, capricious, fascinating Albe has left this desert world. God grant I too may die young and that region now ads that resplendent spirit whom I loved.

(Albe was Mary’s nickname for Byron, a play on his initials LB and an anagram of Elba, the island to which Napoleon was exiled in 1814. Napoleon was a hero of Byron’s, which in Regency England you can imagine only added to the scandalousness of the man, and in fact the carriage that had brought him and his entourage to Diodati in 1816 was an exact replica of Napoleon’s coach.)

Lord Byron by Thomas Philipps, 1814Even though she wrote this in her private journal, conscious of the likelihood that someday this material might be published as correspondence and diaries of famous people so often were, she crossed out “whom I loved” at the end of the passage and replaced it with “whose departure leaves the dull earth dark as midnight.”

Byron thought highly of her as well, which is notable because he tended to treat the women in his life pretty damn badly. He respected her intellect and her calm under pressure. She was just 18 when she left England with the married Shelley. It was a huge scandal. In addition to having to deal with the disapproval of her family and the general pearl-clutching and monocle-popping of English society, Mary had to navigate Shelley’s free love philosophy which included having sex with her sister. It was a complicated relationship and Byron admired how coolly she handled herself.

That regard he held her in is underscored by the survival of Byron’s copy of Frankenstein. He didn’t carry everything he owned to Greece with him. Many books and other possessions were shed in various places on the way and were dispersed locally. Yet, Frankenstein was in the shipment of five boxes of books sent to John Murray, publisher and executor of Byron’s estate, from Greece after Byron’s death. It was one of the select group of books he wanted to keep by his side.

Long lost Dalí theatrical backdrop returns to stage

November 8th, 2012

Surrealist master Salvador Dalí was a jack of many trades. He produced prodigious numbers of paintings, prints, and sculptures and collaborated with artists as diverse as fashion designer Elsa Schiaparelli (go lobster dress!) and film director Alfred Hitchcock (Dalí designed the dream sequence in Spellbound). In 1927 he designed the sets for Spanish poet Federico García Lorca’s play Mariana Pineda. It would be 12 years before he followed up on his foray into theatrical design, and this time it would be a ballet of his own conception.

Léonide Massine publicity photo, 1949Léonide Massine was the principal choreographer of Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes and its principal male dancer after Nijinsky left in 1919. In the wake of Diaghilev’s death in 1929, the Ballets Russes disbanded. Impresarios, dancers and choreographers formed a number of spin-off companies in the ensuing years. Massine danced and choreographed for one of them (the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, later renamed the Original Ballet Russe), then co-founded a spin-off of the spin-off (also named the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, hence the former company’s name change).

Léonide Massine and Moira Shearer in The Red ShoesWhen Europe and most of the rest of the world plunged into war, the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo toured the US and continued to do so throughout World War II. The company brought the rigor and beauty of Russian ballet to small towns all over the country that had never seen it before, leaving an indelible mark in the cultural landscape. You might recognize Léonide Massine as the choreographer and dance teacher Grischa Ljubov who plays the Shoemaker in the ballet-within-a-ballet-movie of the 1948 classic The Red Shoes.

Salvador Dalí and his wife Gala fled France and settled in New York City in the summer of 1940, but he had already spent much of the year before there. His Dream of Venus exhibit at the 1939 World’s Fair in Flushing Meadows had caused something of a sensation with its sleeping nude Venus in a grotto and models swimming topless in an aquarium wearing long-sleeved bathing suits with the chest cut out, lobster girdles and rubber fish tails. The Internet Archive has an awesome video of the exhibit in full color (the Dalí portion starts 51 seconds in).

Salvador Dalí designing Bacchanale setsThat year, 1939, is also when Dalí and Massine first came together to work on a ballet written and designed by the Surrealist. Bacchanale was a ballet in one act using the Venusberg Bacchanale from the first act of Richard Wagner’s Tannhäuser as the score. Choreographed by Léonide Massine and danced by the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, Bacchanale was a spectacle depicting the dreams of mad King Ludwig II of Bavaria in which stories from Greek mythology, most prominently Leda and the Swan, mingled with historical figures like famed courtesan Lola Montez. Dalí wrote the libretto and designed the sets and costumes. It premiered on November 9, 1939 at the Metropolitan Opera House.

Bacchanale swan backdrop, reproductionOf course it was scandalous. The sight of dancer Nini Theilade dressed neck to toe in a nude bodysuit emerging onto the stage from the gaping hole in the chest of a gigantic bleeding swan was a particularly memorable scene. The swan was painted on a theatrical backdrop in oils, and it still survives today. I can’t find a single good picture of it which doesn’t crop out its charming perimeter of cubbyholes with skeletons and bones stuffed in them, but there are two great angled shots here and here from when it was on display in Germany a couple of years ago as part of the Against All Reason, Surrealism Paris – Prague exhibit.

Program cover for Labyrinth, 1941Dalí’s next collaboration with Massine was a high-minded conceptual piece under the guise of a mythological theme. Set to Franz Schubert’s Great C Major Symphony, Labyrinth told the story of Theseus’ battle with the Minotaur in the labyrinth and his escape by following the ball of yarn given to him by his lover Ariadne. According to the program notes, the thread symbolizes the tradition of classicism which all romanticism seeks to find. To explore this theme properly, Dalí wanted to use a real cow’s head in the scene where Theseus defeats the Minotaur, which the dancers would cut chunks off of and eat raw on stage. It didn’t happen, much to everyone but Dalí’s relief, I’m sure.

Labyrinth debuted at the Metropolitan Opera House on October 8th, 1941 to lukewarm reviews. The general consensus was that the sets overwhelmed the dance instead of complementing it. Massine had found it difficult to choreograph the Schubert piece, and he was kind of over the dancing being just a pretext for Dalí’s latest artistic installation. The Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo still included Labyrinth along with Bacchanale on their 1941-1942 tour, though.

Labyrinth backdrop unrolled at Carnegie Art MuseumMassine kept one of Dalí’s backdrops from that tour, the one where Theseus struggles mightily with the Minotaur. Years later in the mid-1970s, he found it while cleaning his house and offered it to Nicolas Petrov, a Yugoslavian choreographer and former protégé of Massine’s who had founded the Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre. Petrov had PBT patron Leon Falk Jr. buy the curtain for the company. It was kept at the PBT for a while, then Falk gifted the backdrop to the Carnegie Museum of Art with the understanding that the Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre could use it at will.

The museum has kept it in storage since they got it in October of 1976, unfurling it once in 2009 to document its condition, but although there was discussion at the time about how to display it for the public to enjoy, nothing came of it, possibly because its massive dimensions (26 1/2 feet high by 49 1/2 feet wide) make it 10 feet higher than the museum’s tallest gallery.

Theseus and the Minotaur is not currently on view at the museum, nor does it seem likely that its immense dynamism and dramatic impact will ever be allowed to grace the stage again, which is why it’s particularly awesome that another huge and dramatic backdrop from the Dalí-Massine oeuvre will tread the boards once more.

The Angelus by Jean-Francois Millet, 1859This one is from their third and final collaboration, a 1944 ballet called Mad Tristan, inspired by Richard Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde and set to music from the opera. In Dalí’s vision of the chivalric tale, Tristan is so maddened by love for Isolde that he sees her as the praying mantis devouring her mate. This mantis theme is something he had fiddled with before as part of his obsession with a pastoral painting by Jean-François Millet called The Angelus which Dalí saw as a depiction of mourning (he was convinced the couple are praying over the coffin of their dead child rather than a basket of potatoes) and of voracious sexuality.

In the Surrealist magazine Minotaure, Dalí had published an article entitled “Paranoiac-Critical Interpretation of the Obsessive Image of The Angelus by Millet” which he subtitled: “A Chance Encounter of an Umbrella and a Sewing Machine on a Dissecting Table.” From the 1933 article:

The umbrella… as a result of its flagrant and well-known phenomenon of erection, would be none other than the masculine figure in the Angelus which in the picture, as the reader will do me the favor of remembering, is trying to hide his state of erection — and thereby merely succeeding in drawing attention to it — by the shameful and compromising position of his own hat. Opposite him, the sewing machine … goes so far as to invoke the mortal and cannibal virtue of her sewing needle, the activity of which may be identified with that super fine perforation of the praying mantis “emptying” her male.

Atavism at Twilight by Salvador Dali, 1933-1934That same year he made Atavism at Twilight, now in the Kuntsmuseum in Bern, Switzerland, one of several paintings inspired by this view of Millet’s work. Notice the red wheelbarrow sticking out of the skull-headed man’s back and the red pitchfork sticking out of the praying mantis lady’s back. When designing the backdrop for the final climactic scene of Mad Tristan, Dalí employed that same imagery and then some, creating a large scale Surreal vision of the wounded and bleeding Tristan wearing a dandelion beret while ants walk all over a crack in his shoulder. Across from him is Isolde, reaching towards him with both hands. A wheelbarrow grows out of her back and two red crutches frame the scene on either side. The backdrop is 30 feet high and 50 feet wide.

Massine had left the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo due to conflicts with its manager and was by then working with Ballet International, a company founded by Chilean impresario and great eccentric Marquis George de Cuevas. Mad Tristan premiered at the International Theatre in New York City on December 15th, 1944.

Somehow, the backdrop from the final scene made its way to the Metropolitan Opera where it was found in prop storage in 2009. It was sold to an anonymous art collection in Switzerland for an undisclosed sum. There it was restored and there it has remained until now, but instead of falling down the collection rabbit hole, this great piece which has not been seen in public since 1944 is going to get a whole new life in a context that Dalí would surely have appreciated. It’s going to be a backdrop again for an acrobatic circus troupe.

Daniele Finzi Pasca in front of the Tristan backdrop

The collectors contacted Daniele Finzi Pasca of the Company Finzi Pasca, who has directed shows for Cirque du Soleil and the closing ceremonies of the 2006 Winter Olympics in Turin, asking him if he could think of a cool way to use the backdrop.

“The foundation decided not to put it in a museum,” Finzi Pasca said in an interview. “They preferred to come back with this backdrop to the theatre. We accepted the challenge and the invitation because it was exactly an element that can help us tell the story that we had in mind.”

The show, which had begun taking shape as an exploration of dreams and ideas, soon coalesced around the Dali.

“Working with the surrealism gives the opportunity to explore these ideas, to create strange images,” Finzi Pasca said of the show, which will include the company’s trademark acrobatics as well as theatre. “It’s a show that’s funny and also moving and touching.”

The new show, La Verita, will debut at Montreal’s Théâtre Maisonneuve on January 17th, 2013. After that, it will tour South America and Europe. There are no tour dates scheduled in the United States as of yet.

An Enigma machine worth coveting

November 7th, 2012

I was just talking about German Enigma encoding machines in the entry about the carrier pigeon, and now I stumble on an exceptionally beautiful one going up for auction at the Bonhams Scientific Instruments sale on November 14th. Sadly, I’m just short the estimated sale price of $64,000-$96,000, but I haven’t gone through my couch cushions yet so fingers crossed.

The Enigma enciphering machine was invented in 1918 by German engineer Arthur Scherbius. It’s an electrical Morse code-producing device that used a keyboard, lamps and a set of rotors to scramble text, then send it out to a receiving machine whose rotors were set in the exact same way as the originating machine’s. Enigma first went into production in the early 1920s and was used for civilian applications such as the protection of corporate trade secrets and private communications. The German Navy began to use it in 1926, but it was the German Army who in 1928 created a version distinctly different from the commercial machine. They added a plugboard which swapped pairs of letters and vastly increased the encipherment permutations.

Marian RejewskiPresciently aware of the increasing likelihood of war when the Nazis became the majority party in German parliament in 1932, the Polish Cipher Bureau set to work on breaking Enigma. French Military Intelligence provided them with some important information that they had received from a German spy, most notably two sheets of Enigma daily key settings which laid out the calibration to decrypt messages for the day: the wheel order, rotor position, how the plugs should be connected to the plugboard, etc. Mathematician Marian Rejewski was then able to figure out how the military version of the Enigma encoder scrambled text. With this understanding of the logic of the mechanism, the Bureau was able to create replicas of Enigma machines that they could then use to intercept and decode German messages using daily keys which in early days came from spies and later were sorted out by permutation catalogs.

Germany kept adding layers of difficulty to the machines, and even though the Polish Cipher Bureau was incredibly successful in fighting back against each change, by late 1938 all the additional work of deciphering required to crack the code cost more than the Bureau had to spend. As war loomed ever closer in 1939, Poland decided to share their intelligence on the care and feeding of Enigma with France and Britain. In July of 1939, cryptologists from all three countries met outside of Warsaw and the Polish Cipher Bureau let the Allied experts in on everything they knew about breaking Enigma.

Gustave Bertrand, head of the cipher department of French Intelligence, was at the conference. With him was British Secret Agent Biffy Dunderdale whose mission, which he chose to accept, was to smuggle two Polish Engima replicas out of the country and to safety. He was successful, getting the machines first to Paris and then to London where the Bletchley Park codebreakers could now, just five weeks before the outbreak of war, pick up where the Polish Cipher Bureau had left off, which was as huge a morale boost as it was an information boost.

Codebreaking machine Colossus at Bletchley ParkEven though Germany added more rotors, more plugs, reflectors and other elements of difficulty as the war progressed, making decryption a consistently huge challenge, by 1945 the Allies were able to break Enigma codes in less than 24 hours. The Germans continued to use Enigma, not realizing that their coded messages were now crackable, or rather, not believing that the Allies would go to the immense trouble of, say, inventing Colossus computers that could calculate the daily key settings from trillions of possible combinations no matter how many rotors, plugs and variables Germany added.

Approximately 100,000 Engima machines were produced in Germany during the war. They were captured during Allied campaigns and occasionally taken as under-the-table souvenirs by troops. There are Enigma machines in museums and private collections around the world. The breaking of Enigma at Bletchley Park remained a government secret in Britain until 1974, after which the nerdy drama appeal of the story piqued interest in the machines. Nowadays when they come up for auction they’re expensive and highly desirable to collectors. Most of them have reproduction parts, though, or bits that were taken from one disabled machine to make another machine complete.

Keyboard of the 1941 Enigma machine for saleThe three-rotor 1941 model going on the auction block next week is entirely original and entirely intact. It is still in working condition with its original operating instructions affixed to the inside lid. There’s even a spare bulb rack complete with original bulbs, not to mention that it’s a damn good-looking piece of machinery with its striking white-on-black keyboard, ebonite-mounted plugboard and oak case with the remains of the factory wax seal and writing still visible on the lid.

Peru’s “Sistine Chapel” restored to former splendor

November 6th, 2012

Facade of San Pedro Apóstol de AndahuaylillasThe church San Pedro Apóstol was built by Jesuits between 1570 and 1606 over an Inca huaca (sacred space) in the small Andean town of Andahuaylillas 25 miles west of Cuzco. The Jesuits had arrived in Peru just two years earlier, in 1568, and promptly set about building churches and schools in the remote towns and villages which the Dominicans who arrived with Pizarro in 1532 had not reached. San Pedro Apóstol’s architecture is simple: one nave, one apse, a bell tower, in whitewashed adobe and brick construction with a modest mural on the second story balcony of the facade. On the inside, however, is an explosion of colors, saints, allegories, gold leaf, geometric and floral designs which has rightfully earned it the nickname “the Sistine Chapel of the Andes.” There’s hardly an unpainted spot to be found from baseboard to ceiling.

Interior of San Pedro ApóstolAlthough Jesuits oversaw the decoration of the church, over the decades they enlisted teams of highly skilled indigenous artists and some famous names like Diego Quispe Tito, scion of a noble Inca family and leader of the Cuzco School of painting, and the Lima-born, Italian-taught Spanish painter Luis de Reaño who in 1629 created murals at the entrance depicting the roads to Heaven and Hell in Mannerist style. Canvases of scenes from the life of St. Peter are set in massive gold frames along the walls.

Ceiling detail of San Pedro ApóstolAmidst the traditional Christian figures of saints, the walls and ceilings of the church are filled with Andean flowers, fruits and geometric patterns. The coffered ceiling of the vestry was not made out of wood, but through a pre-Columbian technique called kur-kur that combines cane, straw, and mud to create a surface that looks like wooden beams in some angles and like undulating fabric in others. The kur-kur ceiling was then painted in the polychrome Mudéjar style, an Iberian style heavily influenced by Islamic art in use in Spain between the 12th and 16th centuries. The indigenous artists altered it to include far more florals along with the Moorish rhombuses, squares and large central octagonal star in keeping with the local aesthetic. Gold leaf accent pieces are scattered throughout.

Elements of traditional religion are also included in the decor, a syncretism that played an evangelical role since it smoothed over the rough edges of conversion from the Inca deities to the Christian ones. For example, in the Annunciation painted above the choir the Holy Spirit is represented not by a dove, but by a hole in the wall. The sun shining through the hole brings the Inca sun god Inti into the church even as it symbolizes the third divine person of the Trinity.

The sun also tops the massive Baroque altarpiece, carved out of cedar then covered with gold leaf, silver leaf and Venetian mirrors. A solar disc with a painting of the lamb of Christ in the middle and 19 gold rays shining out from it rules over all the painted and carved saints and the carved Assumption of Mary.

Door of the five languagesThe imagery isn’t the only mechanism of conversion. Above the font in the baptistery is the “puerta de las cinco lenguas” (door of the five languages), which is inscribed with phrase, “I baptize you in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.” translated into five languages: Latin, Spanish, Quechua, Aymara and Puquina. The last of these is extinct today, which makes the inscription even more historically significant.

Conservator at work in 2009The many beauties of San Pedro Apóstol de Andahuaylillas were in serious danger from earthquake damage, previous restorations that had replaced some of the adobe and caused structural problems, roof leaks, insect infestation and bat poop. In 2008, the World Monuments Fund stepped into the breach, planning and funding a three-year conservation plan to restore the walls, roof, ceiling and paintings. It was a big job, and the restorers took no short cuts.

A large part of the project focused on stabilizing the murals, all of which are executed in tempera, with conservators opting to use organic materials such as liquids extracted from cacti over man-made chemicals. Many murals had been repainted and conservators had to strip back multiple layers of paint to reach the original composition. For example, the “Road to Hell” mural "Road to Hell" mural by Luis de Reañohad four layers that needed to be removed. Instead of trying to recreate lost murals, conservators chose to paint these areas in a light colour. A 17th-century ceramic pot containing ochre pigment and a wooden brush was discovered during the project, shedding further light on the materials used by the artists.

When it came to the decorative ceiling made from mud and straw—traditional construction materials in the region—conservators were faced with removing one metric tonne of bat droppings in the space between the roof and the ceiling. Structural issues such as the replacement of adobe were also addressed, and all of the church’s sculptures, as well as its altars, received treatment.

As of October 31st, the conservation of the church is complete. Thinking ahead, the WMF also created a youth heritage program to involve the community’s young people in the process, teaching them valuable skills while motivating them to protect their town’s cultural heritage in the future.

Separate from the WMF project, the two organs in the church were also restored. The Gospel Organ (also known as the Saint Cecilia organ) and the Epistle Organ (also known as the King David organ) were installed between 1606 and 1610 and later decorated by Luis de Reaño. In desperately poor condition after centuries of exposure to moisture, they were both restored by the French organ builder Jean François Dupont in 2007 and 2008 and are now back in full fettle. Here they are being played by Norberto Broggini in videos which happily include some great shots of the glorious ceiling and walls.

Memorial to Scottish witchcraft trial victims unveiled

November 5th, 2012

Over the course of five trials in 1662, a court convened in the peaceful hamlet of Crook of Devon, County of Perth in central Scotland tried 13 people for witchcraft. Out of that number, ten women and one man were condemned and executed. The convicted witches were brought to a grassy knoll in a field called Lamblaires near today’s Village Hall, strangled by the hangman and then burnt at the stake. There has been no memorial to the deceased in the village, although this sad chapter in history is well known as a particularly ugly example of the trend of witch burnings that year in Scotland.

Unveiling of the pentagon pillar, October 25, 2012Lord Moncrieff, owner of the 17th century Tullibole Castle a mile east of Crook of Devon, has rectified that shameful oversight 350 years after the trials. Starting in 2003, he created a circular maze 100 feet in diameter made out of 2000 beech trees. At its center is the pentagon pillar, a five-sided column with the names of the trials’ victims and the dates of their condemnation inscribed on each side. The completed maze and memorial were unveiled on October 25th.

It’s particularly fitting that Tullibole Castle should dedicate a space to the persecuted, since in 1662 it was the home of William Halliday, the laird of Tullibole who, along with his son, his baillie, the ministers of four area parishes and other prominent locals appointed themselves a tribunal to dig up evidence of guilt. They spent months questioning witnesses and torturing the accused into confessions that would incriminate new people who would then be “investigated,” their guilt never in question.

Tullibole CastleThese extorted confessions and ludicrous witness statements were then presented as the sole evidence against the accused at the official trials. Presided over by His Majesty’s Justice-General Depute Alexander Colville and adjudicated by a jury of 15 local men of reputation and means, these courts pretty much rubber-stamped the charges scared up by the local tribunal and pronounced sentence or doom (literally; doom was a synonym for judgement) upon the guilty. The minutes of these assizes have survived. You can read them collected in the Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland from 1887-1888.

Except for the testimony of the one convicted warlock, Robert Wilson, all of the extracted confessions describe sexual intercourse with Satan, who apparently was an ardent lover with a penchant for disguises. The interrogators were particularly interested in the appearance of the Devil, his fashion choices, his body temperature, and of course, in his sex life. Plans for each side of the pentagon pillar with names of all the victimsHere’s an example from the confession of Agnes Murie presented at the first trial, held on April 3rd, 1662, of Agnes Murie, Bessie Henderson and Isabella Rutherford.

Lykeas for clearing of your said sorcerie and witchcraft that ye, being coming from the Crook Mill, about Martinmas last, 1661, Sathan did appear to you at the back of Tullibole yards, being on Monday, and said to you “will you be my servant and I will give you als much silver as will buy you as many corn as will serve you before Lammas,” whilk you granted. Likeways he desired you to renounce and forsake your baptism, whilk ye did, and he gave to you a new name calling you Rossina, whilk ye yourself did freely confess, and likeways at the same tune Sathan had the use of your body at the foot of the round knowe at the back of the yards of Tulliebole, and knew not whether his body was hot or cold, whilk ye did also freely confess.

Just in case that wasn’t lurid enough, the interrogators took it to an even creepier place when Agnes, who had named some names of her supposed covenmates and promised to reveal more, was later reticent to do so.

[Y]e freely confessed and promised to confess and delate some others. This ye did before Mr Alexander Ireland, minister, and Mr Robert Alexander, bailie, and thereafter being interrogated be the said minister what was the reason that hindered you to do the same presently, ye desired the said Mr Robert Alexander to lay his hand upon your breast to find how the lump troubled you and to put his hand behind your back and he would find als much trouble you there.

Yes I’m sure she desired her inquisitor to feel her up. No doubt that’s exactly how it went down.

Satan appeared to Isabel Rutherford in a jaunty outfit, complete with Scotch blue bonnet.

Likeways ye confesst that ye renounced your baptism, and immediately thereafter Sathan gave you an mark; and declared that Sathan was in likeness of a man with grey cloathes and ane blue bannet, having ane beard; as also ye confesst that when ye got the mark it was painful two or three days.

When she saw Satan again two or three weeks later, he was still “in the likeness of a man with ane blue bonnet and grey clothes.” His hand was cold and the rest of him was as well.

Likeways ye did confess that Sathan had carnal dealing with you at the east side of John Livingstone’s yard, and confesst that his body was cold and his seed likewise.

Shakespeare's three Scottish witches, print ca. 1600It goes on and on like that, coerced hallucinatory self-incrimination after coerced hallucinatory self-incrimination interspersed with some testimony about sick ewes and oxen. These statements were read in the court, then the judge gave sentence and the dempster, a court officer whose position was often hereditary, gave doom, i.e., pronounced the sentence of the court.

For the whilk causes the above named Justice General Depute gives sentence and ordains, that the said Agnes Murie, Bessie Henderson, and Isabel Rutherford, sail be all three taken away to the place called the Lamlaires bewest the Cruick Miln the place of their execution to-morrow, being the fourth day of this instant month of April, betwixt one and two in the afternoon, and there to be stranglit to the death by the hand of the hangman, and thereafter their bodies to be burnt to ashes for their trespass, and ordains all their moveable goods and gear to be escheit and inbrought to his Majesty’s use for the causes foresaids. Whereupon William Donaldson dempster gave doom.

It was just happenstance that kept all 13 from meeting death at the public hangman’s hands. There is no record of Margaret Hoggin being sentenced or executed, but she is listed as deceased by the next trial two months later. Perhaps she was given a reprieve due to her advanced age of 79 and then died of natural causes/stress, or perhaps she died during imprisonment. Only Agnes Pittendreich survived the ordeal, and that was solely because she was pregnant at the time of the trial, not because she was exonerated. Justice-General Depute Colville ordained that she should be “put to liberty for the present, and that she should answer whenever she was called upon, within fifteen days under pain of death.” For whatever reason, she was never again called upon.

This was for her a fortunate turn of events, seeing how one of the other victims, Christian Grieve, was acquitted in the trial of July 21st, 1662, only to be subjected to a second trial on October 8th. Even though she had the exact same kind of tortured confession and witness evidence against her as was presented against everyone else, and even though no new charges or new evidence were presented, the first time she was acquitted while the second time she was convicted. Five days later she was strangled and burned.

Witches MazeLord Moncrieff sees the Witches Maze and pentagon pillar as a memorial to the innocents railroaded by a sham judicial system, but also as an indictment of the superstitions that underpinned and fed the trials. He doesn’t want this memorial to become a locus of neo-pagan or Wiccan beliefs as some of the other memorials to burned witches have. From this 2009 interview with The Scotsman:

“Instead of being a simple memorial I want it to work on several levels. The witches’ pillar will be protected by five stones, to symbolize the five trials, which are decorated with what I call ‘good’ words. These are words such as logic, justice, tolerance, truth and love, which were missing from Scottish society at the time of the trials.”

Mirroring this, the maze also features a series of dead ends, which will be marked with negative words such as superstition, hypocrisy, prejudice and ignorance.

Moncrieff said, “If you don’t use logic inside the maze you will come to a dead end.”

For a factual overview about the persecution of witches in Scotland, see this introduction to the subject from The Survey of Scottish Witchcraft, an admirably ambitious project to create a database of all the people accused of witchcraft in Scotland between the passage of the anti-witchcraft act in 1563 and its repeal in 1736.

Cat sanctuary in Roman ruins threatened with eviction

November 4th, 2012

Cat at Largo di Torre ArgentinaRome is a city replete with cats. An estimated 250,000 cats live all over the city but seem to have a particular affinity for antiquity, living alone or in semi-feral colonies everywhere from the pyramid of Gaius Cestius to the Imperial Forum to the Colosseum. Cats draped over ancient ruins make picturesque subject matter for artists and tourists today just as cats going about their business did for Roman artists 2000 years ago.

Though they appear charmingly relaxed and rakish in pictures, Roman cats just like any other stray cats suffer from illness, malnourishment, abuse and the many dangers of living in high traffic areas. Some of them are feral; many of them are abandoned. (It has sadly long been common in Italy for people to just dump their pets when they take off for summer vacation.) Traditionally Roman cats have relied on the kindness of strangers and of women known as “gattare” (crazy cat ladies, basically) who fed and cared for thousands of cats around the city as best they could. Even the most committed volunteers, like actress Franca Stoppi who, following in the footsteps of the great Italian actress Anna Magnani, tended to the cats at the Largo di Torre Argentina, couldn’t possibly see to all of their needs.

Cats at Largo di Torre ArgentinaHer dedication to feeding, spaying or neutering and providing medical care for the dozens of cats who lived in the ruins of Pompey’s theater and other older Republican structures excavated in 1929, now a sunken central courtyard in the middle of a major thoroughfare of downtown traffic, took a huge toll on her finances and health. Silvia Viviani and Lia Dequel began helping Franca Stoppi with the Largo Argentina cats, but they realized even their combined efforts were insufficient to support almost a hundred cats.

In 1993, Viviani and Dequel co-founded the Torre Argentina Roman Cat Sanctuary. They were able to create an ad hoc night shelter out of a cave-like area that had been excavated under the street. They used the cramped, dark, damp space for shelter and food storage for a year and a half. Things began to look up when the Anglo-Italian Society for the Protection of Animals got involved, providing them with material support and the benefit of their years of experience aiding needy animals in Italy. This gave them the push to start asking the many tourists fascinated with the cats for donations. They dressed up in their best clothes so people wouldn’t think they were begging for themselves and it worked.

Cat yawns at sanctuaryWith some money coming in from tourists and from charity events, the sanctuary improved the food and converted the cave into a small but usable shelter. They were also able to start helping other sanctuaries and informal cat supporters around the city. Their spay and neuter program has been remarkably effective, peaking with 4,105 cats sterilized in 2008. Although the decline in donations and visitors as a result of the financial crisis crippled their program, last year they spayed or neutered 3,328 cats. To date, the Torre Argentina sanctuary has funded the sterilization of 28,000 cats, more than 10% of the city’s estimated cat population. Considering their shoestring budget and ornery patients, that’s one hell of an impressive statistic.

They also have a successful but modest adoption program, and for the many cats that don’t have the temperament, good health or conventionally good looks to find a loving, responsible home, they provide a permanent home for them in the sanctuary. A distance adoption program allows people all over the world to “adopt” one of these permanent residents by sending a monthly donation. In return they get pictures and updates about their long distance kitty.

Largo di Torre Argentina cat shelterVolunteers clean the cages and feed and see to the medical needs of the animals starting every morning, seven days a week, at 8:00 AM. Because the space is so small, disease can spread like wildfire. To prevent this from happening, the volunteers are obsessive about cleaning. I don’t mean just wiping stuff down. I mean full-on sterilization of every litter scoop between every use, of every surface daily. Read the volunteer manual (pdf) to see what kind of standards they employ. I can’t even look my cat in the eye after reading that.

There’s just one problem: this whole thing is technically illegal. They’re squatters. The sanctuary was built without a permit and on an ancient monument. Even though it’s been in operation almost 20 years, for some reason this year government officials have cottoned onto it as a political issue and the refuge is now being threatened with eviction. Authorities, who clearly have not read the volunteer manual, say it’s a health hazard and that it compromises ancient remains. They say this as they build a new tram line right over those ancient remains, which might seem to some like a rather glaring hypocrisy.

The question has now been raised in parliament, with Democratic Party senator Vincenzo Vita submitting an interrogatory to the Culture Ministry demanding that the sanctuary be removed as an illegal construction. Meanwhile, the two agencies, one regional and one municipal, that oversee cultural heritage in the capital are engaged in a power play over the sanctuary while the mayor of Rome, Gianni Alemanno, a cat owner himself, wants it to stay where it is.

Cat surveys historical monuments at Largo ArgentinaThen there’s the matter of Julius Caesar’s assassination. I didn’t blog about this story because it made me mad, but last month archaeologists from the Spanish National Research Council loudly announced that they had found the exact spot where dictator-for-life Gaius Julius Caesar was stabbed to death by a cabal of senators on March 15, 44 B.C. We know from a number of ancient sources that he was assassinated at the bottom of the curia of Pompey’s Theater. The SNRC team claims to have found the remains of a concrete structure built by Augustus Caesar, Julius’ nephew and heir, to memorialize the precise spot of the dastardly deed. What made me mad is that even though the story was picked up by news outlets all over the world dazzled by the words “Julius,” “Caesar” and “assassination,” the evidence presented was non-existent, nor had the so-called discovery been confirmed by any other archaeologists. Also, there were no pictures of the concrete structure, just of the general Torre Argentina site, which can easily be had for the Googling.

Still, it put Largo Argentina’s remarkable archaeological history in the spotlight, and it has provided a glamorous reference point for those opposed to the sanctuary. “How can we allow an unhygienic cat sanctuary to squat all over the place where Caesar was killed?!” It’s a large complex with four temples built at various times from the 4th to the 1st century B.C. The fact that the refuge is on the other side of the complex from the curia doesn’t keep opponents for going for the rhetorical flourish.

The Torre Argentina Roman Cat Sanctuary is willing to work with the city to relocate somewhere else in the archaeological area, but since the cats live there and nobody is crazy enough to even suggest they be moved, the sanctuary has to be where the cats are. They’re in discussions right now, and with elections coming up next spring, there is motivation to get it settled before a whole new crop of politicians take over.

Click here to send a letter of support for the sanctuary to city officials. To keep up with the story as it develops, see the sanctuary’s diary page. Have a virtual visit with the cats thanks to the this video:

Tomb of 5th Dynasty princess found south of Cairo

November 3rd, 2012

Archaeologists from the Czech Institute of Egyptology have unearthed the tomb of a princess of the 5th Dynasty (2494 to 2345 B.C.) in the Abu Sir necropolis 20 miles south of Cairo. Only the antechamber has been discovered so far, but that was enough to identify it as the burial of Princess Shert Nebti thanks to the four limestone pillars inscribed with hieroglyphics including her name and titles.

One of the titles describes her as “the daughter of the king Men Salbo and his lover venerated before God the all-powerful.” The list of known pharaohs of the 5th Dynasty is small and “Men Salbo” is not among them, although it could be an alternate name. By 2000 B.C. pharaohs regularly went by five names: the Horus name, the Nebti name, the Gold Horus name, the Throne name and the Birth name. It’s rare even for pharaohs of later, better documented dynasties to have all five names included in one inscription, so when a new name crops up it doesn’t necessarily mean a new pharaoh has been added to the timeline.

Antechamber of Princess Shert Nebti's tomb, ca. 2500 B.C.Princess Shert Nebti’s tomb is significant not just in and of itself, but also because it appears to have been a hub connected to other tombs in the necropolis. An opening in the southeast of the antechamber was excavated to reveal a corridor leading to four tombs. Four limestone sarcophagi were found in the hallway, each containing several figurines, among them statuettes of a man, another man with his son, and two men with a woman.

Of the four tombs the corridor leads to, two of them are new discoveries, while the other two, belonging not to royal family members but to court officers described in inscriptions as a “grand upholder of the law” and an “inspector of the servants of the palace,” had been found in earlier excavations. They date to the reign of 5th Dynasty Pharaoh Djedkare Isesi (2414–2375 B.C.).

The two newly discovered tombs are currently being excavated. In one of them, a false door and three limestone statues have already been unearthed. In inscriptions, the tomb’s occupant, Nefer, is described as the “supervisor of scribes,” and indeed the statues found are depictions of scribes. This would have been a high ranking official with an administrative role at the pharaonic court. For instance, Ptahhotep, a scribe from the reign of Pharaoh Djedkare Isesi, was that pharaoh’s prime minister and is the traditional author of a book of maxims that is among the earliest philosophical works surviving. We have no way of knowing if the maxims were actually written by the historical Ptahhotep, but they are attributed to him in the oldest extant manuscripts from the Middle Kingdom and his authorship, even if more legendary than factual, underscores the importance, even fame, of scribes in pharaonic Egypt.

Pyramid of NeferirkareAccording to Egyptian Antiquities Minister Mohamed Ibrahim, the discovery of Princess Shert Nebti’s tomb and the links it establishes to other tombs in the necropolis “marks the beginning of a new era in the history of the sepulchres at Abu Sir and Saqqara.” Abu Sir and Saqqara were both used as burial grounds by the pharaohs and nobles of the 5th Dynasty after Giza ran out of space thanks to the huge monuments of the 4th Dynasty pharaohs, namely the Great Pyramids and the Great Sphinx. There are 14 pyramids at Abu Sir, all of them step pyramids, all of them relatively small (the largest, the pyramid of Neferirkare Kakai, was 240 feet high when first built, contrasted with the Great Pyramid of Khufu’s original height of 481 feet) and all made out of cheaper local stone instead of the rich limestone used in the Great Pyramid.

The Czech Institute of Egyptology, part of the Faculty of Arts at Charles University in Prague, has been excavating at Abu Sir each digging season since 1976. The team’s website doesn’t appear to have been updated for a while so there’s no news on the princess’ tomb, but it does have an excellent overview of the history of Abu Sir, of the royal pyramid complexes, and of the necropolis of non-royal officials.

Edit: The Luxor Times Magazine blog has more details about the find and additional pictures.

Carrier pigeon bones with message found in chimney

November 2nd, 2012

Carrier pigeon remainsIn 1982, David Martin and his wife Anne were renovating the fireplace in their 17th century house in Bletchingley, Surrey. The fireplace had been sealed off for many years, and the Martins wanted to restore it to its former functional splendor. They removed the asbestos protective liner and behind it found the original Victorian fireplace. Excited by the find, they began to clear out the chimney, which had for years been the home of birds who had packed it with twigs and nesting materials. As they pulled out the twig stuffing, bird bones came down with it, first a breastbone, then a skull, then a leg with an aluminium ring around it. The ring made them realize these weren’t the remains of a lazy old nesting bird, but rather a gainfully employed one like a racing pigeon. Then the second leg came down and it had a red plastic capsule attached to it. The red color of the capsule marked the bird as a military carrier pigeon for the Allied Forces in World War II.

“I wonder if there’s a secret message,” mused Mrs. Martin, and lo and behold, when they unscrewed the capsule they found a secret message inside. It was written in code, 27 groups of five letters or numbers, on thin paper the size of a cigarette paper. The only parts immediately readable were the number of copies sent (two; the copy went by this one’s companion bird) and the name of the sender, Serjeant W. Stot (the “j” in “serjeant” suggests Stot was with the RAF rather than the Army, which usually spelled the rank with a “g”) [EDIT: The so-called expert in the article who made this claim was wrong. "Serjeant" is associated with the Army.)

The Martins showed the message to a neighbor of theirs, Secret Agent Commander Wilfred "Biffy" Dunderdale, a counter-espionage specialist who had worked for the British Secret Intelligence Service between 1921 and 1959. A lover of fast cars and faster women, Dunderdale was the Paris station chief for SIS (later called MI6). He was a regular for lunch at Wilfred DunderdaleMaxim's, wore bespoke suits and solid gold Cartier cufflinks, smoked Balkan brand cigarettes in a long black ebony holder and drove a massive armour-plated Rolls-Royce around town while working (theoretically) undercover. Ian Fleming, then a rookie Naval Intelligence operative, met Dunderdale in Paris in 1940. After the war they were members of the same club, Boodle's in St. James's Street, where Dunderdale would regale the assembled with tales of his daring exploits. His larger-than-life personality and adventures, including smuggling two German Enigma encoding machines from Poland to Paris to London in 1939, were among Fleming's sources for the character of James Bond.

After he retired from the Service, Biffy moved a few doors down from the Martins in Bletchingley.

Mr Martin recalls: "When I showed him the bird and code the blood drained from his face and he advised us to back off. He said nothing would ever be published."

Can you even stand how juicy that is? I cannot. I cannot stand how juicy that is.

Anyway, it seemed that Biffy's dire prognostication might come to pass as the years went by and nobody official could be persuaded to give a damn. In 1982, Britain was mired in the Falklands War and they weren't interested in figuring out what a now-dessicated carrier pigeon had been trying to tell them 40 years earlier. It was the pigeon fancier community, from the Royal Pigeon Racing Association to military carrier pigeon aficionados, that kept hope alive, working for years to get the government to pay attention to this find.

Bletchley ParkTwo years ago, Bletchley Park, the headquarters of British Intelligence codebreakers during World War II and now a museum, took an interest in the message. Although they have not yet broken the code, they have found out that this message is something special. Bletchley Park had a classified MI6 pigeon loft during the war, but none of its messages were sent in code. Colin Hill, curator of Bletchley Park's permanent Pigeons at War exhibition, said all of the pigeon messages they have in their archives were written longhand. That means this bird was carrying a message more secret than the actual codebreakers' messages.

Also, underneath the coded message are two lines which note the code numbers of two birds. NURP 40TW194 and NURP 37DK76 were the military carrier pigeon which landed in the Martins' chimney and its companion bird who would have carried the same message. The fact that they doubled up underscores how important this top secret message must have been, as does the complete absence of either of these birds' code numbers from the historical archives. The birds themselves were top secret!

Bletchingley is half-way between the beaches of Normandy and Bletchley Park, a suitable spot for a weary pigeon hero to have a rest on a chimney top only to find himself overcome by the fumes and fall inside. It's also only five miles from Field Marshal Montgomery's headquarters at Reigate, Surrey, where he planned the D-Day landings at Normandy. Given Winston Churchill's insistence on a complete radio blackout for the D-Day operations, this pigeon could well have been carrying a message for the general from the front lines at Normandy.

When they realized the message was unique and potentially of great historical significance, Bletchley Park curators sent it to Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) so the current crop of codebreakers could set about deciphering it. Now that this story has finally made the press, GCHQ has been asked for any further information they might have about the message. They won't comment on it, even on whether it was top secret, until the code is broken.

The National Pigeon Service deployed 250,000 pigeons to send messages during World War II. Thirty-two of them received the Dickin Medal, the highest possible decoration for valor that can be awarded to an animal. Perhaps 40TW194 can be posthumously granted the medal for giving his life in service to his country.

This BBC story starts with a nice period Pathé newsreel about the pigeon squadrons, then moves on to the Martins' fireplace and the historical treasure within.

Is this Bulgarian salt mine the oldest town in Europe?

November 1st, 2012

Two-story house in the Provadia-Solnitsata settlementBulgarian archaeologists are calling the Provadia-Solnitsata site, an ancient salt production center 25 miles inland from the Black Sea resort of Varna, the oldest urban settlement in Europe. It has impressive fortifications, two-story dwellings, ritual sites and intriguing burials with grave goods that provide evidence of class differences, all dating to the middle and late Bronze Age, 4700 to 4200 B.C. The estimated population was between 300 and 350 people. By archaeological standards, a permanent population center with an economic, political and religious function in the region is a city, even when it’s small and remote and far from the highly developed urbs we think of in, say, ancient Greece or Rome.

I’m reluctant to run the “oldest town in Europe” headline undisputed, however, because there are other candidates (the Serbian site of Vinča outside Belgrade, for instance, which was populated from around 5700 B.C. until the Middle Ages), and none of the articles I’ve read include any detailed arguments in favor of Provadia getting the title. Not that there aren’t reasonable grounds for the claim. The earliest Vinča finds are burials, whereas the Provadia site has developed urban structures as well as burials. There is evidence of salt extraction on the site dating as far back as the Late Neolithic (5500 B.C.) and of a permanent settlement mound from 5200 B.C. to 4900 B.C. There’s a clearly delineated perimeter in the fortification systems, the earliest of which was a wood and earthenwork palisade erected around the settlement mound in the Late Neolithic, followed by masonry construction in two phases during the Chalcolithic period. There are town gates and even a moat. There is evidence of a heterogeneous population in the variety of grave goods. On the other hand, the population was very small. By the demographic definition of a city, 350 people may not quite cross the threshold of population density and social complexity.

What is not in question is that this is a fascinating site, a very early urban settlement with massive walls that grew around a single industry rather than the agriculture and animal husbandry that characterizes other Neolithic and Chalcolithic settlements. The stone walls are an astounding two to three meters (6.5 feet to almost 10 feet) thick in parts, and they even have bastions for added defensive capabilities. Without a doubt, these are the earliest and largest prehistoric European fortifications discovered. The two phases of the stone fortifications could have been the result of earthquake damage requiring reconstruction, or because the settlement was expanding and the walls needed to be pushed out.

Remains of man and two childrenThe burials discovered by the excavation team this season are highly unusual. The remains are oddly positioned, and some of them were bisected with only the torsos from the pelvis up being buried. Archaeologists have offered no speculation at this point as to why some of the corpses were buried in their entirety while others were mutilated and buried only in part. The grave goods, ranging from a ceramic bowl to gold jewelry to spiral copper bodkins used to dress women’s hair, testify both to the unprecedented wealth of the settlement and to its social stratification.

At the root of this wealth was salt. Once humans began to rely on agriculture and domesticated animals as food sources rather than fish and game, they found they required more salt (there’s a rollicking debate as to whether this was physiological or psychological). Salt supplements aid in dairy production, and salt was a necessity for the preservation of food and the curing of hides. It probably had ritual and medicinal roles as well.

Skeleton holding a ceramic bowlThe rock salt deposits in Provadia-Solnitsata were the only ones in the Balkans, and by the Middle and Late Chalcolithic, they were the primary source of salt for the region. In the late Neolithic, salt was extracted by boiling brine in specially designed ceramic vases and then baking bricks of salt in domed kilns. Initially the kilns were inside the settlement, but were moved outside into shallow sunken cavities around 5000 B.C. It was when the Provadia salt extraction shifted to boiling brine in large ceramic vessels in massive pits that production reached industrial levels.

[Bulgaria's National Institute of Archeology archaeologist Vasil] Nikolov said production increased steadily from 5,500 BC, when one load from the kilns in Provadia-Solnitsata yielded about 25 kilogrammes (55 pounds) of dry salt. By 4,700-4,500 BC, that amount had increased to 4,000 to 5,000 kilos of salt.

“At a time when salt was as precious as gold you can imagine what this meant,” he said.

It meant Provadia produced enough salt to trade not just locally but to neighboring regions as well, which means big money all the way down the middleman line. Approximately 3,000 pieces of jewelry, ceramics, gold, and other ritual objects have been unearthed at Varna. This is a fantastical amount of wealth, the oldest cache of gold treasure on record, and most probably a result of the early salt trade.

This CNN story has some great shots of the archaeological site, including the bisected burials:

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