Aztec skull rack found in Mexico City’s Templo Mayor

August 24th, 2015

Archaeologists from Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH) have unearthed part of a large rack of human skulls in the Templo Mayor complex in Mexico City. The Aztecs would pierce the heads of the sacrificed, string them together on wooden stakes and mount them on a vertical posts. This structure, called a tzompantli, would be erected for all to see as a highly effective symbol of ruthless power. A five-skull tzompantli was discovered underneath a sacrificial stone and a mound of skulls and jawbones at the Templo Mayor in 2012, but this latest discovery is on a whole other scale. Archaeologists believe it is the major tzompantli of the Aztec city of Tenochtitlan described in Spanish accounts of the city before its destruction in 1521.

The team was digging in a well under the floor of a colonial-era home on the western side of the temple complex. Six feet under floor level, they discovered a wall of volcanic rock coated with stucco with a flagstone floor. The rectangular platform, estimated to be more than 34 meters (111.5 feet) long and 12 meters (40 feet) wide, has at its center a circular structure made from skulls cemented together using a lime, sand and volcanic gravel mortar. Many of the skulls have a hole 25 to 30 centimeters (10-12 inches) in diameter piercing the parietal bones. They are all facing inwards at the open space inside the circle. Adult male skulls predominate, but there are skulls from adult women, youths and children as well. So far archaeologists have counted 35 skulls, but expect to see that number increase exponentially as they dig further down under the stucco and stone slabs.

Preliminary dating places this structure in Stage VI of the construction of the Templo Mayor (between 1486 and 1502), during the reign of Aztec warrior king Ahuízotl. He was succeeded on the throne of Tenochitlan by his nephew Moctezuma II who would meet his end fighting Conquistador Hernán Cortés. Cortés himself described the great tzompantli of Tenochtitlan, as did early ethnographers Franciscan friar Bernardino de Sahagún and Dominican friar Diego Durán. They wrote of tzompantli with low, elongated bases supporting the vertical posts with horizontal racks of skulls. There is also at least one account of skulls mortared together; this is the first time a tzompantli has been discovered matching that description.

University of Florida archaeologist Susan Gillespie, who was not involved in the project, wrote that “I do not personally know of other instances of literal skulls becoming architectural material to be mortared together to make a structure.” [...]

“They’ve been looking for the big one for some time, and this one does seem much bigger than the already excavated one,” Gillespie wrote. “This find both confirms long-held suspicions about the sacrificial landscape of the ceremonial precinct, that there must have been a much bigger tzompantli to curate the many heads of sacrificial victims” as a kind of public record or accounting of sacrifices.

The second stage of excavations will begin in November. Meanwhile, the skulls will be examined in the laboratory. They’ll test the DNA if they can recover any and will test stable isotopes in the bones and teeth to determine the geographic origin of the sacrificed.

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Noah’s round ark takes to the water

August 23rd, 2015

The author examining the Ark Tablet in the British Museum. Image by Dale Cherry.Five years ago, the news broke that premier cuneiform scholar Dr. Irving Finkel, Deputy Keeper of Middle East at the British Museum, had translated a new account of the ancient Babylonian Flood Story on a clay tablet from 1,750 B.C. and found directions for making a round ark. There are multiple versions of the deluge myth in the ancient Near East. One features Ziusudra, King of Sumer, as the Noah figure and is found on a single tablet from the 17th century B.C. excavated in Nippur, Iraq. The Epic of Gilgamesh tells the story of Utnapishtim who was tasked by the god Enki-Ea to build a boat that would save his family, craftsmen, plants and animals from the flood the other gods were sending to destroy humanity. The earliest surviving Gilgamesh tablets date to the 18th century B.C. The Akkadian version is named after its hero, Atra-Hasis, and is found on fragments of tablets also dating back to the 18th century B.C. The Flood Story on the tablet recently translated by Dr. Finkel is the Akkadian Atra-Hasis version.

Drawing of Gilgamesh tablet pieced together from fragments in Smith's "Chaldean Account of Genesis"All of these versions of the Flood Story precede the Biblical version with the one God and Noah by a thousand years, a fact that caused a sensation in 1872 when British Museum Assyriologist George Smith announced he’d found the first cuneiform account of the Great Flood, now known to be the 11th Tablet of the Epic of Gilgamesh. Smith published his find in the 1876 book The Chaldean Account of Genesis, a seminal volume in the history of Assyriology even though several of his translations, admittedly makeshift solutions to missing bits in the sources (he suggested Gilgamesh was to be read Izdubar), have since been corrected.

Finkel published his translation of the Atra-Hasis tablet last year in The Ark Before Noah: Decoding the Story of the Flood, a fascinating archaeological detective story that manages that rare feat of conveying its author’s contagious enthusiasm along with the scholarly information. I’m sure in someone else’s hands the analysis of cuneiform tablets can make for dry reading, but Dr. Finkel’s ebullience shines through on every vigorously-turned page.

That endlessly renewable resource of enthusiasm played a key role in the translation of the round ark tablet. Dr. Finkel first encountered the small cuneiform tablet in 1985 when it was one of several pieces Douglas Simmonds brought to the British Museum for expert assessment. Douglas’ father Leonard was in the Royal Air Force after World War II and had amassed a significant collection of Near East artifacts during his travels. After Leonard’s death, Douglas researched the objects. Finkel had already helped him with several cylinder seals and clay tablets before the fateful 1985 encounter.

As one of very few people in the world who can sight-read cuneiform, Finkel was able to read the clean first verses of the tablet: “Wall, wall! Reed wall, reed wall! Atra-Hasis…” That passage is famous among Assyriologists as the opening lines of the Atra-Hasis Flood Story. Finkel was thrilled at such a rare find and asked to keep the tablet so he could translate the whole thing which is covered in cuneiform front and back, but Mr. Simmonds was unwilling to part with it. It wasn’t until 2009 when Dr. Finkel spotted Douglas Simmonds at the Babylon, Myth and Reality exhibition that the latter finally agreed to bring the tablet in for translation.

The Ark Tablet, ca. 1,750 B.C. Image courtesy Douglas Simmonds.The sixty lines of the Ark Tablet go into unprecedented detail on the design of the boat and the materials used in construction. None of the other Atra-Hasis tablets describe the vessel. This is most of what’s on the front of the tablet:

Wall, wall! Reed wall, reed wall!
Atra-Hasis, pay heed to my advice,
That you may live for ever!
Destroy your house, build a boat;
Spurn property and save life!
Draw out the boat that you will make
On a circular plan;
Let her length and breadth be equal,
Let her floor area be one field, let her sides be one nindan high,
You saw kannu ropes and aslu ropes/rushes for [a coracle before!]
Let someone (else) twist the fronds and palm-fibre for you!
It will surely consume 14,430 (sutu)!”
“I set in place thirty ribs
Which were one parsiktu-vessel thick, ten nindan long;
I set up 3,600 stanchions within her
Which were half (a parsiktu-vessel) thick, half a nindan high;
I constructed her cabins above and below.”
“I apportioned one finger of bitumen for her outsides;
I apportioned one finger of bitumen for her interior;
I had (already) poured out one finger of bitumen onto her cabins;
I caused the kilns to be loaded with 28,800 (sutu) of kupru-bitumen
And I poured 3,600 (sutu) of ittu-bitumen within.
The bitumen did not come to the surface [lit. up to me];
(so) I added five fingers of lard,
I ordered the kilns to be loaded … in equal measure;
(With) tamarisk wood (?) (and) stalks (?)
…(= I completed the mixture).

These quantities are enormous, enough palm-fiber rope, wooden ribs and stanchions to build a coracle 3,600 square meters in area, almost two-thirds the size of a soccer field, with walls 20 feet high. If the amount of rope described here were laid out in a single line, it would reach from London to Edinburgh. The vats of bitumen were necessary to waterproof a boat whose hull is, after all, made of rope.

The back of the tablet is more damaged than the front, with significant chunks missing, but what is there continues the discussion of bitumen application and then describes Atra-Hasis and his family getting on the boat. In one moving passage, Atra-Hasis prays to the moon god Sin that the coming tragedy be averted. Sin’s reply includes a line that will strike a familiar chord with anyone who has ever heard the Noah story.

“Sin, from his throne, swore as to annihilation
And desolation on (the) darkened [day (to come)]”
“But the wild animals from the steppe [(...)]
Two by two the boat did [they enter]…”

Armed with this unique description, Dr. Finkel contacted ancient ship specialists to see if they could construct a scale version of the ark. The project was filmed for a television program called The Real Noah’s Ark which first aired on Britain’s Channel 4 last September. It apparently aired as Rebuilding Noah’s Ark on the National Geographic channel, but I missed it. The British Museum’s YouTube channel just posted a five-minute introduction to the episode a few days ago, which was the first I’d heard of it. The program doesn’t appear to be available on demand from the Channel 4 website at the moment, or at least it’s not working for me. It has, however, been posted on Vimeo and I strongly urge you to watch it while the watching’s good.

Simply stated, this show has everything: Mesopotamian history, issues in ancient urban water management, the Ziggurat of Ur, dangers military and ecological, southern Iraq’s enchanting marshlands, cuneiform tablets and the laser-scanning thereof, ship design, archaeological geology, traditional crafts, how reeds can be used to make an AMAZING house, bitumen drama, flood legends and their transmission from Babylon to Judea, the reality of regular flooding in the Fertile Crescent, several exceptional beards and at the end, a big ol’ round boat.

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The Campbell Sisters dance into UK museums

August 22nd, 2015

A unique life-sized marble sculpture capturing the lovely young Campbell sisters mid-dance has been jointly acquired by the Victoria & Albert and the Scottish National Gallery. The sculptural group sold at auction last July for $868,090 to a foreign buyer. To keep the rare masterpiece in the country, the sale price was raised by the museums thanks to grants from the National Heritage Memorial Fund and the Art Fund. The V&A and the Scottish National Gallery will share joint custody of The Campbell Sisters, each museum displaying it for seven years at a time.

Made by Florentine sculptor Lorenzo Bartolini around 1821, The Campbell Sisters Dancing a Waltz depicts the girls stepping lively side-by-side as their delicately draped gowns seem to flutter in the breeze. (It was Bartolini who dubbed the dance a “Valtzer” even though it’s obvious they’re not waltzing. The face-to-face whirling dance we know as the waltz became popular in aristocratic circles starting in the 1770s, so you’d think he would have been familiar with it.) Sisters Emma and Julia were the youngest of the eight children of Lady Charlotte Campbell, daughter of the 5th Duke of Argyll, and her distant cousin/husband John Campbell. It wasn’t a great match, fortune-wise, and after his death the Lady Charlotte had significant money troubles. By the time Bartolini immortalized Emma and Julia in graceful motion, they were living with their widowed mother in Florence where a noblewoman in reduced circumstances could live more comfortably than she could in England or Scotland.

Given their comparative brokeness, it’s not certain who commissioned the work. According to Bartolini’s studio notes, the sculpture was commissioned by the girls’ brother Mr. Campbell, but the whole family had limited funds so it’s unlikely their eldest brother Walter would have spent £500 on a marble life-sized portrait of his sisters. Perhaps a more likely candidate is the girls’ uncle, Lady Charlotte’s brother, George William Campbell, the 6th Duke of Argyll. Bartolini’s notes say they shipped it to Edinburgh and at some point the sculpture wound up in the dining room of Inveraray Castle, seat of the Dukes of Argyll. There are no references to its arrival in the castle archives.

Bartolini was famous in his time for his portrait sculptures. He had been one of Napoleon’s favorites and his fortunes suffered somewhat in the wake of his patron’s final defeat and exile, but he made a decent living in the late 18teens and twenties in large part thanks to portrait commissions. A great many portrait busts of prominent men and women of the period (the Bonaparte siblings and spouses, Alexander I of Russia, the Duke of Alba, the Duchess of Sutherland and dozens more) made by Bartolini are in museums and collections all over Europe and the United States today.

Canova’s static, posed neoclassical aesthetic still dominated, while Bartolini preferred a softer, more naturalistic approach he’d learned studying painting in Paris under Jacques-Louis David. Despite his eye for naturalism and movement so clearly evinced in The Campbell Sisters, the portrait of the young ladies is one of only two action sculptures made by Bartolini. The other one was Neoptolemus Casting Astyanax from the Walls of Troy, made in 1841 and widely considered Bartolini’s chef-d’oeuvre. Commissioned by Donna Rosa Poldi-Pezzoli, the Astyanax group would become the core of Poldi-Pezzoli Museum founded in Milan by her son Don Gian-Giacomo. Bartolini created a scene of dynamic action — Neoptolemus (aka Pyrrhus) about to throw the child Astyanx from Troy’s ramparts to his death while his mother Andromache lies prostrate at his feet, one arm reaching up his leg — in marked contrast to his static portraits.

Sadly the sculpture and its plaster model were destroyed by aerial bombing in World War II. A bronze replica made in 1902 after the original marble, then located in the courtyard of the museum building, was damaged in a hailstorm, has survived, as have preparatory drawings now in the Uffizi and the Morgan Library and Museum. That makes The Campbell Sisters the only surviving Bartolini sculpture that captures characters in movement. Because of that and because it’s a much earlier work that uniquely combines the portraiture he was best known for and an action scene, the UK museums are thrilled to get to keep The Campbell Sisters.

It is on display at the V&A right now, where it will remain until November 20th. After that, it moves to the Scottish National Gallery in Edinburgh for the first seven year visitation period. For more about Lorenzo Bartolini, peruse the marvel that is this website dedicated to the artist and his art by Florence’s Galleria dell’Accademia. It literally has his entire output in the Works gallery, plus gobs more information everywhere. The English version works too! I don’t know how many times I’ve seen the alternate languages of smaller museum sites only have a single introductory page while all the rest of the links are broken.

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Oldest message in a bottle found in Germany

August 21st, 2015

There’s a new contender for oldest message in a bottle. This one was found by retired postal worker Marianne Winkler when it washed up on the shore of the German island of Amrum on the North Sea coast. She was there on vacation, walking on the beach, when she came across the clear bottle on April 17th.

A card inside invited the finder in big, bold red letters to “BREAK THE BOTTLE” but Marianne and her husband Holst first tried to open it without breaking the glass. When that proved impossible, they followed instructions. The message in the bottle was a postage-paid postcard that asked in English, German and Dutch for finders to answer questions about where they’d found the bottle and when. Everyone who sent their postcard to the Marine Biological Association (MBA) in Plymouth would earn one shiny shilling in reward. The Winklers photocopied the postcard, filling in the information as requested on the copy, then mailed the card and copy to the MBA.

MBA researchers were shocked to receive the Winklers’ missive. There was no date on the card, but they recognized it as one of 1020 bottles released from December 1904 through August 1906 by MBA council member and future president George Parker Bidder. Bidder was studying bottom water currents (currents just above the seabed) and sent out what he called “bottom bottles” to trace the movements of the currents and fish.

Bidder’s experiment revealed a number of interesting results, one being that it confirmed the view of naturalists who supposed that bottom feeders tend to move against the current. He concluded that the main drift in all his series of bottle releases seemed to be in the opposite direction to the migration of plaice at the same time of year. Moreover, Bidder expressed the opinion that the percentage of bottles recovered by the trawls did not differ from the percentage of plaice in the same area caught by the trawl at the same time. This meant that Bidder could use the bottles as an instrument for assessing the intensity of trawling because they cannot migrate.

What was probably his most significant finding from his experiments was that many of his bottom-trailers got cast on the English shore, whereas surface bottles would, for the most part go across the North Sea. He deduced, regarding the bottom flow, “that the isochrones of the stream-front were shaped on the shoreline; and such a formation of the bottom current suggested the creeping-in of heavy water.”

Most of the bottles were retrieved by trawlers in the year immediately after their release and researchers assumed the rest were long gone, destroyed or in the open ocean. It’s been years since any cropped up, so many years that nobody even knows when the last one was found. This bottle has traveled more than 600 nautical miles over 108 years, making it the oldest known message in a bottle.

The official record-holder for oldest message in a bottle, found 99 years and 43 days after its 1914 release, was also released as part of a study of undercurrents. It was one 1,890 bottles released by the Glasgow School of Navigation to map the currents around Scotland and it seems to have understood its brief well because it was retrieved from the waters west of the Shetland Islands.

It’s not really the oldest message in a bottle, though. The message from a German hiker found by Baltic fishermen last year was released in 1913 and floated for almost 101 years, and one found in British Columbia in 2013 was released in September of 1906 by a passenger on a steamer traveling from San Francisco to Bellingham, Washington. The Baltic message hasn’t been confirmed as a record yet, and the finder of the bottle in Canada didn’t want to open it for fear of damaging it, so even though he said he was planning on writing the Guinness World Records committee, unless he was willing to open the bottle its age couldn’t be confirmed.

The Winkler’s bottle is older than both of them. The latest it could have been released was a month before the one found in British Columbia was released, and it stayed in the water two years longer. I know the records committee isn’t in the business of judging quality, but perhaps there should be some distinction made between bottles released in oceanographic studies and ones released by individuals. The odds of one of thousands of bottles surviving a century are obviously significantly higher than the odds of a single bottle surviving, and when you think “message in a bottle,” mass-mailings aren’t really what come to mind. The fascination of the message in a bottle relies on the romantic image of one person casting his or her thoughts into the world in the hope that someone somewhere might find it.

The MBA has submitted its candidate for the oldest message in a bottle to the Guinness Book of World Records and are waiting to hear back. Meanwhile, they made good on Bidder’s promise. They found a period English shilling on eBay and sent it to the Winklers.

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Mother meets daughter 70 years after war tore them apart

August 20th, 2015

A little balm for the soul is in order, I think, and a mother meeting her daughter for the first time 70 years after she was taken from her just after birth during World War II definitely qualifies.

While still a teenager, Gianna (she prefers to remain anonymous) left her hometown of Novellara in northern Italy’s Emilia Romagna province to work in Germany. Italy and Germany were still allies then, and many Italian women were recruited as labourers. She worked in a factory in Eberbach where she met and fell in love with a young Nazi soldier. After Italy signed an armistice with the Allies in September of 1943, the Italian labourers found themselves stuck in Germany under significantly less cordial circumstances. They were converted to forced-labour status and moved into camps. Gianna got pregnant and gave birth in October 1944 only to have her parental custody revoked a month later and her infant daughter taken from her by the Nazi Welfare and Juvenile Office.

When the war ended, Gianna returned home, certain her daugher and the baby’s father were dead. In fact, the baby girl had spent a short time in a children’s home before her father, still very much alive, “adopted” her. Unbeknownst to Gianna, the soldier had been married all along. He brought his daughter home and he and his wife raised her and the seven half-siblings born after the war. Margot Bachmann, as the baby girl was named, was told only that her mother was Italian and dead. Her strict father forbade her to ask any questions about her parentage.

She had an inkling even as a youngster that there was something off about this story, but her father was so adamant that she not look into it that even as an adult she was intimidated. It was only after his death two years ago and with the encouragement of her daughter that she began to break free of the psychological chains and seriously contemplate searching for the truth about her mother, never expecting to find her still alive. With the wreckage of war to sift through, Margot hit a few walls before finally finding her certificate of baptism that recorded her mother’s name.

Armed with the precious name, Margot contacted the German Red Cross who put her in touch with International Tracing Service (ITS) in Bad Arolsen, Germany, an organization dedicated to reuniting families torn apart by war. ITS has a vast archive of 30 million documents — original papers, thousands of envelopes with personal effects like wallets, correspondence files and much more — pertaining to victims of Nazi camps, 90% of which have been digitized. After an extensive search, ITS was able to find Gianna’s name and information this July. Working with the Italian Red Cross’ Family Links Networks, they were then able to locate Margot’s mother, alive and in good health at 91 years old and still living in her hometown. Had she moved at any point in the past seven decades, they would probably never have found her.

Margot wrote her mother a letter:

“Dear Mum, my name is Margot Bachmann and I am your daughter, born on Oct 25 1944 in Heidelberg. All my life I asked my family about you, without being given any answers. I want to come and find you so that I can hug you once again. I’m immensely happy to be able to finally know you.”

The weekend before last, that dream came true and mother and daugher embraced for the first time.

Laura Bastianetto of the Italian Red Cross, who was there to witness the event, said Bachmann was moved to see her mother last weekend after so many years.

“The embrace took place in a small and modest house in Novellara — a little town in the north of Italy,” she said. “It was really emotional. There were Italian and German families together with a bottle of sparkling wine for celebrating this magic moment. Margot brought an album with pictures of her family. She was very touched by the meeting and she cried.”

During the encounter, according to Bastianetto, the mother said, “I’ve paid a lot, now I want to laugh.”

The fact that Gianna has asked not to be named or photographed is an ancillary cost of that high price she’s had to pay. Women who fraternized with Germans in occupied countries were not treated well after the war was over. There are stories from France, Norway, Italy, all over, of women being forced to parade through town with their heads shaved, spat upon and derided by crowds. They were ostracized for years, and it’s not so far in the past either. Norway just allowed its handful of surviving “German whores” to receive a state pension in 2005.

“I can understand [Gianna's] position,” said Elena Carletti, the mayor of Novellara. “In this village, people have not forgotten [the war]. Even my generation knows the names of those who, during the war, were for or against the Germans. These stories still weigh heavily on many families. This encounter between a mother and daughter reminds us of a complicated chapter of history.”

Margot is planning to visit her mother again as soon as possible.

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Khaled al-Asaad. Archaeologist. Hero.

August 19th, 2015

I haven’t posted about the nightmare of IS’ systematic destruction and looting for profit of antiquities in territories under their control because it’s so horrifying I can barely stand to read the headlines, never mind do the additional research necessary for a post. Every new outrage is covered in excruciating detail by press outlets everywhere anyway, so I thought this blog might provide a little respite from the onslaught instead of adding to it. Today’s news requires that I make an exception.

Khaled al-Asaad, archaeologist, author and longtime director of antiquities and museums in Palmyra, Syria, was murdered by Islamic State fanatics yesterday. He was 82 years old. He was beheaded in front of an assembled crowd near the ancient ruins he spent his life studying and protecting. His body was then reportedly strung up on one of the Roman columns in Palmyra that he had helped restore with a placard listing his “crimes,” namely apostasy, loyalty to and regular communication with the government of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, representing Syria at conferences with “infidels” and being the director of Palmyra’s collection of “idols.” There are photographs that purport to be of his bloodied, decapitated body in other locations around the city as well.

While IS militants like to film themselves destroying archaeological sites and artifacts for propaganda purposes, the vast majority of their offenses against history are the same as any other criminal organization’s: the looting and sale of antiquities on the black market. They’ll sledgehammer a few statues in a museum on camera to make it look like they’re principled religious fanatics bringing down idols, but filthy lucre wins over so-called principles any day.

Asaad was involved in the transfer of the museum’s portable antiquities — the artifacts IS likes to steal to fund their wars — to comparative safety in Damascus. Before his death, he was held by militants who had heard some absurd rumor that ancient gold artifacts had been buried in the ruins instead of being shipped out with everything else. They interrogated him for over a month, by what atrocious means we do not know, but he refused to speak.

From a statement by UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova:

“They killed him because he would not betray his deep commitment to Palmyra,” the Director-General said. “Here is where he dedicated his life, revealing Palmyra’s precious history and interpreting it so that we could learn from this great city that was a crossroads of the ancient world. His work will live on far beyond the reach of these extremists. They murdered a great man, but they will never silence history.”

A former colleague of his, Amr al-Azm, told The Guardian:

“He was a fixture, you can’t write about Palmyra’s history or anything to do with Palmyrian work without mentioning Khaled Asaad. It’s like you can’t talk about Egyptology without talking about Howard Carter.”

The Guardian also has a lovely article written by Jonathan Tubb, Assistant Keeper of the British Museum’s Middle East Department and a good friend of Asaad’s that testifies to his warmth, generosity and passion for the history of his native city.

When I was a kid, the notion of the archaeologist hero was defined by Indiana Jones, the swashbuckling adventurer saving treasures from Nazis and heart-extracting cult leaders. But Indiana Jones is fiction and if he weren’t he’d be a looter. A man who spends half a century dedicated to the study of his beautiful city’s rich history, excavating its ancient glories and sharing them with the world in museums and books; a man who, when the storm of violence approaches, works assiduously to hide those priceless artifacts from the monsters who would destroy them or disperse them into the hands of greedy, amoral collectors around the world; a man who then refuses to leave the city even though he knows he will almost certainly be a target of said monsters; a man who, at 82 years of age, sustains a month of God knows what kind of interrogation methods without breaking; a man who gives his life for love of history. That man is the hero.

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Mass grave points to Early Neolithic massacres

August 18th, 2015

A mass grave discovered during road work in Schöneck-Kilianstädten, near Frankfurt, Germany, in 2006 is evidence of a massacre in a community of Early Neolithic farmers. The human remains were discovered by construction workers who alerted the University of Mainz to the find. Bioarchaeologist Christian Meyer and his team removed the bones in blocks of soil so they could be fully excavated and studied in laboratory conditions at the university. Radiocarbon testing of the skeletal remains found they date to between 5,207 and 4,849 B.C. That places them squarely in the Linearbandkeramik, or Linear Pottery, Culture (LBK) which flourished in central Europe from 5,500 to 4,500 B.C.

The bones were in very poor condition, most of them in fragments, but researchers were able to determine that the deceased had not been laid to rest in a respectful manner. There were no grave goods — a common feature in Neolithic burials — and no articulated remains. The bones of at least 26 people — 13 adults, one teen, two preteens and 10 children under six years old — were mixed up together in the one grave, indicating they had been thrown into a pit in a haphazard manner. Osteological analysis found extensive perimortem blunt force and arrow injuries on the bones. Arrowheads were also found amidst the remains. These people were slaughtered and then dumped in a mass grave.

This isn’t the first LBK massacre site discovered. Similar graves have been found in Talheim, Germany, and Asparn/Schletz, Austria, but the bones from the Schöneck-Kilianstädten show signs of mutilation that has not been detected at the other sites: the deliberate breaking of legs. More than half of the shin bones were intentionally broken, either by torture just before the victims died or by mutilation immediately after death.

All three LBK massacre sites date to around the same time and archaeologists have found no evidence that people of another culture were involved in the mass killings. This appears to be LBK-on-LBK violence.

Chris Scarre, an archaeologist at the University of Durham, England, who wasn't involved in the study, said its conclusions seemed well supported by the evidence.

"What is particularly interesting is the level of violence. Not just the suppression of a rival community — if that is what it was — but the egregious and systematic breaking of the lower legs," said Scarre. "It suggests the use of terror tactics as part of this inter-community violence."

LBK people were the first farmers in central Europe and the later age of the massacre sites suggest the populations may have come under pressure leading to escalating conflict and violence. No younger women were found in the Schöneck-Kilianstädten or the Asparn/Schletz graves, which could indicate a Sabine women-style abduction scenario. As for what the pressures may have been that spurred communities to violence, the study authors hypothesize that it was a combination of factors. From the paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences:

Although the underlying supraregional causes for the recognized increase in mass violence in the late LBK undoubtedly were complex and multifactorial, a significant increase in population followed by adverse climatic conditions (drought), possibly coupled with the inability of long-settled farmers to practice the avoidance behavior by which hunter-gatherers typically evade conflict, seem to have been important components of the overall picture.

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30 euro “art craft” is $15 million Picasso

August 17th, 2015

A package described on the shipping label as an “art craft” worth 30 euros ($37) turns out to have been a stolen Picasso worth $15 million. The package was sent to the US from Belgium last December and was opened by customs agents at the Port of Newark who were acting on a lead. The sender’s name was listed only as “Robert” and the destination address was a climate-controlled warehouse in Queens. Because the statements on the label and the commercial invoice describing it as an “art craft/toy” were false, the painting was seized. Authorities have made no comment on any current investigation of the theft and attempted smuggling, who the “Robert” in Belgium might be, who the recipient in the United States was meant to be.

On January 30th, experts authenticated the work as La Coiffeusse (The Hairdresser), an early cubist piece painted by Picasso in 1911. It was once owned by art historian and hero of two world wars Georges Salles who bequeathed it to the National Museums of France after his death in 1966. Salles’ mother was Claire Eiffel, daughter of engineer Gustave Eiffel of tower fame, so from a young age he was traveled in high cultural circles. He studied literature and law and school and immersed himself in the rich artistic world of pre-war Paris. He fought for France in World War I and was awarded the Croix de Guerre twice. After the war he become the Louvre’s curator of Asian Art. He was the director of the Guimet Museum in Paris when World War II broke out. Again he fought for his country, this time in the French Resistance, and was instrumental in keeping the irreplaceable artistic patrimony of France’s museums out of Nazi hands. His efforts won him yet another Croix de Guerre.

Salles was a close friend of Picasso’s. There are four drawings of Salles by Picasso in the National Museums bequest, and it was Salles who persuaded Picasso to directly donate several major works to the National Museums. After Salles’ death, his Picassos were assigned to the Musée National d’Art Moderne in the Georges Pompidou Center in Paris, among them La Coiffeusse. The painting was not on display when it disappeared. The last time it was exhibited was at the Kunsthalle Munich in 1998 after which it returned to the Pompidou Center where it was kept in storage. Only when another institution inquired about a possible loan of the piece in 2001 did museum personnel realize that it was gone. The museum reported the theft to the police in November, 2001, and the work has been listed on Interpol’s Stolen Works of Art database since then.

Once the authenticity of the painting and was confirmed, Loretta Lynch, then US Attorney for the Eastern District of New York and now Attorney General, filed a civil forfeiture complaint which allows the government to gain legal title to a forfeited good and, in this case, to return it to its rightful owner. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) Director Sarah R. Saldaña officially handed over the painting to Frédéric Doré, Deputy Chief of Mission of France at a ceremony at the French Embassy in Washington, D.C., on August 13th.

While the museum is keen to kill the fatted calf and display its prodigal daughter as soon as she gets home, La Coiffeusse is going to need some recovery time. In the (at least) 14 years since the theft, the painting has significantly deteriorated. Apparently the thieves and whoever else has put their hands on it over the course of a decade and a half treated it like the 30 euro handicraft they claimed it was. It will require extensive conservation before it can be exhibited.

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The Daughter of Dawn dawns!

August 16th, 2015

It’s been three years since I first wrote about the rediscovery of the lost silent film The Daughter of Dawn and while there have been some public screenings here and there, the long-awaited DVD and Blu-ray release seemed to be in a holding pattern. I contacted the Oklahoma Historical Society last May asking for an update on the release of the movie and they didn’t know when it would be available. They were in the process of having it rescanned in high definition and it was taking longer than expected. As they recommended, I’ve been keeping an eye on the OHS store where it has yet to appear. It’s not on Amazon, in DVD, Blu-ray or streaming. It’s not on Hulu.

It is, however, suddenly available on Netflix! I don’t know when this happened, but it’s recent, that’s for sure, because I check all the time like a proper nerd. An article this April reported The Daughter of Dawn was being released in DVD and Blu-ray later this year. Milestone Films, the independent distributor of art and classic films that came on board in 2013 to distribute the movie, has an institutional DVD and Blu-ray available on its website for $300 with a home video release scheduled for fall of 2015. I guess Netflix got first crack.

The film is in outstanding condition. It’s complete, no gaps or stills used as placeholders. Some of that is doubtless due to the high definition scanning and restoration, but there are movies this old that have never been lost that are so scratched, speckled and faded they’re hard to watch even after restoration. The five reels of The Daughter of Dawn were kept in a garage for two decades before being given to a private detective in lieu of payment in 2005. We don’t know where they spent the six decades before that, but unless it was a subarctic bunker, it’s beyond belief that the reels survived at all, never mind in such fine fettle. According to Bob Blackburn, executive director of the Oklahoma Historical Society, some parts of the film were in precarious condition, spliced together with masking tape. Milestone Films breaks out the condition issues in more detail in their press release (pdf):

Reel number one felt “tacky,” a symptom of eroding nitrate; reel number two had emulsion damage, from unwanted water or chemical reactions; reel number three was damaged along the edges; reels four and five had sprocket damage, but nothing more.

Watching the movie I only saw maybe two total minutes with significant bubbling around the edges and noticeable damage to the scene, including a handful of frames where for a fraction of a second the very clear outline of a white fingerprint covers the shot (there are several around the 30, 31 minute mark).

Another rare feature of this film is that it’s has a native widescreen aspect ratio. That gives the panoramic shots a grandeur you don’t often see in the ubiquitous 4:3 aspect ratio of the silent movie era. While there appears to have been some cropping of the black borders which doubtless helped achieve this most delightful effect, there is no distortion of the film as shot. It fills up the viewing area of my television perfectly. Such a special treat.

The title cards are sparingly used throughout, but the first few introduce the characters and also name the actors: Chief of the Kiowas played by Chief Chain-To (aka Hunting Horse), Black Wolf played by Sanka Dota (aka Jack Sankadota), Daughter of Dawn played by Princess Peka (aka Esther LeBarre), Big Bear, Chief of the Comanches, played by Chief Cozad (aka Belo Cozad). The romantic lead White Eagle, played by White Parker, son of the famous undefeated Comanche chief, Quanah Parker, does not get one of those title cards, even though a shot of him on a bluff scouting for buffalo opens the movie. A cast listing in the end credits compiled by the researchers working on the restoration of the film notes the tribe of the leads and the names and tribes of everyone else they could identify.

The first Kiowa buffalo hunt (starts around 14 minutes in) requires a hefty amount of suspension of disbelief not to look like a very sad commentary the extermination of the great wild bison herds of the Plains and of the peoples whose livelihoods largely depended upon them. White Eagle spies this thin little herdlet grazing against the majestic backdrop of the Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge near Lawton, Oklahoma, and reports back to the chief: “My eye have gladdened at the sight of many buffaloes.” There are, like, 30 max, more than a few of them juveniles. At least they actually lived where they were filmed. Fifteen years earlier there wouldn’t have been any at all to film. They’re transplants, the product of a deliberate attempt by the American Bison Society to return the bison to its ancestral lands. In 1907 the Society secured 15 head of bison from the Bronx Zoo, then under the directorship of bison conservation pioneer William Temple Hornaday, and moved them to the Oklahoma plains. It worked, to a very modest extent, and today there are 650 bison in the Wichita Mountain area descended from those 15. That means the petite herd filmed in 1920 is actually more than double the size it was 13 years earlier, which isn’t bad at all, considering.

There is no actually hunting shown, by the way, just the chase, which is great. The high-speed bareback riding is amazing. That one fellow who falls off his horse after one of the baby bison shoots like a blur in front of him and then chases down his mount to get back on (13:53) is double amazing. Really all of the riding is riveting, even the quotidian stuff. I could watch them get on and off their horses for the whole movie. They just grab a blanket and hop on up.

Every skill and craft the Comanche and Kiowa actors brought to the film is showcased beautifully: the clothes, especially the women’s dresses with long knotted fringe, the tipis, the feathered and beaded accessories, shoes, weapons, the dancing (which the Federal government had outlawed by this point but was allowed just for the movie). The famous Tipi with Battle Pictures, home of the Kiowa chief and his daughter, The Daughter of the Dawn, is exquisite, even with its many colors flattened into a sepia tint. Another tipi decorated with paintings of bison with birds standing on their backs makes a lovely showing in the background of several scenes. The interiors of the tipis look fantastic too because you can see the conical sapling structure and the sun illuminating the striations of the textile walls. Also there’s so much space in there!

The chiefs in particular appear to me to be using hand gestures more than just casually, see for instance starting at 15:35 when the Comanche chief plans their raid on the Kiowas. I wonder if they’re at least in part using the sign language they adopted to communicate with foreigners. An article in The Topeka Daily Capital of May 16th, 1921, reports that Chief Chain-To, in town for the showing of the movie, spoke no English and was converted by a Baptist missionary who had learned their sign language. Obviously they’re talking amongst themselves so there’s no need for them to sign in the film, but maybe it was a performance choice? Like a way to convey information to predominantly Anglo viewers? Or it could have just been a habit, I suppose. Anyway it’s cool.

Local newspapers report screenings in small markets around where it was filmed — Tulsa, Oklahoma, Joplin, Missouri, and Topeka, Kansas, for instance — at least one of which (Topeka) was shown by the American Legion. I found one notice of a screening as far afield as Edgefield, South Carolina. It’s interesting that even in March of 1921 the movie was being promoted as historically significant. It got a bit of Bill Cody-style promotion as well. Here’s a notice in the May 19th, 1921, issue of the Joplin Globe:

Chief Chain-To and five other full-blood Kiowa Indians, including the chief’s grandson, Little Pony, will appear today, Friday and Saturday at the Electric theater in connection with a motion picture, “The Daughter of Dawn,” in which they appear in the cast of characters. The Indians will give exhibition before the screen in Indian dances and songs. Chief Chain-To will give a short lecture in connection with the picture, telling how he likes the “movies” and giving a brief history of the play.

Presumably that lecture, like the one in the Topeka church, would be translated live by an interpreter. I sure would love to know what he said. Alas, if there was any reporting on what he said about how he lives the “movies” and the story behind the film, I haven’t been able to find it.

Final verdict: ten stars. On a scale of four. It’s 80 minutes long, there’s no dialogue, precious little verbiage at all and I couldn’t take my eyes off it. It really is living historic preservation. I’ve already watched it twice and will doubtless add to that count.

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Settlement Era longhouse found in Reykjavík

August 15th, 2015

The ruins of an early Viking longhouse have been discovered under an empty lot on Lækjargata, a street in downtown Reykjavík. The lot was excavated in advance of construction of a four-star hotel because it was known to have been the site of a turf farm built in 1799. Archaeologists did find the remains of the farm as expected soon after excavations began in April, and then completely unexpectedly found the remains of the longhouse in June. All of the Settelement Era (874-930 A.D.) remains found in Reykjavík before this one were further to the west. The discovery of the Lækjargata longhouse indicates that early Viking-era Reykjavík was either larger or more spread out than scholars realized.

The longhouse was at least 20 meters (66 feet) long and 5.5 meters (18 feet) wide — the remains extend into the neighboring property so the full perimeter has not been established — and had a central fire pit 5.2 meters (17 feet) long, one of the longest ever discovered in Iceland. A separate cooking pit was unearthed with the remains of animal bones inside and stones that were heated and used to keep water hot or to cook food over. An area of red earth and blackened material is likely evidence of an uncontrolled, destructive fire. Archaeologists believe the fire occurred just after the abandonment of the home or, more likely, was the impetus for said abandonment.

Early settlement archaeology in Reykjavík relies on layers of volcanic tephra ash deposited around 871 A.D. by an eruption in the Torfajökull volcano complex 250 miles southeast of Reykjavík to help date sites. Based on the ash found in the remains of the turf walls of the longhouse, Iceland Institute of Archaeology archaeologist Lisabet Guðmundsdóttir believes it was built around a century after the 871 tephra fall. Spindle whorls found in the longhouse bracket its age on the other end; they disappear from the Icelandic archaeological record after 1150 A.D.

The discovery generated much excitement among archaeologists and the general public. The excavation drew crowds who peppered the archaeologists with questions about the longhouse and the fate of the site. The original plan was to salvage whatever archaeological material was found, removing it from the site to a museum, but that was before they knew there were so significant and ancient remains there. The hotel developers suggested there might be some way to integrate the archaeological site into the hotel, something that has been done successfully before elsewhere.

This week Reykjavík’s environment and planning committee took an important step in ensuring the preservation of the longhouse. It called for the prompt establishment of an advisory committee on how to handle the longhouse site and other recently excavated remains near the harbor.

The resolution from the planning committee says that the new advisory committee should formulate proposals on how best to preserve the sites in question for the future and how best to display them openly to the public.

The committee should set to work quickly and include the city culture, tourism, environment and planning committees in its work; as well as the city council cabinet. It is very important to preserve these sites, the resolution states.

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