Date update: Methuselah gets six siblings

February 8th, 2020

It feels like just yesterday when I wrote about Methuselah, the date palm germinated from a 2,000-year-old seed recovered from Masada, but it was 12 years ago. This must be the longest stretch between an original story and an update yet. It is occasioned by a new study of six ancient date palm seeds that have been successfully germinated. Now Adam, Jonah, Uriel, Boaz, Judith and Hannah have joined their ancient brother in growing from seed to seedling.

The six well-preserved seeds were discovered in archaeological excavations of Masada (Adam), Qumran (Jonah, Uriel, Boaz, Judith) and Wadi Makukh (Hannah) from the 1960s through the 1990s. The ages of the seeds were determined by radiocarbon dating of the shell fragments collected from the roots when the plants were repotted. Methuselah, his Masada brother Adam and Hannah are the oldest, dating to between the 4th and 1st century B.C. Judith and Boaz are the middle kids, dating to the mid-2nd century B.C. to the mid-1st century A.D. Uriel and Jonah are the babies of the family dating to the 1st-2nd century A.D.

The team was able to use DNA analysis to discover the sex of the germinated seedlings and to map out the geographic origin of their genotypes.  (Methuselah is indeed a male plant, by the way. We didn’t know if there was a chance of getting an ancient date when it was first germinated, but now we do. He’s a pollen producer, not a fruiter.) Interestingly, the age of the seeds correlates with their genetic admixture. The oldest three have the most eastern genotypes. Judith and Boaz have equal western and eastern genotypes. Jonah and Uriel have the most western. The large size of the seeds is evidence that they were domesticated (wild seeds are much smaller) and the genetic analysis indicates extensive cross-breeding of females with foreign males to keep the stock vigorous and varied.

Date palms have been cultivated in the Jordan River Valley since the Neolithic and the wild date is widespread on the banks of the river and in the hills around the Dead Sea. Palm trees, leaves and dates appear often in the Hebrew scripture — waved in the Sukkot holiday, to celebrate military victories, used in temple rituals, decorating palaces and sacred buildings, even in place names — and their significance was transmitted to Christian tradition, viz Palm Sunday. Ancient writers from Herodotus to Hippocrates praised the Judean date for culinary and medicinal qualities. It was semi-dry and therefore easily stored long-term, unlike Egyptian or Cypriot varieties that rotted quickly. Theophrastus (c. 371- 287 B.C.) wrote in his botanical treatise Enquiry into Plants:

It likes a soil which contains salt; wherefore, where such soil is not available, the growers sprinkle salt about it; and this must not be done about the actual roots: one must keep the salt some way off and sprinkle about a gallon. To shew that it seeks such a soil they offer the following proof; wherever date-palms grow abundantly, the soil is salt, both in Babylon, they say, where the tree is indigenous, in Libya in Egypt and in Phoenicia; while in Coele-Syria [modern-day Israel], where are most palms, only in three districts, they say, where the soil is salt, are dates produced which can be stored; those that grow in other districts do not keep, but rot, though when fresh they are sweet and men use them at that stage.

The Judean date’s long storage properties made them ideal emergency rations. Josephus mentions them “heaps” of dates at the fortress of Masada. The date palm was so strongly associated with Judea that it was frequently depicted on ancient shekels and, after Titus’ sack of Jerusalem in 70 A.D., on Roman IUDAEA CAPTA coinage for more than twenty years. The date palm still features prominently on coins and medallions issued by the modern state of Israel.

The research team is hoping to pick up where ancient farmers left off and do some pollinating of their own once Judith and Hannah reach sexual maturity. If, fingers crossed, they’re able to produce Judean dates once again, of course we’ll have no way of knowing if they have the same taste and texture.

Share

1,200-year-old glass gameboard piece found on Lindisfarne

February 7th, 2020

An extremely rare blue glass gaming piece from the Viking era has been discovered on Lindisfarne, the Northumbrian island where the first Viking raid struck Britain in 793 A.D. It is gumdrop shaped, made of translucent azure glass decorated around the outside with delicate rings of opaque white glass swirls and topped with five white glass globules that look like an abstract crown.

The piece was unearthed last September during a community excavation of the priory site. The stone priory was built in the 12th century hundreds of years after the original wooden monastery was in ruin. The exact location of the monastery is unknown, but the excavation has unearthed a workshop building of the monastery and part of an associated cemetery dating to around 700-1000 A.D. Other artifacts discovered in the 2019 dig include two copper rings, a bronze buckle, a copper pin, several Anglo-Saxon coins and rare “namestones,” carved stones made to commemorate individuals who were buried on the Holy Isle.

The game piece’s finder was Heather Casswell, mother of the Head of Fieldwork who was chipping in on the dig to celebrate her birthday with her son. (Best. Present. Ever.) Archaeologists have identified it as a gaming piece, probably the King, used to play the Viking board game hnefatafl  (“king’s table”) which had numerous versions including ones local to Britain that are all believed to have descended from the Roman wargame Ludus Latrunculorum. The aim of the game was to protect the king, so even though nothing else from the game set was found, it looks like the goal was achieved for a thousand years or so. While tafl pieces made of wood and bone have been found before in wealthy Anglo-Saxon burials, only one other glass piece has been discovered in the British Isles: at the Pictish site of Dundurn in Scotland.

“Many people will be familiar with Viking versions of the game, and I’m sure plenty of people will wonder whether this gaming piece was dropped by a Viking during the attack on Lindisfarne, but we believe it actually belonged to a version of the game that was played by the elites of Northern Britain before the Vikings ever set foot here,” said Lisa Westcott Wilkins, Managing Director of DigVentures.

“The Romans were very fond of giving gaming pieces as gifts to ‘barbarian’ princes, and as the game spread out of the Roman empire, different societies developed their own variations on the rules, including Northern Britain.

“In fact, we believe the piece had probably originally been buried with a member of the Northumbrian elite, whose grave was later disturbed.”

“It’s amazing to think that when the Vikings did land here they could, in theory, have sat down with the monks of Lindisfarne to play a game that would have been familiar to both cultures, although they would almost certainly have argued over whose rules to play by!” continued Westcott Wilkins.

The Lindisfarne excavation, which will return for its fifth season next September, is run by DigVentures, a company that crowdfunds archaeological digs that are open to public participation, in partnership with Durham University. Contributors to the fundraising campaign garner awards ranging from access to a video stream of the dig to a DigCamp for kids, to a week of cleaning artifacts to a full two weeks of digging in the dirt. DigVentures train all the volunteers who work alongside professional archaeologists. Judging from the pictures full of happy people on their knees in the dirt with trowels in their hands grinning ear to ear, looks like they have no trouble getting contributions even at the highest support levels.

Share

30 curse tablets found in Athenian well

February 6th, 2020

Thirty lead curse tablets have been discovered at the bottom of an ancient well in Athens. The well was discovered the Kerameikos, ancient Athens’ main cemetery built in potters’ neighborhood (keramos means potter’s clay) northwest of the ancient center next to the Dipylon gate in the city wall. The vast site used to be crossed by the Eridanos river before it was channeled in the classical period when the city walls went up. Its previous meandering path was prime real estate for wells, and with fresh water in short supply in Athens, public and private wells were dug in the Kerameikos. In 2011, the German Archaeological Institute, which has been excavating the site since 1913, launched a research project to document, map and excavate the Kerameikos wells and more than 40 have been counted so far.

Well B 34 was discovered in the courtyard of the public bathhouse in front of the Dipylon. The round well shaft was built in the 4th century B.C. out of polygonal limestone blocks constructed in a corbelled technique — layers of rings that started out larger on the bottom and decreased in diameter as they rose to the top. The diameter at the bottom of the well is 9.5 feet. The diameter of the top is 3.6 feet. The well mouth was rimmed by a tufa stone, an unusual material for Greek well heads which were typically marble or white limestone.

Groundwater filled almost 23 feet of the depth of the well, making the job of excavation challenging. The team had to deploy four water pumps to clear the well shaft sufficiently to excavate. They found a wealth of objects at the bottom: clay lamps, talus bones (ie, knucklebones) for dice games, bronze coins, cooking pots, drinking vessels (skyphoi), vessels for mixing water and wine (kraters) and kadoi, two-handled, wide-mouthed pots used to draw water from the well. Some organic remains were preserved in the water-logged environment, including peach pits, a potter’s scraper and a small  wooden box.

One notable survivor is a fragment of the wooden guide roller disk, part of the keloneion, the swing beam mechanism that lowered and raised vessels for water collection. A finely carved cylindrical piece of Pentelic marble with the remains of a heavily corroded iron chain attached to its upper side that was found in the well was also part of the mechanism. It was a counterweight, connected to one side of a horizontal beam mounted through the crotch of a trunk or vertical pole. The earliest known representation of this mechanism is on an Attic black-figure Pelike now in Berlin’s Antikenmuseum. Dating to around 490 B.C., it depicts two women and a Satyr at a well where a man, perhaps a slave, is operating the keloneion.

This well was in use for almost a thousand years, believe it or not, with occasional periods of abandonment in the wake of wars like Sulla’s siege and burning of Athens in 86 B.C. or of plagues. The Slavic invasions of the late 6th century A.D. put a permanent end to its use as a well, which was probably for the best given how much lead had been soaking in there for 800 years or so.

The lead curse tablets date to its earlier years in the 4th century B.C. and after. Burying curses with the dead was common practice in the classical period. Thirty-five lead curses have been found in tombs excavated at the Kerameikos, with a particular concentration of them in the graves of children and those killed in war. The spirits of people who died suddenly or before their time were considered to hover around the burial place, ideal messengers to convey curses to the infernal gods.

Wells and sacred pools were also seen as a non-stop conveyance to the chthonic deities. The well of a public bathhouse, almost certainly in active use during the night as evidenced by the clay lamps found at the bottom, would have been a very convenient spot for mailing a curse to the gods below.

Waters in rivers and wells, both protected by nymphs, was believed to provide direct access to the underworld, as [excavation director Dr. Jutta] Dr. Stroszeck says. The belief was that throwing the curse into a well would activate it.

The 30 new tablets have been documented using reflectance transformation imaging, an digital technique that enables even the smallest inscriptions on lead to be read. The archaeologists hope to ultimately learn the name of the nymph, the nature of the curses and whether the targets of the hexes were any of the famous Athenians living in the city during the late fourth century B.C.E.

Share

Lumière’s train in 4K

February 5th, 2020

Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat, filmed by Auguste and Louis Lumière in 1895 and first shown to an amazed public in January 1896, has gone upscale, 4K upscale, to be precise. Urban legend has it that when audiences first viewed the train barreling towards them on the screen, they screamed and ran for the back of the room. There is no evidence that any such reaction actually happened, no contemporary accounts of it in the press or police reports, but the Lumière Brothers’ thoughtful camera placement certainly created a dynamic 50 seconds of film that caused a sensation.

Surviving prints of the original 35 mm film, while still perfectly viewable, show their age; they’re grainy, faded, scratched. Upscaling film using photochemical restoration methods costs tens of thousands of dollars. Videographer Denis Shiryaev used Gigapixel AI software, an application that deploys artificial intelligence algorithms to fill in the gaps in the images and upscale the 125-year-old film to 4K. He also used the freeware app Dain to interpolate missing frames. That’s a lot of bang for very few bucks.

Shiryaev’s digital restoration benefitted majorly from a source video that had already been restored, eliminating the striations, bubbles, stains, etc. and giving him a pristine slate.

Comparison time! Here’s a version of the original with an assortment of defects typical of old film:

Here’s the digitally restored version Shiryaev used as a source:

And here’s Shiryaev’s 4K, 60 frames per second upscale version:

I’m fascinated by the richness and depth of the images, but it’s giving me a bit of an uncanny valley vibe too. He also made a colorized version which is even uncannier.

Share

Charlotte Brontë mini-manuscript returns to Haworth

February 4th, 2020

A tiny manuscript written by Charlotte Brontë when she was 14 years old has returned to the house in Haworth where she wrote it. After a fundraising campaign promoted by famous people like Judi Dench, the Brontë Society was able to acquire it at auction in Paris in November 2019 for €600,000 ($660,000)  hammer price. Now it has gone on display at the Brontë Parsonage Museum, the family’s former home that today has the largest collection of Brontë-related objects in the world.

The book is a miniature, at 2.4 inches high and 1.4 inches wide about the size of a matchbox. The 20-page folio is bound in a brown paper cover and inserted in a red folder. The folder was kept in a brown morocco case. The title page alone is a gem:

SECOND SERIES OF THE

YOUR MEN’S

MAGAZINES . NO

SECOND

FOR SEPTEMBER 1830

Edited by Charlotte Brontë

SOLD

BY

SEARGEANT TREE

AND ALL

OTHER

Booksellers in the chief Glass Town Paris Ross GT Parrys GT Wellingtons Glass Town &c &c &c August Finished August 19, 1830 Charlotte


The table of contents on the next page lists the short stories in the short volume:  A Letter from Lord Charles Wellesley, The Midnight Song by Marquis Donato and Frenchman’s Journal by Tree. The author names are as fictional as the stories. Charlotte wrote everything, of course. The stories are followed by the Advertisements section, because even at 14 Charlotte evinced a keen understanding of the intersection between literature and commerce. She managed to fit more than 4,000 words on these tiny pages, just 17 of them if you deduct the title and half-title/contents.

Charlotte’s mini-magazine was one of six she wrote as a teenager, inspired by Blackwood’s Magazine, the family’s favorite periodical. Set in the fictional “glass World,” the first of many imaginary worlds created by the brilliant but isolated Brontë siblings when they were home-schooled after the deaths of their two older sisters caused by the deprivations they suffered at the brutal Clergy Daughters’ School in Lancashire, later immortalized by Charlotte as Lowood School in Jane Eyre.

The Brontë Parsonage Museum has five of the six “little books” now that they’ve acquired number two. Number five is lost, its whereabouts unknown since the 1930s.

Share

Neolithic well may be world’s oldest wooden structure

February 3rd, 2020

A prehistoric wooden well found in the Czech Republic has been tree-ring dated to 5256–5255 B.C., making it not only the oldest known wood well in Europe, but as far as we know the world’s oldest wooden structure. Discovered in 2018 during construction of the D35 highway near the town of Ostrov in western Czech Republic, the well was below the water table which kept the oak timbers from disintegrating to nothing and ensured the ring record was readable.

The 6th millennium B.C. saw the widespread transition in Europe from nomadic hunter-gatherer lifestyles to the cultivation of plants and raising livestock for foods. A necessary corollary of the vast societal transformation to the sedentary lifestyle was the building of permanent structures to house people and animals, and that required the use and able working of wood.

Wells are uniquely valuable archaeological examples of the Neolithic’s advances in timber construction, because the longhouses that characterized the new permanent settlements are today detectable only from their impact on the soil – postholes, ground plans — as the wood has long since rotted away. Because wells are, by definition, waterlogged, their timbers can be preserved in ring-countable condition for thousands of years and therefore be absolutely dated against tree-ring chronologies. For this area, the tree-ring width chronology has been established going back to 5481 B.C. from Czech oaks preserved in alluvial deposits.

The well is square, its surviving walls 80×80 centimeters (32×32 inches) wide and 140 centimeters (4’7″) high. It was built by inserting planks into longitudinal grooves carved into thick corner posts at 90-degree angles. There are seven rows of planks extant. The wood of the corner posts is older than the rest of the structure. Their trunks were cut down in autumn/winter of 5259 or early winter 5258 B.C.

The trees — at least two feet in diameter — had to be felled, split and finished with precision, very advanced work to accomplish with tools of stone, bone, horn or wood. The tool marks preserved on the surface of the wood confirm the well was made by carpenters with sophisticated tools and methods.

Twelve Neolithic water wells are known to survive in Europe, most of them in eastern Germany. Four of them were discovered recently in eastern Germany just 100 miles north of Ostov. Published in 2012, the four wells at Altsherbitz, Brodau and Eythra were dendrochronologically dated to between 5200 and 5099 B.C. They were built with mortise and tenon joints or notched timbers that interlocked or cogged at the corners.

The Ostov well was recovered from the highway site en bloc so that archaeologists could excavate it in laboratory conditions at the University of Pardubice. The team has been soaking the wood in water to keep it from drying out, and in a new one for me, they’ve dumped 600 kilos (1322 lbs) of sugar into the water. The sugar solution seeps into the wood and eventually replaces the water in the cells with sugar, preserving it even once it’s out of the bath. It will take about a year for the wood to soak in the sucrose solution, after which the timbers will be dried slowly for the next six months. The well will then be reconstructed and put on display at the East Bohemian Museum in Pardubice.

Share

Hampton Court Palace buys Victoria’s boots, bloomers & bodice

February 2nd, 2020

Historic Royal Palaces has acquired two pairs of leather ankle boots by J Sparks-Hall of London, a black taffeta skirt and two black bodices belonging to Queen Victoria at a January 21st auction. The group sold for £14,000. Other pieces from the wardrobe of Victoria that were on sale at the auction, including a pair of capacious silk bloomers embroidered with a crown, a pair of wool and cream silk stockings, a cream silk parasol, sold for an additional £3,000.

The boots, both made by J Sparkes, Hall & Son of Regent Street, London, are made of brown kid leather. The more expensive pair is lined in a red silk border and has a gold stitched butterfly on the toe and a 1″ stacked heel. They doubled the high pre-sale estimate and went for £4,000. A slightly less dramatic pair with a blue silk border and a floral leaf designed stitched on the top of the toes sold for £2,000. The black taffeta skirt embellished with lace and jet sold for double the high estimate as well, £4,000. The two black silk taffeta bodices with lace embellishments from Victoria’s long mourning also sold for £4,000.

Claudia Williams, collections curator at Historic Royal Palaces, said: “As well as being included in future displays, these items reveal that, contrary to popular belief, Queen Victoria did not abandon all interest in her appearance after the death of her beloved Prince Albert, and highlight how – in an era of black and white photography – she exploited clothing’s capacity to communicate, using it as a potent visual symbol of her undying love for her husband.”

The articles of clothing were put up for auction by electrical engineer Roderick Hanson, great-great-grandson of royal photographer Alexander Lamont Henderson who was granted  the Royal Warrant to capture everyday royal life and worked for the queen until her death in 1901. Henderson was known for his experiments in color photography and Victoria commissioned portraits of Prince Albert and Scottish attendant John Brown from him. Family lore says he received the pieces from the queen’s servants (she often gave away her garments and accessories after she was done with them), perhaps as memorials after her death.

After his own death in 1907, Henderson’s collection of the queen’s clothing was passed down to his descendants. Roderick Hanson says they’ve been kept in a wardrobe and he’s selling the lot now to make some space. He needs it apparently, because he’s definitely not selling his ancestor’s art works.

“I’m not parting with Alexander’s glass plate negatives and enamel pictures, which are of a very high quality. He was an extremely talented photographer.”

I’d pick the enamel pictures over the split-crotch bloomers any day.

Share

High priest tombs found in Egypt

February 1st, 2020

Egypt’s Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities made the first announcement of an archaeological discovery of the new year on Thursday. The find is a group tomb for the high priests of Thoth, their families and top officials of the 15th nome unearthed at the Al-Ghoreifa site in Egypt’s Minya governate. Archaeologists found 16 tombs containing 20 sarcophagi dating to the Pharaonic Late Period, 664-399 B.C., in use for three dynasties. Five of them are anthropoid limestone engraved with hieroglyphics and five are wooden coffins in good condition decorated with the names of their owners.

An inscription on one of the stone sarcophagi is dedicated to the Ibis-headed god of writing and wisdom Thoth (Djehuti in Egyptian) who was often represented as a baboon as well. Thousands of mummified ibis and baboons have been found at this site in previous excavations, so the tomb was probably built to house the priests of Thoth.

Of the five stone sarcophagi, two are still sealed and in excellent condition. One belonged to the son of Psamtik, head of the royal treasury and priest of Osiris and Nut. The second is dedicated to Horus and is decorated with the goddess Nut spreading her wings. The inscription identifies its owner as Epy. One of the coffins, belonging to Djed, is particularly significant for the importance of the titles inscribed on the lid: royal treasurer, bearer of the seals of Lower Egypt and sole companion of the king.

The mission also discovered sets of limestone and alabaster canopic jars made to house the organs of the mummified, 10,000 ushabti figurines made of faience, most of which are engraved with the names of the deceased, and 700 amulets. Many of the amulets are scarabs, but there are a variety of other subjects including one rare winged cobra made of pure gold. A great variety of pottery vessels used for funerary and religious purposes were found. One unexpected discovery were tools left behind by the workers who made the tomb. Archaeologists found stone-cutting tools, wooden hammers and baskets made of palm fronds.

Share

7th c. B.C. chariot burial found in central Italy

January 31st, 2020

A high-status Iron Age chariot burial has been discovered in the town of Corinaldo, near the Adriatic coast of Le Marche in central Italy. All human remains had decayed, but a profusion of exceptional grave goods date the burial the Orientalising period, between the late 8th century and early 6th century B.C.

The site, slated for construction of a new sports complex, was identified as archaeologically significant first by aerial photography, then with non-invasive geomagnetic and electrical resistance surveys that gave the excavation team key information on where to open trial trenches. They unearthed a large funerary area (half a hectare, ca. 54,000 square feet) with three large ring ditches. Roman tombs were also found there, but ring ditches long pre-dated them. In the central ring ditch was a pit surrounded by a circular moat almost 100 feet wide, a perimeter that may indicate there was once a tumulus atop the burial. The grave itself is 10.5 by 9 feet and contains a mass of objects, among them a bronze helmet, iron skewers, bronze vessels, more than a hundred ceramic vessels and an iron-wheeled chariot.

The wealth of grave goods, the chariot and the likelihood that the burial was once covered by a mound point to the deceased having been a member of the aristocratic elite of the Piceni, an Italic people who inhabited central and northeast Italy between the Appenines and the Adriatic before the rise of Rome. Little is known of the Piceni Culture in northern Le Marche, so the richness of this discovery will shed new light on the people who dominated the prehistory of the area. The pottery alone indicates active trade between the Piceni of this area and what is now northern Apulia (the heel of Italy’s boot).

Ongoing investigations at the site and analyses of the archaeometric, environmental and archaeozoological material will strengthen our understanding of the site’s importance in terms of its chronology, ‘structural’ characteristics and ritual or cultural aspects. They will also reveal contemporaneous relationships within the broader populated landscape, promising new insights into the role of the Nevola Valley in the Iron Age settlement dynamics of the Marche region. Inevitably, questions remain about certain aspects of the tomb’s morphology, including the possible existence of a covering mound as opposed to a circular ditch and bank, perhaps supplemented by standing stones or timber uprights.

Still under debate, too, is the unknown position of the body within the royal tomb. Comparison with similar aristocratic interments farther to the south suggest differing possibilities, perhaps with the body placed at a higher level immediately above the grave goods, or within a shallow pit nearer the centre of the ring-ditch; the royal corredo (funerary assemblage) at Corinaldo did not occupy that central position or yield any skeletal material. In either case, it seems probable that the body was placed somewhere at or near the ancient ground surface. If so, it would have had little chance of surviving the centuries of subsequent ploughing that have removed all traces of any above ground mound.

Share

Buried treasure found in ruined synagogue

January 30th, 2020

Archaeologists have discovered a treasure chest of Judaica in the 18th century Old Synagogue of Wieliczka, southern Poland. A team from the Institute of Archaeology of Jagiellonian University dug a narrow test trench next to an interior wall when they encountered the remains of decayed wooden box with metal objects visible. They extended the trench to explore further and found a literal treasure chest full of hundreds of metal objects that had been nested inside each other and packed closely together.

The wooden crate was approximately 30 inches high, 28 inches wide and 50 inches long. It contained about 350 objects, most of religious significance, from the 19th century.  The contents include pieces of four or five brass chandeliers, a silver goblet decorated in a floral motif, five silver candlesticks (two of them Hanukkah), a large metal vessel (probably tin), two large bronze vessels with decorative handles, a silver badge from a Torah with an attached pointer and silver finials from the Torah scroll rods.

Surprisingly, the treasure chest also contained 18 Austro-Hungarian army cap badges worn by infantry officers. The double-headed eagle crest bears the initials of Emperor Franz Joseph, which dates them to the second half of the 19th century or early 20th century. The demise of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1918 led to the creation of the Second Polish Republic out of the territories gobbled up by the Hapsburgs during the partitions of the 18th century, so it seems highly unlikely that the cap badges would have been secreted away with precious holy treasures during World War II. This indicates an earlier burial date.

It seems incongruous that they would be included in a cache of precious materials from the synagogue itself. Because all of the badges were found at the bottom of the crate, dig supervisor Dr. Michał Wojenka hypothesizes that 18 army caps were used to line the crate and that the textiles rotted away leaving only the badges.

Wieliczka is one of Poland’s most popular tourist destinations today thanks to its famous labyrinthine cathedral of a salt mine, in continuous operation for 800 years. The Jewish community in Wieliczka dates almost that far back, and indeed several Jews administered the salt mines on behalf of the Hungarian crown for two centuries before laws banning their involvement in the salt trade (and others) were passed in the 16th century. These and subsequent laws prohibiting Jews from doing business and living in Wieliczka were not evenly enforced under the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth so in reality there was a continuous Jewish presence.

Come partition and the Habsburg reign, many of the anti-Semitic laws were abolished and Jews were granted rights to live, work and worship in Wieliczka. That notwithstanding, the wave of pogroms that broke out in the Polish territory of the Russian Empire in the late 19th and early 20th century spilled over to Austria-Hungary as well and anti-Jewish riots roiled Wieliczka in 1889 and 1906. The treasure could have been hidden during that period to keep it safe from would-be desecrators, or perhaps in the first winter of World War I when the Russian army occupied Wieliczka during the battle for Kraków in December 1914.

The Jewish community thrived in the interwar period, growing to 4,000 people, half the population of the town. It was obliterated in World War II, most of them slaughtered at Belzec. The few who survived Nazi extermination did not return to Wieliczka. The synagogue building, severely damaged by the Nazis, was used as a warehouse after the war.

The building is now on the register of historic landmarks but it is in terrible condition. It doesn’t even have a proper roof anymore. Archaeological and architectural examinations have been taking place since last fall in preparation for an ambitious renovation of the synagogue. The field work is essential to the restoration because, believe it or not, there are no extant photographs of the Old Synagogue as it was before its destruction in World War II.

This find is an incredibly huge fluke because the test pit was small and had the team chosen to dig a couple of feet to the left or right, the treasure would never have been found. With so little remaining of Wieliczka’s 600 years of Jewish history, the crate of Judaica is priceless.

Share

Navigation

Search

Archives

February 2020
S M T W T F S
« Jan    
 1
2345678
9101112131415
16171819202122
23242526272829

Other

Add to Technorati Favorites

Syndication