World’s oldest times table found in bamboo strips

January 9th, 2014

Researchers from Tsinghua University in Beijing have discovered the world’s oldest decimal multiplication table on 21 strips of bamboo made around 305 B.C., during the Warring States period before Qin Shi Huang unified China as the first Emperor of the Qin Dynasty. Old Babylonian cuneiform tablets have been discovered with mathematical tables, including times tables, from around 2,000 B.C., but the Babylonians used a local base-60 notation. The Chinese strips long pre-date the first known European decimal multiplication tables which are from the Renaissance.

The historic table was part of a large collection of 2,500 bamboo strips donated to the university five years ago. The donor had purchased them at a market in Honk Kong, but the artifacts showed the tell-tale signs of having been recently looted from a tomb. They were in abysmal condition — stinking and covered in mud and mold — and in no particular order. The strips are less than a half-inch in width at most and half a meter (just under 1’8″) long. Each strip has ancient Chinese calligraphy painted on the surface.

Deciphering them was no small task. After radiocarbon dating and conservation, researchers spent years puzzling together the strips which when knew were connected with strings forming a readable manuscript. Trying to figure out how such a massive collection of strips related to each other 2,300 years later with the strings long and gone and damaged or lost strips was like solving a jigsaw puzzle without a picture on the lid to go by and lots of missing pieces. Eventually they were able to figure out that the bamboo strips formed 65 ancient texts.

Twenty-one of the 2,500 strips stood out from the rest because they were painted only with numbers. Feng Lisheng, historian of mathematics at Tsinghua University, and his team found that when arranged in the proper order, those 21 strips formed a multiplication matrix, just like the ones in the back of notebooks when I was a kid.

The top row and the rightmost column contain, arranged from right to left and from top to bottom respectively, the same 19 numbers: 0.5; the integers from 1 to 9; and multiples of 10 from 10 to 90.

As in a modern multiplication table, the entries at the intersection of each row and column in the matrix provide the results of multiplying the corresponding numbers. The table can also help users to multiply any whole or half integer between 0.5 and 99.5. Numbers that are not directly represented, says Feng, first have to be converted into a series of additions. For instance, 22.5 × 35.5 can be broken up into (20 + 2 + 0.5) × (30 + 5 + 0.5). That gives 9 separate multiplications (20 × 30, 20 × 5, 20 × 0.5, 2 × 30, and so on), each of which can be read off the table. The final result can be obtained by adding up the answers. “It’s effectively an ancient calculator,” says Li [Junming, a historian and palaeographer at Tsinghua].

And a highly versatile one at that, although there’s no way of knowing exactly which functions would have been used in what context 2,300 years ago. Possible practical uses of the table include calculating surface idea, crop yields and taxes. It could also have been used for theoretical math or teaching.

“The discovery is of extraordinary interest,” says Joseph Dauben, a maths historian at City University of New York. “It’s the earliest artefact of a decimal multiplication table in the world.”

It “certainly shows that a highly sophisticated arithmetic had been established for both theoretical and commercial purposes by the Warring States period in ancient China,” he adds.

It’s considerably more advanced than later times tables produced in the Qin Dynasty. Those tables date to between 221 and 206 B.C. and they’re simple sentences like the kind you recited in class of the “two times one is two, two times two is four, two times three is six” variety. You can’t really use sentences to calculate elaborate multiplications, never mind divisions, square roots, etc. in the same way you can with a matrix. Qin Shi Huang did a lot of book burning in his efforts to forcibly unify Chinese scholarship just as he had Chinese territory. Perhaps matrix multiplication tables were part of what was lost in Qin’s Procrustean reformation of China’s intellectual tradition.


Celtic brooch found among Viking artifacts in storage

January 8th, 2014

Barry Ager, curator of the British Museum’s Early Medieval Scandinavian and continental Europe collection, has discovered a Celtic brooch dating from the 8th-9th century hidden among Viking burial artifacts found in the late 19th century and kept in the museum’s stores. The objects were excavated in Lilleberge, Norway, in 1886 by British archaeologist Alfred Heneage Cocks. The 9th-10th century burial was a long barrow 128 feet in length containing a 30 foot boat, grave goods and the skeletal remains of a high status woman. The artifacts included beaded necklaces, two oval brooches, a whalebone plaque decorated with horse heads that may have been a food serving tray, an iron grid, possibly used as a pot stand or as a boat fitting, a pottery spindle-whorl, plus iron rivets, nails and wood fragments from the boat.

Five years after the excavation, Cocks sold his collection of Lilleberge artifacts to the British Museum. Some of the objects were indeterminate, still encased in blocks of soil and organic matter from the excavation. They were kept in storage for more than a century and only recently been subject to further research. Their uncleaned condition has proven to be an archaeological boon since small organic fragments survived in the dirt and the kind of things that people paid no attention to back then are extremely valuable to researchers today.

Barry Ager was looking over the collection in anticipation of a visiting Norwegian expert researching the Lilleberge find when he noticed a piece of metal sticking out of a lump of organic material. He had the lump X-rayed to see what it might contain.

“It turned out, quite remarkably, to be this Celtic disc… It’s extremely exciting… It’s a very rare example of its sort within the collection… shows contact between the British Isles and Norway in the Viking period … objects seized as loot in this country and taken back.”

He believes that it was originally made in Ireland or Scotland, that it came from a shrine or a reliquary, and that the Vikings converted it into a brooch by attaching rivet holes and a pin.

The brooch couldn’t just be pulled out of the block because there are significant organic survivals — wood fragments, possibly from a box that held the brooch, and very rare Viking textiles from which three different patterns, including a herringbone, have already been identified — that needed to be preserved. Conservators painstakingly removed the brooch using scalpels to separate it from its context without damaging the fragile organics.

Once it was removed and cleaned, the brooch was found to be elaborately decorated and in excellent condition with its original gilded surface still shining. It’s six centimeters (2.3 inches) in diameter and engraved with a central roundel with three stylized dolphin-like heads looping around it.

“The …patterns, the quatrefoil of the central roundel and the form of the ‘dolphins’ heads have clear parallels in Celtic metalwork and manuscripts of the 8th to early 9th centuries, such as the Tara Brooch and the Book of Mac Regol,” Ager said.

He described the craftsmanship as “very fine” and said that the Vikings valued “eye-catching” objects: “The Vikings themselves were very skilled metalworkers, so I’m sure that’s something that would appeal to a Viking eye.”

The brooch will go on public display for the first time starting March 27th. It will join the exquisite beauties of Sutton Hoo in Room 41 of the British Museum when the gallery re-opens after refurbishment.


British Museum buys Lacock Cup for £1.3 million

January 7th, 2014

A year after St. Cyriac’s Church in the Wiltshire village of Lacock offered its prize medieval chalice for sale to the British Museum for £1.3 million ($2,130,570), the British Museum has acquired the piece it has been exhibiting on loan since 1963. The year was spent raising the money. Grants from the National Heritage Memorial Fund (£650,000) and The Art Fund (£150,000) got them 60% of the way. A large individual donation of £200,000 from investment banker and art patron John Studzinski, plus contributions from British Museum supporters, various charitable organizations and the museum’s acquisitions budget got them the rest of the way.

In a first that hopefully presages future such arrangements, Big Museum teamed up with the little guy on this project. The small but prestigious Wiltshire Museum in Devizes lent its aid by working on the grant applications and now it is co-owner of the Lacock Cup along with the British Museum. The original cup will mainly stay at the British Museum on permanent display in the Sir Paul and Lady Ruddock Gallery of Medieval Europe, but two identical replicas will be made by the museum’s metalworker Mike Neilson. An expert who has copied historical metal pieces from medieval chain mail to Bronze Age gold cloaks, Neilson will painstakingly recreate the chalice by hand using silver and gold. One of the replicas will go to the Wiltshire Museum where it will grace its Medieval Gallery along with other items from Lacock. The other will be given to St. Cyriac’s church so they can once again use an exquisite silver chalice for Communion on special occasions.

Made in the early 1400s by a master silversmith, the covered chalice was not created for liturgical use. It was a secular object, a shared cup at the feast table of a rich lord. Unmissable at almost 14 inches in height and weighing more than two pounds, it was certainly meant to be seen, an indication of wealth that would stand out even on a table groaning with food and drink. Nonetheless, its ornamentation is restrained. A twisted rope design decorates the top and base of the foot and rim of the cover and a row of delicate little leaves adorn the base of the lid, the top of the stem and the base of the foot, disguising the joins that connected the bowl and two sections of the foot. The lid is topped with a spherical finial which has been gilded, as have the lip of the cup, the lower part of the foot and leaf cresting. The smooth sides and elegantly simple decoration only underscore the skill of its maker. He hand-beat the chalice from three sheets of silver; any mistake would be brutally exposed by the simplicity of the design.

There are no makers’ marks to identify the creator or any evidence of who originally owned the Lacock Cup. All we know is that some point in the 17th century (thought to be between 1621 and 1636), the chalice was given to St. Cyriac’s probably by Sir Robert Baynard of Lackham Manor. The church used it to hold Communion wine during important services like Christmas and Easter for nearly 400 years. The timing of the donation and the centuries of careful church use are what kept this extremely rare piece intact in such exquisite condition. It was one of the most common types of chalices in the Late Gothic period, but almost none of them have survived because they were melted down when the fashion changed. Had it been donated to the church before the wholesale destruction of church silver during the Reformation, it wouldn’t have survived. Instead, it was kept intact in secular hands for a couple of centuries and then kept intact in ecclesiastical hands for the next four centuries.

Until 1981, the chalice made the return trip back to St. Cyriac’s for special occasions, but the trips stopped when its high value and perfect condition made regular travel too risky. The church, parts of which date to the 11th century and most of which dates to the early 15th century, is in desperate need of extensive repair work and, ideally, a source of funding for yearly maintenance. Since the chalice wasn’t going to be coming back any time soon due to the prohibitive cost of insurance and security, in 2009 the church explored the idea of selling it. Three years of debates ensued, ending with a legal challenge decided by an ecclesiastical consistory court in December of 2012 in favor of the sale.

Although current valuation puts the market value of the cup at around £2 million, the church offered it to the British Museum at their proposed price of £1.3 million because they wanted to ensure it stayed in its home of decades in the care of experts and accessible to the public. Now that the sale has gone through, the church plans to invest the principal and use the interest to fund necessary repairs now and in the future.


Tomb of Pharaoh Sobekhotep I found in Abydos

January 6th, 2014

University of Pennsylvania have discovered the tomb of little-known 13th Dynasty pharaoh Sobekhotep I at the archaeological site of Abydos 300 miles south of Cairo. The team unearthed the massive 60-ton red quartzite sarcophagus last year but wasn’t able to identify its owner until last week when they found fragments of a stele inscribed with the pharaoh’s cartouche and depicting him enthroned.

The tomb was built out of limestone from the Tura quarries near Cairo and was originally topped by a pyramid, now gone. The handful of other 13th Dynasty pharaonic tombs that have been discovered are in the royal necropoli of Dashur, 25 miles south of Cairo, and Saqqara, 19 miles south of Cairo. They too were topped by pyramids, only parts of which survive.

Inside the tomb archaeologists found canopic jars that once held the pharaoh’s viscera so they could be reunited with their mummified owner in the afterlife and some gold funerary objects.

This is a highly significant find because the history of the 13th Dynasty rulers is nebulous. Historians aren’t even sure of when the dynasty began — 1803 B.C. and 1781 B.C. are the leading contenders — never mind who ruled when. Antiquities Minister Mohamed Ibrahim said in a statement that Sobekhotep I “is likely the first who ruled Egypt at the start of the 13th dynasty during the second intermediate period” but there is no consensus on that point among Egyptologists. According to the Turin King List, a papyrus written during the reign of Ramesses II (1279–1213 B.C.) that lists all the kings of Egypt up until that time, grouping them together in vaguely dynastic clusters and noting the dates of their reigns, puts Sobekhotep somewhere in the 13th Dynasty but it’s unclear where it begins and the 12th ends. There’s also some confusion about whether the Turin list is Sobekhotep I or Sobekhotep II, another pharaoh of the 13th Dynasty of the same name who may or may not be the same person as Sobekhotep I.

Before now, other than his presence on the Turin King List all we know about Sobekhotep I has come from reliefs in an Abydos chapel. According to Antiquities Ministry official Ayman El-Damarani, Sobekhotep I ruled Egypt for four and a half years, but that presumes he’s the first pharaoh of the dynasty who is known from various sources as Khutawyre, Wegaf and Sekhemre Khutawy Sobekhotep. University of Copenhagen Egyptologist Kim Ryholt places Sekhemre Khutawy as the dynasty founder, with Sobekhotep I ruling for about three years between 1780 and 1777 B.C.

With all these disputed and conflicting sources, you can see why the discovery of the pharaoh’s tomb is a major boon to Egyptologists. It has the potential to answer a lot of questions.


Bones found in Edinburgh garden could be work of resurrectionists

January 5th, 2014

In September of 2012, a workmen installing a deck in the back yard of a six-bedroom terraced house in Grove Street, Edinburgh, unearthed some bones. At first they assumed they were animal remains and kept going, but soon they came across human skulls and teeth and so alerted the police. Forensic specialists tented the “crime scene” and examined the bones on site for 24 hours. Once they determined the bones were likely to be at least a century old, the police called in the Edinburgh City Council.

Council archaeologists led by Museum of Edinburgh curator John Lawson excavated the garden looking for more bones and clues to why they had been buried there and when. A total of 60 individual bones were found, all disarticulated. Four adult jawbones were identified and fragments of small jawbone that may have been a child’s. There was no cemetery in the area and the terraced row houses were built on the property in 1822. The bodies may have been buried there before the land was developed. At the time, there was some speculation that they could have been hastily buried victims of the Great Edinburgh Plague of 1645, although the few remaining bones don’t align with the piles of bodies found in other Edinburgh plague pits.

Now radiocarbon dating results of the bones have finally been announced and the bones are much later than the Great Plague. They date to the early 19th century,

Maureen Kilpatrick, a lead archeologist at Guard, said: “We found four right-sided jaws and we also had enough bones likely to be a young person.

“There were quite a few little holes in them which were to cater for wires, which leads us to believe they were used for anatomical purposes.

“We found they were likely to date back to the early 1800s, and although there were no medical professionals living in the house, we believe they had friends who were.”

So the bones weren’t necessarily buried before the townhouses were constructed. There may have been some overlap, which could implicate the house itself in the dirty illicit trade in corpses for anatomical study. There’s about a ten-year window during which the Grove Street townhouse may have been surreptitiously using stolen bones for demonstration purposes because the grave-robbing trade ended abruptly when the Anatomy Act of 1832 for the first time made sufficient numbers of cadavers available to medical schools.

Before that, only executed criminals were condemned to dissection after death, and even those didn’t always make it to the lab because people — friends, family, comrades — would take down the bodies before the anatomists could get to them to give them a decent burial. The Anatomy Act widened the pool of bodies considerably. The bodies of the destitute who died in a prison, hospital or workhouse and whose remains were unclaimed would be given to medical schools.

The new provisions for cadaver supply ended the anatomists’ reliance on grave-robbers, known as resurrection men or resurrectionists for their dedication to raising the dead from their tombs. It was a hugely lucrative trade. The 18th century saw an explosion in private anatomy and surgery schools run out of teachers’ homes, and Edinburgh, home of the University of Edinburgh Medical School (est. 1726) and The Royal Infirmary (est. 1729) was a capital of medical training. There were never enough bodies in Edinburgh, and the population of the city was well aware they were all at risk of being torn from their graves and subjected to irreligious indignities. The cemeteries in Scotland are still dotted with mortsafes — padlocked cages embedded over fresh graves — and guard towers where friends, family and hired security would watch over the cemetery until they could be sure their charges were too decayed to be of use.

With the supply meager and the job gruesome, resurrectionists could charge top dollar for their macabre products. Sometimes, they even went so far as to ensure the desired cadaver was found in good condition by killing its possessor. The most notorious resurrectionists, William Burke and William Hare, were not just grave-robbers but highly accomplished serial killers who murdered at least 16 people to sell their bodies. They got their victims drunk and smothered or suffocated them, then sold their bodies to eminent surgeon Dr. Robert Knox who ran an anatomy lecture series out of his home.

Burke and Hare were caught in November of 1828. Hare testified against Burke in return for release. Burke was hanged on January 28th, 1829, and dissected publicly the next day. Hare was hounded out of Dumfries a couple of months later and went off the grid completely to be seen only in random Elvis-like sightings.

The sensation of their crimes, trial and execution played an important role in the passage of the Anatomy Act. Burke and Hare’s doings underscored the desperate shortage of cadavers for study and how highly respected professionals were made complicit in the resurrectionists’ ugly trade.

For a fascinating and relatively quick read on the resurrection men and the dawn of the Anatomy Act, see The Diary of a Resurrectionist which is an actual diary, a log of bodies — the diarist calls them “things” — unearthed, whether they were adult, child or fetus, whether they had gone “bad” already, how much they sold for, which gang members got too drunk to work or claim their proper shares when it was time to settle accounts.


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.


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.


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.


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).


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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