Dr. Livingstone’s beetles, I presume?

October 20th, 2014

First Darwin’s barnacles turned up in the University of Copenhagen’s Natural History Museum. Now the Natural History Museum in London has discovered a collection of previously unknown beetle specimens gathered by Dr. David Livingstone during his Zambezi expedition of 1858–64. These are the only known surviving specimens collected by Livingstone on the chaotic history-making expedition to open up the Zambezi River to English trade and resource exploitation. Impassable rapids and waterfalls ensured his utter failure on that score, but the expedition was the first to reach and explore Lake Malawi.

The specimens were discovered by Max Barclay, the Natural History Museum’s Collections Manager of Coleoptera and Hymenoptera. He was doing a check of the museum’s vast stores as part of an effort to catalog some of the collection online when he found a wooden box containing 20 pinned beetles neatly labeled “Zambezi coll. by Dr. Livingstone.”

Max Barclay comments, “The Natural History Museum holds one of the largest, oldest and most comprehensive collections of its kind, consulted every year by hundreds of scientists from all over the world. The beetle collection alone includes almost 10 million specimens, assembled over centuries. To study them all will take a lifetime. I have worked here for more than 10 years and it was a complete surprise and incredibly exciting to find these well preserved beetles, brought back from Africa 150 years ago almost to the day. These specimens are still valuable to science. Museum researchers use historical specimens to study the effect of changing environments on plants and animals around the world.”

The beetles were a bequest by Edward Young Western, a lawyer and dedicated amateur entomologist who left a large collection of 15,000 insect specimens to the Natural History Museum after his death in 1924. Museum researchers believe he acquired the box of beetles from one of the members of Livingstone’s expedition, perhaps Livingstone’s own brother Charles. The expedition had been funded by the government and David Livingstone considered all material collected to be government property, so the sale of these specimens had to be done on the quiet. Experts believe they were sold at a natural history auction in the 1860s.

They were easier to dispose of quietly because the specimens were never published. Although the Zambezi Expedition was considered an abject failure due to its escalating costs, high body count (David’s wife Mary died of malaria shortly after she joined her husband at Lake Malawi in 1862), prodigious rate of personnel being fired or quitting and, most importantly to the government, its failure to find a navigable river route to the interior, the scientific exploration was very successful. Physician and naturalist John Kirk (left the expedition in 1863), physician and botanist Charles James Meller and geologist Richard Thornton (fired by Livingstone) collected a great many specimens for study.

In David and Charles Livingstone’s Narrative of an Expedition to the Zambesi, published in 1866, two years after the expedition was recalled, they laud John Kirk’s collecting work in particular, noting that he’s not listed as a co-author solely because they hope he will publish his own record.

He [Dr. Kirk] collected above four thousand species of plants, specimens of most of the valuable woods, of the different native manufactures, of the articles of food, and of the different kinds of cotton from every spot we visited, and a great variety of birds and insects, besides making meteorological observations, and affording, as our instructions required, medical assistance to the natives in every case where he could be of any use.

Charles Livingstone was also fully occupied in his duties in following out the general objects of our mission, in encouraging the culture of cotton, in making many magnetic and meteorological observations, in photographing so long as the materials would serve, and in collecting a large number of birds, insects, and other objects of interest The collections, being government property, have been forwarded to the British Museum and to the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew; and, should Dr. Kirk undertake their description, three or four years will be required for the purpose.

Many of the new mammal, reptile and avian species found on the expedition were published in scientific journals and were very well received, but for some reason, the insects were neglected, leaving a hole through which 20 beetles could slip through into Edward Young Western’s hands. Because the Natural History Museum has such a massive insect collection, Livingstone’s beetles joined the teeming masses without anybody noticing.

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Staffordshire Hoard reveals Anglo-Saxon technique to make impure gold look pure

October 19th, 2014

In the five years since the discovery of the Staffordshire Hoard, the more than 4,000 pieces of the hoard have been cleaned, cataloged and grouped by physical and stylistic similarities. Five hundred more objects and fragments were found hidden in the soil clumped on the pieces and in a follow-up 2012 excavation. About 1,000 new joins have been discovered, allowing conservators to puzzle together objects that have never been seen before, including previously unknown types of sword fittings and mounts. More than 1,500 pieces have been identified as fragments of a single helmet. The hoard has also been officially dated to the late 6th, early 7th century, an important transitional period between the decline of traditional Anglo-Saxon polytheism and the advent of Christianity.

Researchers have now turned to analysis of the composition of the alloys. Minute scrapings taken from the surface of about 200 gold objects were viewed through a scanning electron microscope exposing an ingenious system of making gold with a high silver content look as shiny as pure as the real thing.

The technique was not written down in Anglo-Saxon times, and had never been detected in metalwork from the period, but a similar technique was known from Roman accounts. It must have been spoken about by the brilliant Anglo-Saxon metal workers, and involved taking gold which was alloyed with up to 25% silver, and heating it in an acid solution – made from iron rich minerals such as brick dust – so that at the surface the silver leached out and could be burnished off. The surface would then appear to be the highest quality gold, but just below the surface there was inferior metal.

“They knew what they were doing,” said Eleanor Blakelock, the scientist who discovered their secret. “This wasn’t something which could possibly have happened by accident.”

The technique left the surface with more than 90% gold while just underneath it was 70 to 75% gold. The shiny surfaces could be enhanced with contrasting decoration like wire filigree made from darker, less pure gold. The objects intended for males — belt buckles, weapon fittings — appear to have a higher gold content than jewelry worn by women. Experts don’t believe it was done as a deception to pass off a cheaper alloy as gold. It was just a way to make the best of the materials at hand.

The discovery has also revealed new information about some of the objects. The five hilt fittings from a seax, a single-edged knife, for example, have an odd man out. Four of the pieces have similar alloy composition and were given the acid solution surface treatment. The fifth piece, the pommel cap, has a different alloy composition and was not given any surface treatment. That suggests it was a replacement piece or a later addition to the seax.

Other analytical methods archaeologists used to test the metal content of the surface are not able to detect this technique, which means 1,400 year-old Anglo-Saxon metalworkers have done an impressive number on 21st century technology. Archaeologists now know they can’t trust standard surface analysis to determine the gold content of an artifact, Anglo-Saxon or otherwise.

In related news, the Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery, co-owner of the hoard along with the Potteries Museum & Art Gallery, opened its new permanent Staffordshire Hoard Gallery on Friday. About 300 pieces are on display in an exhibition that covers how the objects were made, how they were used before being broken up and buried, the tools conservators employed to clean the hoard. There’s even a Mead Hall to give visitors a glimpse into the life of the kind of Anglo-Saxon lord who would have owned such expensive weapons.

History West Midlands has a wonderful collection of videos uploaded this year about the conservation of the Staffordshire Hoard and overviews of eight featured artifacts (subscribe to the YouTube channel for future videos) I dare you to watch just one.

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Remains of 1923 DeMille sphinx recovered from dunes

October 18th, 2014

The remains of a large plaster sphinx made for Cecil B. DeMille’s 1923 silent epic The Ten Commandments have been recovered from the sands of Guadalupe-Nipomo Dunes near Pismo Beach, California. It is one of 21 hollow plaster sphinxes, each 12 feet tall and weighing five tons, used to line the boulevard leading to the main gates of “The City of the Pharaoh,” an imposing visual borrowed from the Boulevard of Sphinxes at Luxor Temple.

An excavation in 2012 recovered the head of one of the boulevard sphinxes, but the team didn’t have the time to recover the body at that time. They buried the body in sand hoping to protect it until they returned, but the elements were unmerciful and when they returned this year the body was in pieces. They found another body nearby, however, that was in much better condition, but keeping it that way once it was exposed to the air was a challenge.

The archaeologists planned to protect the sphinx for removal using the same technique that preserves artifacts excavated in the Middle East — coating them with epoxy and a layer of cheese cloth.

But the humidity from a persistent marine layer prevented the epoxy from adhering, Jenzen said, and the crew had to come up with another plan. [..]

The protective process they came up with was to place a sheet of thin plastic over the plaster, then coat it with expanding foam insulation that hardens to protect the fragile pieces while they’re moved.

The improvised system worked and the sphinx was successfully removed for conservation at the Guadalupe-Nipomo Dunes Center.

DeMille spared no expense making the set for this Moses vs. Pharaoh epic. He wanted it to look big so he made the biggest set in movie history. The City of the Pharoah set was 720 feet wide, 110 feet tall flanked by four 40-ton statues of Rameses II. The total weight in statuary for the entire movie was 500 tons, which is a particularly astounding weight when you consider that each statue was made of plaster of Paris pieces that could be transported from Los Angeles 175 miles up the coast to the dunes and put together on site. Designed by Art Deco master Paul Iribe, the set took 1,600 craftsmen to build using 500,000 board-feet of lumber, 25,000 pounds of nails, 75 miles of reinforcing cable. There were 2,500 human extras and 3,000 animals. It cost $1.4 million and made $4 million, a record box office for Paramount that would stand for 22 years until DeMille’s remake of the movie shattered it.

Among the extras were 250 Orthodox Jews who DeMille specifically sought out to give the Exodus scenes authenticity and it was by all accounts an incredibly moving experience.

“These Jews streamed out of the great gates with tears running down their cheeks, and then without prompting or rehearsal, they began singing in Hebrew the old chants of their race, which have been sung in synagogues for thousands of years,” wrote Los Angeles Times reporter Hallett Abend.

According to syndicated Hollywood columnist Jack Jungmeyer, the Jews chanted “Father of Mercy” and “Hear O Israel.” He heard one of the older Jews say to a crew member, “We know this script – our fathers studied it long before there were movies. This is the tale of our beginnings. It is deep in our hearts.”

An elderly woman, overcome with emotion, fell to her knees and shook a fist at the gates of Pharaoh, weeping and casting sand on her head.

Legend has it that when the shooting was over, DeMille had his glorious set dynamited so no budget production could run over to the Guadalupe-Nipomo Dunes and reuse his masterpiece, but archaeologists have found no evidence of wholesale destruction. The set was dismantled and buried in the sand and now nearly a hundred years later, it has been eroded away by sun, sand and rain. For 60 years the exact location of the set was lost until in 1983 filmmaker Peter Brosnan found the “Lost City of Cecil B. DeMille,” as it had become known, going on a clue in DeMille’s posthumous autobiography and tips from extras on the film who were still living.

In 1998, Brosnan’s organization, Friends of the Lost City, began to collaborate with the Guadalupe-Nipomo Dunes Center, then the Nature Conservancy, to excavate and preserve the set. The found pieces of the set as well as artifacts left behind by the cast and crew, putting them on display in what is today the Dunes Center.

The sphinx head recovered in 2012 has been conserved as is now part the star of the Dunes Center Lost City exhibition. Once the newly recovered sphinx body has been reconstructed next year, it will go on display with the head of its companion.

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Amphipolis mosaic is abduction of Persephone

October 17th, 2014

The east side of the mosaic in the second chamber of the 4th century B.C. tomb in Amphipolis has been uncovered revealing the red robe of the laureate figure and a young woman behind him wearing a white tunic tied under the bust with a red ribbon. She looks backwards, her red hair flowing, her left arm raised, hand open as in a wave. She wears handsome jewelry, a bracelet on her left wrist and a necklace of red beads around her neck. The red robe of the charioteer and the newly unearthed figure identifies the scene as the abduction of Persephone by Hades.

The laureate figure is the god of the Underworld, not, as was first posited before the entire mosaic was revealed, as the soul of the man interred in the tomb. Hermes leads the chariot in his role as psychopompos, guide of souls, as he is traditionally depicted on other artistic presentations of the Persephone myth. Her looking back in anguish with raised arm is also a characteristic posture, see for instance the Persephone krater in Berlin’s Altes Museum, an Apulian red-figure volute-krater made in 340 B.C., within a few decades of the estimated date of the tomb. This is the first time a figural floor mosaic has been found in a Macedonian tomb.

The scene, complete with Hermes running before the chariot and a red-haired Hades carrying away an equally red-haired Persephone as she reaches behind her for help, is also depicted in the royal tomb of King Philip II of Macedon at Aigai (Vergina). It is a mural, not a mosaic, a very rare instance of surviving Greek wall painting. Archaeologists suspect the duplicated theme is not a coincidence, that it may be an intentional reference to the art work in Philip’s tomb.

General Secretary of the Ministry of Culture Lina Mendoni described the potential connection in a press conference on the find:

“The scenes are linked with the cults of the Underworld, with the Orphic cult – the descent in Hades – and the Dionysian rites. The Head of the house of Macedon was the archpriest of these cults. I remind you of the recent research of the National Center of Scientific Research “Demokritos” in the residues of the mask found in the remains of bones of Philip. According to experts was the mask, which he wore Philip in Orphic rites. Therefore, the scene in our case has symbolic importance, which may indicate a relationship of the “occupier” of the tomb with the Macedonian House. The political symbolism is very strong in all periods.”

Connected to the rulers of Macedon or not, whoever was buried in this tomb was someone of great wealth and importance. That was clear from the sphinxes in the entrance, confirmed by the caryatids and ultra-super underscored by this mosaic of exceptional quality.

The mosaic covers the entire floor of the room and is 4.5 by 3 meters (14’9″ x 9’10″). In order to preserve the work as excavation continues, workers have placed a layer of styrofoam over it and wood paneling over the styrofoam. A false floor will be built 15 inches above the protective layers so that archaeologists can start the slow process of unblocking the door to chamber three on the north edge of the mosaic.

Here’s a neato 3D rendering of the tomb highlights as rteal.orged this far from Greek Toys:

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Build your own 17th c. oak beam tithe barn

October 16th, 2014

Is Ikea just not a challenge for you anymore? Have you long since mastered the Billy bookcase, dominated the Fjell bed frame and left the Hemnes TV storage combination with glass doors cowed and trembling in your wake every time you breeze by? Well have I got the deal for you: the Acton Hall farm barn, 121 feet long, 28 feet wide and 25 feet six inches high at its central ridge and completely dismantled into its component oak beams. The beams, all individually numbered and complete with plans, will be offered for sale at Summers Place Auctions in Billingshurst, West Sussex, on October 22nd.

Almost entirely in its original condition and dismantled more than 25 years ago. The barn would have originally have had a thatched roof and walls of wattle and daub over the oak aisled wall frames. There are two main threshing bays, each with large double doors. Ten main bays (of approx. 12ft) formed by very substantial jowled oak posts connected to the arcade plate and tie beams by main mortise and tenon, subsidiary teazle tenon and lapped dovetail joints. Aisle wall frames of substantial oak studs. The main tie beams and arcade plates are supported and braced by mainly heavy curved braces, with a few replaced in the 19th century with solid knee braces.

Here is what it looked like before dismantling:


Images courtesy Summer Place Auctions.

Here is what it looks like now:


Images courtesy www.investmentphotography.co.uk.

The structure began its long as storied life as a tithe barn (technically a barn in which the yearly tithe in kind of farmers were stored upon payment to the church, but the term is used loosely to encompass old barns even when they weren’t used for collecting the 10% due local ecclesiastical authorities) on the Suffolk estate of Acton Hall in the mid-17th century. It was later converted into a home. In the late 1980s, the property owners decided to dismantle it to make way for new construction. They were going to sell the timbers piecemeal, but historic barn expert John Langdon, who has a trove of historic barns he reconstructs for buyers like Steven Spielberg and John Kerry, bought the entire structure and numbered each beam so it could be rebuilt elsewhere.

A brewery bought the dismantled barn, planning to use it as a space for special events, but they never found the right location for it and after 25 years of the beams languishing in storage, the brewery sold them back to Langdon. He is now hoping to find a buyer who will pay the £100,000 he estimates the structure is worth as well as another £100,000 for Langdon’s team to re-erect it.

It’s not at all unreasonable, really. You’d pay more than that for a new house of these dimensions. It’s recycled, ecofriendly and those bleached oak beams have more than stood the test of time so you know you’re working with quality materials. A modern imitation couldn’t possibly be as cool no matter how much it tried to reproduce the look of that fabulous oak skeleton so characteristic of centuries of English barn construction. Although its walls and roof were different, the interior of the Acton Hall barn is very much like the glorious buttressed cathedral interior of the Harmondsworth Great Barn, built more than 200 years earlier in 1426. Even the Lacock tithe barn, built a hundred years before that with masonry walls, has similar roof and ceiling architecture.

Just in case you’d like to take a crack at it yourself, here are plans of how the beams come back together:




Images courtesy Summer Place Auctions.

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Largest Viking hoard since 1891 found in Scotland

October 15th, 2014

Retired businessman Derek McLennan was sick and really didn’t feel like dragging his carcass and his metal detector to a Church of Scotland field near Castle Douglas in Dumfries and Galloway, Scotland, last month. He didn’t want to disappoint his detecting buddies the Reverend David Bartholomew and Mike Smith, pastor of Elim Pentecostal Church, however, so he pulled it together and off they went. After an hour of searching, McLennan found a piece of silver buried two feet under the surface. At first he thought it was a spoon, but when he wiped some of the dirt off it, he saw a saltire (X marks the spot) design and realized he’d unearthed Viking treasure.

McLennan reported the find to Scotland’s Treasure Trove Unit and soon Galloway Council archaeologist Andrew Nicholson was on the scene excavating dozens of silver ingots, decorated arm rings and a solid silver cross with enamel decoration from the find spot. When the artifacts were fully excavated, McLennan ran his machine over the hole again and again got a signal. More digging unearthed a second layer of treasure, including a silver Carolingian pot complete with its lid that is one of only three of its kind ever found in Britain.

All told, the hoard proved to include more than a 100 individual pieces. It’s the largest Viking treasure found in Scotland since 1891, and there’s the possibility of more to come when the silver pot is opened and its contents excavated in the lab. The array of artifacts — stamp-decorated bracelets from Ireland, glass beads from Scandinavia, a beautifully graceful gold bird-shaped pin or hair ornament, silver ingots marked with runic inscriptions, even textile fragments still attached to the Carolingian pot — make this a find of international importance.

Describing the find as “historically significant”, Stuart Campbell, head of Scotland’s treasure trove unit, said one of the most exciting objects was an intact Carolingian (western European) pot with its lid still in place, a rare vessel likely to have been an heirloom held by the family that buried the hoard. Campbell described the examination of the pot, which has yet to be emptied, as “an excavation in microcosm”.

He added: “What makes this find so significant is the range of material from different countries and cultures. This was material that was buried for safekeeping, almost like a safety deposit box that was never claimed.”

Campbell said that a find like this could also influence the way Scots viewed their historic relationship with the Vikings. “We have the idea of Vikings as foreigners who carried out raids on Scotland, but this was a Viking area where they settled and traded, and the people who lived there were culturally and linguistically Norse.”

The hoard was buried in the 9th or 10th century. The silver cross dates to around that time. Its unusual enamel decoration is figural, possibly depictions of the four evangelists on each arm of the cross. The pot was already at least a hundred years old when it was buried, hence archaeologists’ belief that it may have been a family heirloom. Researchers hope the contents might reveal more information about who buried the treasure under what circumstances.

The discovery is governed by the Scottish law of treasure trove which claims the artifacts for the public trust, while rewarding the finder and landowner with a sum equivalent to fair market value of the finds. In this case, early estimates put the value at £1 million, but that could change once the artifacts are examined more closely and the contents of the pot assessed. The landowners, the Church of Scotland General Trustees, and Derek McLennan have already come to an agreement on sharing the reward equally. The Church’s portion will be dedicated to the local parish.

This Reuters story has some beautiful close-ups of highly decorated gold and silver pieces. I’d embed it but it has an unkillable autoplay. :angry:

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Iron Age Celtic chariot fittings found in hillfort dig

October 14th, 2014

Archaeologist from the University of Leicester have found a hoard of rare bronze fittings from a Celtic chariot while excavating the site of an Iron Age hillfort on Burrough Hill near Melton Mowbray in Leicestershire. The fittings date to the 2nd or 3rd century B.C. and were deliberately buried as a religious offering.

The hillfort has been excavated by the University’s School of Archaeology and Ancient History since 2010 as part of a five-year project to give students a chance to gain hands-on field experience while exploring the Iron Age occupation of the fort and the transition into the Roman period. In fact it was a group of four students who found the treasure. The first piece was unearthed in a deep pit they dug near the remains of a house. The rest were discovered nearby.

The fittings were put in a box and placed on a bed of cereal chaff with iron tools laid around it. The box was then burned, with the chaff possibly providing kindling as well as a cushion for the sacrifice. Once the fire was out, the offering was covered in a layer of burnt cinder and slag. Archaeologists think it could have been part of a religious ceremony marking the change of a season, or perhaps something related to the construction of the nearby house.

These are incredibly rare and highly prized objects, a matched set of chariot fittings that could only have belonged to someone of very high status, a lord or warrior. Cleaning revealed intricate decoration on the bronze pieces, including a triskele motif of three interlocked spirals popular in Celtic art.

It’s unclear what the purpose of the iron tools was. Archaeologists suspect they may have had a horse grooming function. One of them has a looped handle and bent end with shallow notches that suggest it may have been the Iron Age equivalent of a curry comb. Two curved blades could have been hoof trimming tools or used in the production of harness parts.

Dr Jeremy Taylor, University of Leicester Landscape Archaeology professor and co-director of the Burrough Hill field project could barely contain his awe at the importance of this find:

“This is the most remarkable discovery of material we made at Burrough Hill in the five years we worked on the site. This is a very rare discovery, and a strong sign of the prestige of the site.

“The atmosphere at the dig on the day was a mix of ‘tremendously excited’ and ‘slightly shell-shocked’. I have been excavating for 25 years and I have never found one of these pieces – let alone a whole set. It is a once-in-a-career discovery.”

The objects have been removed to the University’s School of Archaeology and Ancient History for cleaning, conservation and analysis. They will be put on display briefly at the Melton Carnegie Museum in Melton Mowbray, from Saturday, October 18th through Saturday, December 13th. Once the lab work is done, a permanent display will be arranged.

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Killer medieval bladder stone found in Gdańsk

October 13th, 2014

In 2001, archaeologists with the Gdańsk Archaeological Museum unearthed the largest medieval burial ground ever found in Gdańsk. It was located at the western end of a market town on a busy trade route and had been in active use from the 10th century through the beginning of the 19th. Archaeologists found approximately 1,000 graves buried over 800 years. With limited space and a lot of dead people, bodies were buried on top of each other, often damaging the earlier occupants. Construction of a church, monastery and the Market Hall also wreaked havoc on the burials. A third of the skeletal remains were badly damaged (that’s why the precise number of burials isn’t known), and some graves contained a mish-mash of disarticulated bones.

Grave number 300 was one of the latter, containing the partial remains of four skeletons that date between the mid-10th and mid-14th century: a 20-39-year-old woman, a 40-55-year-old man, a teenager and a fetus of undetermined sex. The grave also contained a kidney-shaped stone with a mottled brown and black surface that less keen eyes might have mistaken for a pebble. Upon closer examination in the laboratory, the 1.5 inch-long stone was found to be a calculus, a stone created from compressed compounds and crystals in urine. It’s not possible to determine which of the bodies interred in grave 300 were host to this painful little rock. The fetus is excluded for obvious reasons, but any of the remaining three could have produced the bladder stone.

Sections of the stone were cut with a diamond blade and polished using diamond abrasive wheels. The section was composed of three concentric layers — an inner layer with a core, a middle layer and an outer one — of yellowish color. X-ray spectrometry of five spots on the section surface found the stone was composed of calcium, ammonium, magnesium, uric acid, oxalate, phosphate, and cystine compounds, a result confirmed by other tests as well. The results indicate that this was a bladder stone.

What’s particularly fascinating about this discovery, other than the general coolness of a medieval bladder stone, is how much it can tell us about the life of the person it inhabited.

High content of phosphate compounds suggests that the diet in this case was rich in phosphate compounds, for example in fish meat. Other animal proteins were present in trace amounts, or not at all. Consistent presence of oxalate compounds in both internal and external layers indicates that the diet, at the beginning and the end of the calculus growth, was rich in highly acidic food (e.g., sorrel plant). On the other hand, complementary EDS analysis suggested that the basic structure consisted of calcium and phosphate. The analysis did not demonstrate a sharp differentiation of Ca in the whole cross-section of the stone from the core to the cortex, and increased value of phosphorus was present in analyses of [section points] II-IV. This confirms the observations of Robertson that urinary stones are often present in societies whose diet is rich in plant products and low in meat and dairy products. It is quite possible that each phase of the stone growth was affected by negative health condition, including prolonged starvation, or other diseases, which resulted in production of alkaline urine. This condition most likely led to ascending infection to the kidneys and/or hydronephrosis with uremia.

That infection may well have killed the stone’s owner. The rough texture of the stone’s outer surface is evidence of a highly aggressive bacterial infection in the final stage of the stone’s development, an infection that was likely the cause of death.

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Large mosaic found in Amphipolis tomb

October 12th, 2014

The excavation of the Kasta Tumulus in Amphipolis has already uncovered two headless sphinxes guarding the entrance, two pilasters underneath the sphinxes with the remains of black and red paint on the capital, a pebbled mosaic floor and in a second chamber beyond the portal, two caryatids. Now the Greek Culture Ministry has announced they also found a large, elaborate, colorful floor mosaic in the second chamber.

While the floor mosaic in the entrance chamber is made of irregularly shaped marble fragments set in red mortar, this piece is a pictorial mosaic of immense skill and artistic merit.

The mosaic, 10 feet long and 15 feet wide, depicts a horseman with a laurel wreath driving a chariot drawn by two horses and preceded by the god Hermes. According to a Culture Ministry announcement on Sunday, Hermes is depicted here as the conductor of souls to the afterlife.

The mosaic is made up of pebbles in many colors: white, black, gray, blue, red and yellow. A circular part, near the center of the mosaic, is missing, but authorities say enough fragments have been found to reconstruct a large part.

Hermes, in his characteristic hat (petasos) and winged sandals, holds a caduceus as he leads the chariot and its noble driver from the east side of the chamber to the west. Around the central scene is a thick decorative frame almost two feet wide with geometric double meanders and squares framed with running spirals above and below.

The mosaic covers the entire floor of the second chamber excavated so far and archaeologists are hopeful that more of it will be revealed as they gradually dig away the soil filling the space to the east and west of it. Progress has been slow because the structure is delicate so the walls and ceilings have to be shored up with retaining walls and wood and steel beams as archaeologists cautiously remove the fill a little at a time.

The mosaic dates to the last quarter of the 4th century B.C., a range in keeping with the speculation that someone connected to Alexander the Great may have been buried in this tomb. As of yet, no names or inscriptions of any kind of found, nor any graves, for that matter.

North of the mosaic is a marble threshold of the door that leads to the third chamber. Archaeologists are still working on removing the soil from the third chamber in small sections, but they have identified another door, which means there is probably a fourth chamber behind it. If there is any burial to be found in this tumulus, it’s likely to be in one of these two chambers. So far archaeologists have found three fragments of a marble door, a hinge and bronze and iron nails in a removed section of the soil in the third chamber. The door fragments are additional evidence that the site is indeed a Macedonian tomb (as opposed to, say, Roman, which at least one archaeologist has posited).

To get a better idea of the floor plan of what’s been uncovered so far, see this page. The whole site is an absolute gem, with clear explanations of past discoveries and regularly updated with new information and photographs from the tomb as excavation progresses.

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Flint dagger with bark hilt found in Denmark

October 11th, 2014

Archaeologists from the Museum Lolland-Falster discovered a flint dagger with a bark-wrapped hilt while surveying a site in southern Zealand that will be a part of the Fehmarn Belt Link, an underwater tunnel connecting Germany and Denmark. The dagger is about 3,000 years old, dating to the Early Bronze Age, a time when bronze was replacing flint as the blade of choice. During this transitional period, bronze was still hard to come by and when it wasn’t available, artisans made daggers with flint blades incorporating the new hilt technology used in bronze pieces.

Examples of this rare combination of Stone and Bronze Age have been discovered before in Germany, but this is the first time one has been found in Denmark. The German ones were found in graves as daggers were valuable and their owners kept them even unto death. The Zealand dagger was found in an ancient seabed. The waterlogged environment preserved the delicate organic material.

“A hilt dagger of this type never before found in Denmark. We know the type, but to find such a magnificent specimen of a hilt is absolutely fantastic. Enthusiasm was enormous, as the dagger suddenly appeared after the excavator had removed the overlying layers. But when we removed it and saw that parts of a bark hilt was preserved almost intact, we thought the excitement never ends,” says a smiling Anders Rosendahl, archaeologist at the Museum Lolland-Falster.

The dagger is about eight inches (20 cm) long and made from a single piece of charcoal grey flint that is in exceptional condition. The hilt is wrapped in layers of birch bark to make it easier (and less dangerous) to hold.

The same day it was found, the dagger was sent to the National Museum in Copenhagen to ensure its conservation. Researchers hope that the conservation and study of the bark will be able to answer some questions about the dagger, like where it was made.

(Yes, that does look way more like obsidian, but every source, including the museum website, calls it flint so I’m going with that.)

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