2000-year-old shipwreck pills were an eyewash

January 7th, 2013

A shipwreck from 140 – 130 B.C. first discovered in 1974 off the coast of Tuscany near the Etruscan town of Populonia was found upon later excavation to contain a vast collection of trade goods from around the Mediterranean. Packed in the small ship (it’s at most 60 feet long and 10 feet wide) were Syrian glass bowls found still in stacks, pottery from Pergamon, wine amphorae from Rhodes, lamps from Ephesus, coins, lead vessels and other consumer goods. The most intriguing find, however, was a large cache of medical equipment. Tin cylinders called pyxides, 136 boxwood vials, a stone mortar, an iron probe and a bronze cupping vessel of a type used for bloodletting or for applying hot air to aching body parts, were discovered next to an iron lock that once belonged to a wooden box long since rotten away.

Inside one tin pyxis was a rare archaeological treasure: five grey disc-shaped tablets stacked on top of each other like Mentos. Despite having spent 2120 or so years wrapped in dense marine flora on the seabed of the Baratti Gulf, the pyxis had remained water tight and the tablets were still intact. In 2010, scientists published the first DNA analysis on the tablets. They found evidence of a wide variety of plant matter — carrot, radish, parsley, celery, wild onion, cabbage, alfalfa, yarrow, hibiscus — in the pills, plants known from ancient sources to have been used for medicinal purposes. The still weren’t sure exactly what ailments the tablets would have been prescribed to cure, nor how they would have been taken by patients.

Now a team of Italian researchers has thinks they’ve found the answer: they were probably used as an eyewash. Archaeologists from the Archaeological Superintendence of Tuscany, chemists from the University of Pisa and evolutionary biologists from the University of Florence examined the components of samples taken from a broken tablet with a scanning electron microscope, X-ray spectroscopy, infrared spectroscopy, X-ray powder diffraction and gas chromatography/mass spectrometry. They found that the main inorganic element was zinc. Zinc compounds like hydrozincite (zinc hydroxycarbonate) and smithsonite (zin carbonate) make up 75% of the tablet. Silicon and iron are second and third with 9% and 5% respectively.

Organic components identified include starches that show evidence of having been cooked, animal lipids, vegetal lipids, beeswax, pine resin, 53 kinds of pollen and trace amounts of vegetal charcoal. Most of the pollen, 40%, was olive pollen. The runner-up with 13% was wheat. There were also some linen fibers, more of them on the outer part of the sample than the inner which could be the remnants of fabric used to wrap the pills. Any fabric that might have been cradling the tablets has decayed, but you can still see a texture on the outside of one that looks like the imprint of a textile.

The high zinc content suggests an ocular purpose for this remarkably complex medicine. Pliny the Elder and Greek physician Pedanius Dioscorides both mention that zinc oxide was collected from the walls of furnaces used during copper casting and then used in medication for the eyes and skin. The large, round shape of the tablets — they’re 3-4 centimeters in diameter and half a centimeter thick — also indicate they were used for eye treatment. The Latin word for eyewash is collyrium, derived from the Greek word κoλλυρα which means “small round loaves,” a pretty dead-on accurate description of the shipwreck tablets.

As for how these pastilles would have been applied to the eye, that’s where the beeswax comes in. The pills were probably melted and the resulting unguent applied to the ailing eye.

Return to Antikythera

January 6th, 2013

The Roman shipwreck off the coast of the Greek island of Antikythera, famous as the source of the bronze gear device of incredible complexity known as the Antikythera mechanism, hasn’t been surveyed since Jacques Costeau led an expedition to the wreck in 1976. The wreck was first discovered in 1900 by sponge divers using those old timey diving suits with metal helmets which allowed them to go 200 feet down to the steep Aegean slope where artifacts from a first century B.C. wreck were piled on the floor. Over the next two years, divers recovered bronze and marble sculptures and one thickly encrusted bronze artifact of nebulous use that would take decades to be recognized as an astronomical calculator and the world’s oldest surviving analog computer.

Although the wreck was thoroughly mined for archaeological gold, the turn of the century divers didn’t have the technology to properly survey the site. This made dating the wreck difficult since the artifacts dated from different eras of Greek history. They wreck itself was Roman, a ship crammed full of loot from Greece in the wake of a military victory, probably. The pottery types suggested dates ranging between 80 and 50 B.C. Cousteau’s team found a coin that dates between 76 and 67 B.C.

The challenges of diving to the wreck spot have kept people from returning to perform a modern survey. In October of 2012, archaeologist Brendan P. Foley of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution a small team of experts with specialized technology that allowed for extended dives as deep as 230 feet returned to Antikythera. They studied the Cousteau expedition logs and film as a starting point, because the artifacts have pretty much been picked clean, so they needed to identify by matching the underwater geology.

Information is limited, however. Cousteau was only there two days and his team could only spend a few minutes at a time diving to keep from getting the bends. Also, Cousteau staged some of the shoots for drama purposes, they can’t be sure they’re exploring the same wreck site he explored. The debris field could be part of the original wreck. It could have shifted over the millennia — the sponge divers told tales of colossal statues rolling down the slope to depths where they could not follow — or it could be another ship that went down in the deep shoals off Antikythera.

In October, diving with technical scuba gear and diver propulsion vehicles that look like underwater fans, the team found the sweet spot, marked by a scattering of amphora, or large curved jars.

Intact artifacts from the wreck were spread over a huge area, about 197 feet (60 meters) long at depths ranging from 114 feet to 197 feet (35 to 60 m), Foley said. That’s large for an ancient shipwreck, Foley said, suggesting either a huge ship or perhaps more than one wreck. The findings are preliminary, Foley said, but the team may have ultimately been excavating 984 feet (300 m) away from the site explored by Cousteau. If that’s the case, he said, they may have found a separate wreck — likely part of the same fleet as the original wreck that went down in the same storm.

A massive debris field that hasn’t been interfered with is an archaeological gold mine. One amphora has been recovered. It will be DNA tested so the contents can be identified. Dozens of heavily concreted artifacts litter the sea floor, which is what the Antikythera mechanism looked just like that when it was first discovered. There could be any metallic fragment underneath all that calcification so let’s not get too hopped up, but the Romans had good taste in pillage so it’s hard not to be excited at what might be.

A lead anchor was also discovered on top of other artifacts indicating it was stowed on the deck when the ship went down. The position of the artifacts suggest the ship sank suddenly when a storm crashed it against an underwater cliff. According to marine archaeologist Theotokis Theodoulou of Greece’s Ephorate of Underwater Antiquities, the wreck “settled facing backwards with its stern at the deepest point.” The stern was so deep that the sponge divers were never able to reach it.

This survey was a preliminary three-week expedition which will be followed up with more extensive surveys over the next two years. Divers will bring metal detectors with them when they return which will allow them to look for artifacts that are not visible under the sand.


Vintage postcards, the Michelin Man & fighting TB

January 5th, 2013

It all started with an exhibition at the Boston Museum of Fine Art. I’ve mentioned before that I am an avid lover and collector of postcards, so whenever a museum puts on a show of vintage postcards, I go full obsessive and try to hunt down as many pictures of it as humanly possible. The Postcard Age at the MFA looks like a particularly great display of hundreds of carefully selected gems from the massive collection of Leonard A. Lauder, the billionaire chairman emeritus of Estée Lauder Companies, Inc., and son of legendary cosmetics entrepreneur Estée.

Lauder has been collecting postcards since he was six years old when he fell in love with an Art Deco postcard of the Empire State Building. It cost a penny. He spent his entire nickel allowance buying five of those postcards. Thus began a love affair that continues to this day. His collection of cubist masterpieces is worth hundreds of millions of dollars and known worldwide, but it was the humble postcard that made a collector out of him. His postcard collection today numbers around 125,000 pieces, and that’s after he donated 20,000 early 20th century Japanese postcards to the MFA some years ago.

He has pledged to donate another 100,000 to the museum. Out of that hundred thousand, Lauder and MFA curators Lynda Klich and Benjamin Weiss selected almost 700 postcards from the decades around the turn of the 20th century to put on display in The Postcard Age. This was the time when picture postcards, first sold in the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1869, became all the rage. By 1900, billions of postcards of advertising graphics, travel photographs, famous people, famous buildings, sports events, conventions, World’s Fairs, the latest technology, were sent all over the world. At a penny per stamp, they were cheaper than phone calls, fast and pretty. They were also purchased and kept in scrapbooks. In an era before cameras were readily available and easy to use, you could document your trip to exotic locales with postcards.

The postcard craze was such a huge thing that there are even postcards about postcards, some advertising postcards as a means to stay in touch with friends, others dedicated to the worldwide phenomenon of the postcard craze itself. You can see some of the highlights of the exhibit in this MFA slideshow and in this one on the Huffington Post. Imprint has some superb pictures from the exhibit accompanying this article about the exhibit that also includes a fascinating interview about the history of postcards with pop culture historian and graphic designer Jim Heimann. A book of the exhibition with many more pictures is available here.

One postcard in the slideshows particularly caught my eye. It’s a photograph of two enormous Michelin Men riding a horse-drawn cart through the streets of Houston, Texas, around 1904. The Michelin Man was just six years old in 1904. The idea of an anthropomorphic tire pile came to Edouard and André Michelin in 1894 and when in 1898 the French cartoonist Marius Rossillon, aka O’Galop, showed André an image he had drawn for a brewery of a Falstaffian figure toasting “Nunc est bibendum” (“Now is the time to drink,” a quote from one of Horace’s odes), Michelin suggested the figure be made to resemble a human tire pile. The first Michelin Man thus became known as Bibendum after the slogan. It’s that early character with his pince-nez glasses you see advertising Michelin tires in person in Houston.

His creation of one of the world’s most enduring and recognizable trademarks is what O’Galop is mostly known for today, but what I just found out while obsessing over that picture is that O’Galop was also a pioneer of film animation. Starting in 1910, he and biologist Dr. Jean Comandon, a pioneer in his own right of slow motion and microcinematography (filming through a microscope), worked together to create films on good hygiene and disease prevention. A disturbingly awesome example of their oeuvre is On Doit Le Dire, a 1918 short about the dangers of syphilis which combines animation, pictures of real people’s syphilis lesions and film of spirochetes under the microscope.

O’Galop also lent his animation talents to the Commission for the Prevention of Tuberculosis in France, an agency of the Rockefeller Foundation which worked closely with French national and regional governments and the Red Cross to reduce the rates of tuberculosis which had been driven sky-high by the deprivations of World War I. Precise mortality statistics are hard to come by during wartime, but we do know that 291,412 people died of tuberculosis between 1915 and 1918 in 77 of France’s 87 departments. The proportion of deaths was higher in occupied areas.

The Rockefeller Foundation had been involved in disease prevention, primarily the eradication of hookworm disease, for many years. In 1917, it created the Commission to combat the increase of tuberculosis in France. The Commission took a comprehensive approach to the fight against TB, starting with the collection of reliable statistics to define the extent and range of the problem, then establishing a system of anti-tuberculosis dispensaries, clinics all over the country with modern equipment and highly trained staff to treat tuberculosis cases. Each dispensary had a thoroughly equipped mobile dispensary that would bring a doctor and assistants to centrally located villages where all applicants would be tested, diagnosed and treated. It also trained nurses who headquartered in the dispensaries and did house calls to test and treat. Because of their peripatetic duties, the nurses, all women, were called Visiteuses d’Hygiene (visiting hygiene ladies).

A public education campaign was the fourth prong of the Commission’s efforts. During the war, striking propaganda posters defined tuberculosis as an enemy to be battled just like Germany out of patriotism. There were also educational posters which used simple cartoons and drawings to explain how to prevent tuberculosis (sleep with windows open, no public spitting or sharing bottles) and if you have it, how to keep from spreading it (sleep alone, spit into containers and destroy the contents).

The education campaign also had a traveling component. The Mobile Tuberculosis Exhibit, a truck filled with pamphlets and posters that could be set up in a public space, 42 films and a projector, drove around the country to spread the word on stopping the spread of TB. Many of these exhibitions were targeted towards children for whom O’Galop’s animated films were a major draw. The were cartoons, but they certainly didn’t treat the subject gingerly.

They also didn’t just stick to TB. Medical opinion at the turn of century asserted that alcoholism, both acquired and hereditary, was a major cause of TB. Thus the fight against tuberculosis also required a fight against alcoholism — and not just alcoholism as we define it now; even one spiritous beverage a day was alcoholism for their purposes.

Hence the following triad of O’Galop films: Small Causes, Big Effects, Resisting Tuberculosis and The Alcohol Cycle. (You can watch a version subtitled in your choice of English, Italian, German and Spanish on the excellent Europa Film Treasures website.) Resisting Tuberculosis is my favorite. It starts at 1:50 and features some outstanding animated skeleton work.

Staffordshire Hoard officially 81 pieces larger

January 4th, 2013

Eighty-one pieces of gold and silver discovered by archaeologists this past November in the same field where the Staffordshire Hoard was found in 2009 have officially been declared treasure. The South Staffordshire Coroner Andrew Haigh ruled that out of the 91 recently discovered pieces, 8 were modern “waste”, 2 were found far enough away that they should not be considered part of the original hoard. The remaining 81 he ruled to be 7th century Anglo-Saxon pieces buried along with the more than 3,900 pieces of the Staffordshire Hoard.

The next step is for the 81 pieces to be valued by a committee of experts at the British Museum. Once a market value is assessed, the county authorities and local museums will raise the money so they can purchase the recent discoveries and add them to the mother hoard. There are no estimates of value out as of yet, but it’s certain to be far lower than the £3.3 million ($5.5 million) the initial find cost. None of the 81 pieces are as large and elaborate. One potential cheek guard from a helmet is the largest piece and is particularly exciting because it could prove to be the match of one found the first time around.

Still, the Staffordshire County Council is excited about the new finds and is already planning to raise the funds.

Philip Atkins, leader of Staffordshire council, said it and the owners of the original hoard, Stoke-on-Trent and Birmingham councils, would now have to look at raising money to buy the new items.

“Last time we raised £1m in public donations in just 12 weeks. This time we won’t need nearly as much money, but I would encourage people to donate. It’s important for our region that the hoard stays together. Just as York is associated with the Vikings and Bath with the Romans, so too will Lichfield be connected to the Anglo-Saxons,” he said.

The moneys raised will be split between Terry Herbert, the metal detectorist who made the original discovery, and Fred Johnson, the landowner. They will also receive the 10 pieces declared non-treasure, which might be tricky given that they fought over the money after the initial discovery and haven’t spoken since.

The new pieces will then move to a permanent home in the Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery and the Potteries Museum & Art Gallery in Stoke-On-Trent. where the original hoard is on display. As challenging as it was for these small regional museums to raise the money, the hoard has turned out to be a financial boon to the region, drawing more than one million visitors since 2009. Loans of some of the artifacts to Washington, D.C., and a Discovery Channel documentary also brought in money.

Zapotec effigy pot may reveal name of buried noble

January 3rd, 2013

The Zapotec anthropomorphic clay pot that was discovered in the third chamber of the vertical tomb in the Atzompa Archaeological Zone in Oaxaca last August has now been fully excavated and may prove to be a vital clue to the identity of the nobleman buried in the chamber. It’s also incredibly beautiful. In addition to the brilliant red pigment on the face which was immediately visible when it was first discovered, rich ochre and grayish green pigments remain intact on other parts of the vessel.

According to Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH), the ceramic pot is about 1200 years old (the three tombs collectively date to 650 – 850 A.D.) and may be an effigy of the person buried in the tomb. The skeletal remains of an adult male and of a teenager, probably female, were discovered in the chamber. The male burial was covered in the same red pigment that dominates the anthropomorphic vessel. That’s why archaeologists think the figure may be a specific representation of the interred male.

The location of the tomb right next to the House of the Altars — real estate so valuable that Chamber Three was closed up and two more chambers built above it for later big shots — and the quality of grave goods indicate that the resident was someone of high status in Atzompa society. The effigy’s elaborate clothing and decoration may therefore have been duplicating the finery of the man it was buried with.

The character on the pot is wearing large inlaid, flower-shaped earrings, a wide semi-circular necklace with tassels hanging off the border, a feather cloak and an elaborate headdress. The headdress is more than 13 inches tall and depicts a feathered reptile with its jaws agape. The Feathered Serpent was an important deity in many Mesoamerican civilizations, including the Zapotecs. As one of the most powerful figures in the pantheon, and any person who donned its symbols would have held considerable political power in the society.

The effigy is also wearing a sash or girdle on which are displayed the iconography and glyphs that identify one person, presumably the male skeleton. One of the glyphs translates to “Tremor” or “Quake” and another is the numeral eight. Archaeologists think the two combined are his name: Tremor Eight. Sounds like a sequel to a Kevin Bacon movie. There are also several repeating Greek key-style shapes and the upside-down symbol of a hill.

A second clay vessel was also discovered in the chamber. It’s a smaller female figure, probably representing a goddess. It too is brightly painted in red and has fancy accessories like a headpiece and necklace. Both vases have been tested in the attempt to determine how the pigments were made.

INAH archaeologists are in the process of radiocarbon dating the artifacts and remains in the tomb to pin down the construction and burial dates. They’ve also taken collagen samples from the skeletons for chemical analysis which might provide us with information about their diets, lifestyles and deaths.

Medieval clapper bridge swept away in flood

January 2nd, 2013

Tarr Steps is a clapper bridge (a bridge constructed using unmortared stone slabs) over the River Barle in Exmoor National Park in Somerset. It’s at least 600 years old — it is referenced in primary sources starting in the 1400s — but some theories date it to the Bronze Age, as early as 1000 B.C. With 17 spans stretching 180 feet across the river, Tarr Steps is the longest clapper bridge in Britain.

On December 22nd, three-quarters of that length was swept away by the record-breaking rain that swelled the Barle ten feet deeper than its usual level. Even the largest slabs — the biggest one weighs two tons, is eight feet long and five feet wide — were powerless against the worst Somerset floods in living memory. So were trees, some of which were uprooted and driven through the bridge aiding in its decimation.

This isn’t the first time Tarr Steps has been damaged by river floods. Over the years the riverbed has silted up, so even when it’s not swelled by massive rains the river level is higher than it once was which puts the bridge closer to the water’s edge. The spans now are just three feet above normal water level. The picture at right is from a series of Sights of Britain issued with purchase of Senior Cigarettes in 1937. You can see more of the piers than you can today. According to local lore, there used to be enough room under the spans for deer to walk under.

Nowadays seeing the entire bridge underwater is not uncommon, and many slabs have been dragged downriver by more serious floods. The great flood of 1952 did so much damage that the army was called in to help put the pieces back together, but this is the most ruined its ever been that anyone can remember. After the waters subsided in 1952, thick steel hawsers were strung across the river 300 yards upstream from the bridge. Their aim was to capture trees, branches and other debris before they could hurtle through Tarr Steps. The poor cables didn’t stand a chance this year. They snapped under the pressure and now look like the frayed ends of a rope.

Thankfully in 1952 they had the foresight to number the slabs so they could be puzzled back together after future floods. The repair work will be much harder this time because the damage is so much greater than it has been before and because the water levels are so high it’s going to take a while before crews can even begin to locate the missing slabs.

See what’s left of the bridge, the uprooted trees lining the banks, the busted cables and the delighted kayakers taking advantage of the missing Tarr Steps to travel the length of the river in this ITV story.

Head of Henry IV identifies blood of Louis XVI

January 1st, 2013

More than a century ago, an Italian family purchased a dried gourd of the Cucurbita moschata species (a species that includes several pumpkins and Butternut squash). This wasn’t just any old gourd. It already have a venerable history even a hundred years ago, once used as a flask for dispensing gunpowder. It was during the French Revolution that it reached its apotheosis, getting an elaborate pyrographic decoration. From top to bottom labeled portraits of revolutionary heroes like Marat, Danton, Robespierre and royalist victims like Louis XVI, Marie Antoinette and their son Louis-Charles were burned onto the gourd’s surface.

Around the wide circular base of the bottle gourd were burned three inscriptions of particular interest with three slogans separating each inscription. Together they told a remarkable tale. The first reads: “Maximilien Bourdaloue le 21 de Janvier de cette année imbiba son mouchoir dans le sang de Louis XVI après sa Decollation.” In English: “Maximilien Bourdaloue the 21st of January of this year soaked his handkerchief in the blood of Louis XVI after his decapitation.” A cartouche inscribed “LA NATION” (The Nation) stands between the first and second inscriptions.

The second inscription: “Tout caillé le mis dans cette courge et me la ceda contre deux assignats de dix Francs. T. Pes c.f. L.er. F. Aegnauld.” In English: “Once congealed, he put it in this gourd and gave it to me for two banknotes of ten Francs. T. Pes c.f. L.er. F. Aegnauld.” I don’t know what the initials stand for, but I’m guessing it denotes some sort of religious order since F. probably means Frère or Brother. “LA LOY” or “The Law” is between the second and third inscriptions.

The third inscription: “Je me chargea des l’ouvrager ainsi pour en faire cadeau a’ l’Aigle qui viendra m’apporter ses Cinq Cent Francs.” In English: “I took it upon myself to have it decorated so I could make a present of it to the Eagle who will bring me his Five Hundred Francs.” Who the mysterious Eagle was we can’t know, but at some point the gourd was reputedly in the possession of Napoleon Bonaparte, future emperor of France whose imperial standard was an eagle. “LE ROY N’EST PLUS” or “The king is no more” is between the third and first inscription.

In the middle is a crowned shield emblazoned with the name of the artist and the date on which he finished his extraordinary work “TERMINEE AUJOURD’HUI 18 DE 7EMBRE 1793 JEAN ROUX CITOYEN PARISIEN AUTEUR,” meaning “Finished today the 18th of September 1793 Jean Roux Citizen of Paris Artist.” A round of applause to Jean Roux of Paris and his remarkable gourd-burning talent. The date seems a little early for a Napoleon-as-eagle reference. He was in France then already making a name for himself as an able artillery captain. His political prospects also looked good, thanks to a pro-Revolutionary pamphlet he had written in July of that year which introduced him to Augustin Robespierre, Maximilien’s younger brother, who would become his friend and supporter. But he wouldn’t get his big splash until the Siege of Toulon which ended in December 1793 and made him a Brigadier General at the age of 24.

As for the handkerchief imbued with the arterial blood of the guillotined King Louis XVI, by the time the Italian family acquired the gourd, there was no hanky inside. There was dark residue, however, that could be dried blood. Wanting to know once and for all if their gourd once held the congealed blood of the benighted king, in 2011 the family contacted a geneticist at the University of Bologna and asked them to test the contents.

At first the scientists thought it was some weird joke, but the family has a letter from a French museum written about the gourd in 1900, and it’s a known fact that witnesses to the decapitations collected the blood of guillotined royalty as souvenirs and folk remedies. The researchers decided to have a go at it and see what they found.

They were able to collect five samples of the dried residue from inside the gourd on which two laboratories ran three DNA tests: one on the Y chromosome, one on the HERC2 gene for blue eyes and one on the mitochondrial DNA. The results indicated that the residue was indeed dried human blood centuries old belonging to a blue-eyed male of a genetic makeup so rare that it couldn’t be found in any genetic database. Louis XVI had blue eyes and you know how weird those old royal family genes can get.

The researchers couldn’t confirm that it was the blood of Louis XVI, however, without comparing it to the DNA of someone in his direct family line, perhaps his poor son Louis-Charles, who died in prison in 1795 at the age of 10, purportedly of tuberculosis. His heart had been cut out by the doctor who performed the autopsy and went through various hands before being interred in 1975 in the royal crypt of Saint Denis cathedral. There was much controversy at the time over whether the real Louis-Charles hadn’t died but rather had escaped and been replaced with a random boy who was promptly killed. Those theories would put to rest once and for all in 2000, when a DNA test on the remains of the heart proved that it belonged to the son of Marie Antoinette.

The researchers on the gourd blood hoped they might could get access to the heart themselves, but that was a long shot. Since the mitochondrial DNA results that identified Louis-Charles couldn’t help identify Louis XVI, the scientists went another way. They enlisted the mummified head of Henry IV, which had been identified in 2010.

They sent a fiberscope through Henry IV’s trachea and collected a tissue sample from inside the head. They were able to retrieve mitochondrial DNA sequences and a partial profile of the Y-chromosome. The latter contained multiple alleles from the extremely rare haplotype that was found in the blood residue in the gourd. This is strong evidence that the two men were related in the paternal line and provides a DNA boost to the authenticity both of the mummified head and of the blood.

“This study shows that [the remains] share a genetic heritage passed on through the paternal line,” forensic pathologist Philippe Charlier told AFP. “They have a direct link to one another through their fathers. One could say that there is absolutely no doubt any more.”

“It is about 250 times more likely that [Henri's] head and [Louis'] blood are paternally related, than unrelated,” co-author Carles Lalueza-Fox of the Institut de Biologia Evolutiva in Barcelona told the agency.

It would be “extremely surprising” if the remains did not belong to the two assassinated monarchs, he added.

The Year in History Blog History

December 31st, 2012

I said in last year’s Year in History Blog History that I would attempt to make this a yearly tradition, so welcome to the second annual Year in History Blog History! Just a few days ago I was griping about the endless parade of crappy best-of lists so prevalent in the press between Christmas and New Year’s, but naturally I exempt myself from all such judgment and invite you to do the same.

The big news from behind the curtain this year was a marked leap in traffic. The total number of pageviews for 2012 was 1,647,856, more than double 2011′s tally which itself was more than double 2010′s views. Last year I noted that we passed a million pageviews in September as counted from when I installed the statistics plug-in in September of 2009. I mused restrainedly that given the uptick in traffic we might just reach the second million in time for this review, and in fact we’re less than 100,000 views from reaching 3,000,000.

January we crossed the 100,000 pageviews a month threshold and we haven’t looked back since. The lowest number of monthly views after January was July with 107,888. Stupid warm summer sun with the people out of doors grilling things and writing love letters in the sand and whatnot.

Nice weather didn’t stop people from flocking to the blog in May, though. That was our busiest month ever with a crazy 182,488 pageviews. Not coincidentally, the most viewed post of the year (and of all recorded time) was a May post. Hatfields & McCoys debuts on the History Channel, much to my surprise, turned out to be a record-breaker. It got 7,024 views on May 30th, driving that day’s pageviews to 13,135 and beating the previous daily record of 11,541 established in May (again!) of last year when there was that weird search explosion on the Roman Ship Found at Ostia entry. It’s the most viewed post of the year, doubling the pageviews of the next runner-up, good ol’ reliable Michelangelo’s David.

The Hatfields and the McCoys also drew the most comments ever: 213 and counting, none of them mine. I had originally planned to respond to comments as they came in, something I try to do on general principle, but I didn’t want to say anything until I had seen the show. I didn’t get around to watching the programs I had DVRd until a week or so later and by then the comment thread was so towering I was too daunted to even attempt to scale it. I sure did enjoy reading it, though. The back and forth about the so-called bad language (which turned out to be of the “goddamn” variety rather than the naughty naughty bathroom words I had assumed the distressed commenters were talking about) was highly entertaining.

It makes sense in hindsight because the show was a record-breaker for the History Channel as well, drawing more than 14 million viewers. The raging success of History’s first foray into scripted television trickled down to The History Blog and from there, I’m delighted to report, to website of Pike County, the county in Kentucky where many of the events of the infamous feud transpired. Jay Shepherd, Marketing Director of Pike County Tourism, had emailed me before I wrote the post asking if I’d link to their driving tour page in an entry about the Hatfields and McCoys. I did so and when the entry blew up, I could see the Pike County link was getting tons of hits. It turns out they got so many requests for the Hatfields and McCoys driving tour CD that they sold out! At the time they didn’t have the CD available on the website — people had to contact them via email or phone to order it — which makes the sale count even more impressive. He emailed me: “Our small little town really needs that extra push. So much history here.”

Another post whose real world impact delighted me was my interview with Janet Stephens: Intrepid Hairdressing Archaeologist. Janet’s impressive scholarship and nimble fingers inspired many teachers, students and re-enactors. Neal Quillinan, a teacher at a secondary school in Australia, left a comment that made my day and possibly my year.

A fantastic post and a valuble resource. I used this in teaching my senior history girls about the First Triumvirate and the rise of Augustus. It was most engaging and its scholarly tone made it very much useable on their research assignment. You really struck a positive chord with this one…. one student event wore her hair in Agrippina style to her Senior Formal.

Agrippina prom hair! That totally slays me. I emailed Janet to let her know and she was thrilled to pieces, of course.

While I’m on the subject, be sure to subscribe to Janet’s YouTube channel. She’s been posting new videos regularly over the past few months, and they are each one more brilliant than the last. They all feature live models rather than manikins and one of them recreates the late 1st century A.D. orbis comarum style on a woman with short hair. It’s a must-see.

I don’t know if I can pick my single most favorite post of the year. There are several top contenders depending on the criteria, so instead of just nominating one, I’ll cull a few of my favorites in various categories.

For sheer adrenaline-fueled excitement, nothing can beat the announcement that a skeleton of a male with scoliosis and a cleaved skull was discovered at the Grey Friars site in Leicester, the church where King Richard III was buried after he was killed at the Battle of Bosworth. It was my first liveblog and the first time I wrote a whole paragraph in “holy shit can you believe this” all caps. We’re still waiting for the DNA results that might confirm if this skeleton is that of the last Plantagenet king of England. I’ve read some interesting nuggets in the interim, but I’m saving them up for a post next year when we finally get the big news.

Other favorite finds I wrote about this year include Catherine de Medici’s hairpin found in palace toilet, the bed burial of the 7th century Anglo-Saxon teen girl with the beautiful gold and garnet cross, the new terracotta warriors from the mausoleum of emperor Qin Shi Huang which also gave me an opening to namecheck Firefly, the colossal statue of Neo-Hittite warrior king Suppiluliuma whose arms reminded me of Beavis freaking out because he’s never going to score, the 159 pristine Roman gold coins found near St. Albans that are so shiny and new, and the Etruscan pyramids found carved out of Orvieto caves which saw the lead archaeologist post a comment wherein he complimented me on not writing a bunch of vague, inaccurate hype like so many articles in the press had done. My head swelled three sizes that day.

That’s not the only example of an entry where I feel like the mainstream articles either got things wrong or just didn’t focus on the parts I found interesting. My two favorites along those lines were my story about the Jesus Monkey restoration and the sale of the original Batmobile. Cecilia Giménez’s attempt to restore a fresco of Jesus originally painted by Elías García Martínez on the wall of a church in Borja, Spain, has become a full-fledged meme in its own right based solely on its hilarious awfulness. What gets left out, however, is how the original was a dashed off copy of a cheesy prayer card version of Guido Reni’s Head of Christ Crowned with Thorns, not a masterpiece for the ages. The other articles about the Batmobile left off most of the great details about the Lincoln Futura which from my perspective is totally the best part. Not that I’m putting down the greatest of all Batmobiles, mind you. As I said in the entry, I don’t know what I wouldn’t do to get my mitts on that car.

Other beauties that sold at auction this year which I would gladly shower with gold like they were the Danaë to my Zeus are the model of a guillotine made out of animal bones by a Napoleonic prisoner of war in England, the Beau Sancy diamond, the land indenture signed by Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, the only document signed by both men known to exist, the Chief Joseph war shirt which sold to the ubiquitous APC (anonymous private collector) rather than the museum where it belongs, the green velvet and gold saddlecloth used by Queen Elizabeth I on her official visit to Bristol, the amber gameboard King Charles I took to the scaffold with him, Byron’s copy of Frankenstein, that gorgeous pristine Enigma machine and the original Fahrenheit thermometer which could also go in the “I did not know that” category because researching it explained so much about the oddities of the Fahrenheit scale.

I have a bunch of favorite pictures this year. National Geographic’s high definition pictures of the wreck of the Titanic blew my mind, as did the 15th century Pastrana tapestries in all their gloriously restored vibrancy. The picture of Jane’s Carousel in Brooklyn besieged by Sandy was so compelling it was basically the entire post. Worth a thousand words and all that.

Pictures of two far more modest pieces that made me so happy, though, that they must be singled out. One was the Roman coarseware milk pot with the lead stitches. It’s so big and those stitches are just so damn cool. The other is the 15th century piggy bank from the Javanese Majapahit Empire. Those little piggies are so round and adorable I literally reread the entry like 10 times just to enjoy the pictures all over again.

The piggy banks are also examples of another favorite kind of entry: the one where I start off knowing practically nothing about the subject but tumble to it for whatever reason and wind up immersed in research for days. Dutch Golden Age printmaker Hercules Segers is an example of that. I had never even heard his name before I came across it while researching something else that I can’t remember on the British Museum’s website. To find and investigate such an innovator was an honor and a pleasure.

So was discovering the men who built Manchester’s sewers and took those skills to the Western Front of World War I where they built massive underground networks. Although I did know about her very superficially from a class or two I took in college where her epic lawsuit to claim her inheritance came up, researching Lady Anne Clifford and her struggles against her scoundrel father and husbands was profoundly revelatory. Most moving of all was the story of the Fraterville Mine disaster of 1902. Those final letters documenting the miners’ slow deaths as the oxygen ran out made me weep like a baby.

There’s no category that really covers this one, but the entry about the 100-million-year-old spider attack captured in amber deserves a special mention because it was born from a fit of mad inspiration. Posts like that are the reason the ancient Greeks thought the Muses were real. The words just descended upon me and I wrote them. That doesn’t happen to me very often, or, like, ever, really.

So that’s this year gone then. Thank you all for reading and for sending me tips and just generally for writing the ridiculously kind things you write. Here’s to a 2013 filled with more of the same and even greater things. Happy New Year! :boogie:

Apocalypse tourists damage Mayan pyramid

December 30th, 2012

The crowds of tourists who flocked to Tikal in Guatemala to embrace the end of the world as not-really predicted by the Maya on December 21st, 2012, were as careless as they were ignorant. Tikal is the largest extant Mayan urban center and a UNESCO World Heritage site. The temples are too fragile to support climbers so they’re for looking only. I suppose when you’re expecting the world to end just because the 13th Bak’tun cycle of the Mayan Long Count calendar is coming to a close, you can’t be bothered to give a crap about preserving irreplaceable archaeological remains.

Ethnic Mayan priests held ceremonies celebrating the end of the cycle and the dawn of a new era at archaeological sites all over Central America. Tikal’s ceremony was attended by 7,000 tourists some of whom thought it would be a nifty idea to climb the stairs of Temple II, also known as the Temple of the Masks. According to Osvaldo Gomez, a technical adviser at Tikal, tourists attending the ceremony climbed Temple II causing irreparable damage. He did not provide specifics on the nature of the damage.

Tikal Temple II was built in honor of his wife Lady Kalajuun Une’ Mo’ by King Jasaw Chan K’awiil I who ruled Tikal and environs from 682 to 734 A.D. in the Late Classic period of Maya civilization. Jasaw Chan K’awiil I was a powerful king who revived the flagging fortunes of Tikal and conquered its main rival polity of Calakmul which you might recall as the hometown of the Lady Snake Lord. In 695, Jasaw Chan K’awiil I Calakmul so soundly that it never built another victory monument. He captured King Yuhknoom Yich’aak K’ahk’, who had been on the throne less than ten years since the demise of King Yuhknoom Ch’een the Great, Lady Snake Lord’s father.

Drumclay Crannog dig extended another 3 months

December 29th, 2012

The archaeological excavation of Drumclay Crannog in County Fermanagh, Ulster, which was scheduled to end on December 30th has been extended another three months. Minister of the Environment Alex Attwood granted the extension to give archaeologists time to dig through the earliest layers of occupation of the artificial island before a link road is built through it.

The road almost destroyed the crannog before it had the chance to showcase its thousand years of history. The construction company sponsored a single trench excavation that confirmed its archaeological richness and then planned to continue to build the road ostensibly preserving the crannog in situ. It should come as little surprise that this plan turned out to be unworkable because the road construction altered the water balance and damaged the structure of the island. Buckling outwards and drying out at a precipitous rate, the crannog had to be excavated before it was lost forever.

The first round of excavations began in June. They were done by woefully undersupplied contract archaeologists and scheduled to last just six weeks. The archaeologists leaked the woeful story to bloggers and the media and the subsequent ruckus resulted in the Environment Minister getting personally involved, appointing additional experts and extending the dig another two months. Then the dig was extended another three months, and now three more months again.

The minister explained why he was preserving the site for longer.

“It will reshape national and international thinking on crannogs and the lives of people stretching back 1,300 years at least,” he said. “A unique moment requires a unique approach. That is why the dig is being extended another three months.

“This is the first substantial scientific excavation of a crannog in Northern Ireland. What has been found will ultimately lead to a reassessment of life in Ulster in Early Christian and medieval times. It is of international importance.

“Given all of that, it is important that we maximise the opportunity to unveil as much of our rich heritage here as possible. That is why I am extending the period in which archaeologists can dig.”

It’s the crannog’s unique wealth of artifacts and structures beautifully preserved by thousands of years in a bog that have saved its archaeological life. It has revealed itself to be an exception source about daily life in medieval and early Christian Ireland, a period for which there is little documentation to help us understand the lives of people who didn’t make the headlines.

In this case, those people were generations of a well-off extended family who lived in several houses with servants and live stock. They made textiles from their sheep’s wool, butchered their own meat, carved wood for work tools, log boats, homes and board games. Some of the objects show stylistic influences from elsewhere in Europe which suggest these people living on a small island they built in the middle of a lake in Ulster had wider trade connections than anybody expected them to.

So far archaeologists have unearthed evidence of occupation from at least 900 A.D. to 1600, but they think there are at least another 300 more years layered underneath that. The most recent find is a woodcutting axe from the 9th century. The additional time will hopefully reveal the earliest occupation of the crannog before road work commences again and the island disappears forever.

The dig has captured the attention of local residents and people around the world. When the crannog dig had an open day on December 1st, 600 people visited the excavation between 9:30 AM and 3:00 PM. Minister Attwood hopes to hold more public viewing days during the next months, and in the long term, to turn this discovery into a source of much-needed tourist cash.




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