700 7th c. drug bottles found in Turkey

October 16th, 2016

Archaeologists have discovered a unique trove of ancient medicine bottles in the ancient Greek town of Bathonea, 10 miles west of Istanbul. Usually made of ceramic or glass, although there are a few high-end examples made of alabaster and silver, the small bottles known as unguentaria were used in antiquity to hold everything from perfume and cosmetics to olive oil and powdered incense. They are often found in Greek burials as grave goods, but only a few in each grave. Larger numbers of unguentaria have been unearthed in ancient household rubbish dumps, discarded over a period of time after being broken.

The ones found at Bathonea, on the other hand, were all made at the same time out of clay in the shape of miniature amphorae, and 700 unguentaria in one site is an unprecedented find. Many of them were also in fragments — archaeologists pieced hundreds of them back together in the laboratory — but they weren’t discarded or funerary/religious offerings. This was an industrial facility for the manufacture of unguentaria and likely for their contents.

Samples of material found inside the vessels were sent for analysis to the Scientific and Technological Research Council (TÜBİTAK) in Gebze district. Tests found the residues contained Methanone and Phenanthrene, plant-derived substances used in herbal medicine as anti-depressants and heart medications, among other uses.

“Some of them are still being repaired, but meanwhile we have also found pestles of various sizes, mortars, and a stove, indicating that there was a pharmaceutical production center here” [associate professor from Kocaeli University Dr. Şengül] Aydıngün said, and added that there are specific plants on the site, which make up the essence of many medicines.

They also found bone tools, spatulas and medical instruments, so this appears to have been a full-service drug and medical supply store.

This roof of this facility collapsed in a fire, keeping its production line in place even if heavily damaged. Practically all of the structures so far excavated at Bathonea have the same fire layer. Samples from it were analyzed by the Wroclaw Archeology and Ethnography Institute in Poland which found that the carbon samples date to between 620 and 640. That date range is meaningful because the nomadic Avars joined forces with the Sassanid Persians and assorted Slavs to besiege Constantinople in 626. After two months of attacks from land and sea, the Avars and Persians retreated before the victorious Byzantines, but they did a lot of damage while they were there. Archaeologists think the fire that felled the Bathonea pharmacy may be evidence of the Avar attack. No other archaeological evidence of this clash has been found before.

The site of Bathonea was first confirmed in 2009, after documentary research and geophysical surveys pointed to its location being in the basin of what is now Lake Küçükçekmece, a lake created when a sandbar cut it off the Sea of Marmara. Bathonea was a bustling port city, and in five years of excavations archaeologists have unearthed the remains of a large port, docks, a lighthouse, long, broad avenues to the sea, a palace complex, planned city squares and streets, two major waterways and a cistern built with bricks bearing the mark of the Emperor Constantine. Other artifacts discovered indicate the site has been occupied long before the construction of the Hellenistic city in the 4th century B.C., objects going back as far as the Neolithic (8,000 B.C.) have been found at Bathonea. The city was abandoned in the 11th century after a massive earthquake and never rebuilt.

Bathonea’s extensive archaeological record is or particular significance because it’s on the outskirts of Istanbul and can therefore fill the gaps in the capital city’s own chronology. For example, Istanbul’s Neolithic era is relatively well documented archaeologically, but there is nothing from the Hittite era (ca. 2,000 B.C.). The discovery of Hittite ceramics in Bathonea, therefore, was confirmation of their active presence in the area. The burn layer in the pharmaceutical facility and its neighboring structures has now added to that chronology by providing the first archaeological evidence of the major upheaval in the 7th century.

Has the victim of 322-year-old royal intrigue been found?

October 15th, 2016

A scandalous and deadly mystery may soon be solved thanks to the sciency magic of DNA. The setting: Leine Castle in Niedersachsen, Germany, the residence of the Electors of Hanover and future Hanoverian kings. The players: Sophia Dorothea, the wife of the future King George I of Great Britain, her churlish husband, then Prince George Ludwig of Hanover, Sophia Dorothea’s lover, Count Philip Christoph von Königsmarck, her father-in-law Ernest Augustus, the Elector of Hanover, and the Countess von Platen, the Elector’s mistress and a schemer of Evil Queen in Snow White dimensions.

Sophia Dorothea had been forced to marry George Ludwig through the machinations of Sophia of Hanover, George’s mother and granddaughter of King James I of England, who sabotaged her other engagements and persuaded her mother, Countess Eleanor of Wilhelmsburg, of the advantage of the match. Her future mother-in-law’s motivation was purely pecuniary. Sophia Dorothea came with a rich income of 100,000 thaler a year (one thaler was worth 25 grams of silver, 10 times more than the English pound), and while George had zero personal charms (in Hanover he was known as “pignose” and his own mother considered him stupid and brutish) he had the powerful Electorate of Hanover coming his way and was also in line for the British crown.

So in 1682, the 16-year-old Sophia Dorothea married her first cousin Prince George Ludwig of Hanover, the future King George I of Great Britain. From day one the marriage was turbulent. They fought all the time, in private and public, and George slighted her at ceremonial occasions. Despite their active contempt for each other, they managed to reproduce twice: the future George II was born in 1683, Sophia Dorothea, the future Queen of Prussia, was born in 1687.

By then relations between the two were irretrievably broken, if they had ever been whole. George took a mistress whom he flaunted so shamelessly that his own father begged him to be more discreet for appearance’s sake, if nothing else. George ignored him, and instead took more mistresses whom he impregnated regularly. When he wasn’t violent and abusive to his wife, he acted as if she didn’t exist, humiliating her by raising his mistresses above her at court. Into this maelström walked Swedish count Philip Christoph von Königsmarck. He and Sophia Dorothea had met just before her marriage and had had an innocent flirtation. When the dashing count came back into her life, their relationship blossomed into a romance which we know quite a bit about because hundreds of their love letters have survived and are now in the collection of the Lund University library. Many of them are written in code, a necessity as the gossip around them intensified.

Some of those letters were intercepted and shown to George Ludwig’s father Ernest Augustus, Elector of Hanover, who exiled Königsmarck from Hanover. George and Sophia Dorothea fought angrily over her affair and his many affairs (complete with illegitimate children). This argument turned violent, with George pulling out his wife’s hair and throttling her until she lost consciousness. Only the intervention of her attendants in the antechamber stopped the Prince from strangling his wife.

It all came to a head in 1694. Königsmarck returned from banishment and was appointed Colonel of the Guards. Sophia Dorotea, desperate after repeated entreaties to her own family had failed, hoped to flee Hanover with the count. He received a note written in pencil asking him to visit her rooms one night. When he appeared, she was surprised. The note was a forgery. Notwithstanding the glaringly obvious setup, he stayed for a while as she told him how untenable her position had become and asked him to arrange for their flight to Wolfenbüttel, about 40 miles away, where a devoted friend of her mother lived. This was a fatal error.

The forged letter was part of a plot hatched by Clara Elisabeth, Countess von Platen, Ernest Augustus’ long-time mistress and mother of two of his children. She and her coterie had spread nasty rumors about Sophia Dorothea since the marriage, poisoning the court against her and contributing significantly to George’s hatred and public slights of his wife. As soon as she found out that Königsmarck had fallen for the forged note gambit, she told the Elector that Königsmarck was scandalously visiting Sophia Dorothea at night, and persuaded him to order his arrest.

He allowed countess to command the operation. She got three trabants (yeomen of the guard) and their commanding officer to wait for him behind a chimney that was his sole escape route out of the palace (she had locked all the other exits), and promptly got them drunk so they might be less likely to recognize the colonel and more likely to do him harm which was her aim all along although Ernest Augustus was clueless about her real intentions. When Königsmarck approached the chimney, he was set upon by the guards. A sword fight ensued, and though he was an outstanding soldier who might have actually pulled off a one-against-four-drunks victory in the dark, Königsmarck’s sword snapped and he was mortally wounded.

The guards were horrified when realized who they had stuck, but the Countess von Platen deftly turned it around on them. She said they’d be in huge trouble for killing him, so it was best if they told the Elector Königsmarck had rushed them in some berserker frenzy, forcing them to kill in self-defense. Ernest Augustus was shocked and appalled. He’d given the countess an inch and she’d taken a life. He knew the news of the death of so famously brave, handsome and popular a noble adventurer would surely spread like wildfire throughout Germany, and the Elector would be cast as the villain of the piece.

The Countess had a solution to that problem too. She got Ernest Augustus to agree to dispose of the body in such a way that the crime would never be publically known. The 1845 Memoirs of Sophia Dorothea, a pro-Sophia biography compiled from archives, letters and diaries, describes the aftermath thus:

The Countess had little trouble in persuading the trabants to save their necks by doing as she desired them. All traces of the murder were soon obliterated. The dead body was unceremoniously cast into the most filthy receptacle that could be found for it, covered with quick lime, and the place walled up. So secretly and so skilfully were these measures taken, that no one in the palace was aware anything extraordinary had occurred during the night, although some persons had heard a slight disturbance of which they had taken little notice, and from that time to this, notwithstanding suspicions had been created by the mysterious disappearance of Count Königsmarck, nothing of a positive nature has been brought forward respecting his fate on which any reliance could be placed.

This account is derived from the Countess von Platen’s deathbed confession and to that of one of the trabants. Other stories circulated. Author, member of Parliament and son of the frst Prime Minister of Great Britain Horace Walpole was told by his father who was told by Queen Caroline who was told by King George II that the Königsmarck was strangled upon leaving Sophia Dorotea’s room and his body had been found under the floor of her dressing room when George II was visiting Hanover after his ascension to the British throne.

That’s a bit too much of a game of telephone to be reliable data, but the discovery of a skeleton during construction work at Leine Castle this summer might just be the hard evidence this intrigue has long lacked. Unfortunately the cause of death could not be determined by osteological analysis, but researchers were able to extract DNA from the bones. The DNA will now be compared to living relatives of Count Philip Christoph von Königsmarck.

As for poor Sophia Dorothea, with her lover dead in such a messy way, George Ludwig felt empowered to divorce her and imprison her in the Castle of Ahlden in Lüneburg for the rest of her life, that’s 33 years out of 60. It wasn’t a brutal imprisonment; more of a house arrest life sentence. She had plenty of money to live in accordance with her status, was allowed her retinue and had the run of the castle, but her children were kept from her and every reference to her was erased from George’s future courts. Oh, and he kept that 100,000 thaler annuity even after her divorced her, of course. He really was a right bastard.

On her deathbed, she wrote one last letter to her husband, who had been King of Great Britain and Ireland for 12 years by then, cursing him. He refused to allow his courts in Hanover or England to officially mourn her, and even inveighed against their daughter when he heard the Prussian court in Berlin was wearing black for their queen’s mother. No wonder George II hated his father bitterly.

Study ancient Egypt online with the University of Pennsylania

October 14th, 2016

The Penn Museum, the University of Pennsylvania’s archaeology museum, has one of the largest collection of ancient Egyptian artifacts in the United States. There are more than 42,000 objects, including the largest sphinx in the Western Hemisphere and the third largest in the world. The head curator of the collection is University of Pennsylvania’s Eckley Brinton Coxe, Jr Professor of Egyptology Dr. David Silverman, one of the world’s leading experts on Egyptian history. He was a curator of the blockbuster Treasures of Tutankhamun exhibit which brought 53 artifacts from the famous tomb to the United States for the first time in the late 1970s, and was the national curator of the even grander blockbuster, Tutankhamun and the Golden Age of the Pharaohs, thirty years later. He has led multiple archaeological excavations in Egypt and is widely published on Egyptian history, epigraphy, language, art, and religion.

There was a time when being taught by an Ivy League professor preeminent in his field was a privilege reserved for very few, but it’s a brave new world out there now, and the University of Pennsylvania is offering a Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) through Coursera entitled Introduction to Ancient Egypt and Its Civilization. It will be taught by Dr. Silverman who developed the course using references to the Egyptian artifacts in the Penn Museum. MOOCs on ancient Egypt have been offered before by many institutions of higher learning, but none of them had access to a collection like the Penn Museum’s to illustrate the coursework. Silver spent two years developing this course and its sequels, researching the material, writing scripts for the lectures and choosing hundreds of photographs as visual aids. A crew for the university’s School of Arts and Sciences Online Learning filmed the galleries of the Penn Museum for days, working around the museum’s hours so that students will get the kind of unobstructed view of the objects on display that is virtually impossible in crowded real life.

The class begins on October 31st with a showing of the original The Mummy with Boris Karloff. Okay no. I made that up because of the coincidental Halloween opening date, but it would be a pretty entertaining overture, especially since the faux “archaeology” in that movie is so egregiously wrong on every possible level that it even eclipses Karloff’s outstanding makeup in horror quotient. In reality, the course consists of five filmed lectures about an hour long. The lectures will be supplemented with quizzes and project assignments, and students will be able to engage in online discussions of the material.

A prolific author, speaker, and exhibition curator, Dr. Silverman developed the course with an eye to answering the many questions he has encountered over the years. “I wanted to offer a course that tapped into the deep fascination that so many people—myself included—bring with them as they explore the art and culture of the ancient Egyptians,” he noted. “My hope is that through this course many questions will be answered—and new questions will arise. Ancient Egypt’s culture and achievements are worthy of a lifetime of study and exploration.”

As the course description notes, each hour-long videotaped lecture focuses on a different subject: History and Chronology; The Pharaoh and Kingship; Gods and Goddesses; The Pyramids and the Sphinx; Mummies and Mummification. Part two of the course explores Principles of Egyptian Art; The Basics of the Language of Ancient Egypt – Hieroglyphs; Magic; Akhenaten, Tutankhamun, and the Religion of the Aten; and The Burial of Tutankhamun and the Search for his Tomb.

If you are fortunate enough to be in Philadelphia or environs on Saturday, December 10th, there will be an end of course Open House with Dr. Silverman at the Penn Museum from 11:00 AM to 3:00 PM. Students will enjoy talks by museum Egyptologists, tours of the gallery, a mummification workshop, book signings and an Egyptian-inspired lunch at the museum café.

Already 20,000 people have signed up for the course. The MOOC is free of charge — there’s a fee of $49 if you want to get a certificate — and once it’s complete, all students will receive email notification of the second course in the series: Wonders of the Ancient World, which is schedule to launch in early 2017.

Happy 950th anniversary, Battle of Hastings!

October 13th, 2016

On October 14th, 1066, a date that will live forever on 6th grade pop quizzes, the army of William the Bastard, Duke of Normandy, defeated the Anglo-Saxon army of King Harold Godwinson at the Battle of Hastings ushering in the Norman conquest of England which ultimately claimed 100,000 lives. The Norman conquest irrevocably altered the evolution of the English language and landscape. It was William who made it a point of policy to build large stone castles to consolidate his power, replacing the more earthworks and wood motte-and-bailey castles favored by the Anglo-Saxon with the intimidating fortresses preferred by powerful lords in Normandy. Stone churches and cathedrals were also a Norman contribution.

To celebrate the anniversary in grand style, this weekend English Heritage will be hosting a program of events at Battle Abbey, built on the site of Harold’s death by William by order of Pope Alexander II as penance for having killed so many, and the battlefield. There will be music, readings, lectures, a display of falconry, panel discussions, faux battles on the hour for children, something called “Have-a-go Archery” which sounds as fun as it is potentially dangerous, cavalry, Norman and Saxon encampments with living history for visitors to interact with, and in the afternoon a full-on reenactment of the Battle of Hastings with more than 1,066 volunteers participating.

Tickets for the weekend sold out quickly, so alas, unless you managed to score your own already or knows somebody who know somebody who knows an extremely nerdy scalper, I’m afraid you won’t be able to attend the festivities. You can still visit the abbey and battlefield on Friday, though, which is the actual anniversary.

Meanwhile, The Royal Mint, which was already in operation under King Harold, has issued a 50p coin commemorating the anniversary. With all due respect to the dignified profile of Queen Elizabeth II, because my love for the Bayeux Tapestry is stronger than the foundations of the earth, it’s the reverse of this coin that absolutely slays me (pun intended). It’s a coin version of the man believed to be Harold shown with an arrow in his eye and several in his shield in scene 57 of the Bayeux Tapestry. The embroidered Latin above the scene reads “Hic Harold rex interfectus est,” or “Here King Harold is killed.”

There’s also another fellow next to him being felled by a sword, though, so it’s not entirely clear which of the two is meant to be Harold. The earliest known account of the conquest, the Song of the Battle of Hastings, written in 1067 by Bishop Guy of Amiens, says that Harold was hacked to death and his dismembered body buried under a stone pile on a cliff “that you may still be guardian of the shore and sea.” Fifty years later, William of Malmesbury’s Chronicle of the Kings of England (1118) said Harold’s “brain [was] pierced with an arrow” shot “from a distance,” and that is the account that has taken root, bolstered by the epic drama of the Bayeux Tapestry. (There is, incidentally, significant debate as to whether the arrow in the eye detail is original to the tapestry or the product of a later restoration to bring the work closer in concert to what was by then the accepted story.)

Five million of these 50p pieces will be going into circulation. Collectors can purchase fancier limited edition gold proofs (£785, or $960), silver proofs (£50, or $60) and double-thick “piedfort” silver proofs (£95, or $116), plus mint condition uncirculated versions of the regular coin (£10, or $12). Only the last one comes with a booklet. I love it when things come with a booklet.

Intact 1,600-year-old roasting pit unearthed in Alberta

October 12th, 2016

Archaeologists have unearthed a 1,600-year-old untouched roasting pit at the Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump in southwest Alberta, Canada. Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump was used by native peoples of the North American Plains to hunt, butcher and process bison for 6,000 years. It is one of the oldest and best preserved buffalo jumps, which archaeological features still surviving on the surface and under ground.

The site has four areas that were used for different purposes: the gathering basin, where the bison would graze on the lush grasses and drink fresh water well into the fall, the drive lanes, stone cairns built in lanes that hunters would chase buffalo down, the cliff kill site, the edge of the cliff which the stampeding bison would be forced off of, and the processing area where the bison were butchered, their meat roasted, the bones boiled for grease rendering, strips of meat dried in the sun and pemmican, a highly nutritious staple made of dried meat grease, marrow and berries pounded together, made to keep people alive during the long winter.

Artifacts and remains are present throughout the site. An astonishing 36 feet of deposits have accumulated below the cliff kill site alone over the course of 5,700 years, and the processing area is repeat with kitchen tools like scrapers, knives, drills, pottery and boiling stones cracked by fire.

It was in the processing area where archaeologist Robert Dawe, now Royal Alberta Museum Inventory Curator, discovered the roasting pit in 1990. He had been excavating the area for four years when he unearthed a canine paw (probably wolf rather than dog) and the articulated leg bones of a bison calf. It was the articulation of the bones that indicated this was a roasting pit, and even more intriguingly, a roasting pit whose contents had never been eaten. The stratigraphy pointed to this as a Blackfoot site about 1,600 years old. As soon as he realized that this was an incredibly rare find, Dawe covered it back up to preserve for future excavation.

The future took 26 years to happen. Dawe returned this year and dug out the entire pit encased in a soil block and wrapped tight in layers of plaster, burlap and foil.

“This thing hasn’t seen the light of day since 1,600 years ago,” Dawe said. “Nobody has seen the contents of this meal that was prepared for a delicious feast. For some reason the people never came back and opened it up.” [...]

“This is a classic example of an earth oven,” Dawe said. “This is a common thing that is found all over the world.”

Dawe compared the earth oven or roasting pit used by the Plains people thousands of years ago to the modern luau in Hawaii.

“The idea is you dig a pit, line it with rock, and build a hot fire and let it burn down to coals,” Dawe explained. “Typically they would put down a layer of vegetation like willows here, put the food on top of the willows, another layer of willows, an insulating layer of earth, and then they would build a hot fire on top.”

“They would let it cook overnight and the heat from the upper fire would bring the heat from the coals through the animal, and in the morning it would be fall-off-the-bone tender — just delicious.”

What caused the Blackfoot to abandon this delicious slow-cooked meal is a mystery. It could have been anything from a fire to a sudden storm.

Once secured and removed, the block was then craned onto a truck and transported to the Royal Alberta Museum in Edmonton, a newly built facility that has all the bells and whistles necessary to excavate, preserve and ultimately display this treasure. Dawe and his team will painstakingly excavate it “with toothpicks and a light vacuum cleaner,” a process that will take months. Everything they find will be conserved, the bones treated to keep them from deteriorating.

Piikani Nation elder Conrad Little Leaf conducted a traditional prayer in the Blackfoot language and made a ceremonial offering of tobacco blessing the excavation team. It was a bittersweet farewell, as Head-Smashed-In’s Marketing and Special Events Coordinator Quinton CrowShoe noted, because as something their ancestors left behind, the roasting pit and its contents are sacred to them so they would much rather the pit stay in place.

But while the Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump site has an excellent interpretative center, it does not have the facilities to preserve delicate archaeological materials in ideal environmental conditions, so the roasting pit is slated to go on display at the Royal Alberta Museum’s new First Peoples gallery that will open at the end of 2017. There is still hope it might return to Head-Smashed-In should an appropriate facility be built.

Watch Conrad Little Leaf’s prayer, the removal of the pit and Robert Dawe’s explanation of the find in this video:

Find out if your ancestors fought at Agincourt

October 11th, 2016

The Soldier in Later Medieval England website has added the names of more than 3,500 French soldiers known to have fought in the Battle of Agincourt, the 1415 clash between the English forces of Henry V and the French under King Charles VI (in name only; Charles was suffering one of several bouts of severe mental illness at the time and was not present on the battlefield). The French fighting men are now part of a database which lists more than 250,000 names of English soldiers who fought in campaigns between 1369 and 1453, including Agincourt. All together, the database is the largest list of medieval people ever assembled.

It’s amazing the level of detail the researchers involved in this project have assembled. It’s not just lists of names, but also any additional information. For instance, of the 3,500 French soldiers in the database, researchers were able to determine that 550 died on the field of Agincourt and that another 300 were taken prisoner to be ransomed. The database also records any known geographical origins of the soldiers, their ranks, where they served and when. You can search by name, rank or year of service. There are also biographies of a number of English soldiers of particular interest to researchers and contributors.

Muster rolls were the main source of information — records keep track of the money, if nothing else — and for the English soldiers, Chancery court documents were a rich source, pace Charles Dickens and Bleak House. Soldiers had to purchase letters of protection from the Chancery to ensure they wouldn’t be subject to lawsuits when they were deployed. Very useful information if you’re looking for year of service.

Professor Anne Curry, project Director and Dean of Humanities at the University of Southampton, says: “It is fitting that this new resource has been made available following the major 600th anniversary commemorations of Agincourt in 2015, in which our university played a key role. The Medieval Soldier website has already proved an invaluable resource for genealogists and people interested in social, political and military history. This new data will help us to reach out to new users and shed fresh light on the Hundred Years War.” [...]

Professor Adrian Bell, fellow project Director and Head of the ICMA Centre, Henley Business School at the University of Reading, comments: “Our newly developed interface interrogates sources found in many different archive repositories in England and France. Without our site, searching for this information would require many visits to the National Archives of both England and France, the British Library and Bibliothèque nationale and all of the Archives Départementales in Normandy.”

Even if you don’t have an ancestor who was pincushioned by Henry V’s Welsh longbowmen or stared down the charge of the French heavy cavalry but would still like to learn more about the Battle of Agincourt, the University of Southampton is offering a free Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) on the subject that starts October 17th. They’ve run it before and it was very popular, so they’re doing it again to give people who missed the first iteration another chance. I haven’t taken this particular course, but I did do their Archaeology of Portus MOOC (that’s being offered again too) and it was excellent.

Civil War ordnance exposed by Matthew detonated

October 10th, 2016

A cluster of Civil-War era artillery churned up from the sands of Folly Beach in South Carolina by Hurricane Matthew was safely detonated on Sunday evening. The 16 corroded cannonballs were found Sunday morning on the beach at East Ashley Avenue by former Folly Beach mayor Richard Beck who was walking the shoreline taking pictures of the wreckage Matthew left behind.

“I knew they were cannonballs,” he said. “One of them had a very distinct hole in it that went directly into it. Just knowing a little bit about the Civil War, I know that they put fuses in cannonballs for them to explode when they desired them to.”

Recalling a time back in his mayor days when Civil War cannonballs were found in the basement of a home and had to be detonated, Beck called the police to report the find. One of the officers who answered the call is a Civil War reenactor and confirmed the rusted lumps were indeed cannonballs.

The Charleston County Sheriff’s Office and Charleston police bomb squad were on the scene by 12:30, but couldn’t do anything until the tide was out. At around 7:00 PM, with the help of the United States Air Force Explosive Ordnance Team, authorities were able to safely detonate the cannonballs. While it’s unlikely the black powder inside of them would have ignited given their age, condition and sodden environment, as a matter of public safety, the policy is to avoid all risks and destroy the ordnance.

“We call it ‘rendering safe’ and we did that right there on the beach front,” [Charleston County Sheriff's Office spokesman [Eric] Watson said. “They’re putting the dirt from the detonation back in the hole and they’re transporting the device to (Joint Base Charleston).”

It’s not a single device, to be clear, but most of the balls are fused together by the corrosion. According to the Sheriff’s Office Facebook page, some of the cannonballs were detonated on the spot. The rest were transported to a nearby naval base where they were destroyed Sunday night.

Just to give you an idea of the lay of the land, Folly Beach is less than 12 miles from Charleston Harbor (by road; it’s closer by sea). A couple more miles over the water will take you to Fort Sumter where the first shots of the Civil War were fired on April 12, 1861, when Confederate cannon barraged the Union garrison at the fort. Folly Island itself didn’t see a great deal of combat during the war — there was a single battle (more of a skirmish, really) on May 10th, 1863, when Confederate troops scouting the island attacked Union troops they found there — but the island was occupied by 13,000 Union Army in August of 1863. They used it as a supply station, building a fort and an artillery battery in support of the Union troops besieging Charleston. It was a staging area for both Battles of Fort Wagner (July-September 1863), which took place on the adjacent Morris Island. The second Battle of Fort Wagner was famously depicted in the film Glory and the remains of at least 19 men from all African-American units including the 55th Massachusetts, 1st North Carolina Colored Infantry and the Second U.S. Colored Infantry were discovered at the west end of Folly Beach in 1987.

Hidden self-portrait found in 17th c. Dutch painting

October 9th, 2016

Royal Collection conservators have unmasked a hidden self-portrait of the artist in Pieter Gerritsz. van Roestraten’s A Vanitas (c.1666–1700). It’s an unexpected find in still life symbolizing the fleeting nature of life and the material things we value. The vanitas was a flourishing theme in Dutch art of the 17th century, and Roestraten’s scene includes some of the most popular imagery of the genre. Coins and a medallion hanging from a Mr. T-like thicket of chains represent all those worldly goods that you can’t take with you, a skull and cinerary urn represent the certainty of death, an open pocket watch on a silk ribbon signifying transience, Democritus, known as the Laughing Philosopher, laughs at human folly from the pages of a book captioned “Everyone is sick from birth / vanity is ruining the world,” and hanging from a string above the table is a glass orb representing the fragility of life.

The rest of the room is reflected in the orb, but before conservation, all you could really see was the light shining through window panes and a bulbous shape that has to be the skull but doesn’t look like much of anything. Still, Roestraten is known for concealing surprise images in his paintings and at least nine of them are tiny self-portraits hidden in reflections in glass and mirrors. Hoping his Vanitas might have just such an Easter egg, Royal Collection conservators set to cleaning it in anticipation of the upcoming exhibition Portrait of the Artist

During the removal of discoloured varnish, Royal Collection Trust conservators found the 3cm-high image of the artist at his easel painted as a reflection on the glass sphere. Roestraten can be seen in the surroundings of his studio, looking directly at the viewer and towards the skull and silver ginger jar in the foreground of the picture.

Anna Reynolds, Senior Curator of Paintings, Royal Collection Trust, and co-curator of the exhibition, said, ‘Vanitas paintings traditionally focus on symbolic objects that are designed to make us think about how we live our lives. The discovery of Roestraten’s reflection, previously hidden beneath a layer of varnish, is very exciting and adds a new element to the work – a sort of pictorial game that encourages us to look more closely.’

A Vanitas with its newly exposed self-portrait will go on display in Portrait of the Artist along with more than 150 artworks from the Royal Collection that feature the artist in his or her own creation. Other stand-out pieces are a self-portrait drawing of Annibale Carracci (ca. 1575-80), the famous profile red chalk drawing of Leonardo da Vinci attributed to his student Francesco Melzi (ca. 1515-18), Jan de Bray’s The Banquet of Cleopatra (1652) in which he used himself and his family as models, a self-portrait by Sir Peter Paul Rubens (1623) and one my personal favorites, Self-portrait as the Allegory of Painting by Artemisia Gentileschi (ca. 1638-9).

Lost Viking rune stone found at Swedish church

October 8th, 2016

A thousand-year-old Viking rune stone whose whereabouts have been unknown for almost 200 years was rediscovered next to Hagby Church in Uppland, eight miles west of Uppsala in southeastern Sweden. It was discovered when workers dug a trench a few feet from the church to install a lightning conductor. Uppland Museum archaeologist Emelie Sunding was present to supervise the work in case anything of historical interest was found. When she saw the edge of a large, flat stone slab with some sort of engraving, she suspected it might be a rune stone. When the dig area was expanded and more of the stone exposed, her suspicion was confirmed.

The rune stone is six feet long and more than four feet wide and is decorated with a snake-like creature with almond eyes. Its head and tail come together in the middle of the stone, and the body winds along both long edges, although one edge is broken. The head of a bird is carved opposite serpent. The runes are carved into the animal’s long body, so the missing piece makes the full inscription unreadable. The legible part reads: “Jarl and … stone after Gerfast, his father.” Rune stones were often dedications to deceased loved ones by surviving family members, so it’s likely the missing section includes the names of Jarl’s brothers and sisters.

Although the stone is unsigned, the decorative style is recognizable as the work of a rune carver named Fot who was working in the mid-11th century. He worked in southern Uppland is believed to have carved more than 40 rune stones. Fot was known to be very particular about the stones he used and his runes are long and slender. Most of what we know of his work has survived only in replicas, so an original Fot is a very exciting find.

Uppland is rich with rune stone — more than 1,300 of the 2,700 known Viking rune stones in Sweden are located there — but most of them are fragmentary. Intact rune-decorated slabs are very rare. This one was known from a number of sources long after it was carved. It was first published, as many of its brethren were, in the 17th century. A woodcut of the stone made in the late 1600s by Johan Hadorph and Johan Leitz can be seen in the 1750 book on Swedish rune stones Bautil by Johan Göransson. It was the threshold stone of Hagby Church, installed at the door of the church portico in the 1400s.

It last appears on the historical record in the early 19th century, but much of the original church was demolished in the 1830s and the stone went missing. There were stories of it having been pulled up and dumped into a nearby millstone. Thankfully those were just rumors. The stone wasn’t even moved; it was just covered with soil when the new church went up next to it and people forgot all about it.

The stone will now be fully cleaned, studied and documented, including the back which, if we’re lucky, might have more carving that hasn’t been seen before because it has been embedded in the earth on its back since the late Middle Ages. Once conserved, the plan is for it to return to Hagby Church where it will be display in pride of place at long last.

Ancient cannabis burial shroud found in China

October 7th, 2016

An ancient grave unearthed in Jiayi cemetery in China’s Turpan Basin contains the remains of man covered in cannabis plants. Radiocarbon dating found that the man was buried between 2,400 to 2,800 years ago. The remains of a man about 35 years of age at the time of his death were laid to rest on a wooden bed with his head on a reed pillow. Thirteen female cannabis plants, all of them close to three feet long, were laid diagonally on the man’s body. The roots placed below his pelvis, the tops reaching his chin and going up the left side of his face.

About 240 graves have been excavated in Jiayi cemetery. Archaeologists believe it was a burial ground of the Subeixi culture which lived in the oasis between 3,000 and 2,000 years ago. Cannabis has been found in other graves in the Turpan Basin before, most notably a solid two pounds of seeds and powdered leaves found in a shaman’s burial in 2008, have been found in graves from this period before, but this is the first time entire plants have survived and the first time they’ve been found in a shroud configuration.

The plants are in excellent condition, good enough to answer key questions about how cannabis was grown and used for funerary purposes in the region.

Since previous cannabis finds in Turpan burials consisted only of plant parts, it has been difficult for researchers to determine whether the plant was grown locally or obtained through trade with neighboring regions.

The plants in the Jiayi burial, however, were found lying flat on the man’s body, leading archaeologists to conclude that the cannabis had been fresh—and therefore local—when it was harvested for the burial.

In addition, while nearly all of the flowering heads of the 13 female plants had been cut off before they were placed on the body, a few that remained were nearly ripe and contained some immature fruit, suggesting that the plants were collected—and that the burial occurred—in late summer.

The surviving flowering heads also provide clues to the role of cannabis in the Turpan cultures. The fibrous plants might have been valued for their usability in textile and rope-making, for example, rather than inhaled or eaten to alter consciousness. No hemp textiles or artifacts have been found, however, and the buds found in the Jiayi grave are rich in “hairs” THC-heavy hairs, suggesting that they were grown at least in part for their psychoactive properties.

The study of the cannabis in the Jiayi grave has been published in the journal Economic Botany and can be read here for a fee (unless you have an institutional login).




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