Irma cannot defeat cats with opposable thumbs

September 12th, 2017

Ah, Internets, how I missed you. An outage of just over 24 hours had me in full white-knuckle withdrawal mode. I don’t know how the Harvey/Irma folks can stand it. Take, for instance, the staff of the Hemingway Home and Museum on Key West. Key West, like all of the Florida Keys, was smack in Irma’s path, and the Overseas Highway, its sole road linking it to the mainland, was sure to be underwater leaving Key West without means of resupply. Residents were ordered by the governor to evacuate the Keys. The National Weather Service minced no words, warning that “nowhere in the Florida Keys will be safe” from Irma. Governor Rick Scott minced even fewer words: “You will not survive.”

Hemingway Home and Museum, Key West, Florida. Photo courtesy Hemingway Home and Museum.One museum curator, 10 museums staffers and more than 50 cats were not persuaded. Curator of the Hemingway Home and Museum Dave Gonzales chose to stay in the historic property once inhabited by Ernest Hemingway and 10 staffers joined him. Perhaps even more beloved (and certainly better known) than the mere humans are the cats, most of them polydactyl, descended from the author’s original cats.

Hemingway loved cats and ended up with more than 50 of them. He had a great fondness for polydactyls which were considered good luck on board ships. It was a sea captain who gave Hemingway his first polydactyl, Snowball. Today the descendants of Snowball and his feline family live on the estate and have the run of the place, just as the cats did when Hemingway lived there. Most of them are neutered, with only a select few allowed to breed very rarely to ensure the population remains steady at around 50. Named after the greatest stars of pop culture, they are so famous and so popular that polydactyls, particularly those with little thumbs that make them look like they’re wearing boxing gloves, are commonly known as Hemingways. Half of the visitors to the Hemingway Home and Museum go there just to see the cats.

Nobel-prize winning novelist Ernest Hemingway’s home on Key West has many of his personal belongings on display from furniture to pens, and of course it has its greatest stars roaming the grounds, but it is a National Historic Landmark whose history long predates Hemingway’s residence. The white Spanish colonial mansion was built in 1851 by marine architect Asa Tift. A ship’s captain and salvage wrecker who was well-versed in the challenges of building on a small island that is almost entirely at sea level, Tift chose his site wisely. He picked the second highest point in Key West at 16 feet above sea level and then quarried its limestone. That provided his home with a deep, dry basement and a supply of 18-inch blocks carved from solid limestone with which to build it.

A family squabble kept the old Tift mansion boarded up and abandoned until Ernest Hemingway bought it in 1931 for $8,000. He lived in the home with his second wife Patricia and their two sons from 1931 until 1940. Those brief nine years were exceptionally prolific, the most productive of his life. He wrote 70% of his total output during those years, including To Have and Have Not, Death in the Afternoon and For Whom the Bell Tolls. He also paid a nosebleed-inducing $20,000 to have the first in-ground pool in Key West installed in 1938. Two years later and three years after he began his affair with Martha Gellhorn, Ernest moved to Cuba, got a divorce and got remarried to Gellhorn three weeks after it was finalized.

He kept the house until his death, although he never lived in it again. He died in 1961 and his widow (wife #4, Mary Welsh) sold it to Bernice Dickson who would transform it into a museum. In all this time, through the dozens (hundreds?) of hurricanes and crazy storms it has seen since 1851, the Hemingway Home has always held out against the elements. Its basement doesn’t flood. Its walls remain unbreached. That’s why Gonzales is so confident in the Hemingway Home’s capacity to weather even a monster hurricane like Irma. Only Solares Hill (18 feet above sea level) is at a higher elevation than the Hemingway estate, and its massive limestone construction and deep basement make it one of the safest places, if not the safest, on the island. It also has an array of generators for power and climate control. The ten employees who are joining Gonzales live at lower elevations on the island and have chosen to seek shelter behind those thick limestone blocks.

Besides, somebody has to take care of the cats. The staff helped round them all up and bring them indoors to safety. Father John Baker from St. Mary’s Star of the Sea Basilica (one of the oldest Catholic parishes in Florida and Pauline Hemingway’s parish when she lived at Hemingway Home) blessed the staff and cats.

Window and shutters nailed down under plywood, fully stocked with supplies, safe and dry in a basement that has never flooded, Gonzales, the staff and the cats stared Irma down. She was no match for them. From the Hemingway Home Cats Instagram page:

We are so extremely happy to announce that everyone, cats and staff, have weathered the storm and are only reporting trees down on property as far as damage goes. Communication with the Hurricane crew is incredibly limited and they currently do not have power, water, phones or internet. We do not have any photos to share at this time. Nicole was our only admin for the page that stayed on the hurricane crew. She will share when internet access is available. Please keep in mind that clean up is already underway and therefore we will not be posting anything more until normal communication services are available on the island. We appreciate the concern and well wishes.

Here’s a great tour of the Hemingway Home and Museum led by Dave Gonzales, whose handsome snowy beard may or may not be related to Hemingway’s iconic facial hair.

And here is an extremely badass cat with many toes ideally positioned for the pummelling of interlopers keeping Ernest Hemingway’s typewriter from harm.

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Technical difficulties

September 11th, 2017

Due to inclement weather, my Internet is out. If the cable company isn’t lying, I should be back online soon. Don’t panic!

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Cache of cavalry weapons found at Vindolanda

September 10th, 2017

Speaking of banner dig seasons, this year’s excavations at Vindolanda Roman fort have unearthed a unique treasure: a large cache of weapons left behind on the floor of a cavalry barracks.

The discovery of the barrack was momentous on its own. The team of archaeologists and volunteers dug underneath the stone foundations of the 4th century fortress (the last one built at Vindolanda) and found a layer of anaerobic soil. That has been the secret to Vindolanda’s exceptional preservation of organic materials likes leather shoes, wooden toilet seats, birch log water pipes and, its famous writing tablets. Archaeologists did not expect to find this type of soil in this location and were elated.

Inside the oxygen-free soil layer, the team found timber walls, floors and fences recognizable from the remains of the stables as a Roman cavalry barrack. In total they’ve unearthed eight rooms — the stables, the living space for the humans, the kitchen ovens and fireplaces. The first blade was unearthed in a corner of the living room. The iron blade was still sharp and secured inside its wooden scabbard and the wooden pommel intact.

The numen of Vindolanda must be looking out for their archaeologists because a few weeks later the team found a second cavalry sword. It was just the blade and intact tang this time — no handle or scabbard or pommel — but it’s an incredibly rare piece nonetheless and the team was ecstatic to have found two cavalry swords inside one month. Long and very thin, Roman cavalry swords rarely survive the ravages of time because they’re so easily destroyed by corrosion.

They also found two wee wooden swords, toys for children, doubtless, and a massive quantities of assorted artifacts. Rubbing shoulders with swords real and toy were ink writing tablets, shoes, stylus pens, ink writing tablets, copper-alloy harness fittings, and even more weapons from cavalry lances to ballista bolts.

The abandonment of such an exceptional (and expensive) assortment of goods left strewn on the floor of the barracks must have been occasioned by some impending danger.

Birley said: “The swords are the icing on the cake for what is a truly remarkable discovery of one of the most comprehensive and important collections from the intimate lives of people living on the edge of the Roman Empire at a time of rebellion and war. What’s exciting is that [they] are remarkably well-preserved … There is a huge range of stuff – their hair combs, pots, wooden spoons, bowls, weapons, bits of armour, and their cavalry bling.

“Even for us, it’s very unusual to get things like complete Roman swords, sitting on the ground in their scabbards with their handles and their pommels. We were slightly dumbfounded by that. Then, to find another complete sword in another room next door only two metres away, two wooden swords and a host of other cavalry equipment, all in beautiful condition, is just terrific.

“Archaeologists would never expect to find a Roman cavalry sword in any context, because it’s like a modern-day soldier leaving his barracks and dumping his rifle on the floor … This is a very expensive thing. So why leave [it] behind?”

Dr Andrew Birley with sword. Photo courtesy the Vindolanda Trust.The barrack is one of the earliest built at Vindolanda. Constructed in 105 A.D., it predates Hadrian’s Wall by almost 20 years. At that time, it was host to military units from all over the empire, including the Belgians in the 1st Cohort of Tungrians and the Spanish Vardulli Cavalrymen.

Birley said: “There was strife. This is the precursor to Hadrian coming to the UK to build his wall. This is the British rebellion. So you can imagine a scenario where the guys and girls at Vindolanda are told: ‘We need to leave in a hurry, just take what you can carry.’ If it’s your sword or your child, you grab the child.”

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New Kingdom goldsmith’s tomb found in Luxor

September 9th, 2017

The Draa Abul Nagaa necropolis in Luxor has had an extraordinarily productive year. In April Egypt’s Antiquities Ministry announced the discovery of a more than a thousand ushabti funerary figurines, eight mummies and 10 wooden sarcophagi with their polychrome paint still vivid in the tomb of an 18th Dynasty judge named Userhat. A month later the Spanish National Research Council revealed one of my favorite Egyptian finds of all time: the first funerary garden ever discovered. To that outstanding record we can now add the tomb of a New Kingdom goldsmith.

Archaeologists excavating the site unearthed a tomb replete with figurines, mummies, painted sarcophagi, jewelry, combs and, even more important to researchers, a statue whose inscription identifies the owner of the tomb as “Amun’s Goldsmith, Amenemhat.” The statue is a portrait of the Amenemhat seated next to his wife, a painted portrait of their son between them. His wife, identified as “the lady of the house,” was named Amenhotep, an unusual choice as it was traditionally a male name. The statue was placed in a niche in the courtyard of the site. According to the Egyptian Minister of Antiquities Khaled Al-Anani, the tomb dates to the 15th century B.C. during the 18th Dynasty of the New Kingdom.

The team unearthed two burial shafts. The first one archaeologists excavated and explored connected to a funerary chamber with multiple mummies, about 150 wood, clay and limestone ushabtis and funerary masks. The chamber at the end of the second shaft held the mummified remains of a woman and two children. Osteological analysis of the woman’s remains indicate she was about 50 years old when she died. She suffered from a painful bacterial bone disease, although it’s not clear if that was the underlying condition that led to her death. The two adult males with her, likely her sons, were in their 20s and 30s at time of death.

There is no evidence linking the remains to Amenemhat, so we don’t know if this is the wife depicted in the statue or someone completely different. Many tombs at Draa Abul Nagaa were reused for centuries, and this one was no exception. It was reused for burials during the 11th and 10th centuries B.C. (the Third Intermediate Period).

The excavation is ongoing and Al-Anani is hopeful that the team will be able to unearth more tombs, remains and artifacts. Dig leader Mostafa Waziri, head of the Antiquities Ministry’s Luxor department, thinks there are four more tombs adjacent to the goldsmith’s tomb. It was Waziri and his team that discovered the plethora of ushabtis and mummies in the judge’s tomb earlier this year, so it’s been a banner year for them.

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Rijksmuseum to delight Schiphol travelers even more than the duty-free cheeses

September 8th, 2017

The Rijksmuseum, ever the innovator in devising new ways for people to experience its incalculable cultural patrimony, opened a mini-branch at Schiphol airport. It was the first museum in the world to open in an airport. Now Rijksmuseum Schiphol is back again and better than ever in a newly refurbished space. The area just past security between Lounge 2 and 3, dubbed Holland Boulevard, has been converted into a museum showcasing some of the Netherlands’ greatest works of art.

The exhibition space was designed in an S-shape for ease of movement and travellers can enter it from two opposite sides. On display are 10 paintings from the Rijksmuseum collection. There are two pairs of exceptional portraits, landscapes with windmills enough to satisfy the most demanding of tourists, a floral still life that anyone who has played with the museum’s fantastic Rijkstudio gallery will recognize as the sample image on how to use the system, turbulent seascapes on canvas and on tile. Among the masters on display are Jan van Goyen, Willem van de Velde the Younger, Abraham Mignon and Michiel van Mierevelt.

For those last-minute “what did you bring me?” presents, there is also a gift shop with souvenirs from famous Dutch museums, including the Rijksmuseum. (They have some pretty great stuff, actually. I reverently clip my toenails into The Night Watch mini-tray my parents got me from the Rijksmuseum gift shop a few years ago.)

The new exhibition makes Schiphol the only airport in the world with original 17th century artworks on display in the terminal. If visitors can’t make it to Holland Boulevard, Schiphol will give them a little something cool to remember the Netherlands’ art by anyway. Starting on September 5th, the entire 73-meter facade of carousel 16 in Baggage Hall 3 was decorated with pictures of 45 iconic paintings by the likes of Rembrandt van Rijn, Jan Mostaert, Johannes Vermeer and Vincent van Gogh.

Rijksmuseum Schiphol is open 24 hours a day and admission is free. Travellers flying into or out of Amsterdam will be able to transmute the base metal of slogging through airports into the purest Dutch Golden Age.

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17th c. royal flagship unearthed in central Stockholm

September 7th, 2017

Earlier this summer, the remains of a shipwreck were discovered during renovation of a quay on the Skeppsholmen islet in central Stockholm. Stockholm is no stranger to shipwrecks underneath its feet. Like Manhattan, San Francisco and other major port cities, large parts of it were constructed over the rubble of discarded ships. Archaeologists from the Stockholm Maritime Museum were overseeing the work and so were on site when the wreck first emerged and it was quickly clear to them that this ship was much older than anything they had expected to find in the area.

“We were really surprised, because we have some old maps that show some wrecks from the early 1800s, and it seems like the older wrecks don’t show up on the map. There were no indications of this wreck on the maps,” [marine archaeologist Jim Hansson] said, adding the remains uncovered include a section of the ship two metres up from the keel and parts of the transom.

“It was really well preserved. It is only to the first deck level, but you can still see the cut marks from the axes on the timber, for example. It’s been really nice to excavate the parts.”

Dendrochronological analysis of wood samples from the shipwreck found that the oak timbers were cut in the winters of 1612/3 and 1613/4 from trees in Sweden. The principle of Swedish shipbuilding in the early 17th century held that wood should be used within two years of cutting, so most of the ship was probably built between 1612 and 1614 with bursts of activity through 1616. The team searched through the naval archives for major warships that were built at that time. Only four warships were found on the lists made then. Two of them were too small, the third sank in a storm at sea leaving one likely identification: the Scepter, the largest of them all.

The Scepter was built by Isbrand Johansson, the Dutch-born master shipwright at Stockholm’s Royal shipyard, starting in late 1612, early 1613. She entered the lists in 1615 but was only fully completed and ready for action in 1617. Displacing 800 tons and armed with 36 guns, it was one of the flagships of young King Gustavus Adolphus’ fleet. In 1621, the Scepter carried that same king on a mission of conquest to Riga, then part of the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth. They got it as far as Estonia before a storm forced them to stop. The king disembarked and made his way to Riga overland. The surviving ships of the 148 that had set out for Riga tried again only to meet another brutal storm. The fleet, including the Scepter, finally did make it to Riga, although Scepter ran aground once she got there and the whole fleet had to wait for the crew to extricate her.

After a long and distinguished career, the Scepter was retired in 1639 and sent to a farm in the country with lots of other ships to play with in a big crystalline lake. Naw, jk, they scuttled her on the coast of Skeppsholmen so her woodsy skeleton could be part of the foundation of a new shipyard being built on the island.

The king who ordered her construction when he was a teenager and caught a ride to nowhere on her a few years later, was a brilliant military commander whose success in warfare on sea and land during the Thirty Years’ War made Sweden one of the great powers of Europe. From his ascension to the throne as Gustav II Adolf in 1611 two months shy of his 17th birthday until his early death in 1632, Gustavus fought constantly, first to keep his throne and then to expand its territories and powers exponentially. He inherited wars against three foreign powers and was beset by enemies/family members who thought a boy king made an easy target.

They were wrong. Little Gustav turned out to be really good at fighting. (When will we learn the lessons of Lyanna Mormont of Bear Island?) His innovative approach combined modern technology (artillery), cavalry and infantry to work together seamlessly. All of his troops received extensive cross-training and were not saddled with all the hierarchical obsessions about which branch of the armed services were superior to others, cavalrymen being higher-up on the socio-military scale than infantry, etc. Gustavus did away with those entrenched inequities kept other nations’ militaries splintered in function and fractious in disposition. Every branch was treated equitably with full financial support from the king’s efficient and, most importantly, solvent administration.

Because of his forward-thinking integration of resources human, animal and technological and his gift for logistics, Gustavus Adolphus has been called the Father of Modern Warfare. After he died leading a cavalry charge at The Battle of Lützen on November 6, 1632, the Swedish Estates of the Realm declared that King Gustavus Adolphus would hereby be known as Gustavus Adolphus Magnus, Gustav Adolf the Great. That remains his official name in Sweden. He is the only king of Sweden to be granted this honorific.

It was Gustavus Aldophus who created the modern Swedish navy, taking it from the small Royal Fleet his grandfather King Gustav Vasa had started with ships he bought from the powerful Hanseatic city of Lübeck into a naval force of state-of-the-art warships. Gustavus started from scratch, building and expanding shipbuilding facilities that could supply new vessels at a brisk pace. He also started young, still effectively under regency, ordering new, heavily armed warships so he had a chance against in all those wars Sweden had been embroiled in while he was still in diapers. Ten years after the Scepter was launched, Gustavus launched an even larger beauty queen of a ship that also wound up wrecked. This one wasn’t wrecked deliberately — it was too top-heavy and just toppled over like a real life Barbie doll would — and good thing too because then we would have been denied the misty fantasy dreamship that is the Vasa.

“It’s a really important find because the ship is from the generation before Vasa, so we can see the technical building methods that were used, and it can help us understand what went wrong with the Vasa as well,” said Hansson[.]

The poor Scepter doesn’t rate the kind of huge-budget, multi-decade commitment that resurrected the Vasa. It isn’t intact, obviously, and there are no plans to raise it. Researchers have done some 3D imaging of the wreck in situ, fully documented it and taken samples. She’s staying where she is. Construction continues at the site, still overseen by Stockholm Maritime Museum archaeologists who are hoping more of the ship, or artifacts therefrom, may be discovered.

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Stone latrine found in Byzantine basilica in Egypt

September 6th, 2017

Archaeologists excavating the site of an ancient city on the shore of Lake Mariout southwest of Alexandria have unearthed a stone latrine in the remains of a Byzantine-era basilica. Built in the late 5th century A.D., the basilica was the second largest of its kind in Egypt. During its heyday, masses were attended by huge crowds. Congregants filled the interior and pilgrims lined the exterior of the church. Hence the need for toilet facilities.

“We believe that they were available to the believers – from the inside of the basilica, and to the pilgrims – from the outer walls of the building” – said [excavation director Dr. Krzysztof] Babraj. According to the scientist, the discovery is not a surprise for researchers, because the latrines were a standard facility in ancient churches. There probably were separate rooms for women and separate for men.

“Interestingly, the priest had a private latrine in one of the side chapels of the basilica” – added the archaeologist.

In keeping with the fine tradition of important artifacts being found in and around toilets, the team has discovered two exceptional pieces of jewelry in the rooms next to the latrines: a bronze seal ring engraved with the figure of a saint, and a tiny bracelet (probably worn by a child) engraved with an apotropaic symbol to ward off evil and bad luck. The seal ring is the only one known to have been discovered in northern Egypt. Researchers think it is a bishop’s ring used to stamp the official’s seal on official documents and correspondence.

The Polish Centre of Mediterranean Archaeology, University of Warsaw and the Archaeological Museum of Krakow have been excavating the site since 2000. They believe it is the ancient city of Marea, a port town that gained international fame in the Greco-Roman era for its high quality wine, glass and pottery. Marea’s proximity to the Nile at full flood and to the Mediterranean enabled it to create a direct navigable route to the sea via a series of canals. The city prospered from the Mediterranean and Upper Egyptian trade for centuries and a great deal of archaeological evidence attests to the importance of its port. Six massive stone piers more than 100 meters (330 feet) long have been unearthed, the largest of which was made from large stone blocks sealed with waterproof mortar. Archaeologists have also found quays, a causeway linking the port an island 100 meters east on which additional piers and quays were built. There were sufficient harbour facilities to allow hundreds of ships to load and unload cargo at the same time.

While the Polish mission calls the site Marea, there is not universal agreement among scholars that they’re right. Marea was an important city already in the early Roman and was likely already coming to prominence during the reign of the Ptolemies, but in almost two decades of excavation, the mission has found very few remains from the Greco-Roman period, most notably a kiln from the 2nd-3rd century A.D. which is one of the largest ever found in Egypt. The basilica, public baths, and massive stone piers, the kind of imposing structures you would expect a city like Marea to have had in its ancient heyday, all date to much later, the 5th and 6th centuries.

Another possible identification for the city has been posited by the University of Warsaw’s Mieczyslaw Rodziewicz, an expert in Greco-Roman Alexandria. He suggested it might be Philoxenite, a Byzantine city founded during the reign of Eastern Roman Emperor Anastasius (491-518) to provide shelter and supplies for pilgrims on their way to the monastery of Abu Mena less than 20 miles southeast of the city. The body of martyr and saint Menas of Alexandria was said to have been transported from Alexandria past Lake Mariout into the desert. The monastery was built on the spot of his burial. It makes sense that a city built to accommodate pilgrims on their way to Abu Mena would be located on the path his body took, that it would have the large-scale facilities necessary to host this kind of traffic and that they would date to the early Byzantine era.

There’s a chance we might find the answer to this question written on potsherds. In a group of commercial buildings and residences behind the apse of the basilica, the Polish mission found a large number of ostracons (pottery fragments with writing scratched onto them). These are records left behind by the workers who built the basilica. They date to the 5th-6th century and most of them appear to have been written by one man. Translation is ongoing.

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16th c. local nautical map from colonial Mexico is satellite accurate

September 5th, 2017

When the Spanish first colonized the Americas in the 16th century, they were starting from scratch, cartographically speaking. The maps of the New World were largely line drawings of the east coast done by explorers and navigators. These were combined to create large scale coastal maps of the entire continent, but they weren’t complete, accurate or in proper scale. Spain needed detailed, precise maps and not just of the coastline to fully exploit its newly conquered territories and to settle disputes with Portugal over who owned what. As a consequence, in the last third of the 16th century King Philip II launched a project to map the entire continent, coastal and interior. To aid in this goal, they employed Relaciones Geográficas, surveys sent to the colonial authorities in every community soliciting an array of information about local geography, languages, natural resources, trade, religion, botany, demographics, place names and topography. The completed surveys also had to include a map of the area.

Data came trickled in — political boundaries, topographical features, the largest roads and towns mapped using diverse sources ranging from pre-Columbian indigenous tradition to contemporary artists to Spanish officials — but the regional maps, if they were submitted at all, were not the accurate representations Spain had hoped for. Most of them contained no distance measurements (which means no scale) or usable coordinates. Many of the colonial authorities in these towns were local leaders and had no training in formal cartographic methods, and they commissioned the maps from Spanish, Creole and indigenous artists, not people likely to take exact measurements and transfer them to the page. The standards of European cartography were only employed by a handful of punctilious functionaries from Spain.

One of the most adept Spanish mapmakers was Francisco Gali, a sailor, explorer, author from Seville who is best known today for having explored the Pacific Northwest coast in the search for a port that could be used by the Manila galleons on their way to Peru. Before making it all the way up north, he arrived in New Spain in 1580. He settled in the town of Tlacotalpa, modern-day Tlacotalpán, in the state of Veracruz, southeastern Mexico, where a group of local mayors asked him to make the regional map demanded by the Relaciones Geográficas questionnaire.

Architect and professor of Graphic Engineering at the University of Seville Manuel Morato has been studying topographic maps and regional cartography since 2010. Gali’s map of Tlacotalpa is highly relevant to his interests because it is one of the earliest examples of nautical cartography in Spanish America and is exceptionally accurate. In fact, His study of the map has found that it matches up to modern technologically-derived data with startling precision.

Gali produced a hand-drawn nautical chart in February 1580 with great exactitude by the standards of the time. It shows in great detail the coast, the estuaries, bays, capes, lagoons and rivers, and in some areas, indicates the depth of the water. Both the chart and the text of the Relación are kept in the Royal Academy of History in Madrid. According to the text of the Relación, in the local tongue, “náhuatl-Tlacotalpa” means “divided land,” which refers to the fact that the village was founded in the Pre-Hispanic era on an island in the river Papaloapan, as is represented on the map.

“The Gali map has been compared with current satellite photographs, and the images are practically the same, apart from the distances of the time and the growth of the populated areas, like the city port of Veracruz and its surroundings,” adds the researcher. So the planimetric deformation of the map, compared with a current one, could be due to the fact that Gali did not take sufficient measurements or that he did so, but too quickly, as he was only passing through the area.

North American experts like Barbara Mundy suggest that these deformations could be due to Gali having used an existing padrón (a master map that was updated as new lands were discovered) that included these deformations. In this case, Gali only had to complete the information by adding locations and detailing geographical features. Manuel Morato maintains that this hypothesis is quite unlikely due to the secret nature of the Padrón Real, which was jealously guarded in the Casa de la Contratación in Seville, and of which obsolete copies were destroyed so that they did not fall into the hands of foreign powers. Other causes could have been motivated by the lack of in situ measurements and the impossibility of determining geographical length in the 16th century.

Morato ‘s study of the Gali map of Tlacotalpa has been published in The Cartographic Journal. It’s a fascinating read, and not just for map nerds either because it covers so much ground, if you’ll pardon the on-the-nose metaphor.

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Oldest known gospel commentary in Latin now in English

September 4th, 2017

A complete copy of a long-lost book from antiquity, the Commentary on the Gospels by Fortunatianus, Bishop of Aquileia, has been translated into English for the first time. The commentary was written in the middle of the fourth century and was believed to have been lost in early medieval period. Before the full commentary was found in a library in Germany in 2012, only three fragments from it were known to exist. Now that it has returned to us in its complete glory, it is the oldest surviving Latin commentary on the Gospels.

About 100 pages long, Fortunatianus’ commentary is divided four sections: an overview on the characteristics of the four Gospels, a detailed treatment of Matthew in three chapters, an index listing the 160 chapters of the commentary and lastly the commentary itself. Matthew gets the vast majority of the bishop’s attention, with 129 of those chapters covering the Gospel of Matthew. The famous opening verses of John get 18 chapters. Luke gets a little something with 13 chapters. No soup for Mark.

The commentary’s long-lost identity was rediscovered in 2012 by Dr. Lukas Dorfbauer from the Corpus Scriptorum Ecclesiasticorum Latinorum (CSEL) of the University of Salzburg. He found it in Codex 17, a 9th century manuscript in the collection of the Archbishop’s Diocesan and Cathedral Library in Cologne. It was catalogued as an anonymous commentary, but Dorfbauer recognized it as a copy of an older original and when he read further he discovered three quotations that were the only known remnants of Fortunatianus of Aquileia’s gospel commentary.

According to Jerome’s account of him in De Viris Illustribus (On Illustrious Men), Fortunatianus was Bishop of Aquileia during the reign of Emperor Constantius II (r. 337-361). His commentary was important enough to rate a mention, but as far as Jerome was concerned, Fortunatianus was a heretical liar who was “considered detestable” because he had badgered and abused Pope Liberius into accepting Arianism after Constantius II, who supported the Arian side, had exiled the Liberius over the controversy.

Other than Jerome’s writings, there is no evidence of any conflict between the Arian Fortunatianus and the Orthodox Liberius. The Pope speaks of Fortunatianus in glowing terms in a letter to Eusebius, with no reference to any disagreement over whether, as Arius posited, Jesus Christ was separate and subordinate to God the Father.

“I have also sent letters to Fortunatianus, our brother and fellow bishop, whom I know does not fear human persons and has greater consideration for the future rewards, so that he too may see fit to be vigilant with you even now, for his personal integrity and for the faith which he knows he has kept even with the risks of the present life.”

Nor is there incontrovertible evidence that Liberius ever backed down from his vocal opposition to Arianism. The three letters that indict him for caving to pressure from the emperor are very likely forgeries.

Even as the question of the nature of the Christian Godhead raged in the highest ecclesiastical and imperial circles, even the most rabid Niceneans held Fortunatianus’ gospel commentary in high regard. Jerome admitted with characteristic grudging gracelessness that he had referred to Fortunatianus’ work when writing his own gospel commentaries.

Jerome wrote at the very end of the 4th century A.D.; after that, there are only a smattering of references to Fortunatianus’ commentary which don’t even credit the author by name. Centuries would pass before Fortunatianus got a few namedrops again. Carolingian scholars mention him by name in the 9th century, but wistfully remark on how the work itself was impossible to find by that point. Copies of the commentary were likely purged because of his purported Arian beliefs. As Jerome put it, his work was “held in detestation” too just like he was.

Dr. Dorfbauer began work on a new edition of the commentary in 2013, publishing multiple papers on the work as he progressed. Now he and Dr. Hugh Houghton, of the University of Birmingham’s Institute for Textual Scholarship and Electronic Editing, have created an English translation of Commentary on the Gospels by Fortunatianus of Aquileia.

Dr Houghton, University of Birmingham, said:

“Most of the works which survive from the earliest period of Latin Christianity are by later, more famous authors such as St Jerome, St Ambrose or St Augustine and have attained the status of classics. To discover a work which predates these well-known writers is an extraordinary find.

“One of my contributions was to compare the biblical quotations in the Cologne manuscript with our databases here in Birmingham. Parallels with texts circulating in north Italy in the middle of the fourth century offer a perfect fit with the context of Fortunatianus.

“Astonishingly, despite being copied four centuries after the last reference to his gospel commentary, this manuscript seems to preserve the original form of Fortunatianus’ ground-breaking work.” […]

The biblical text of the manuscript is of particular significance, as it predates the standard Latin version known as the Vulgate and provides new evidence about the earliest form of the Gospels in Latin.

The identification of the lost manuscript has also allowed the researchers to identify other, shorter pieces as the work of Fortunatianus. Previously these works had been assigned to other ancient authors, such as Chromatius, a later Bishop of Aquileia, or Hilary of Poitiers but are now proven to be extracts from Fortunatianus.

Existing textbooks about the early reception of the Gospels will need to be revised to take account of this major find, which also contains important new material for liturgical studies and other aspects of early Christianity.

The best part of all is that this newly translated edition of a prodigal son of ancient literature has been returned to us in digital form. The entire book is available for free online in pdf format. It’s a beautiful fusion of ancient source and digital technology, and a perfect wheel-has-come-full-circle moment because Dr. Dorfbauer rediscovered the commentary while browsing the digitized version of the manuscript.

You can follow in his footsteps on the extraordinary Codices Electronici Ecclesiae Coloniensis website, which contains digital reproductions of all the medieval manuscripts owned by the Archbishop’s Diocesan and Cathedral Library in Cologne.

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Record-breaking Triceratops fossil found in Denver

September 3rd, 2017

On August 25th, a construction crew working on a new Public Safety Facility for police and fire services in Thornton, in the metropolitan area of Denver, Colorado, stumbled across the remains of one of the top 5 favorite dinosaurs of every child who just got his first dinosaur book: a Triceratops. Dan Wagner, a construction inspector with Terracon Consultants, made the first discovery. It was just a small piece of brownish bone but he wisely investigated further. He swept the area and found more of the bone embedded in the soil. When he had uncovered enough to see that this one bone was about four inches wide, he realized it had to be a dinosaur fossil.

A team of paleontologists and volunteers from the Denver Museum of Nature & Science (DMNS) excavated the fossil at the construction site. The excavation quickly yielded results. By August 29th, they’d unearthed a horn and a shoulder blade. The next day a second horn made its appearance, as did a piece of the frill, the lower jaw beak, a few ribs and vertebrae. As of September 1st, the bone count was up to 12.

The first bone to be fully excavated and removed from the site was a rib bone that weighs 40 pounds. Extrapolating from the size of the bones, Sertich estimates the Thornton Triceratops was rather petite, approximately the size of a rhino. Triceratops fossils discovered in Montana and North and South Dakota were notably larger than the Denver fellow, about the size of a medium elephant.

Because of its location on the K-Pg (Cretaceous–Paleogene) boundary — a thin geological stratum that marks the end of the Cretaceous Period and the beginning of the Paleogene Period — Denver sits atop a wealth of paleontological remains. There was a mass extinction event during this transition, one that took out all of the dinosaurs (except for the birdlike ones), so digging underneath the boundary in Denver can reveal a variety of fossils from the late Cretaceous, around 66 million years ago. Because Denver is so extensively built over, it’s not often that paleontologists have the opportunity to excavate below the boundary layer, and when they do, most of what they find are plant fossils; large animals like dinosaurs are rare finds in the Denver area. Dr. Sertich believes this Triceratops is one of the most important finds of the decade in Colorado.

“Based on what we’ve uncovered up to this point, this find is likely the most complete Cretaceous period skeleton ever found in this region,” said Joe Sertich, Denver Museum of Nature & Science curator of dinosaurs. “This is what we as curators dream about — getting a call about a possible fossil and confirming it’s not just a dinosaur fossil, but a record-breaking one!”

This wouldn’t have been possible if it weren’t for the conscientiousness and immediate response of the construction crew.

“I really have to credit the professionals working at the site that discovered the fossils,” Sertich said. “They knew they hit something important and started making calls right away. It’s an unusual circumstance that everyone will benefit from for years to come since we’re able to preserve these bones on behalf of the people of Thornton and Colorado.”

The excavation is ongoing even as construction continues at the secure site. When a bone is fully excavated, the team covers it in a plaster jacket so that it will be protected during transportation to the Denver Museum of Nature & Science. Once safely in the care of the museum’s the paleontology lab, the plaster is cracked open like a cast and study and conservation of the bone begins. The conservation lab is behind glass in the museum’s Prehistoric Journey exhibition, so visitors will be able to view the Triceratops fossils at various stages in the process.

Teachers, the museum will be hosting a two-way interactive webinar for classrooms grades 4-12 on Tuesday, 9:30 AM Mountain time. Registration and your basic desktop computer setup with internet access are required. Register here for a unique opportunity to hear about this exciting find from Joe Sertich himself, ask him questions and generally spend the early hour of the school day doing something awesome. The rest of us will have to make do with a Facebook Live update about the Thornton Triceratops on the DMNS page Tuesday at 9:30 AM.

This video has no commentary or background music or anything extraneous whatsoever. Only close views of the excavation accompanied by ambient sounds, not even explanatory interjections from the experts. This is so exceedingly rare I must take a moment to thanks the Denver Museum of Nature & Science for trusting in the raw material being fascinating to anyone who would watch videos like this in the first place. Keep your eyes peeled for a magical moment of whimsy starting at the 2:04 mark.

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