Heslington brain may aid dementia, Alzheimer’s research

January 7th, 2020

In August of 2008, an archaeological survey in advance of new construction on the University of York’s Heslington campus discovered a human skull still containing brain remnants in a waterlogged pit. Surviving brain tissue is extremely rare, but it has been found before in archaeological contexts with extraordinary preservation of soft tissues — animals and people in the permafrost, bog bodies, desert mummies, crypt burials. These finds had other surviving soft tissues, however. The Heslington brain was unique as it is the only surviving soft tissue in otherwise fully skeletonized remains consisting of a skull, mandible and a couple of vertebrae. It is also the world’s oldest known surviving grey matter.

The location where the brain was found had a spring that had been source for wells from the Bronze Age through the middle Iron Age when the site was continuously occupied. In one of a dozen djacent pits apparently used for ceremonial offerings, archaeologists recovered a darkened cranium with articulated mandible face-down in moist sandy clay. The contents, first thought to be silt, were observed through the foramen magnum, inspected through an endoscope, X-rayed and a sample examined. Researchers confirmed that there was actual brain in that there skull.

The remains were radiocarbon dated to between 673-482 B.C. when the individual was struck hard on the head or neck and then decapitated, as evidenced by perimortem damage to the vertebrae and skull. The head was thrown in the pit and the brain had been naturally preserved in the waterlogged environment. It shrank over the millennia, but was still soft and glistening with clearly recognizable folds. Through cracks in the brain’s surface, the brain’s interior revealed itself to be a beige material with a tofu-like texture. Raman spectroscopic analysis found its chemical makeup to be largely decayed protein with a small amount of fat. Raman spectroscopy also identified the biochemical signatures of pigments produced by cyanobacteria. Researchers theorized that the cyanobacteria may have played a role in the unusual preservation of the brain tissue.

Now a new study of the brain’s proteins has revealed more information about its condition that may have long-term implications for medical research, particularly as regards brain diseases characterized by protein changes like dementia, Alzheimer’s, Huntington’s and Parkinson’s. Using electron scanning microscopes, University College London researchers were able to identify and unfold the brain’s preserved protein structures.

The researchers from University College London (UCL) show that of those substances which hold a human brain together, notably proteins, can fold themselves tightly into very stable structures, called aggregates.

Once unfolded – a process which [on the Heslington brain] took one year – these proteins regain many of the features typically encountered in a normal, living human brain. Scientists say the findings have implications for palaeoproteomics, biomarker research and diseases related to protein folding and aggregate formation.

Lead author Dr Axel Petzold, of the UCL Queen Square Institute of Neurology, had spent years researching two types of filaments in the brain – neurofilaments and glial fibrillary acidic protein (GFAP) – which act like scaffolds to hold brain matter together. He and his team found both of these were still present in the Heslington brain, suggesting they played a key role in keeping the brain matter together.

Typically, brains decompose quite quickly after death in a rapid process of autolysis – enzymes breaking up the tissue. The findings suggest that an acidic fluid may have got into the brain and prevented autolysis. Both filaments are typically found in greater concentrations in inner areas of the brain, but in the preserved Heslington brain there were more in the outer areas of the brain.

According to the researchers, this suggests the inhibition of autolysis would have started in the outer parts of the brain, potentially as an acidic fluid seeped into it.

The study has been published in the Journal of the Royal Society Interface.


World’s largest medical galleries open at London’s Science Museum

January 6th, 2020

London’s Science Museum is now home to the world’s largest medical galleries. Medicine: The Wellcome Galleries features interactive exhibits , films and audio recordings of patients and doctors, contemporary art installations and more than 3,000 medical artifacts assembled from the collections of Henry Wellcome and the Science Museum Group.

Among them are a panoply of memento mori pieces from different times and places, one of the first stethoscopes, a wooden tube made by French doctor René Laennec around 1820, the prototype MRI made in the early 1970s and a scale model of a hospital so awesome that it bears on its architecturally sound frame the entire responsibility for this post.

Made in 1932 to publicize King Edward’s Hospital Fund for London, an organization founded by the future King Edward VII to raise money for London’s voluntary hospitals which provided free medical care to the poor, the miniature hospital was made to 1/16 scale and is meticulously detailed.

The board room has sycamore paneling. More than 13,000 tiles were made to line its floors and walls, some of them painted with cheerful scenes for the pediatric ward. Wee doctors, nurses and patients, all of them different, all of them realistically posed and accessorized. It even has a working elevator! To operate it, you had to drop a coin in the box and press the button. A sign enjoys admirers in emphatic caps and periods “PLEASE. TAKE. LIFT EITHER UP – OR DOWN. ONCE. ONLY. PLEASE. DO. NOT. USE. AS. A. TOY.” It is an absolute wonderland of miniaturization and medical history.

Queen Mary was so enchanted by it that she donated her lace handkerchiefs for use as bedspreads for the tiny patients. Alas, the royal hankies are no longer extant in the model. In January of 1933, the Prince of Wales, who three years later would become King Edward VIII for a minute before his infamous abdication, launched a national tour of the model. The miniature hospital traveled the country, raising money for the charity and teaching the public about the workings of a modern hospital. It was hugely popular. Thousands of people went to see it during the tour and contributed to the funding of London’s free hospitals.

Tiled room in hospital. Science Museum Group Collection © The Board of Trustees of the Science Museum. Room in the miniature hospital, maybe a laundry facility to sterilize the linens? Science Museum Group Collection © The Board of Trustees of the Science Museum.

Patient takes the elevator. Science Museum Group Collection © The Board of Trustees of the Science Museum.


Warrior tribe weapons found in cemetery in Poland

January 5th, 2020

A medieval cemetery of the Yotvingian people replete with weapons has been discovered near the city of Suwałki in northeastern Poland. It dates to between the 11th and 13th centuries and is a rare layered cremation cemetery featuring the remains of collective funerary pyres with large numbers of grave goods, likely added to the pyre late so they would not be destroyed by the fire.

The Yotvingians (also known as Sudovians) were a Baltic tribe who lived in parts of what are now Poland, Lithuania and Belarus from the 5th century B.C. to the Middle Ages and beyond. They were known for their skill in battle, feared as raiders and alternately serving as mercenaries for princes of the Kievan Rus and being conquered by them. They also clashed with Polish princes and the Teutonic Knights. In 1422, Yotvingia was conquered by the Teutonic Order and its territories partitioned between the Knights, Poland and Lithuania, but elements of Yotvingian ethnicity, language and culture persisted through the 19th century.

A Yotvingian barrow cemetery in use between 2nd and 5th centuries A.D. was discovered in the suburbs of Suwałki in the 1950s. It was very rich in grave goods, many of them weapons. The newly discovered cemetery is at least as significant in terms of recovered archaeological artifacts and is the largest known Yotvingian cemetery from the early Middle Ages. So far only 1,000 square feet have been excavated of the half hectare (ca. 54,000 square feet) site, and the team has found more than 500 important objects — swords, knives, arrowheads, spurs, buckles, horse fittings — and several thousand smaller artifacts.

With the remains found just 8 to 12 inches below the surface, layered cemeteries from this period are often destroyed by agricultural work, making this discovery exceptional. Unfortunately, looters found it first. The signs of illegal excavation are what alerted authorities to the site. The subsequent investigation found evidence that around 1,000 artifacts were stolen before the area was secured.

The artifacts will be studied and conserved at the Regional Museum in Suwałki and a selection of them are planned to go on display at a new exhibition in late May.


Napoleon’s vision for a new imperial Rome

January 4th, 2020

Napoleon’s forces occupied Rome twice. The first time was in February 1798 when General Louis Alexandre Berthier invaded the Papal States and Rome, for the first time since antiquity, was declared a republic, one of multiple “sister republics” established by Revolutionary France under the aegis of the Directory. The republic lasted barely a year (the Directory would follow it into the grave before 1799 was out) before the Kingdom of Naples invaded the city and reestablished the Papal States. On February 2nd, 1808, the French army under General Alexandre de Miollis (who also fought in the American Revolutionary War) took Rome again. He remained as governor of the former Papal States until Napoleon’s exile to Elba in 1814.

Between the first and second French occupation of Rome, Napoleon had gone from General to First Consul to Emperor and was at the apex of his career in conquest. On May 16th, 1809, he promulgated an imperial decree declaring the annexation of the Papal States to the French Empire. Rome was declared “a free and imperial city.” On Feburary 17th, 1810, Napoleon declared Rome the second city of the empire, subject to receive special privileges determined by the emperor himself. Any future imperial prince would receive the title and honors of “King of Rome.” A year later Napoleon’s wife Marie Louise of Austria gave birth to Napoléon-François-Joseph-Charles Bonaparte and the first King of Rome since Tarquin the Proud came into his title.

The February 17th decree also committed to maintaining Rome’s ancient monuments at the empire’s expense, and a special fund was created to support archaeological excavations, restorations and “embellishments of Rome.” The Forum was excavated and cleared, remains like what was then believed to be the Temple of Jupiter Tonans (the Thunderer) but is in fact the temple of the deified emperors Vespasian and Titus were liberated from the soil encasing 2/3rds of their height. Excavations at the Colosseum revealed for the first time its elaborate underground structures whose purpose was subject of great controversy and heated debate between architects, antiquarians, archaeologists and historians. Later homes and religious buildings squashed up against Trajan’s Column were Trajan’s Column to allow it to stand out. The Basilica Ulpia was rediscovered at the same time.

The Napoleonic administration wasn’t just about reviving Rome’s ancient splendors. There were plans for the emperor and the King of Rome to visit the city and they wanted to welcome them into a modern imperial capital with wide boulevards, green spaces and grand buildings. Prominent Roman architects like Giuseppe Valadier and Giuseppe Camporese and French ones like  Louis-Martin Berthault and Guy de Gisors were commissioned to design urban renewal projects — parks, bridges, new monuments, securing the banks of the Tiber to prevent flooding — and just outside of the city, new cemeteries to comply with the Napoleon’s 1804  edict prohibiting burials within city walls.

None of these plans came to fruition before the fall of Napoleon in 1814. Sketches, plans and watercolors are all that remains of the emperor’s new Rome. Very few of them have been studied. Most of them have never been published. Now more than 50 works from the collections of Rome’s Napoleonic Museum and the Museum of Rome at Palazzo Braschi have gone on display at the Napoleonic Museum.

Waiting for the Emperor: Monuments Archaeology and Urbanism in the Rome of Napoleon 1809-1814, looks at city as it was in the age of Napoleon, the exhuberant celebrations in the city for the birth of the King of Rome, archaeological digs and monumental projects (statues, arches of triumph, bridges) to create a modern imperial Rome inspired by the ancient one.

I’m intrigued by this might-have-been Napoleonic plan for the Tiber.

After a massive flood on December 28th, 1870, when the river’s water rose more than 56 feet (17.22 meters) above the banks, made the new capital of a fully unified Italy a stinky, soggy muckhole just in time for the visit of the first king of Italy, Vittorio Emanuele II, the government built stone embankments 59 feet (18 meters) high. They largely solved the flooding problem, but they drastically altered the city’s relationship with its river, instantly transmuting it from the beating heart of the community to a forbidding, disconnected environment, and not a little scary.

The exhibition runs through May 31st, 2020.


Headless torso identified as 1916 axe-murderer

January 3rd, 2020

A torso and scattered remains found in an Idaho cave in 1979 has been identified as Joseph Henry Loveless, bootlegger, counterfeiter and murderer who escaped from jail in 1916 and was never seen again.

As reported in the May 12, 1916, edition of The Idaho Republican, the butchered remains of Mrs. Charles Smith were discovered the morning of May 6th, “the head hacked to pieces with an axe” in a tent outside Dubois. The bloody weapon was found by her side. Her husband was immediately suspected.

He something of a drifter, doing odd jobs around the Dubois railroads. In the press he was described as about 40 years old, 5’10”, weighing about 180 lbs. The only distinguishing feature mentioned was actually the lack of one: he apparently had no eyebrows.

He was captured on May 7th and held in St. Anthony, Idaho, charged with murder. He claimed that her former husband had killed her and that he was heading north for whiskey that his wife would then sell in Dubois. He told other tall tales as well, and pinpointing his real name and the nature of their relationship proved troublesome. After the Charles Smith alias fell by the wayside, he was variously identified as Walter Cairins and Water Curran. Then the woman he’d said was his wife was identified as Mrs. Agnes Loveless, wife of Henry Loveless, and therefore his common-law wife at best.

Finally his identity was conclusively determined by his son. He was Joseph Henry Loveless, born to Mormon settlers in Utah in 1870. He would become a career criminal, making a living counterfeiting money and running liquor through Idaho’s dry counties. He was also suspected of having murdered rancher Joseph C. Smith in Pebble, Idaho, for money the year before his wife’s murder.

Loveless had been arrested numerous times, and kept a saw in his shoe to break out of jails. In fact, when his son identified him to the authorities, he warned them that his father would escape jail. He broke out of St. Anthony jail on May 18th, and that was the last anyone heard of him.

In 1979, a family looking for arrowheads in a cave found a torso wrapped in burlap. In 1991, more body parts — a hand, an arm, two legs –were found in the same cave. The arm and legs were also wrapped in the same burlap.

Over the years, attempts by law enforcement and researchers to identify the remains came up short. All they were able to conclude was that the man had been white with reddish-brown hair and around 40 years old.

Then in 2019, the sheriff’s office asked for help from the DNA Doe Project, a nonprofit that uses the latest DNA technology to identify remains.

Within four months, the mystery was solved. The DNA Doe Project obtained a detailed DNA sequence from a lab in Texas, built a genealogical tree and located a living grandson of Loveless whose DNA matched perfectly.

“It’s blown everyone’s minds,” forensic genealogist Lee Bingham Redgrave said at a news conference Tuesday. “The really cool thing, though, is that his ‘wanted’ poster from his last escape is described as wearing the same clothing that he was found in, so that leads us to put his death date at likely 1916.”

His head is still missing, which may be a clue to the motivation for his murder. He had chopped his wife’s head off, and shortly thereafter someone chopped off his. A little frontier justice, perhaps?


U-M library acquires rare Native American photo collection

January 2nd, 2020

The University of Michigan’s William L. Clements Library has acquired a collection of more than 1,000 rare Native American photographs. The photographs represent 80 indigenous groups and include stereographic images, cartes de visites and government-sponsored portraits. Many of them have never been published before, and even the ones that have are exceptional versions. A picture of Geronimo with members of family shortly before their surrender to the US Army in 1886, for example, was printed straight from the original negative.

The collection was acquired from Richard Pohrt ,Jr., an art dealer whose father, Michigan-born Richard Pohrt had begun collecting Native American artifacts while still a teenager, eventually amassing one of the largest known private collections which he exhibited in his own small museum in Cross Village, Michigan. As a young man, the senior Pohrt had worked for years on the Fort Belknap reservation and struck up friendships with local people who gifted him with artifacts and oral histories that Pohrt documented assiduously. His son followed in his footsteps and has been collecting Native American objects and photographs for 40 years. The photographs newly acquired by the Clements Library are also exceptionally well-labelled, a rarity in Native American history.

Most of them date to between 1860 and 1920, a period of enormous dislocation and devastation to the country’s indigenous peoples as the 1848 California Gold Rush launched an influx of settlers in the west that only picked up speed after the Civil War. Native Americans were forced onto reservations and fought against the US military for decades in a sequence of wars of rebellions that came to a final end only with the Apache Wars in 1924.

According to Clayton Lewis, curator of graphics material at the Clements, this era also coincides with many of the darkest phases of Native American history, especially in the West.

“The violence, impoverishment, disempowerment and forced cultural assimilation related to United States Indian removal policies and the establishment of reservations and boarding schools are among the major themes represented by these photographs,” he said. “However, the cultural complexity of the communities, the quality of the material culture, the dignity and resilience of leaders, and aspects of rituals and everyday life are also well documented in the Pohrt Collection.” […]

Lewis says that while they are excited about the new acquisition, they are also aware of many of the issues related to the access and display of the culturally sensitive images, which is why they have consulted with several Native American scholars and cultural representatives, as well as the U-M’s Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act representative.

“This collection is already so extraordinarily rich because of all of the information that comes with it—names, times, dates and places where the photos were taken—as well as Richard’s expertise in Native American art and material culture,” he said. “The advisers that we’ve been working with are providing even more information and guidance about their context, which will make it a one-of-a-kind resource for both scholars and for Native American people looking to reconnect with their past.”

Reconnecting with their past has even greater significance for Native Americans, not only because so many of their traditions were deliberately eradicated, but because Federal recognition laws require that tribes prove they have been a continuous community without gaps. That’s a damned high bar for the US government to set considering it worked tirelessly since literally the first days of its existence to strip Native Americans of their ancestral lands, cultural identities, familial and tribal bonds. So when Eric Hemenway, director of archives and records for the Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa Indians who is working with the Clements Library researchers on interpretation and documentation of the photographs, found a picture of his ancestor Viola Assinaway, it wasn’t just a meaningful and moving encounter with his family history, but visual evidence of his tribe’s continuous existence and his place in it.

The collection will be digitized to give scholars and the general public access to these rare documents. Culturally sensitive images, such as photographs of sacred ceremonies, will not be published online, although some will likely be made available in person at the library.


Happy New Year!

January 1st, 2020

I kicked off 2020 in auspicious style with a bracing winter morning guided hike in a nature preserve. Because there is no rest unto the history nerd, the area turns out to have been quarried for granite in the 19th century. There were several quarry pits, once blasted to blocks, now picturesque views for random passersby.

Even in the steam age, those quarry pits were worked only with immense effort, and at this site for granite that was of mediocre quality at best, good for curbing and trimming. The clifftops had to be cleared of copious vegetation, a seam in the granite identified, holes drilled in it and black power packed into them to blast open the seam. Blocks weighing tens of tons were raised with wooden derricks and shifted to cutting sheds to be sized, shaped and polished to order.

When the industry died in the 1920s, its lifeblood choked off by the sudden spike in demand for black powder and soldiers during World War I, the quarry operators didn’t bother clearing out all that heavy iron and wood equipment. The result is things like this in the middle of a rare pine pitch barren preserve.

One of the hikers called it a “boom,” but I have no idea what that is in a 19th century quarrying context.

May your New Year be full of happy accidental history!


National Gallery ushers in the New Year with new Gentileschi

December 31st, 2019

The Finding of Moses, a monumental painting by Baroque artist Orazio Gentileschi, father of Artemisia, has been acquired by the National Gallery after 20 years of trying. The Gallery first attempted to buy it in 1995 and failed. In 2002, its owner, sofa magnate Graham Kirkham, loaned the work to the museum where it has been the centerpiece of its Baroque collection. This year they were again given the opportunity to acquire The Finding of Moses for £19.5 million. With the goal in sight thanks to large grants from American Friends of the National Gallery, the National Gallery Trust and National Heritage Memorial Fund, the National Gallery launched a campaign last month to raise the remaining £2million. They announced on December 18th that the full sum has been raised and the painting acquired.

The large-scale work — 257cm (8’5″) by 301cm (9’10.5″) — depicts the scene from Exodus when the baby Moses is discovered in the reeds of the Nile by pharaoh’s daughter and her handmaids. The young woman kneeling on the left pointing at the infant in the basket is his sister Miriam. It is one of the finest examples of Orazio’s late period when he’d set aside his earlier Caravaggesque style and embraced the lush vibrancy of Late Renaissance history painters like Titian, Tintoretto and Veronese.

It was painted in 1630 when Gentileschi was a court painter for the King Charles I. Charles commissioned it as a gift for his wife Queen Henrietta Maria in honor of the birth of their son, the future Charles II. Orazio was one of the Queen’s favorite painters and The Finding of Moses joined his ceiling paintings at Queen’s House, Greenwich. The sumptuous silks of the princess and her ladies and the green, woodsy rolling hills reflect the style and landscape of Henrietta Maria’s court rather than pharaonic Egypt’s.

The painting had been an acquisition priority for us since 1995, when we first attempted to buy it.

Not only is it a wonderful example of Orazio’s rich colouring, skill at painting shiny, sumptuous fabrics, and sense of courtly elegance, ‘The Finding of Moses’ has an important place in British history.

It is the first painting from the time when Orazio travelled to England to be a painter at the court of Charles I in London.

Orazio Gentileschi painted a second version of the monumental piece in 1633, this one for King Philip IV of Spain. He made the details of the textiles and jewelry even more sumptuous and bared less flesh, in keeping with the fashion of the Spanish court. Orazio gave it to the king as a gift, dispatching his son Francesco to Madrid to deliver it in person. It is now in the Prado Museum in Madrid.

The Finding of Moses will be moved to the newly renovated Baroque room in April when it will go on display in an exhibition dedicated to Orazio’s brilliant daughter Artemisia.


Rare Bronze Age funeral pyre found in Denmark

December 30th, 2019

A rare Bronze Age funeral pyre was unearthed in Bellinge, a suburb of Odense, Denmark. The site was excavated by Odense City Museums archaeologists in spring 2019 in advance of construction of a housing development. There was a burial mound there, but excavation revealed no central burial as is customary in ancient mounds. Instead, the team found the remains of an early Bronze Age (ca. 800 B.C.) cremation bonfire.

The deceased was cremated on a 3×2-meter pile of wood contained within pilings. After the funerary conflagration, the bones were removed and buried elsewhere. What remains today is a thick layer of charcoal peppered with bone fragments and the postholes from the pilings. Bronze Age cremation pyres are extremely rare, and this one is in particularly good condition, rich with remains that will give archaeologists an unprecedented opportunity to discover new information about Bronze Age ritual. Using the archaeological information, the team recreated the pyre, a pig standing in for the Bronze Age human.

The mound was built on top of the cremation site. It was created by piling turf into a mound 75 feet in diameter and lining its perimeter in large stones. It overlooked the landscape for a thousand years before again being used for funerary purposes. Over the course of three centuries, more than 100 individuals were buried on the mound surface, making the Bellinge Common mound one of the largest Iron Age burial grounds on the island of Funen.

Most of the burials were cremated remains in earthenware urns. There are also some inhumations with grave goods including jewelry (silver, glass, amber and pearl), daggers, pottery with food and drink offerings.

The urns have been transported to the Møntergården museum in Odense where they will be excavated in public view beginning on January 21st, 2020. The museum is setting up a laboratory in the foyer where visitors can see the archaeologists at work and look into the urns as their contents are unearthed.


Manchester’s gold mummies visit the US

December 29th, 2019

Manchester Museum, part of The University of Manchester, is undergoing a huge £13-million, three-year renovation that requires the closure of multiple galleries for the duration. Egyptian Worlds, which houses Manchester Museum’s extensive collection of mummies and artifacts from 5,000 years of Egyptian history, is among them. The galleries closed in August 2018 and are scheduled to reopen in 2021 in the transformed museum.

While the collection’s home is being rebuilt, Manchester Museum has arranged the first travelling exhibition of some of its most exceptional pieces from Greco-Roman Egypt (c. 300 B.C. – 200 A.D.). Golden Mummies of Egypt is centered around eight mummies unearthed over a century ago during University of Manchester excavations in Egypt. Through the mummies and other artifacts, including the always-evocative Fayuum mummy portraits, the exhibition explores beliefs about death and the afterlife from Greek and Roman Egypt and their link to the ancient traditional religion of dynastic Egypt.

The latest technology will give visitors a literal view from the inside.

The exhibition includes 360 degree interactive CT-scans of each mummy on display, allowing the visitor to see beneath the wrappings; audio-visual translations of texts bring the words of ancient people to life; iconographic visualisations animate the gods the Egyptians hoped to meet.

Golden Mummies of Egypt opens in the US at the Buffalo Museum of Science on February 8th, 2020. Its next stop will be the North Carolina Museum of Art where it will run from September 19, 2020, through January 10, 2021.

Never-before-seen details from the golden funerary mask of Isaious. Photo courtesy Manchester Museum. Detail from Isaious' brilliantly colored wrappings. Photo courtesy Manchester Museum. Detail from Isaious' brilliantly colored wrappings. Photo courtesy Manchester Museum.





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