Romania recovers stolen Dacian treasure

May 11th, 2011

The Romanian government has recovered 232 artifacts looted over a decade ago from the ancient Dacian capital of Sarmisegetusa Regia. The authorities have been tracking the stolen treasure all over Europe and the US with the help of local police forces, Interpol, and historical experts.

The artifacts include two iron parade shields, 42 inches in diameter and decorated using a repoussé technique (beating the hot metal from the reverse side to form a decorative relief), one with a buffalo and the other with a griffin. These are extremely rare pieces. There are also 229 coins, 27 of them gold pieces of the Greek Lysimachus or Dacian pseudo-Lysimachus type, 39 silver Koson coins (named after the Dacian king Cotiso who is thought to have had them minted; the Greek version of his name, Koson, is on the coins), and 163 silver imitation Macedonian tetradrachma.

Dacian gold arm bracelet, 1st c. B.C.The star of the recovered material, however, is a two-pound gold bracelet from the 1st century B.C. that is one of 24 gold bracelets stolen from the archaeological site. Counting this one, 13 of the looted bracelets have now been recovered since 2005.

After the treasure of Pietroasele, which includes gold figurines weighing more than 19 kilos, “this is the most important find made on Romanian territory,” [Ernest Tarnoveanu, head of Romania's national history museum,] said.

The 13 beautifully decorated golden spiral bracelets recovered so far were among 24 stolen between 1998 and 2001, when the Sarmisegetusa site in southwest Romania was plundered.

Elements of the hoard have been recovered from American, German and Swiss collectors who had bought them in good faith, prosecutor Augustin Lazar said.

That’s very generous of them, I must say. The artifacts recovered today were purchased from a German collector for $430,000. I’m not sure why Romania had to buy its stolen treasure back, no matter how good the collector’s faith was when he bought them. This isn’t the first time, either. Romania has been paying redemption money to every single private collector who has been found in possession of Sarmisegetusa Regia loot. Italy just threatens to prosecute unless they cough up.

While the wealthy collectors are getting paid, the local thieves are doing hard time. Romanian courts have indicted 28 people for involvement in the Sarmisegetusa robbery. In December 2009, thirteen of them were convicted and received prison sentences of between 7 and 12 years, totaling 100 years of imprisonment.

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Einstein’s immigration papers found, displayed

May 10th, 2011

Curators at the Merseyside Maritime Museum have found Albert Einstein’s landing card, an immigration document he completed in his own hand upon arrival in Britain in 1933, in the files of the UK Border Agency’s Heathrow office. They were looking for documents to exhibit in their new UK Border Agency National Museum, a newly established collaboration between the National Museums Liverpool and the UK Border Agency and HM Revenue and Customs, but were looking more for interesting seizures or illegalities. They were shocked to stumble on Einstein’s immigration papers from when he fled Germany and went to England for a short while before settling permanently in the US.

Einstein had been a professor at the Prussian Academy of Science in Berlin since 1914. He took a two-month winter teaching job at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena in the winter of 1932, fully expecting to return to his regular job in Berlin once the term was over. Then Adolf Hitler came to power in January of 1933, and in February of 1933 Hitler staged the Reichstag Fire, suspending all political and civil rights in Germany in reaction. Then came the book-burnings (Einstein’s works among them), the “Boycott of Jews” day, the ban on Jews holding public sector jobs.

Einstein returned to Europe in March of 1933, but seeing the writing on the wall, he stopped in Antwerp, Belgium rather than returning home to Berlin. He found out that not only would he be actively persecuted, but also that his name was on a list of government assassination targets. A magazine in Germany actually printed such an enemies list. Einstein was on it, listed as “not yet hanged.”

He resigned his position at the Prussian Academy of Science, then he renounced his German citizenship. He got on a ferry to Dover from Oostende, Belgium on May 26, 1933. When he arrived at Dover, he filled in a landing card, as did all foreign nationals. He wrote in his name, stated his occupation as “professor,” and most tellingly of all, he wrote “Swiss” as his nationality. He added a note to the back of the document explaining that he was on his way to Oxford University to deliver a series of lectures.

Einstein remained at Oxford only for a few months. He was given an armed guard while he was there to protect him from any Nazi hit squads or individuals looking to cash in the $5,000 bounty on his head. He went to New York in October of 1933, planning to return to Oxford in a permanent teaching position, but as the political situation in Europe got increasingly scary, he decided instead to remain in the US as professor at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton University, New Jersey.

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France returns 1st of 16 Maori heads to New Zealand

May 9th, 2011

In a solemn ceremony, Maori elders reclaimed the tattooed and preserved head of a Maori warrior from museum and government officials in Rouen, France. Sebastien Minchin, the director of Rouen’s Museum of Natural History, carried the toi moko (the Maori term for the tattoo and the head that bears it) in a case draped with a Maori ceremonial black shawl while Maori elder Kataraina Pitiroi sang a karanga, a ceremonial call-out song, then formally returned it to the delegation of elders, New Zealand Embassy officials and representatives from Te Papa Tongarewa, New Zealand’s national museum. You can see video of the ceremonial hand-over here.

This is the culmination of years of legal wrangling in France. The head, a sacred cultural object to the Maori dating back to the late 18th century or early 19th century, was originally preserved as a reminder of a victory in battle. The tattoos indicate high rank and the heads of elaborately-tattooed warriors would be kept as prized objects by the winners.

After James Cook mapped the coast of New Zealand in 1769 opening the door to further European exploration and mercantilism, a brisk trade in toi moko developed, populating the museums of Europe, and later the US, with these objects of fascination/human remains. Eventually, demand in Europe for the tattooed heads was so high that tribespeople were murdered just for their heads. Slaves captured in warfare would be tattooed right quick, decapitated and their heads sold. Because of its increasing brutality, the trade in tattooed heads was officially outlawed by Britain in 1831.

Rouen’s toi moko had been donated by a Parisian collector named Drouet to the Museum of Natural History in 1875. It went on public display in the museum until it closed in 1996. Then it was kept in storage for a decade until curators doing inventory before the re-opening of the museum found it. This was in 2006, and the city council, headed by the mayor of Rouen, Pierre Albertini, immediately proposed to return the head to New Zealand. The Maori had been asking for their ancestral heads back for two decades by then; it wasn’t even a controversial position, really. Most countries had already returned their head collections or were working on it.

The French Culture Ministry, however, put an immediate stop to the plan. According to the ministry, the museum by law had to consult with a scientific committee before making any offers to return anything. France’s national government has a blanket policy of considering pretty much everything in its museums as part of France’s national heritage, no matter where it came from and under what circumstances, based on the age-old finders keepers philosophy of ethics. The underlying fear was that allowing Rouen to one-sidedly return the toi moko would open a Pandora’s Box of demands for repatriation.

An administrative court backed the government’s position so for years the toi moko remained in storage in Rouen. Recognizing the specific cultural significance of the toi moko, French senator Catherine Morin-Desailly submitted a bill the French senate in early 2008 that would allow the return of the Maori heads in France, not just the Rouen one but 15 others from public collections all over France as well. The bill was passed unanimously by the Senate in June of 2009, and finally by the National Assembly in May 2010.

They made a point, however, of emphasizing that this was a particular exception based on the human dignity of the remains and the strong cultural traditions of the Maori in modern-day New Zealand. “The minister emphasises that this very particular case must be placed within its specific context and should not be confused with the debate about other claims concerning certain items in the public collections.”

Now, a year later, the first toi moko, the one that started it all in Rouen, is on its way back home. It will be placed in a sacred space of the Te Papa museum on May 12th, along with a number of other toi moko retrieved along the way in Sweden, Germany and Norway. The rest of the French toi moko will be returned to New Zealand in 2012.

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400-year-old wreck in danger of destruction

May 8th, 2011

The Swash Channel Wreck, so named after the location of its discovery off the coast of Dorset, England, dates to the early 17th century and was discovered in 2004 during an archaeological survey commissioned in anticipation of a harbor dredging. That same year it was declared a protected wreck site, and a diving team in 2005 photographed large portions of timber work, including the frames, ceiling, outer planting and a large segment of deck that is thought to be 130 feet long.

During ongoing exploration by maritime archaeologists from Bournemouth University, a 27.5-foot section of bow or quarterdeck decorated with an elaborately carved merman was recovered from the wreck. The dendrochronogical analysis found that the timbers were felled around 1585. [Correction: two years later, the tree-ring date has been revised to Spring of 1628.] That makes these pieces the earliest carved ship timber still in existence in Britain. A large number of artifacts was also found on the wreck site. Weaponry, barrels, ceramic vessels, leather shoes, barrels, drinking cups, all testify that this ship was extremely well-appointed. The richness of the ship and its artifacts plus its early date make this wreck the most important one found in British waters since the Mary Rose.

Unfortunately, it’s in grave danger from shifting currents and being in the middle of a busy shipping lane. More and more wood is being exposed as the sand moves, and the exposed wood is a tasty meal for bacteria and shipworms.

They can’t just rebury the ship, which would be the safest and most immediate solution to keep the wood from deteriorating further, because it would create a bump on the seafloor that would interfere with traffic in the shipping lane. They can’t lift the whole thing because so much of it is still buried; it would be prohibitively expensive and take a long time, more time than the timbers may have. The Bornemouth University team has therefore decided to raise and preserve the largest section of the exposed wood next month, then rebury the flatter pieces that remain.

David Payton, senior lecturer in marine archaeology at [Bournemouth University], said: “The damage there has increased dramatically since we first started studying it. It’s a race – you’ve only got a certain amount of time before it’s too late and there’s no point.

“It’s been buried until now, but in the last four or five years it’s become exposed. The longer the wreck is exposed, the more damaged it will be. If nothing were done within the next five years there’d be nothing left.”

The easiest and most effective way to preserve the ship would be to rebury it, but this is not an option for the whole vessel, as it would create a hump on the seabed in a crucial shipping channel. Instead, scientists plan to pull out those sections of the ship that would be in the way and rebury the rest.

The main piece to be raised will be six metres of the hull from the bow backwards. These timbers, once recovered, will go on display in Poole Museum.

Research continues, meanwhile, to determine the origin and name of the ship. The timbers came from the German-Dutch border, but even with the original point of the wood and its date of felling, so far no records have been found that identify the wreck.

There’s underwater footage of the wreck in this BBC video, and the ship’s preservation will be the subject of an upcoming episode of the BBC show Britain’s Secret Seas.

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Original Frank Miller Batman art breaks sales record

May 7th, 2011

An original drawing penned by Frank Miller for his 1986 Batman comic The Dark Knight Returns has sold at auction for $448,125, including a 19.5% buyer’s premium. That’s the largest sum ever paid for a piece of original American comic book art, beating the previous record holder (the cover art of Weird Fantasy #29 by Frank Frazetta) by $70,000.

The Frank Miller image isn’t even a cover, though. It’s page ten of issue No. 3, a splash page with Batman and the first girl Robin doing calisthenics in the air above Gotham. The previous record price paid for a piece of interior American comic art is a measly $88,500 spent on the art from a splash page in Amazing Spider-Man #50 written by Stan Lee and drawn by John Romita Sr. The fact that interior art from just a couple of decades ago could sell for such an astronomical sum is a testament to how The Dark Knight Returns and Frank Miller’s work have become almost instantly iconic.

The image is the single most memorable image from the entire comic book series and the greatest image from the decade of the 1980s ever to come to market, as well as now standing as one of, if not the most desirable pieces of original comic art from any era to come to market. It is a perfect stand-alone image of Batman and Robin (Carrie Kelley, the first female, full-time Robin) soaring high above Gotham City, emblematic of the entire storyline.

“I’ve always loved that drawing,” commented Miller, when asked before the auction what his thoughts on its imminent sale were. “Danced around my studio like a fool when I drew it. I hope it finds a good home.”

It was purchased by an anonymous collector, surprise, surprise, so I guess we’ll never know how good a home it has. Heritage Auctions hasn’t had much to say about the seller, either. All we know is that the art came from a private European collector who obtained it just after issue No. 3 hit the newsstands. He has kept it until now. That “fresh to market” cachet is something collectors look for, so that probably helped add to the sale price as well.

This is also the first splash page from The Dark Knight Returns that has ever been offered at auction. Despite its relative youth, original art from the series is much more rare than other comic art from the period. Another advantage this piece has is that the original drawing and the published versions are basically the same. That’s rare with Frank Miller’s work, because he is known to make frequent changes on pasteovers.

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Victorian St. Pancras hotel reopens after 76 years

May 6th, 2011

The glorious Victorian High Gothic revival building adjacent to St. Pancras Station that once hosted the Midland Grand Hotel hasn’t been a hotel since 1935. It was designed by Sir Gilbert Scott and built between 1868 and 1876. The hotel made a huge splash at its opening on May 5, 1873, with its lavish grand staircase, the country’s first Ladies Smoking Room and revolving doors, cutting-edge hydraulic doorless elevators (“ascending chambers”), electric bells to call for service, corridors wide enough for two hooped ladies’ gowns to pass each other comfortably, even flushing toilets.

Unfortunately, the concrete structure which made it fireproof also made renovations a challenge, so when those five bathrooms shared between 300 rooms came to provide a little less privacy and convenience than the traveling public was looking for, the hotel’s sole response — to outfit every room with chamber pots — couldn’t stop the hemorrhage of paying guests. The Midland Grand closed in 1935.

After that, St. Pancras was hit by German bombs in the Blitz, then clumsily redivided to make offices for British Railways while the magnificent red brick facade and roof were allowed to degrade. It barely survived the destruction of Victorian London in the 1960s. Gothic spires and grand staircases were firmly out of fashion in those days. It took a dedicated campaign by Poet Laureate, Victorian architecture and train afficionado and all-around beloved figure Sir John Betjeman to keep the wrecking ball from knocking it all down and replacing it with some hideous grey rectangle. Thanks to his efforts, the St. Pancras building, both station and hotel, was given Grade 1 listed status in 1967, the same status as Windsor Castle and Buckingham Palace, and it was no longer in danger in being bulldozed.

(A charming statue of Sir John stands on the platform on St. Pancras station looking up at the soaring, light-filled ceiling while a passing train blows his coat up. An inscription under his feet describes him as the man “Who saved this glorious station.” Here’s a beautiful 360° view of the station and statue.)

It was still in danger of decay from lack of maintenance, however. BR vacated the former hotel space in 1985 because it was such bad condition. Emergency work in the early 1990s stabilized the structure and plugged the leaks, but it wasn’t until the station got a shot in the arm in 1996, when it chosen to be re-developed to act as the headquarters of the new high-speed Eurostar service, that the building saw some serious investment. The station rebuild took seven years and cost $1.3 billion, opening in 2007.

Now the hotel officially joins its brother as a restored and revitalized Victorian masterpiece. St. Pancras Renaissance London Hotel had its new grand opening last night, May 5, 138 years to the day after its first grand opening. The restoration took over ten years and cost $245 million. Many historical details, like the custom carpet on the grand staircase, the custom wallpaper, the architectural details in each room and in the public areas, have been punctiliously restored, only now there’s running water and private bathrooms!

The magnificent interior has been restored to its former glory with painstaking attention to detail using expert teams of hundreds of craftsmen and painters. Many of the original areas of the hotel considered of particular historical importance have been carefully renovated including the ‘Ladies Smoking Room’, the first place in Europe where it was acceptable for women to smoke in public. The infamous sweeping forecourt, unique to a London hotel in its size and presence, provides a fitting entrance for the new hotel that will also showcase restored gold-leaf ceilings, ornate wall murals and the spectacular grand staircase. The famous staircase, widely revered as the most majestic in England with windows measuring over 50 feet and crowned by an elaborate vaulted ceiling, has been featured in many films and music videos most notably Batman and the Spice Girl’s video for their debut single ‘Wannabe’.

{Insert some clever zig-a-zig-ha quip here.}

You can enjoy more pictures of the newly restored hotel in this Telegraph slideshow.

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Leopold Museum sells one Schiele to keep another looted by Nazis

May 5th, 2011

Vienna’s Leopold Museum is selling an important cityscape by Austrian early Expressionist Egon Schiele in order to be able to afford the settlement price of $19 million dollars to keep another painting of Schiele’s, Portrait of Wally, that was stolen from Jewish art dealer Lea Bondi Jaray by a Nazi agent in late 1939.

The Leopold has the largest collection of Schiele paintings in the world, many of them purchased by collector Rudolf Leopold in the 1950s, which given the time and place means he was buying Nazi loot at least in part. Leopold himself denied vehemently that he was a Nazi profiteer, but he was crazy for Schiele, and he amassed his collection by finding a rare catalog of the artist’s work and then tracking every piece down. Whether his purchases passed through Nazi hands, or even whether the person he was harassing to buy from was a destitute Austrian Jewish émigré who knew the price offered was low but was forced to sell because he needed the money, Leopold was implacably committed to buying.

Leopold sold his collection of over 5,000 important works of modern Austrian art, including major pieces by the likes of Schiele and Klimt, to the Austrian government for a third of their estimated $500,000,000 value on the condition that the government create a museum to house the masterpieces. A few years later, in 1997, the Museum of Modern Art in New York put on a major exhibit of Schiele’s work, including Portrait of Wally on loan from the Leopold. The heirs of Lea Bondi Jaray recognized it as part of her private collection of art which had been forcibly removed from her home by Nazi art dealer and despoiler of Jewish galleries Friedrich Welz the day before she and her husband fled the country in 1939.

In 1998, before MoMA could return Wally to the Leopold, the federal government confiscated the painting under the National Stolen Property Act, keeping the painting in the United States while the Bondi heirs sued the museum. The case wound through the court system for over a decade. The parties finally reached a settlement in July 2010. The deal was the Leopold had to pay the Bondi family $19 million to keep Portrait of Wally, which is a part of the museum’s logo and an iconic centerpiece of its collection, and in return the United States government dropped the criminal case and released the painting. The museum worked out a loan for the sum, but between that $20 million and the $5 million more in legal fees, they knew they were going to have to sell something to pay off the debt.

That something has finally been chosen. It’s a charming cityscape called Häuser mit bunter Wäsche, ‘Vorstadt’ II, which means Houses with Colorful Laundry, ‘Suburb’ II, and it has a squeaky clean ownership history since it belonged first to Schiele’s friend and patron Heinrich Böhler, and then was sold to Rudolf Leopold by Böhler’s widow in 1952. Sotheby’s London will be offering it for auction at their June 22 Impressionist & Modern Sale. The pre-sale estimate is $36-50 million.

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Help digitize Holocaust Memorial Museum records

May 4th, 2011

The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and Ancestry.com announced yesterday that they are teaming up to build the world’s largest online database of information on victims of the Holocaust.

The Museum has an enormous collection of 170 million documents and records containing information on at least 17 million people who were targeted for extermination by the Nazis during World War II. It already has 50,000 of those records available for searching on its website, but obviously that’s just a small drop in the bucket, and with even the youngest Holocaust survivors now in their 70s and 80s, it’s important that the pace of digitization increase exponentially so that the elderly survivors have every chance to find out what happened to their lost family members and friends.

Here’s where Ancestry.com comes in. They have proprietary software that allows people to enter data from scanned records into a searchable database. They also have a pre-existing network of 60,000 volunteers who use the software to digitize genealogies and government records.

Put together the task-appropriate software with the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum’s hundreds of millions of documents and the keying manpower of an Internet full of volunteers, and you get the World Memory Project.

Anyone can join the effort now to help index Holocaust records that include German occupation records, community records from across Europe and displaced persons records from the Allied forces after the war. [...]

A volunteer will be able to access a digital copy of a document from any computer, and read whatever was handwritten or typed on it. They then fill out a form online with names and other identifying information that links the document to the digital database. The process takes only a few minutes.

The process is repeated by another volunteer for each document to ensure accuracy, and an arbitrator serves as a final check.
Those who search can obtain copies of the original records from the museum’s research centre.

The more volunteers, the faster the data will be uploaded.

I’ll be honest, I have some issues with Ancestry.com — I question their leaf system and I think their product placement deal on Who Do You Think You Are? verges on the obscene — but this is such an important project and it’s very rare that we regular people get to help achieve so laudable a goal from the ease and comfort of our own keyboards.

Here’s how it works. First, you have to be using a PC. Sorreh, Macs. Then, you register an Ancestry.com account here. Once you’ve registered, it will tell you your username and automatically-generated password. (If you neglect to jot it down like I did, go to your My Account page and save a new password.)

Then it will take you to a page where you can download the software. Double-click the setup.exe file to install the software. If you don’t have Microsoft WSE 3.0 Runtime installed, it will install that first. Once installation is done, open the software which will prompt you for your Ancestry.com username and password. Click on the “Download image sets” button on the upper right and scroll down the list to anything that starts with the USHMM tag. I just picked the first one, Holocaust records from Ain, France, which contains “records relating to Jewish affairs, Freemasons and secret societies, escapees, internment of Jews, and lists of fugitive foreigners.” Most of them are in French, some in German. Let’s hope my highly rusty French doesn’t disappoint.

On a related note, another large archive of the Holocaust has just gone online. The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee has created a website called Our Shared Legacy: World War II and “The Joint” which makes available for searches and perusals the Committee’s own records, pictures, names, and individual stories of the Holocaust.

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Update on complete Celtic tomb found in Germany

May 3rd, 2011

Experts at the State Office for the Preservation of Monuments in Stuttgart have been studying the intact 2600-year-old Celtic tomb found in the ancient fort town of Heuneburg in the north Danube region of Germany. The burial chamber was found in December of last year, and it was in such a remarkable state of preservation that the entire 80-ton chunk of soil in which it was embedded was cut out, lifted by crane and transported whole to the lab in Stuttgart on a flatbed truck.

The elaborate jewelry found when a small part of the grave was first discovered dated the tomb to the 7th century B.C., the early period of Celtic habitation, and suggested it contained the remains of a noblewoman of some status. Now that some of the lab work has been done, both of those early conclusions are confirmed. The skeletal remains of a woman were indeed within the burial chamber and dendrochronological analysis dates the tomb to just over 2600 years ago. The remains of a child were also buried inside.

The archaeologists are excited because this grave was preserved by the water-sodden soil of the region so that the oak of the floor was intact, for example, and that puts an exact date on it. The oak trees were felled 2,620 years ago, so, assuming they were felled for the grave, our lady died in 609BC.

The grave had also not been robbed down those 26 centuries, unlike many others.

This means that the jewellery is still there, particularly beautiful brooches of ornate Celtic design in gold and in amber.

The large number and quality of the jewels found not only show that the early Celts were elegantly adorned, but may even suggest an aristocratic hierarchy, a disputed point among historians. According to Dr. Dirk Krausse, the leader of the excavation, the wealth of the burial marks it as the oldest Celtic princely female grave ever discovered. It’s also the only princely grave with a wooden inner chamber, or least the only one lucky enough to have been waterlogged and preserved from decay for 26 centuries.

The survival of organic materials is just as exciting, albeit less shiny. The unique opportunity to examine the whole burial chamber within a lab environment has allowed archaeologists to take it apart one grain of dirt at a time, using all kinds of cutting edge analytical tools in the process. One member of the archaeological team, Nicole Ebenger-Rest, has done the bulk of the excavation. She has found the adult woman’s teeth, as well as pieces of cloth and food. These materials might provide a wealth of information about how the early Celts lived.

The final report from the Stuttgart team is scheduled for release in June. There are tentative plans for the jewels and other grave goods found to go on display in Stuttgart next year as part of a “World of the Celts” exhibit.

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Maya hieroglyphic stairway found in Mexico

May 2nd, 2011

Maya hieroglyphic staircase found at El Palmar in CampecheA multi-disciplinary team of archaeologists excavating in the El Palmar Archaeological Zone in southeast Campeche, Mexico has uncovered a stairway engraved with Maya hieroglyphic inscriptions. Out of the thousands of known Maya archaeological sites, only 20 of them are hieroglyphic stairways and of those 20 few have survived undamaged by looters, time or nature. These stairs were found still in their original positions and engraved with over 130 Maya glyphs.

The staircase found on the El Palmar site is also unique because it was on the outskirts of the main center of the Maya city. The hieroglyphic stairways found before now have all been connected to the major monumental structures. That’s been part of the difficulty of finding original construction, because after the Classic Maya period (300 – 900 A.D.) there was a dramatic period of governmental and societal decline known as the “collapse” during which populations left the major centers and monumental construction ceased. When the cities were re-inhabited, people used the Classic structures for their stone and materials were recycled for reconstruction.

Detail of hieroglyphs on the Maya stairwayThe El Palmar staircase wasn’t in the main city and it escaped recycling. That makes the inscriptions easier to read as well as providing information about the original construction of the building itself. It still needed a lot of help from the archaeological team, however.

The stairway was first discovered in 2009 when Gudiel Guzmán, a local worker attached to the fieldwork season of the joint team from the National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH), the University of Arizona (UA) and the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM), told Kenichiro Tsukamoto, a young archaeologist who was about to hit the big time while still a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Arizona, that he had found two carved stones while slashing and burning his property for agricultural purposes. Kenichiro and epigrapher Octavio Esparza went with Guzmán to see what he had found, and they realized that they weren’t just two stones, but part of a hieroglyphic stairway.

The stones were covered in dirt and had plants growing on them, but they were still close enough to the surface to make them a major looting target. The team changed their focus to salvaging and conserving the staircase, which they’ve been doing for the past two years. Now they’ve done enough work that they can announce their preliminary findings about the staircase and the inscriptions.

Archaeologist Luz Evelia cleans glyphs with bamboo skewer at El PalmarThe pyramidal structure that holds the stairway was built between the 7th and 8th Centuries A.D. and a few decades after its construction a total of 90 blocks containing Maya glyphs were added, creating a stairway of six steps leading to a temple on top of the pyramid.

Octavio has partially deciphered the stairway inscriptions that commemorate an event dated probably to September 13, A.D. 726, and provide a list of successive El Palmar rulers. Of the most exciting finds was that the hieroglyphic stairway commemorated the visit of rulers from two major Classic Maya capitals: Calakmul and Copán. “Octavio’s decipherment suggests that Calakmul, Copán, and El Palmar were allies in the period just before Calakmul was defeated by Tikal [A.D. 736] and Copán by Quirigua” Kenichiro said in an interview.

Polychrome vessel from El PalmarThey also found a variety of intriguing artifacts in the main temple, some broken vessels on a burned plaster floor, and the burial of an adult male with jade inlays on his front teeth (Maya grill!) containing two polychrome vases. Team anthropologist Jessica Cerezo-Román will conduct further analysis on the human remains.

There is much work left to do. The hieroglyphic blocks will all be restored and analyzed for dating, geologists will examine the original geographic source of the obsidians used in construction, and biologists will study the soil and sediment and the burned plaster floor. This discovery will have a great deal to tell us about the late Classic Maya period.

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