Ming Dynasty bridge revealed in dry lake

January 4th, 2014

A granite footbridge built nearly 400 years ago in the late Ming Dynasty has been exposed by the record low waters of Poyang Lake in China’s central Jiangxi province. Lengthening dry seasons, low rainfall and the impact of the Three Gorges Dam reservoir upstream have dramatically reduced the lake’s area, shrinking it from an average high point of 3,500 square kilometers (1,400 square miles) to a two hundred square kilometers (77 square miles) at worst. Right now it is almost 10 meters (32 feet) below the average depth for this time of year. It’s an environmental and economic disaster, devastating for the fish, endangered porpoises, migratory birds, microorganisms and humans that depend on the lake for their lives/livelihoods.

So it’s not exactly a bright side because there really isn’t any, but it is neat to see the bridge again. It is an impressive 2,930 meters (1.8 miles) long which earned it the title of the longest lake bridge in China. Also known as the “thousand-eye bridge” because it was reputed to have 1,100 holes along its length, it was built by the Chongzhen Emperor in 1631, the fourth year of his reign. For the people who lived around the lake in the 17th century, the granite bridge was the main traffic artery. Since the lake has long reputed to be haunted, garnering the moniker of the “Bermuda Triangle of the East” for the number of ships that disappeared in its waters never to be seen again even during the dry season, and since the waters, haunted or not, are treacherous and subject to sudden squalls, the bridge was an important resource for residents, giving them the ability to cross the lake without boating.

It is fitting that the last Ming emperor left his mark on Poyang Lake as that’s where the future first emperor had the great victory that launched his dynasty. In 1363, as the Mongol Yuan Dynasty founded by Kublai Khan weakened and local warlords grew in strength and ambition, the three most powerful lords in the Yangtze River area clashed at Poyang Lake. Chen Youliang of the Han brought hundreds of tower ships, massive multi-storey troop carriers, and hundreds of thousands soldiers and sailors to besiege the Ming-controlled city of Nanchang on the south side of the lake. Zhu Yuanzhang, commander of the Ming fleet and founder of the dynasty, was fighting the army of the Zhang Shicheng, the self-style King of Wu, when the siege began. Zhu dispatched a fleet to the lake to support Nanchang which was holding steadfastly against the Han.

Over three days of direct conflict (there was a month of blockade and attrition between the first two days and the last) in which the Ming sent fire ships to demolish the Han towers and used their smaller, more nimble ships to run the Han fleet aground in the shallows, Zhu’s forces decisively defeated the numerically superior Han. Chen Youliang was killed by an enemy arrow through his skull, and only a few Han ships managed to make it up the Yangtze intact.

Zhu claimed hundreds of surrendered and disabled Han ships and with his reinforced navy and victorious army, he became the strongest of the contenders for the throne. In 1368, Zhu Yuanzhang conquered the Yuan capital (today’s Beijing) and proclaimed himself Emperor of China, first of the Ming Dynasty. The Mongols retreated to their homeland in the central Asian steppe and Yunnan, the last Yuan-controlled area of China, fell to the Ming in 1381.

The dynasty he founded lasted for nearly 300 years until the suicide of the Chongzhen Emperor in 1644, 13 years after he had the granite bridge built over the lake that saw the founder of his dynasty’s seminal victory.

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Pharaonic brewer’s tomb found in Luxor

January 3rd, 2014

Archaeologists from Tokyo’s Waseda University have unearthed the richly decorated tomb of an ancient brewer on the west bank of the Nile opposite Luxor. The team has been excavating the necropolis of El-Khokha since late 2007. Also called the Valley of the Nobles, it’s an area known for its tombs of royal officials and aristocrats mainly from the 18th, 19th and 20th Dynasties. The clearing of the modern hamlets of Sheikh Adb el-Qurna and el Khokha (a long and ugly controversy, see here for an overview) has left debris in the area that needs clearing and opened more of the site to archaeological exploration.

The Waseda University archaeologists were cleaning the courtyard of tomb TT47, final resting place of Userhat, overseer of the royal harem and an important official at the court of 18th Dynasty pharaoh Amenhotep III (father of Akhenaten the apostate and grandfather of boy king Tutankhamun) when they discovered the entrance to a T-shaped tomb. Inside they found beautifully painted ceilings and walls that identified its owner as Khonso-Im-Heb, head of beer production for mother goddess Mut and the head of the royal storehouses during the Ramesside era (a period between 1292–1069 B.C. when eleven 19th and 20th Dynasty pharaohs took the name Rameses).

The murals are in excellent condition, brightly colored and mostly intact. They depict scenes of daily life in Khonso-Im-Heb’s family and religious rituals, some of which he participates in alongside his wife and children. One wall features the famous Opening of the Mouth ritual wherein priests of Anubis and the decedant’s heir magically opened the mouth of a statue or mummy so that it could breathe and speak in the afterlife. The ceiling is painted with colorful geometrical designs around a solar boat.

The tomb has two intersecting halls in a T-shape and a burial chamber. One side of it adjoins and is connected to another tomb belonging to someone named Houn. We don’t know anything more about him at this time. Once the tombs have been fully excavated and documented, the brewer’s tomb will be conserved with an eye to opening it up to tourists.

People like bright colors, and drawing tourists is a big problem for Egypt and Luxor in particular right now. The bottom has completely fallen out of the tourist trade because of the political upheaval of the past two years. Meanwhile, budget shortfalls have ministerial instability have left archaeological sites and museums unguarded and prey to looters. That’s why Mohammed Ibrahim made a point of announcing that security at the site would be increased while excavations are ongoing.

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Giraffe leg on the menu for Pompeii middle class

January 2nd, 2014

A multi-year University of Cincinnati excavation of two city blocks in the shadow of the busy Porta Stabia gate has revealed an unexpected variety of foods from cheap local forage like nuts to expensive imported meats like giraffe leg. The team studied artifacts discovered at Insula VIII.7.1-15 and Insula I.1 during the 19th and early 20th century excavations, tracking them all down in various museums and adding them to a database, and excavated waste collected in drains, latrines and cesspits. The kitchen discards and mineralized excrement provide a direct window into the diets of the middle and lower classes who frequented and lived in the neighborhood.

Adjacent to the Large Theater, the Triangular forum, the Covered Theater and the Quadroporticus (probably an open air gymnasium), by the time of the 79 A.D. eruption of Vesuvius that sealed the city’s doom, the two insulae included 10 building plots and 20 shop fronts. They were in the heart of the city’s entertainment district, a bustling area for the hospitality and food trades with a lot of foot traffic from the Porta Stabia, Pompeii’s oldest gate. Indeed, excavations discovered evidence of very old buildings in the center of Insula VIII.7 dating back as far as the 4th century B.C. when they appear to have been dedicated to industrial use. This was small scale stuff, cottage industries, basically. Most of them appear to have been salted fish operations, although one tannery was unearthed, a significant find since it’s only the second tannery ever discovered at Pompeii.

A gap in the record after the 4th century B.C. suggests the area (other parts of Pompeii have the same gap) was abandoned only to resume bustling in the mid-2nd century B.C. with the untrammeled rise of Roman control after the Third Punic War. The Porta Stabia neighborhood saw a major revival in the early 1st century A.D. The factories were demolished and floors and walls built over them. The small-scale industry was replaced by retail operations, storefronts and restaurants, to cater to the crowds in the neighborhood to see a show or traveling through the gate. Not all storefronts and restaurants are created equal, however, and there were big differences in quality and expense of products from one shop to then next.

“The material from the drains revealed a range and quantity of materials to suggest a rather clear socio-economic distinction between the activities and consumption habits of each property, which were otherwise indistinguishable hospitality businesses,” says [University of Cincinnati associate professor of classics Steven] Ellis. Findings revealed foods that would have been inexpensive and widely available, such as grains, fruits, nuts, olives, lentils, local fish and chicken eggs, as well as minimal cuts of more expensive meat and salted fish from Spain. Waste from neighboring drains would also turn up less of a variety of foods, revealing a socioeconomic distinction between neighbors.

A drain from a central property revealed a richer variety of foods as well as imports from outside Italy, such as shellfish, sea urchin and even delicacies including the butchered leg joint of a giraffe.

“That the bone represents the height of exotic food is underscored by the fact that this is thought to be the only giraffe bone ever recorded from an archaeological excavation in Roman Italy,” says Ellis. “How part of the animal, butchered, came to be a kitchen scrap in a seemingly standard Pompeian restaurant not only speaks to long-distance trade in exotic and wild animals, but also something of the richness, variety and range of a non-elite diet.”

Deposits also included exotic and imported spices, some from as far away as Indonesia.

I love these kinds of studies because a) ancient poop is awesome, and b) because they underscore how wide-reaching the improved standard of living was for people in the Roman Empire. There were haves and have-nots to a huge degree, of course, what with the vast heaving mass of slaves underpinning the economy, but you didn’t have to be rich to have access to expensive delicacies like giraffe leg and imported Spanish fish. Trade networks and mass production allowed regular people to live with day-to-day comforts like a constant supply of staples (olive oil, bread, bacteria-fermented fish intestine sauce aka garum), lamps, roof tiles and weird takeout.

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Dog skull sacrificed on rack found in Mexico City

January 1st, 2014

The construction of a subway extension in Mexico City has proven an archaeological bonanza. Over the 15-mile area excavated between October of 2008 and August of 2012, archaeologists unearthed a large variety of pre-Hispanic Aztec remains: homes, floors, water channels, sculptures, pottery, tlecuiles (small rectangular hearths made from flat stone slabs over a clay-lined bottom) and 63 burials, most of them of children.

The National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH) announced Tuesday that among the discoveries was a unique instance of a canine skull perforated through both temples, which strongly suggests it was strung along a rack known as a tzompantli, a ceremonial monument made out of sacrificed skulls. Three human skulls with perforated temples were found alongside the dog skull, one of a woman between 18 and 22 with an intentional cranial deformation, one male between 25 and 35 and one male under 35. They date to between 1350 and 1521, the Late Post Classic period. This is the first time a dog skull has been found with the characteristic tzompantli holes.

The skull racks usually displayed the severed heads of captured warriors from rival groups, who were sacrificed as an offering to the gods. Few of them have actually been excavated.

“We know that during the conquest some horse skulls were placed on this type of structure, but not dogs,” said institute archaeologist Maria de Jesus Sanchez, referring to an account documented by the Spanish conquerors who found the remains of captured colleagues as well as their horses displayed on a rack.

Since the Aztecs didn’t have horses, they may have taken the animals as sacred beasts, or something joined with the horse’s rider.
The Aztecs did have dogs, albeit smaller ones that seldom barked, so they would probably have known what they were putting on display.

“Perhaps there are dogs associated with these altars in other sites and we don’t know it,” de Jesus said.

The skull of the woman is a surprise find as well. Other tzompantli finds (see last year’s discovery in Mexico City’s Templo Mayor) are of male skulls. Archaeologists believe the racks were made from the heads of captured warriors rather than captive civilians, so the discovery of a tzompantli with two male skulls, one female and one canid upends what little we do know about the practice.

The 63 burials discovered in the subway excavation pre-date the tzompantli skulls. Most of them were babies placed in pots and buried in the ground between 1150 and 1350 A.D.

Two adult burials of particular note are relatively recent, dating to around 500 years ago. One of is of an individual in fetal position buried with a miniature bowl in his abdominal area and an incense-burner on top of his head. The other is in a seated position surrounded by offerings, among them a basalt grinder, three tubes carved out of bones, two tripod bowls and two ceramic bowls of the Aztec III style (black-on-orange pottery made in the Late Aztec period just before the arrival of the Spanish).

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The Year in History Blog History

December 31st, 2013

Time marches inexorably on, devouring our precious remaining minutes, hours and days like Cronus did his children, and miring us in so many end-of-year retrospectives and best-of listicles that we can’t help but embrace the new year if only for the novelty of it. So it’s for your own good, really, that for the third time in a row I will close out the year with a look back at The History Blog’s 2013.

First a little glimpse into the statistical man behind the curtain. This year we had 1,570,000 total pageviews, slightly short of last year’s high of 1,650,546. That’s actually way better than I expected, because earlier this year I experienced for the first time the frigid wrath of a Google denied. You might recall that towards the end of January the blog moved to a new server. This was made necessary by my unquenchable thirst for large pictures taking up so much space that I finally had to ditch the old one and move to a plan that gave me room to grow.

Or so I thought. In fact, it was a complete disaster, way too small to handle my bandwidth and even the overall hard drive space was larger, it was still pretty damn stingy in terms of file size maximums. As soon as the blog moved, it was taken down by an exceeded bandwidth error and remained down for what felt like an eternity but was actually something like eight hours.

As far as Google’s algorithms are concerned, those eight hours might as well have been an eternity. The high ranking I had built up over six years of daily blogging plummeted resulting in a dramatic drop in traffic. I watched, horrified, as my views per day plunged to levels not seen since the end of 2011, beginning of 2012, and there wasn’t a damn thing I could do about it. A second bandwidth exceeded takedown struck at the end of March and that was the end of my dealings with that server company. I moved to a new service (hi Westhost! Love you guys!) in mid-April with unlimited everything and it’s been smooth sailing ever since.

Alas, the search engines weren’t done punishing me. They still aren’t done, in fact. The numbers only started to crawl back up in September, believe it or not, and even now we’re tens of thousands of views away from the intoxicating highs of January. I am very much looking forward to the new year so I can draw a firm albeit arbitrary line after the Bad Days and usher in Better Days, daring even to hope they might be Best Days.

The busiest new entry this year was the one about the Seikilos epitaph, the oldest ancient song to survive complete with lyrics and musical notation, sung by Newcastle University Classics professor Dr. David Creese. It got 7,811 views on November 3rd, most of them courtesy of a link from io9. Overall this year the Seikilos epitaph got 13,254 pageviews. That wasn’t the most viewed entry of the year, however. That honor goes to last year’s Hatfields & McCoys entry, which continues to draw crazy traffic with 22,719 views in 2013.

My favorite incoming link of the year wasn’t about bringing in the view numbers, though, which were tiny. It was from a Greek foot fetish forum in which the virtues of Napoleon’s sister’s tiny feet and shoes were extolled. I loved it because it’s the perfect niche audience to appreciate details like the memoirs describing Pauline Bonaparte’s terribly risquée pedicures.

It was a great year overall for the audio-visual arts. Notre Dame got some much-needed new bells for her 850th birthday and on Palm Sunday they made a glorious noise along with the one surviving pre-Revolutionary bell, Emmanuel, installed in 1685. Mary Pickford’s first star-billing film was restored and shown after being found in barn. Orson Welles’ long-lost second film, Too Much Johnson (yes I do snicker at that every time), debuted in theaters in Italy and the US after years of painstaking restoration. Meanwhile, in France, the world’s oldest surviving movie theater reopened after an extensive renovation.

I found the rare sound recordings of Florence Nightingale, Alfred, Lord Tennyson and Martin Leonard Lanfried, trumpeter of the 17th Lancers, hauntingly beautiful. I loved hearing Florence Nightingale express hope in the recording itself that her voice might keep her cause alive long after her death. Audio recording technology was so new then, but her instincts were right on the money. We also got to enjoy the distinct privilege of Alexander Graham Bell ordering us to hear his voice. The first and only known recording of Alexander Graham Bell, it allows this great inventor of live voice transmission technology to finally transmit his own voice to us.

Advanced technology revived the music played by the the toy pig that saved its owner’s life during the sinking of the Titanic, but to be honest the music was less important to me than the pig itself, which is adorable. I simply cannot resist an adorable pig.

Nor can I resist a good, solid medical oddity, which is probably for the best because there’s nothing like an ancient calcified teratoma from the pelvis of Roman woman to counterbalance the cute piggies. The teeth alone are just so freaky. How could a
brain boiled in its skull 4,000 years ago compete? You’d probably need a whole online database of diseased medieval bones to even begin to have a chance against it.

The 3D printed skull of Anna Maria Luisa de’ Medici wearing her Electress Palatine crown isn’t gruesome at all, at least to my eyes, but it is a fascinating glimpse of where the technology could take archaeology going forward. So many things that should not be touched due to condition issues will be able to be examined again thanks to the combination of laser scanning and 3D printing. It’s Anna Maria’s herculean efforts in saving the patrimony of her famous family, the greatest patrons of the some of the greatest art ever made, that should grant her an august place in history. She’s nowhere near as well known as she should be, since she single-handedly ensured that the art that makes Florence a top tourist destination today remain in the city rather than get plundered and scattered around the courts of Europe after her death in 1743.

Anna Maria’s story was probably my favorite biographical post of the year. Although, if the entry about Michelangelo’s time in hiding under the New Sacristy of San Lorenzo and the astonishing charcoal sketches he drew on the walls to keep himself sane counts as biography, that one’s a favorite of mine too. Teddy Roosevelt’s early years were great fun to delve into as well, because even though he felt he looked like a “dissolute democrat of the fourth ward,” he sure didn’t act like one.

Which reminds me, I must take a moment to give all proper praise to the best political button in history. May all your wet dreams be of Al Smith. Oh, and quick update: the button ended up selling for $8,962.50 including the buyer’s premium. It’s a steal, if you ask me.

The original Batmobile from the 1960s television series was a steal at any price, even $4.62 million, because of its unparalleled awesomeness. Even before it was the greatest of all Batmobiles it was already epic as a Lincoln Futura concept car. I loved researching that because it reminded me of Homer Simpson’s dream car that bankrupted his long-lost half-brother Herb. (Most things remind me of The Simpsons in some way.)

That Batmobile went to a private collector as did the Maltese Falcon (sold for $4,085,000 including buyer’s premium). The debonair 1950s robot Cygan sold to a private collector, but he has contacted me and he is restoring it most judiciously so huzzah! I love the Cygan entry even more now, incidentally, because I had to research the Windmill Girls to write it which means I was able to get the reference to them on the Christmas special of Call the Midwife that just aired on my local PBS station. (Nurse Lee reassured an overdue patient that the midwives are like the Windmill Girls: open all day. Naughty!)

Museums won big this year too. The exquisite lost golden chest of Cardinal Mazarin, the largest known lacquer artifact in the world once used as a TV stand and bar, sold for $9,544,000 including buyer’s premium to the Rijksmuseum. The Royal Museums Greenwich were able acquire the Gibson family shipwreck pictures which will make this invaluable resource available to the public.

My favorite discoveries of the year are both vast and modest in scope. There are the ever so many would-be Pompeiis: the pre-construction excavation revealing 400 years of Roman London, the remains of a 5th century fort massacre on Öland, the man in armor trapped by the eruption of Mount Haruna in the early 6th century A.D. and the slice of Thessaloniki’s history from the Roman era through the 9th century. Thankfully nobody called the
monumental 6th c. Maya frieze found in Guatemala a Pompeii; its enormous size, fine preservation and sheer beauty give it all the cachet it needs.

Then there are the exceptional little local treasures like the medieval coins found buried in a shoe in Rotterdam, the first Earl of Sandwich’s recipe for iced chocolate, the outline of a foot carved by a bored Viking on the deck of his ship 1100 years ago, the papyrus spreadsheet in hieroglyphics complete with headers in red and black gridlines, or the medieval leather peytrel found in Cork castle.

Tiny in size but not in import is the ostrich egg globe that may be oldest globe to include the New World. I’m also partial to the 18th c. wooden railway found in Newcastle shipyard which was standard gauge a century before there was a standard, and to what may be the
first images of Native Americans drawn in Europe, found during restoration of a Pinturicchio fresco in the Vatican’s Borgia Apartment.

It was a good year for shiny things as well. The intensely beautiful Cheapside went on display for first time in all its glory. A modest farm in Denmark yielded a collection of
elite Viking jewelry that was in part reminiscent of the oeuvre of H. R. Giger. Augustus Saint-Gaudens’ golden statue of Diana the Huntress that once perched on one foot over the second Madison Square Garden, a fine vantage point for witnessing the scandalous murder of architect Stanford White, is being regilded after years in the elements stripped her of her original glitter. A 12th c. bishop’s ring that was stolen from St. Peter’s Cathedral in Bremen was found when the culprit voluntarily confessed because his conscience bothered him.

If only the Norton Simon Art Foundation in Pasadena had the baseline honesty of a German drug-addicted thief, then Cambodia would have four of its invaluable statues looted from the Prasat Chen temple in Koh Ker during the chaos of the early 1970s. As it is, they have the two Kneeling Attendants, returned by the Metropolitan Museum of Art and Duryodhana, returned by Sotheby’s after years of legal wrangling.

Also returned this year were the lost artifacts of two World War II veterans. The ring pilot David C. Cox had to trade to survive his imprisonment Stalag VII-A was returned to his grateful son by Martin Kiss of Hohenberg, Bavaria, who asked for no remuneration at all, not even shipping costs. The greatest tear-jerker of the year was the story of Peggy Eddington-Smith, who finally received the letter the father she never met wrote to her before his death in Italy. I defy anyone of human parts to read that story without crying.

And now off with ye all. Celebrate tonight with much revelry and come back tomorrow to read through squinted eyes and pounding head. Thank you for choosing The History Blog for your history blog reading needs in 2013. I hope to continue to make it worth your while in 2014. Happy New Year! :boogie:

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100-year-old photo negatives found in Scott’s hut

December 30th, 2013

Conservators with the New Zealand Antarctic Heritage Trust have discovered a box holding 22 century-old photographic negatives frozen in a block of ice in explorer Robert Falcon Scott’s supply hut at Cape Evans, Antarctica. Scott built the cabin during his ill-fated last expedition to the South Pole (the Terra Nova Expedition, 1910-1913) that would claim his life. He didn’t leave the pictures behind, though. The photographs were taken during Ernest Shackleton’s Ross Sea Party, part of the 1914-1917 Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition. The crew was there in advance of Shackleton on a depot-laying mission to ensure the explorer would have regular supply stops along his route to the South Pole. Ten of them wound up stranded on Ross Island after the team’s ship, the Aurora, blew out to sea on an ice floe during a gale in May of 1915.

The Antarctic Heritage Trust has been documenting and restoring Scott’s hut, thus far conserving more than 10,000 objects. The exposed but unprocessed cellulose nitrate negatives were found earlier this year clumped together in the darkroom used by Terra Nova Expedition photographer Herbert Ponting. Recognizing this conservation conundrum required the work of a specialist, the Trust sent the negatives back to New Zealand and commissioned Wellington photographic conservator Mark Strange to undo the Gordian Clump.

He painstakingly peeled the nitrate layers apart, cleaning them and removing copious mold, revealing 22 photographs from the Ross Sea Party taken between December 1914 and January 1915, just four months before the stranding on Ross Island. The Aurora is in several of the pictures, and others were taken from her although she is not visible. Strange was able to rescue them sufficiently so that New Zealand Micrographic Services could scan them. The digital scans were then converted to positives.

The images look otherworldly, even ghostly through the splotches, scratches and mold-stained edges, but the Antarctic Heritage Trust researchers were able to identify locations and people among the eerily beautiful stretches of footsteps in snow and nearly featureless horizons of ocean and sky. There are shots of Hut Point Peninsula, Tent Island and Big Razorback Island in McMurdo Sound, taken from the deck of the Aurora. One of them captures Alexander Stevens, the Ross Sea Party’s chief scientist and geologist and an apposite handsome model, standing on the deck with land and iceberg contrasting in the background. He’s in another picture on board the ship too, standing next to a stack of Shell Benzine cases on the left.

Trust executive director Nigel Watson:

“It’s the first example that I’m aware of, of undeveloped negatives from a century ago from the Antarctic heroic era. There’s a paucity of images from that expedition,” Watson said.

Trust researchers have not been able to confirm the identity of the photographer. Arnold Patrick Spencer-Smith was the Ross expedition’s photographer, so in all likelihood it’s his work. Unfortunately Spencer-Smith did not survive his stranding. The Aurora limped into Dunedin, New Zealand on April 3rd, 1916. It needed extensive repairs and refitting and there was no money to do it. Finally the Australian, New Zealand and British governments funded a rescue mission and the Aurora set off, with Shackleton himself on board albeit not in command, to recover its crew. By the time the Aurora returned to Cape Evans in January of 1917, three of the ten crew members left behind had died, the photographer among them. He was buried on the Ross Ice Shelf.

You can leaf through the pictures on the website of New Zealand’s Antarctic Heritage Trust.

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DNA may help explain Bronze Age couple burials

December 29th, 2013

Dozens of burials in the southwestern Siberian village of Staryi Tartas have been found with human remains posed in pairs facing each other. The rare couple burials are among 600 graves dating to between the 17th and 14th centuries B.C. from the Bronze Age Andronovo culture. Although some subsets of the nomadic Eurasian cultural family cremated their dead, others are well known for inhuming them in crouched positions. The discovery that gave them their modern name, in fact, was a number of burials found in the village of Andronovo, southern Siberia, in 1914.

Unlike the Lovers of Valdaro and the so-called Romanian “Romeo and Juliet”, these burials are not necessarily romantic pairings. Some are of children, some are one adult and a child or children. Some are face to face, some are spooning, some are on their backs holding hands.

The grave goods help identify the burials as from the Andronovo Culture, but don’t provide any specific information about the deceased. Grave goods include pottery decorated in geometric patterns including swastikas, metal artifacts and weapons, bone arrowheads, even a very rare stone casting mould used to make metal jewelry. (The Andronovo were expert metallurgists who mined copper and tin and made bronze artifacts from them. As the migrated, they are thought to have brought metal working techniques with them.)

With little hard data to go on, speculation about the significance of the funerary arrangements is rife. The women paired with men could have been sacrificed after the death of the man, for example, as in some Scythian burials. It could have been a form of posthumous or ghost marriage, a practice seen in many cultures from Asia (China, India) to Africa (Sudan) and Europe (France during World War I). Alternatively, bodies could have been added over time and carefully positioned with the previous resident(s) of the grave instead of interred simultaneously. The symbolism could be more familial than romantic, an homage to the burgeoning importance of the nuclear family unit.

Researchers are hoping DNA analysis may illuminate the relationships between the buried and thus answer some of these questions.

“[W]e need to firstly establish unequivocally the kinship of those who were buried,” said Professor Molodin [of the Institute of Archeology and Ethnography of the Siberian Branch of the Russian Academy of Sciences] referring to the necropolis close to the confluence of the rivers Tartas and Om. “Until recently archaeologists had no such opportunity, they could establish only the gender and age. But now as we have at our disposal the tools of paleogenetics, we could speak about establishing the kinship.” [...]

“For example, we found the burial a man and a child. What is a degree of their kinship? Are they father and son or….? The same question arises when we found a woman and a child. It should seem obvious – she is the mother. But it may not be so. She could be an aunt, or not a relative at all. To speak about this scientifically we need the tools of paleogenetics.”

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3,000-year-old bronze trove found in Chinese tomb

December 28th, 2013

Archaeologists excavating a tomb complex from the Western Zhou Dynasty (1046–771 B.C.) in Baoji, Shaanxi province, northwest China, have unearthed 44 pieces of bronzeware and two pieces of pottery, a trove of national importance. The tomb was discovered in June of this year by villagers working the land. They alerted the authorities and state archaeologists have been excavating the site since August.

The bronzeware is divided among eight niches. The quantity of the bronze vessels and the system of niches they inhabit make it a very rare discovery that gives archaeologists a unique chance to study the burial practices of the early Western Zhou period. The pieces would have had a variety of uses — cooking, food storage, holding water or alcoholic beverages — The sheer numbers of bronzeware and their elaborate, delicate decoration point to this being the tomb of a nobleman, someone of great wealth and social standing in the area.

Lead archaeologist Wang Zhankui hopes the inscriptions on the bronze vessels once translation may identify who was buried in the tomb.

Last year, a Western Zhou-era tomb discovered in Baoji was found to contain a rich collection of bronze vessels as well, albeit less than half the number discovered here. One of the containers was still sealed. When archaeologists shook it, they could hear liquid sloshing inside which led to a speculative frenzy declaring it the oldest wine ever found in China. That was a hasty reaction, but the presence of what is probably some sort of alcoholic beverage in the vessel was of particular historical note given its burial with another bronze piece: a square piece three feet long called a “Jin” which was inscribed with admonitions against the excessive consumption of alcohol.

This is a recurring theme in early Western Zhou bronzes. A ding (a bronze cauldron on feet now in the National Museum of China) made during the reign of King Kang (1020 – 996 B.C.) bears an inscription to his minister Yu attributing the fall of the Shang Dynasty to alcohol and the rise of the Western Zhou to its prohibition.

In the Shangshu or Book of Documents, a collection of historical speeches and sayings by rulers from four dynasties up to the Western Zhou, includes an Announcement about Drunkenness, purportedly made by King Wen of Zhou, the titular founder of the Western Zhou dynasty although in fact it was his son who carried out his father’s plans and finally overthrew the decadent Shang Dynasty. King Wen directly blames the Shang king’s alcoholism for the fall of his dynasty:

“I have heard it said likewise, that the last successor of those kings was addicted to drink, so that no charges came from him brightly before the people, and he was (as if) reverently and unchangingly bent on doing and cherishing what provoked resentment. Greatly abandoned to extraordinary lewdness and dissipation, for pleasure’s sake he sacrificed all his majesty. The people were all sorely grieved and wounded in heart; but he gave himself wildly up to drink, not thinking of restraining himself. but continuing his excess, till his mind was frenzied, and he had no fear of death His crimes (accumulated) in the capital of Shang: and though the extinction of the dynasty (was imminent), this gave him no concern, and he wrought not that any sacrifices of fragrant virtue might ascend to Heaven. The rank odour of the people’s resentments, and the drunkenness of his herd of creatures, went loudly up on high, so that Heaven sent down ruin on Yin, and showed no love for it – because of such excesses. There is not any cruel oppression of Heaven; people themselves accelerate their guilt, (and its punishment)).”

He is very keen, therefore, to ensure his own people do not fall victim to the dangers of spirits.

King Wen admonished and instructed the young nobles, who were charged with office or in any employment, that they should not ordinarily use spirits; and throughout all the states, he required that such should drink spirits only on occasion of sacrifices, and that then virtue should preside so that there might be no drunkenness.

And should admonishment not suffice, then sterner measures are in order.

“If you are informed that there are companies that drink together, do not fail to apprehend them all, and send them here to Zhou, where I may put them to death. As to the ministers and officers of Yin who were led to it and became addicted to drink, it is not necessary to put them to death (at once); let them be taught for a time. If they follow these (lessons of mine), I will give them bright distinction. If they disregard my lessons, then I, the One man, will show them no pity. As they cannot change their way, they shall be classed with those who are to be put to death.”

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1000-year-old vineyards found in Basque Country

December 27th, 2013

Archaeologists from the University of the Basque Country have unearthed the tell-tale signs of viticulture dating to the 10th century at the archaeological site of Zaballa, in the Álava province of Basque Country, northern Spain. Zaballa is one of 300 rural settlements in the Álava region that were deserted hundreds of years ago. It’s the one that has been most thoroughly excavated and published.

Discovering the history of this remote, rural site is a challenge because there is very little written documentation and few surviving structures or archaeological materials. The only stone building was the 10th century church while peasant dwellings have long since disappeared. Not even pottery has been found because there was a general dearth of such daily use items in the archaeological record of the Basque Country during the early Middle Ages compared to other periods. Recent agricultural use of the land has also damaged the site.

This discovery, therefore, is of particular interest to archaeologists since it provides new information about the way the land was used and provides a glimpse into the unrecorded social history of its occupation.

“Archaeo-botanical studies of seed remains found in the excavations and pollen studies have provided material evidence of the existence of vine cultivation in a relatively early period like the 10th century,” explained [Juan Antonio Quirós-Castillo, director of the University's Cultural Heritage and Landscapes Research Group]. This evidence is also supported by the metal tools discovered and which had been destined for this very use, and the study of the agrarian spaces, “which owing to the nature of the crop spaces built and the agrarian practices developed, they are not compatible with cereal crops but they are with vines,” he added.

Zaballa was occupied beginning with one small farm in the 6th century. That developed into a peasant village in the 8th century. An aristocratic family appears to have taken control in the second half of the 10th century, marked by the construction of a stone church in the village center. This is confirmed by the scant documentary evidence we do have of Zaballa written in 1087 that describes a monastery, probably the nearby Saint Tirso monastery, founded by lordly Castilian family of Tello Muñoz. The village was soon rebuilt in the neighboring valley while around the church large silos were built to collect the percentage of the peasants’ agricultural product claimed by the ruling family. The silos suggest grain cultivation. The discovery of the earlier vineyards points to a major reorganization of Zaballa’s planting culture.

There are no other buildings found in the area that indicate the presence of the family in the area in the 11th and 12th centuries, just a hoard of 30 coins and some jewelry from the late 11th century, so it seems likely that the lords were absentee landowners. In the 13th century the village was partially abandoned as the aristocracy streamlined its agricultural output, possibly to increase revenues during an economic downturn. Some of the population probably moved to the new towns growing in the region. By the beginning of the 15th century, Zaballa was under the control of the monastery of Badaya and within a few decades the monks evicted the remaining villagers so they could reorganize the land under their own rules. That was basically the end of the human occupation of the settlement, except for a short spurt at the end of the 16th and beginning of the 17th century.

Almost all of this information is the result of archaeological study, and even though it seems like a relatively obscure pursuit given the tiny size of the settlement and its long-since abandonment, it paints a portrait of people who lived and worked in the area for nearly a thousand years but never made it into the historical record.

In Quirós’ view, these microhistories constitute small windows into the past that allow one to analyse relatively complex historical processes directly, bottom upwards, “in other words, to see how the peasant community itself gradually adapts to the political and economic changes that take place in the medieval era and later.”

What is more, the analytical study of these places of production allows one to abandon those more traditional points of view of history which “conceptualize the high medieval periods as a time of technical simplification, as a meagre period in economic terms, since they point to considerable social and economic complexity. Specifically, it has been possible in these studies to see that there are various important moments in the Basque Country, 5th to 6th centuries and 10th to 11th centuries, which were decisive in the construction of our landscapes.”

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British Library releases 1 million images

December 26th, 2013

The British Library has released more than one million high resolution images scanned from public domain books from the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries on their Flickr account. Scanned as part of a digitization collaboration with Microsoft that began in 2008, the images illustrate a vast range of topics from literary classics like Charles Dickens novels to anthropological studies, travel guides, histories, song collections, children’s books and ever so much more. Even those decorative swirls that separate chapters and fancy initial capitals made the cut.

Each image is tagged by author, date of publication and book title, so if opening one picture inspires you to see every other image in the book, say, just click the link at the bottom of the description and you’ll see them all. Another link at the bottom of the description will show you every image in the collection published that year. That’s just the beginning, though. Starting next year, the British Library will tap into crowd powder to add details, new classifications and, hopefully, research inspirations.

We plan to launch a crowdsourcing application at the beginning of next year, to help describe what the images portray. Our intention is to use this data to train automated classifiers that will run against the whole of the content. The data from this will be as openly licensed as is sensible (given the nature of crowdsourcing) and the code, as always, will be under an open licence.

The manifests of images, with descriptions of the works that they were taken from, are available on github and are also released under a public-domain ‘licence’. This set of metadata being on github should indicate that we fully intend people to work with it, to adapt it, and to push back improvements that should help others work with this release.

There are very few datasets of this nature free for any use and by putting it online we hope to stimulate and support research concerning printed illustrations, maps and other material not currently studied. Given that the images are derived from just 65,000 volumes and that the library holds many millions of items.

Since the images are public domain, they can be used without conditions. At the very least it’s a huge free stock collection that I can envision coming in very handy for everyone from graphic designers to parents looking to make an extremely nerdy coloring book for their kids (or themselves; coloring is the best). The British Library wants to know how people are using the pictures and they’ve offered their enthusiastic collaboration with any project readers may devise. You can Email or tweet them with any questions or ideas.

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