Ichthyosaur fossil captures oldest reptile live birth

February 13th, 2014

University of California, Davis, paleontologists have found the oldest fossil to capture a vertebrate live birth. The specimen contains the fossil of Chaohusaurus, a Mesozoic marine reptile that is one of the oldest ichthyosaur species, and her three babies in the process of being born. It is 248 million years old, about 10 million years older than any other such fossils. The particular moment captured also strongly suggests that, contra the traditional view, live births in Mesozoic aquatic reptiles first evolved on land rather than in the sea.

The fossil was discovered in the lab attached to another fossil, a predatory fish called Saurichthys, that had been excavated from a quarry in south Majiashan, Chaohu, Anhui, eastern China. The two were separated by layers of mudstones; they were not alive at the same time. Because nobody realized mother and her babies were there when Saurichthys was collected, the mother is missing her skull, the front of her body and the end of her tail. Paleontologists were able to estimate her length and dimensions comparing her to more complete specimens that have the same size vertebrae and pelvic bones. Her body was about a meter (3’3″) long and her skull about 12 centimeters (4.7″) long.

Fortunately, most of the birthing action was captured and the bones are very well preserved. There are three offspring in the fossil frame: one neonate, its body largely underneath the mother’s, one embryo inside the mother’s body cavity and one literally in the middle of being born, with the head outside of the pelvic girdle and the body still inside. Very rarely for an embryonic fossil discovery, the two embryos have clearly articulated skulls, and the one mid-birth even has 23 upper teeth and 16 lower teeth preserved.

“The reason for this animal dying is likely difficulty in labor,” said Ryosuke Motani, lead study author and a paleobiologist at the University of California, Davis. Motani believes the first baby was born dead, and the mother may have died of a labor complication from the second, which is stuck half-in, half-out of her body. “Obviously, the mother had some complications,” he said.

The embryonic skulls are pointing towards the mother’s tail and it’s highly unlikely that all the embryos were in breach position. That means Chaohusaurus were born head first, a feature of live births on land since having the head come out first in water would result in high rates of suffocation. This is why marine mammals today are born tail first.

That’s not to say that this particular family tragedy occurred on land. All evidence, including the fish fossil it was found with, suggests it was a marine birth. What it means is that live birth evolved from land-lubbing ancestors of Chaohusaurus rather than having evolved after the reptiles moved into the sea full time. By the Middle Triassic, ichthyosaurs like Mixosaurus had embryonic skulls that faced the mother’s head, which means they were born tail first, an adaptation that must have developed in the water.

Being in the middle of this evolutionary process may have made birth a particularly dangerous proposition for Chaohusaurus, leading to high infant mortality and attendant danger for the mother. That’s speculative, however, until more fossil evidence is found to support it. Perhaps we’ll be lucky and there will be additional information on the question found in one of the more than 80 new ichthyosaur fossils found in the south Majiashan fossil quarry.

The paper on this fascinating and poignant discovery can be freely read online in the journal PLOS ONE.


Medieval Scandinavian runic code cracked

February 12th, 2014

University of Oslo runologist K. Jonas Nordby has cracked an obscure runic code called jötunvillur. Nordby studied the 80 or so coded runic inscriptions that have been discovered in Northern Europe. Out of those 80, nine were written in jötunvillur code which dates to the 12th or 13th century. One of the nine turned out to be a miniature Rosetta stone. Carved on stick found at the old Hanseatic wharf in Bergen, southwest Norway, the inscription features the name of two men, Sigurd and Lavrans, written in both standard runes and jötunvillur.

Each rune has a name. For instance, the rune for “u” is named “urr,” and the rune “m” is named “maðr.” By studying the Sigurd and Lavrans stick, Nordby discovered that the jötunvillur code worked by replacing the rune sign with the last sound in the rune’s name. As you can tell from the two examples, however, many runes end with the same sound, so jötunvillur is very difficult to read unless you have a handy straight rune original right next to it. You have to guess and re-guess to try to make sense of the code, which is why despite the code mechanism now being exposed, the other eight examples of it still haven’t been translated, although Nordby thinks two of them might also be inscribed with proper names: Thorstein on one and Einar on the other.

Because of how difficult it is to read and the prevalence of names, Nordby believes jötunvillur wasn’t used to send secret messages, but rather as an educational tool to teach people the runic alphabet. It was meant to be written, not read, an exercise to help people learn the rune names. There were no schools that taught runes; it was a system passed down from person to person, and what better way to teach it than to make it fun, a game or a code to crack.

Henrik Williams, a professor at Uppsala University’s Department of Scandinavian Languages and a Swedish expert on runes, says that Nordby’s discovery is important.

“Above all, it helps us understand that there were more codes than we were aware of. Each runic inscription we interpret raises our hopes of soon being able to read more. This is pure detective work and each new method improves our chances,” says Williams.

He agrees that the codes could have been used as a tool for learning runes. But he is uncertain how big a role this would have played in the learning process. In any case, Williams thinks the codes were used for much more than communication.

“They challenged the reader, demonstrated skills, and testify to a joy in reading and writing.”

The most commonly used was digit code which divided the alphabet into a matrix of three rows and six columns. The coded figures had a vertical bar with small diagonal ones on either side. The number of bars on the left side of the symbol indicated which row the rune was in; the number of bars on the right side identified the column. Most of the other codes use Caesar Cipher, a relatively simple system named after Julius Caesar who is said to have used it to communicate with his military officers. It just shifts the letters three of four places to the right.

There is a great deal of playfulness evinced in the rune codes that have been cracked. A challenge to decipher the code is a frequent message. They also played with the format itself, hiding runes in the beards of carved figures or in the decoration of an altar. Some appear to be riddles. They’re games, brain teasers, like medieval Scandinavian Sudoku more than magical incantations or secret communications.

They do that job well, too, as Henrik Williams’ reaction to the recently cracked code underscores:

“But personally I think jötunvillur is an idiotic code, because whoever made it chose a system that is so hard to interpret. It’s irritating not being able to read it.”

I know that irritation well. I bet he stabs the crossword with his pencil when he can’t complete it.


1,000 bodies from state asylum found in Mississippi

February 11th, 2014

During construction of a new road on the grounds of the University of Mississippi Medical Center in Jackson last year, workers unearthed multiple graves containing deceased residents of the Mississippi State Insane Asylum, a state hospital built in 1855 and closed in 1935. Between November and March, crews digging out the subsoil to make sure it was solid enough to support the road unearthed 66 bodies in pine boxes. The coffins were about six feet long, as you would expect, but much thinner than normal human width because they were compressed by the weight of the soil. There were no grave markers identifying the burials.

Experts from the state archives and the Mississippi State University anthropology department removed and documented the remains. They will study the bones for two years, doing isotope analysis of the teeth to determine what kind of food they ate, and therefore where they lived, as children, before reburying them in a UMMC cemetery used for donated anatomical remains and previous archaeological discoveries.

The number of bodies found at the road site made the excavation and reburial possible while still allowing the road to be built. That is not the case with the most recent discoveries. Soil testing on locations slated to become a parking lot, the American Cancer Society Hope Lodge (an $11 million project) and the Children’s Justice Center have found evidence of 1,000 bodies and probably more than that. Since each reburial costs about $3,000, that would add a whopping $3 million to the budget, money they don’t have. It puts a lot of pressure on the UMMC to find new locations for these construction projects, but they’re doing the right thing and leaving Asylum Hill and its many dead free from development.

The Mississippi State Insane Asylum was a cutting edge facility when it opened in January 8th, 1855. It was the first state institution for the mentally ill in Mississippi. Before its construction, people deemed insane were kept locked up in the attics and basements of family homes, or chained in jails and prisons. It took almost a decade for the asylum to be built, after appropriation struggles in the legislature and a five-year yellow fever epidemic delayed construction.

It was designed by architect Joseph Willis who patterned it after the New Jersey State Lunatic Asylum, built in 1848 according to the Kirkbride Plan, an all-encompassing holistic approach to the treatment of mental illness conceived by Dr. Thomas Story Kirkbride, a Quaker physician and a lifelong advocate for the curability and humane treatment of the mentally ill. The Mississippi State Insane Asylum was the sixth Kirkbride Plan asylum built in the United States, and the first in the South.

Kirkbride was a co-founder of the Association of Medical Superintendents of American Institutions for the Insane (AMSAII), the organization that in 1921 would become the American Psychiatric Association. He had an enormous influence on how mental illness was treated in second half of the 19th century, thanks largely to his book On the Construction, Organization, and General Arrangements of Hospitals for the Insane with Some Remarks on Insanity and Its Treatment, first published in 1854. You can read a digitzed copy of it on the U.S. National Library of Medicine website.

The Kirkbride Plan was an incredibly detailed approach to the construction of mental institutions that would best benefit their patients. He detailed the optimal standards for everything from the staggered design of wings to building materials to the landscaping of the grounds to ventilation and drainage systems. Kirkbride asylums were designed to be large, bright, airy buildings on estates of at least 100 acres to provide inmates with pleasure grounds and land to farm. Kirkbride promoted “moral treatment,” based on the idea that pleasant environs, outdoor work, social interaction, cleanliness and edification of the mind were more effective at curing mental illness than harsh confinement and medical treatments like bleeding and purging.

From On the Construction, Organization, and General Arrangements of Hospitals:

A hospital for the insane should have a cheerful and comfortable appearance, every thing repulsive and prison-like should be carefully avoided, and even the means of effecting the proper degree of security should be masked, as far as possible, by arrangements of a pleasant and attractive character.

And it can’t be crammed full of beds either. Again from Kirkbride’s book:

All the best authorities agree that the number of insane confined in one hospital, should not exceed two hundred and fifty, and it is very important that at no time should a larger number be admitted than the building is calculated to accommodate comfortably, as a crowded institution cannot fail to exercise an unfavorable influence on the welfare of its patients.

That 250 figure is the maximum number of patients he calculated could be visited daily by the chief medical officer. Anything more than that and the man in charge would have to delegate and that almost inevitably meant a steep decline in conditions. Those 250 residents would be divided into eight classes of mental illness. Each class would get its own ward, and since the sexes were segregated, there were 16 total wards with an average of 15 patients. Each ward should be outfitted with a parlor, a dining room with dumb waiter, a speaking tube leading to the kitchen, a corridor, single rooms for patients, larger rooms for patients who needed their own special attendants, small dormitories with a connected chamber for a group attendant, a clothes room, a bath room, a wash and sink room, a water closet, an infirmary, two works rooms, a museum and reading room, a school room, drying closets, a forced ventilation system along with a natural ventilation system that allowed “fresh cool breezes” to pass through the wards.

When the Mississippi asylum opened, it had a mere 150 inmates, well-within Kirkbride’s maximum. During the Civil War, in 1863 the asylum was taken over by the 46th Indiana Infantry Regiment who used the inmates’ pleasure grounds and vegetable gardens for fortifications, embankments and to supply their troops. Under Reconstruction, African-American patients were first admitted and in 1870 the inmate population doubled to 300. The death rate was contained at around 21 per year, and the state legislature compelled the asylum trustees to visit once a week.

With the end of Reconstruction in 1877, the legislature stopped giving a crap, funds dried up and the asylum went into a steep decline. When Dr. Thomas J. Mitchell was appointed superintendent in 1878, he found conditions “verging on what the original Bedlam must have been like.” It took a major fire and the death an inmate before the state appropriated funds to install electrical lights and connect the asylum to the city water system (as opposed to the pestilent and drought-prone ponds that were its sole source of water before then) in 1894.

Additions and repairs were made, but not sufficient to keep up with the increase in admissions. By 1920, the Mississippi State Insane Hospital (so renamed in 1900) had 1,670 inmates. By 1930, the number of residents had increased to 2,649. Obviously the Kirkbride Plan was no longer. Finally conditions were so atrocious that in 1935 the hospital was closed and the patients moved to the new state hospital in Whitfield where it remains to this day.

The old asylum was demolished and in 1954, the new University Medical Center was built. Evidence of burials from its asylum days has turned up on occasion, not always handled with the proper respect. In 1990, 20 headstones were reportedly thrown in a gully. A few years after that workers installing a laundry steam line found 44 unmarked graves. Considering how many thousands of poor wretches lived and died in that asylum over the years, the entire campus is a likely cemetery.


The first film of a New York City snowstorm

February 10th, 2014

Mired in a winter that keeps insisting on snapping back to sub-freezing temperatures and traffic-clogging snow and ice, it warms the cockles of my frozen heart to see the first film footage of New York City during a monster snowstorm. It was filmed for the Edison Manufacturing Co. on February 17, 1902, by Edwin S. Porter, a groundbreaking director who pioneered techniques like dissolves, cross-cutting and close-ups. It records a view of Madison Square, back when Madison Square Garden was actually on Madison Square, buried under massive snowdrifts.

Those are the New York Fire Department’s horse-drawn engines trying to negotiate the snowy terrain. You can see the trolleys trying to keep on schedule, a myriad dedicated pedestrians, carts hauling large barrels of what I assume are spirituous beverages but really could be anything, the snow-covered statue of William Seward and the luxurious Fifth Avenue Hotel, once host to US Presidents and crowned heads of Europe but in decline by the time the film was shot. The always awesome Bowery Boys think the beams at the end of the film are a glimpse of the construction site of the iconic Flatiron Building which would be completed just a few months after the film in the summer of 1902.

I think my favorite part is the hansome cab that appears horse-first at 1:24. Patented by Joseph Hansom in England in 1834, by the end of the 19th century these small, fast, highly maneuverable carriages were ubiquitous in cities like London and New York. Cab is short for cabriolet, the type of carriage, and when automated taximeters were added to calculate fares, the hansomes became known as taxicabs. That low little one-horse carriage is the progenitor of the yellow cars that are ubiquitous in New York today. You can see in the film that the era of the hansome cab was already winding down in 1902. By the 1920s, motor vehicles had taken over.

Edison titled the film “New York City in a Blizzard,” but he was being dramatic. The storm didn’t actually rise to the blizzard level. Although this snowstorm produced crazy drifts up to five feet high, on the whole New York City wasn’t actually hit that hard. Winds of 40 miles an hour and deep snow caused traffic, train and shipping delays, but there were no major accidents which is impressive considering you can see the horses struggle to keep their footing in the film. Temperatures hovered around 30 degrees, keeping the snow relatively wet and conditions bearable. The blizzard of March 1888 saw temperatures drop to six degrees below zero, winds of 60 miles an hour and two feet of snowfall. Compared to that, the 1902 storm was a cakewalk. Connecticut and the rest of New England were hit much harder.

The year after he shot the snow storm, Edwin S. Porter would move very far beyond the shots of daily life and secure his place in film history by directing the seminal picture The Great Train Robbery.


Important early Seurat drawing acquired by the Getty

February 9th, 2014

When you think of Georges Seurat, you probably picture his pointillist masterpieces like A Sunday Afternoon on La Grande Jatte, but in his tragically short life (he died during a diphtheria epidemic when he was just 31 years old), Seurat produced far more drawings than he did paintings. Along with La Grande Jatte, he made six other large-scale paintings, 60 smaller paintings and oil sketches, some of the latter preparatory to the monumental pieces. There are about 500 surviving drawings, plus four sketchbooks from late teens and early 20s when he was in art school and just after he left. (You can see selections from those notebooks in this online exhibit MoMA created to accompany their 2007 show of Seurat’s drawings.) Stripped of the intense color and brushwork of his Pointillist pieces, Seurat’s drawings showcase his development as an artist, his understanding of light and dark, his use of lines, cross-hatching, paper and pencil textures to create images that can be both realistic and sometimes verging on abstract.

Georges Seurat was born to well-off parents in Paris in 1859. He began drawing at an early age; his first extant drawings were signed and dated 1874, when he was 14 years old. Recognizing his talent but unwilling to let him bypass a conventional education, in 1875 his parents sent him to the Ecole Municipale de Sculpture et Dessin, a small neighborhood art school run by sculptor Justin Lequien, while he finished high school. There the focus was on copying the classics, drawing from lithographs of old masters and plaster casts of ancient sculptures. He was entirely competent at it, but there was little sign in these highly formal early forays of the innovator Seurat would soon become.

His secondary schooling completed, in 1878 he passed the entrance exam of the Ecole des Beaux-Arts and continued his instruction under Henri Lehman. Lehman’s pedagogical approach was similar to Lequien’s, focused on drawing live models, after antique sculptures, old masters and French Baroque and Neoclassical works. Drawings survive from Seurat’s school days that are copies after Raphael, Michelangelo, Titian, Ghiberti, Perugino, Holbein, Poussin and Ingres, among others. He seemed poised to follow the well-worn path towards conventional success in the French art world of the late 19th century: pass exams, exhibit, win prizes, go to Rome to study the classics in person, return to snag commissions from the government and wealthy patrons.

Then he took a detour. Eighteen months in to his studies at the Ecole, he left to do a year of military service. In November of 1880, he was released but he didn’t go back to school. His formal education was over. Seurat rented a little studio apartment, drew informal sketches of the people and landscapes of Paris and environs, spending two years concentrating on black and white drawing. That’s not to say he rejected his schooling. He may have chafed under it and rebelled, but you can see the student of ancient sculpture in the still postures of La Grande Jatte, and the Renaissance copyist in his embrace of light and dark.

He would later describe this period to Belgian symbolist poet Emile Verhaeren: “Little by little he told me about his beginnings, his apprenticeship with Lehmann, his school years, the whole story of efforts soured by routine and outmoded practices. Then how he found himself, personally, through studying others, through lessons and rules, the way one discovers unknown stones beneath stratifications of land and soil.” That voyage of self-discovery, of integrating his schooling with his own vision and study of color theory, is key to our understanding of the Post-Impressionist pioneer he grew into.

One of the earliest drawings to show Seurat’s movement away from idealized antique forms into his own personal style is Mendiant Hindou (Indian Beggar), drawn ca. 1878, either the end of his studies at the Ecole Municipale de Sculpture et Dessin or the beginning of his time at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts. It sold at a Sotheby’s auction on Thursday for $3,971,644 including buyer’s premium, far, far exceeding the pre-sale estimate of $130,512 – $195,768. Instead of disappearing into an anonymous private collection, this important transitional piece has found a new home in that most deep-pocketed of museums, the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles.

The Getty has no Seurat paintings, but it does have three other significant drawings the artist made in the early 1880s.

Indian Beggar represents a critical turning point in Seurat’s approach to figure drawing, towards a more distinctive style that employs gradations of light and shadow to define the form and mood of his subjects.

In the drawing, the subject, an old man, sits with his face turned away from the viewer, shoulders slumped, with folds of skin rippling down his stomach. Delicate effects of light and shadow are achieved through soft, rubbed, and repeated strokes and cross-hatching.

The addition of Mendiant Hindou gives them an important capsule collection. and I hope will inspire them to display all four of the works together so visitors can see the progression of his work.


Good morrow, Richard III nerds; you are early stirring

February 8th, 2014

Okay, it’s not that early. I just couldn’t resist mooching from Shakespeare for obvious reasons. This is your official History Blog wakeup call: one hour from now the St. Louis University colloquium on the excavation and identification of the remains of King Richard III kicks off. Station yourself on the R3@SLU website to watch the event streaming. Geneticist Dr. Turi King and the dig’s fieldwork director Matthew Morris will be on hand to discuss the find along with history, humanities, forensic pathology and English professors from SLU.

The colloquium lasts six hours but they will break for nature and lunch, so you probably won’t have to use that Snapple bottle you haven’t recycled yet. Alternatively, you could just wait for the entire video to be uploaded to the site after the discussion is over. Dr. Jonathan Sawday from the St. Louis University English department and one of the organizers of the event, was kind enough to comment on the first post to assure us that the video will be available, and the site now confirms it will be found on the Schedule page.

Right now that page contains the actual schedule. Matthew Moris and Turi King will be on in the afternoon, but don’t skip the St. Louis University talks because it all looks like gold, Jerry. There’s something for everyone. As I am also a forensic pathology nerd, I am very much looking forward to Dr. Michael Graham discussion of Medico-legal Death Investigation: Now and Then.

I’ll be watching today, updating this post with any nerdy commentary as the proverbial spirit moves me. Join me in the comments, if the proverbial spirit moves you. :boogie:

And we’re on! It’s cool to hear to the perspective of Leicesterians from Dr. Sawday.

Oh hey, I didn’t know Sir Walter Scott invented the term “War of the Roses.”

Archaeologist Thomas Finan: Leading a dig is “less of an Indiana Jones experience and more of an Eisenhower experience.” Nicely put.

Dammit, the stream has stopped for me. :angry: Okay it’s back. I missed a chunk of Dr. Finan’s presentation about his finds in the UK which I will catch up when the full video is uploaded.

Archaeologists see an unidentified skeleton as a sample of the wider population, a source of information about the population’s health, age, diet, physical attributes, etc. The individual’s cause of death is not often writ on the skeletal remains. If they’ve died of disease or old age or a sudden heart attack, say, you’re not going necessarily going to find evidence of that on the bones.

Now that the recovery of ancient DNA is possible, it opens the door to a whole new investigation into the remains as an individual rather than as a source of data for the wider population.

It’s pathology time! Ooh, interesting that China was doing forensic death investigations in the 13th century.

The coroner’s office was established in England in the 8th or 9th century. That is crazy. They didn’t include autopsies until much later, however, so even if Richard’s death had been investigated, his body would have been looked at but nothing more.

The US is still under the coroner system today. Frontline did a fantastic and terrifying expose’ of what a slapdash disaster death investigations can be in the United States. You can watch that program online on the PBS website and I highly, HIGHLY recommend it.

The choppiness is getting me down, y’all. I might have to wait for the finished video.

Stab wound with hilt mark and hesitation marks on the wrist. That slice with the lined up pinpoints indicate a serrated weapon was used, in this case a saw. Wound interpretation is fascinating.

Now there’s what I’m sure is a compelling round table conversation on how archaeologists, curators, etc. handle human remains in a respectful way but it’s like an audio version of a strobe light and I just can’t take it anymore. I’m giving up for now, but I’ll try again regularly.

Huh. They seem to have gone back to Dr. Finan’s presentation and it sounds and looks fine. I’ll take it!

Okay, it appears they used the break to replay the presentation that was so choppy. Now it’s back to the live colloquium with Dr. Anthony Hasler’s talk Richard’s World. There are still some moments when the stream has to catch up with itself, but that constant choppiness has cleared up.

Spoke too soon. The choppiness is back.

Okay it’s 1:20 EST and they’re replaying Anthony Hasler’s presentation during the lunch break. The replays all seem to be work well, which means the final video will be good quality.

…. Aaand choppiness again. I’m officially conceding defeat. I’ll try again after lunch.

It’s 2:34 EST and Matthew Morris is up. The stream still stutters. I’m going to go ahead and wait for the completed video. :skull:


800,000-year-old footprints found on Norfolk beach

February 7th, 2014

Researchers have discovered footprints left during the Early Pleistocene between one million and 780,000 years ago on a beach in Happisburgh, Norfolk, on the east coast of England. These are the oldest hominid footprints ever found outside of Africa. They’re also the only Early Pleistocene human fossils ever found in the UK.

They were revealed last May at low tide after rough seas had beaten the sand off the foreshore exposing laminated silts that were soft sediments a million years ago. A team of researchers from the British Museum, Natural History Museum and Queen Mary University of London were exploring the shore as part of the Happisburgh Project when they spotted a large group of circular and elongated hollows. They look very much like human footprint fossils from the Holocene era, so the team decided to examine them more closely.

There was little time to document and study the find in depth. The scouring of the sand cover left the silts exposed to wave erosion that could flatten out the hollows in a matter of weeks. Because the tide carried sand and sea water into the hollows and a near constant rain made it impossible to clear them sufficiently for traditional field measurements to be taken, the team used laser-scanning and multi-image photogrammetry (MIP) to capture high resolution 3D images of the surface. On their hands and knees in the hard rain, they cleared off sand and scooped out water, trying to empty the hollows enough that they could be photographed and scanned.

Their heroic efforts were successful. A total of 155 hollows were identified and at least partially measured. Analysis of the MIP images found that orientation could be determined on 49 of them and they were oriented north-south. On 29 of the prints, the arch and either the heel or the front of the foot was visible which made it possible to determine they were going south. Twelve of the hollows were clearly outlined enough to be thoroughly measured. These ranged in dimension from 30–50 mm (1.2″-2″) deep, 140–250 mm (5.5″-9.8″) long and 60–110 mm (2.4″-4.3″) wide, all within the range of juvenile to adult hominid foot sizes. One footprint even has visible toes. Extrapolating from the foot size, the people who left the prints are estimated to have been between .93 meters (3′) and 1.73 meters (5’8″) tall.

Dr Isabelle De Groote, an anthropologist at Liverpool John Moores University who studied the prints, said: “We have identified at least five individuals here.
“It is likely they were somehow related, and if they were not direct family members they will have belonged to the same family group.
“The footprints were fairly close together so we think they were walking rather than running. Most were directly alongside the river in a southerly direction but also there were some going in all different directions like they were pottering around.
“If you imagine walking along a beach now with children then they would be running around.”

Since no hominid bones have been found, we can’t be certain was species left the footprints. One possibility is that they were relatives of the species Homo antecessor, or Pioneer Man. Homo antecessor bones of similar age have been discovered at Atapuerca in northern Spain. They walked upright and were of the same general height range as the estimates from the footprints. Homo antecessor appears to have become extinct around 600,000 years ago.

It’s incredibly fortunate for us that this important find was made and documented in two weeks, because just as the experts feared, coastal erosion completely removed the prints by the end of May. They’re gone now, and who knows what other remains of major international significance are going with them.

You can read the paper on the find in the online journal Plos One. It’s eminently readable, not too jargon-intensive and quite short. I highly recommend it.


Proof found of Amenhotep III-Akhenaten co-regency

February 6th, 2014

There has long been a debate among historians and Egyptologists over whether Amenhotep III and his son, the future Akhenaten shared a co-regency towards the end of the father’s reign, with some experts positing a power sharing arrangement lasting as long as 12 years or as short as two years. Much of the recent scholarship on the controversy has argued against the co-regency theory altogether. There has been no solid archaeological evidence to resolve the debate, but on Thursday Dr. Mohammed Ibrahim, Egypt’s Minister of Antiquities, announced that inscriptions found in the Luxor tomb of Vizier Amenhotep-Huy provide conclusive evidence that Amenhotep III shared power with Akhenaten for at least eight years in the waning days of the elder’s reign.

The inscriptions were carved onto architectural remains, collapsed walls and columns, in tomb number 28 in the El Asasif area of Luxor. Some of the inscriptions depict scenes of father and son together in the same space as one follows the other. There are also cartouches — the prenomen or throne name of a pharaoh surrounded by a protective oval — of both pharaohs next to each other. Traditionally, viziers’ tombs always bear the cartouche of the pharaoh they served under.

As if that weren’t bonanza enough, the inscriptions date to a very specific time: the first Heb-Sed of Amenhotep III. The Heb-Sed was a feast like a royal jubilee celebrated by a pharaoh 30 years into his reign and then every three years after that. Since Amenhotep ruled for approximately 38 years (1388–1351 B.C. or 1391–1353 B.C.). Records survive referring to his 38th regnal year and some historians believe he may have begun his 39th but died very soon into it. That means father and son were co-regents for at least eight years.

Amenhotep III has the most surviving statues of any pharaoh, 250 of them from the beginning of his reign all the way through to the end. The ones towards the end depict an ailing man. Forensic examination of his mummy found evidence of arthritis, obesity and a plethora of dental caries and abscesses which must have been excruciatingly painful. He was in his 50s at the time of his death, so it makes sense that after ruling over Egypt since he was a boy, he enlisted his son to help him when his myriad illnesses made the business of pharaohing increasingly difficult.

The vizier’s tomb was first unearthed in 1978. A multi-national team led by the Instituto de Estudios del Antiguo Egipto de Madrid have been excavating, recording and studying the architectural elements of the tomb since 2009. You can read more about on the website of the Vizier Amenhotep-Huy Project. It’s in Spanish, but if you can’t read it in the original it’s worth it to use an online translator to explore the excavation diaries for each season. There are some great videos of the digs too.


Window in Le Corbusier chapel smashed

February 5th, 2014

A stained glass window in the Chapel of Notre Dame du Haut in Ronchamp, France, designed by Swiss-born French architect Le Corbusier was smashed to smithereens in a break-in last month. On the night of January 17th, a person or persons broke through the stained glass window, hand-painted with a yellow flower, dark red clouds and the moon on a blue background, and stole a heavy concrete collection box from inside the church. The box contained no money; it was torn open and abandoned on the chapel grounds. The door leading to the library and gift shop also shows the tell-tale signs of attempted forced entry.

Le Corbusier painted all the simple, richly colored windows in the building, but the one destroyed was reportedly the only one bearing his signature. It’s very hard to see in pictures of the intact window because he signed the dark cloud underneath the moon, but if you look closely on the bottom edge of the cloud you can just make out some light vertical scratch-like things. That’s the signature which reads “L .. C 14 Mai 55,” the artist’s initials and the creation date, May 14th, 1955. You can see heart-breaking views of the broken window in this French news story:

Initial reports described the damage as irreparable, but all the glass fragments that could be found have been collected in two large bags and sent to master glassmaker Pierre-Alain Parot in Côte d’Or. Parot has restored some of the most exquisite stained glass windows in the world, including those in the Strasbourg Cathedral and is scheduled to begin work on the windows of Sainte Chapelle in Paris shortly. Despite his workshop’s undeniable skill, the job is a daunting one. When the thieves broke through, it busted into thousands of tiny pieces.

The good news is restorers have already found few pieces of the signature. They’ve begun by grouping like with like, much as you would put together a jigsaw puzzle. You can see the glassmakers at work in this news story (also in French):

The bad news is this is doubtless going to be a very costly, time-consuming rescue mission, and the decision about how far to go in the attempt is in the hands of the private owners of the chapel, the Association de l’Oeuvre Notre Dame du Haut. The master glassmaker and experts from the Regional Directorate of Cultural Affairs (DRAC) will first have to determine just how much of the window they think is salvageable and then present their conclusions to the Association. At the very least, this process will give experts the chance to study paint and glass samples, identify microorganisms or environmental issues at risk of damaging the paint, and determine what approach would be the most effective in conserving the surviving windows.

This disaster has put the Association de l’Oeuvre Notre Dame du Haut’s record of securing and maintaining the chapel under the microscope. The Le Corbusier Foundation in Paris, an organization founded by the architect himself to ensure the conservation of his work, is displeased, to say the very least. The chapel is afflicted with moisture problems and serious damage to the concrete and masonry. While upkeep on the 60-year-old building is neglected, the Association chose to spend €10 million ($13,522,000) on a Renzo Piano-designed monastery built into the hillside next to the chapel. Boasting housing units for the Poor Clare sisters, an oratory for pilgrims, a large new visitor’s center, the new addition was completed in 2011.

The Association de l’Oeuvre de Notre-Dame du Haut which owns and runs the site has done little to preserve the Chapel itself which is quite literally falling apart, with the white pebbledash cracked and crumbling away and the bare concrete eroding at the edges. Given the huge sums paid for the Piano project and the income from roughly 80,000 tourist tickets a year, this is scandalous, as is the failure to guarantee security. The building urgently needs restoration.

The Association is therefore going to be under heavy scrutiny for their response to this violation.

The Chapel of Notre Dame du Haut was a center of religious pilgrimage long before it was a center of architectural pilgrimage. The hilltop was a sacred space at least as far back as the Romans. The first Christian chapel was built on the site in the 4th century. The second chapel was destroyed during World War II. When the Catholic Church decided to rebuild after the war, reformers enlisted Le Corbusier to create a modernist spiritual space, a clean break from the decadent associations of the past.

Because access to the hilltop was a challenge, the architect had to build the chapel without the mechanical tools of construction that had become part of his trademark approach. Thus the modern building was constructed using wooden forms, cast concrete, steel reinforcement all done by hand. The chapel curvilinear shapes, thick walls and swooping roof are unlike anything else Le Corbusier made. Many consider it his masterpiece. Indeed, it was finished in 1954 and declared a national Historical Monument just 13 years later.


Anne Frank’s toy marbles rediscovered

February 4th, 2014

In the summer of 1942, shortly before Anne Frank and her family moved into the secret annex on the Prinsengracht Canal that would be their entire world for two years, Anne approached her neighbor and playmate Toosje Kupers to ask her for a favor. Anne was concerned that her treasured marble collection would fall into the wrong hands, so she asked Toosje to keep them for safe until her return. She also gave Toosje a tea set and a book she had gotten for her 13th birthday for safe-keeping. The Kupers family also agreed to take in the Frank’s cat Moortje, although to perpetuate the ruse that they had quickly fled the country, they left the cat behind in their home and the Kupers pretended their decision to adopt her was spontaneous.

As we know, Anne never did return. She and her family were betrayed and on August 4th, 1944, they were arrested. Anne and her sister Margot died of typhyus at Bergen-Belsen in March of 1945. Their mother Edith died in Auschwitz. Father Otto Frank was the only survivor. He made it out of Auschwitz alive and returned to Amsterdam to look for his wife and daughters. By the summer of 1945, Otto knew that his entire family was dead.

Toosje Kupers had kept her promise to Anne. The marbles, tea set and book were still safe. She offered to return Anne’s treasures to her father, but Otto Frank told her to keep them. And so she did, for decades, eventually forgetting that she still had them. Toosje rediscovered Anne’s things in her attic just last year when she was packing up to move. She contacted the Anne Frank House Museum and offered to donate the precious artifacts of Anne’s childhood to the museum.

The book and tea set have gone on display in the year since their rediscovery, but the museum has been saving the marbles for a special occasion. The colorful set is part of an exhibition called The Second World War in 100 Objects that was officially opened Tuesday by His Majesty King Willem-Alexander of the Netherlands at the Kunsthal Rotterdam. The 100 objects come from 25 Dutch war and resistance museums and give members of the general public.

They include the spectacles worn as a disguise by Dutch resistance fighter Hannie Schaft; a folding motorcycle that literally fell out of the sky during the parachute drops of Operation Market Garden; a decoy paratrooper dummy (known as a “Rupert”) used by the British to deceive the German troops; the grave cross of American pilot James M. Hansen, who lies buried at the Netherlands American Cemetery at Margraten; and a sweater made from dog’s hair during the “hunger winter” of 1944-45.

The marbles fit right in as poignant symbols of how Anne Frank, despite the extraordinary circumstances of the last two years of her life and her great writing talent, was still just a little girl who collected colorful marbles and kept them in a tin box.

[Teresien da Silva, head of collections at the Anne Frank House museum,] said Frank was one of many Jewish children who gave away their toys before going into hiding or being deported.

“For children during that time, marbles were a treasure. They worked very hard to win them,” she said.

While the marbles are old, she said, they are in good condition.





September 2014
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