3D animation of Sculptor’s Cave

December 5th, 2017

Sculptor’s Cave in Moray, Scotland, is an archaeological gem among archaeological gems. It is the main cave of several set in the craggy ocean-facing cliff that was used by local peoples for millennia. In the Bronze Age deposits of jewelry and ceramics were made there, and the abundance of human skeletal remains, many of children, from that era also found in the cave suggests it held some ritual funerary significance. The skull of one the children appears to have been defleshed post-mortem. Less sensational that the defleshed child but just as meaningful historically are the Pictish symbols carved on the walls of the entrances.

This unique location has been kept hidden from public view (from most people’s view, for that matter) for its own protection and for everyone else’s because it is only accessible at low tide. That’s going to change now, at least virtually.

A new project, funded by Historic Environment Scotland and carried out by Professor Ian Armit and Dr Lindsey Büster at the University of Bradford, has created a high-resolution animated model of the cave. Through laser scanning and structured light scanning, the details of the cave have been digitally preserved to allow for more in-depth exploration of the cave – and the Pictish symbols – no matter whether the tide is high.

“The Sculptor’s Cave is a fascinating location, known for decades for the richness of its archaeology and for the unusual Pictish carvings around its entrance,” said Professor Armit of Bradford’s School of Archaeological and Forensic Sciences. “This walk-through animation allows us to study the carvings in detail, and to present this inaccessible site to the public through online and museum displays. It also ensures that we can preserve the cave and the carvings digitally for future generations to study.”

Here is an animated flythrough of Sculptor’s Cave in the 3D model created using the scan data. This is just a glimpse of what’s to come. Next year the results of the study will be published by the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland. The animated model will be deployed at the Elgin Museum so that visitors will be able to see the cave and its carvings in detail.

In keeping with the mini-theme I seem to have accidentally developed over the past couple of days, Historic Environment Scotland has launched an even more ambitious digitization project that will see 50,000 items from its archives scanned, uploaded to the web and made freely available to all. The records include photographs taken by HES’ predecessor organizations, the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland and Historic Scotland. For more than a century (1908 to 2015) RCAHMS’ brief was documenting everything it could about Scotland’s history as seen in physical structures and the environment. There are a thousands of aerial photos shot from airplanes, pictures of buildings (and therefore street life) throughout the decades, among many other things. RCAHMS merged with Historic Scotland, steward of many of Scotland’s listed buildings, in 2015. As a result HES today has an enormous collection of photographs stored in their headquarters Edinburgh, but they’re only accessible to people who can get to John Sinclair House in person.

The digitization initiative will take those 50,000 photos out of their green archive boxes and into pixel space. Once the scanning is complete, the images will be uploaded to Canmore, HES’ online catalogue of its enormous collection of records (including a fine array of historic photographs like Misses Reid and Bonshaw looking fierce in their garden on July 10th, 1890) and catalogue entries of archaeological sites, survey data, architecture and tons more.

Jacobite Risings model by Brick to the Past on display.Not related to the theme but too awesome not to genuflect before is a new exhibition at Stirling Castle called The Jacobite Risings: The Fight for Britain’s Throne. It recreates key events and locations in the Jacobite rebellions in LEGO. That’s right, one million bricks and 2000 tiny soldiers were used to bring history to life for all LEGO-loving peoples, child and child-at-heart alike. Two of the scenes include miniature buildings whose real life versions are cared for by Historic Environment Scotland. One is the starkly white medieval tower house Corgarff Castle. The other Ruthven Barracks, a military fortification on a high promontory built after the 1715 Jacobite uprising by George II to keep the ever-restless Jacobites from re-rising. It didn’t work in the long-term and the barracks were taken by a frontal assault in 1746.

The Jacobite conflict writ in LEGO is currently opened to the public on Monday and runs through February 2nd, 2018. You can even make a day of it and visit Ruthven Barracks after you see mini-Ruthven at Stirling. Unfortunately the hat trick is not an option because Corgarff Castle is closed until the spring. (It is in the middle of nowhere anyway, so probably would have made it a multi-day LEGO inspired pilgrimage.)

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Google, British Museum digitize Maya collection

December 4th, 2017

The British Museum and the Google Arts & Culture have been collaborating on creating a complex, in depth digital virtual museum experience for years now. It’s been an exceptionally fruitful partnership from the outset, when the the new Google subsite dedicated to the British Museum’s physical structure, contents, permanent collection and exhibitions opened two years ago. Google Street View’s cameras crawled the entire space and put one of the world’s greatest encyclopedic museums online for everyone in the world with an Internet connection to explore in mind-blowing detail. The collection was rephotographed, this time in the massive resolution of gigapixel cameras, so objects could be viewed on computer screens in far greater dimensions than in person.

Their latest endeavour is dedicated to the preservation of endangered Mayan cultural knowledge and artifacts. It’s a fully functional guided tour, not just of the British Museum’s Maya collection, but of Mayan history and culture. If you go through the virtual exhibition in order, you’ll first encounter an introduction by writer Kanishk Tharoor who gives a summary of who the Maya were and are, a timeline of key events, what we know about their cities, architecture, engineering, language, art and science. That’s followed by a piece by historian Robert Bevan on what the collapse of Mayan cities can tell us about our own present. It’s highly relevant to the British Museum’s collection because since the Spanish burned almost all of the written manuscripts, in order to read Mayan history we have to rely on inscriptions carved in stone.

Atmospheric erosion has caused many in situ written carvings to become illegible, but a new collaboration between Google Arts & Culture and the British Museum is working to combat this gradual destruction. Using 19th century photographs and casts, combined with 21st century digital techniques, means fresh texts to decipher, and a deeper understanding of the ancient Maya.

The project’s source material is the work of the much-overlooked Victorian explorer Alfred Maudslay who traveled through Guatemala, Mexico and Honduras in the 1880s. He used the up-to-date photographic technique of dry plate photography and hauled tons of plaster of Paris with him to create moulds of some of the monuments he encountered, and paper to make impressions (‘squeezes’) of others. 400 of the resulting casts and 800 glass plate negatives are now in the British Museum, among the 100,000 American items held in its collection.

Now, all of these casts and squeezes are being 3D-scanned, allowing researchers to manipulate the images in a way that will assist in translating the Maya inscriptions. Alongside this, an immersive VR journey is being created that takes children, via objects in the museum, to see the ruins in the forests of the Maya region, complete with howler monkeys and soaring ceiba trees that, amongst the Maya, are thought to connect the underworld with the sky. The project is giving us a clearer picture of what happened to the ancient Maya.

Bevan’s article includes embeds of some of the newly digitized Mauslay photographs and 3D models of the moulds he took. You cannot download them, sad to say, but click on the embeds to see them in their fully zoomable fulgor. The next section is a multi-media slide show that explain Mayan writing, the conservation of Mauslay’s casts, the history of Guatemalan masks and the many challenges of preserving Mayan monuments using pictures and animated street view captures. It culminates in a YouTube video of curator Dr. Jago Cooper speaking about Maudslay’s work and how the British Museum can help Google to preserve Mayan history.

The next section is another slideshow, this one about the history of the museum’s Mayan collection which is of comparatively recent extraction. They didn’t really start collecting Maya artifacts until the mid-19th century. Maudslay’s casts didn’t join the party until the 1920s and the best known original artifacts only arrived in the 1930s when coffee planter Charles Fenton donated his important private collection to the museum. The two slideshows after this one focus on the explorer and his casts, followed by a huge photos and 3D models of the casts.

Because it’s Google we’re talking about, there are opportunities to take a virtual stroll through ancient Maya archaeological sites, explore their cities in 360-degree flexibility, even tools for teachers to design virtual trips through space and time for their classes. It’s an ambitious assemblage with a deep bench of content and media to devour. So what are you waiting for?

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Ancient orca geoglyph rediscovered in Peru

December 3rd, 2017

The arid desert coast of southern Peru is famed worldwide for its enormous geoglyphs, the abstract, geometric and zoomorphic shapes known as the Nazca lines after the ancient Peruvians who moved rocks to expose the topsoil creating a line-drawing effect when viewed by the aliens who used them as a landing pad. (Sorry about that. I haven’t watched the History channel in years and still the sarcasm flows out of me like honey. Really bitter, eye-rolly honey.) It seems the Nazca’s abilities may have antecedents, however, in another culture that preceded them, and a recently rediscovered geoglyph may hold the key to unlocking the early history of this magnificent art form.

In the 1960s, German archaeologists discovered a geoglyph of an orca in the Palpa Valley, an area neighboring Nazca in the same Ica region about 250 miles south of Lima. It was photographed at the time but not documented properly so its exact location was lost and nobody could find the enormous killer whale drawn into the side of a hill for 50 years. In 1997, a team of researchers from the German Archaeological Institute’s Commission for Archeology of Non-European Cultures (KAAK) started a project in cooperation with the Instituto Andino de Estudios Arqueológicos (INDEA) to study, map, document and restore all the great line drawings in Nazca and Palpa. There are thousands of geoglyphs in less than hospitable terrain, and when they haven’t been maintained or even seen in decades, they can be hard to track down.

Team leader Johny Isla Cuadrado, head of the Decentralized Office of Culture of the Ica region, saw the old picture of the orca geoglyph in an archaeological catalog published in the 1970s. The description was confused and not specific enough as to the size and find site for Isla to figure out where it might be. When he researched it further, he found the area’s residents had no idea where it was either. He used Google Earth to search for it but it the elements had not been kind and the design was difficult to discern. Well, impossible for any normal human. Archaeologists are special, though, and he was able to pick out clues to possible locations of the geoglyph here and there. Finally he found the long-lost orca the old fashioned way: he tromped the desert hills until he saw it with his own two eyes.

That was January of 2015. This spring, Isla returned with Ministry of Culture experts to clean and restore it so it would again be visible to the untrained human eye instead only satellites and archaeologists who know what to look for. Now their work is done and the geoglyph is back to its former splendor inhabiting the characteristic shape of early Peruvian killer whale iconography.

About 70 meters (230 feet) long, the orca is unusual in several ways. Its location on a rolling hillside distinguishes it from the Nazca lines which were all more practically placed on flat plateaus. Archaeologists believe this was one of the earliest stages of this type of artwork. It is found elsewhere among the Palpa geoglyphs, while very rarely at Nazca. It seems the successors of the tradition simplified the task by selecting more ideal surfaces. The hilly terrain also makes the older line drawings more susceptible to damage from erosion.

The creators of the orca drew it on the hillside in negative relief by removing a thin layer of stones to form the outline of the figure. This is similar to the technique used by the people of the Nazca culture to create geoglyphs from about 100 B.C. to A.D. 800.

But some contrasting parts of the rediscovered pattern, such as the eyes, were created out of piles of stones, the researchers said. This technique was used by people of the older Paracas culture, who occupied the region from around 800 B.C. to 200 B.C.

Soil tests have indicated that the orca geoglyph dates from around 200 B.C. The style of the pattern and its location on a hillside, rather than on a plain, suggest that it may be one of the oldest geoglyphs in the region, said one of Isla’s colleagues, Markus Reindel of the German Archaeological Institute, in an interview in a German newspaper.

The Paracas culture, you might recall, produced some of the most exquisite textiles and knits in the ancient world, some of which were used to wrap mummy bundles and survived in extraordinarily vibrant color thanks to the arid climate. They were also innovators in the creation of pottery.

Peru would like to make this remarkable early example of some of its most beloved cultural patrimony accessible to the public, but they can’t because terrible people are terrible and have basically stolen the land using some offensively stupid loophole that allows any grasping greedo to claim huge swaths of state-protected property as “uncultivated lands.” This is a major problem in Peru right now, land traffickers who snatch public land, even in a desert, even covered in priceless ancient art, enclose it and exploit it giving not a rat’s ass about the impact their construction/agriculture/whatever has on the patrimony it abuts.

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Hundreds of fossilized pterosaur eggs, some with embryos, found in China

December 2nd, 2017

Archaeologists have unearthed hundreds of fossilized pterosaur eggs in northwestern China. The number is unprecedented — 215 eggs — but even more significant from a paleontological perspective is the discovery of 16 unsquashed, still perfectly 3D embryos among them. Before this, only six other well-preserved pterosaur eggs had been found and none of them had 3D embryos inside. Frozen in time at various stages of development, the embryos have to potential to reveal a great deal we don’t know about the creatures, their lives and behaviors. The team saw what a treasure they had when they CT-scanned the eggs.

The discovery has kicked off debate about whether the creatures could fly as soon as they hatched. Some previous theories had posited that they could, but the paper suggests otherwise. The research team found that the animal’s hind leg bones were more developed than the wings at the time of hatching, and none of the embryos were found with teeth.

“Thus, newborns were likely to move around but were not able to fly, leading to the hypothesis that Hamipterus might have been less precocious than advocated for flying reptiles in general … and probably needed some parental care,” the paper reads.

A separate commentary in Science calls the study “remarkable” but cautions against drawing firm conclusions about how the animal moved immediately after hatching. That’s because it’s hard to pinpoint just how close to hatching the embryos actually were.

The discoveries weren’t made all at once. They are the result of a decade of excavations between 2006 and 2016 at a site in the Turpan-Hami Basin of the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region. Fossils of bones from hundreds of adult male and female pterosaurs (Hamipterus tianshanensis) and babies and young pterosaurs were found in the same location at the collection of eggs all 215 of which were excavated from a single sandstone block.

Pterosaur were toothed flying reptiles who lived on land near bodies of water and fed largely on fish. Their long beaks were filled with pointy teeth and they had a properly intimidating 13-foot wingspan. When they occupied the Turpan-Hami Basin site 120 million years ago in the Lower Cretaceous, there was a large lake which no longer exists. Because of the spectacular finds, scientists refer to the area as “Pterosaur Eden” although it definitely wasn’t one girl-one guy and the eggs appear to have been banished from terrestrial paradise by flash floods.

The sheer number of eggs found together, the researchers say, suggest they belonged to clutches from multiple female pterosaurs and indicate that the animals may have bred in colonies.

It’s worth noting that the massive discovery does not appear to include a nest. Jiang says the eggs had been moved from the place they were originally laid and may have been carried by water after a series of storms hit the animals’ nesting ground.

The findings have been published in the latest issue of the journal Science (requires subscription or payment to read).

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Third Roman temple unearthed in Silchester

December 1st, 2017

Archaeologists excavating near the village of Silchester in Hampshire have unearthed the remains of a Roman temple, the third discovered to date in the town.

Known in Roman times as Calleva Atrebatum after the Atrebates tribe who founded the town in the 1st century B.C., it was first an autonomous ally of Rome. It was an oppidum, a fortified settlement, which appears to have largely functioned as an independent city-state under a series of rulers. The first of these and the city founder was Commius, a Gallic chieftain who had aided Julius Caesar’s veni, vidi, vicing in Gaul before becoming switching sides to Vercingetorix and ultimately cutting a deal with Mark Anthony in which Antonius guaranteed Commius would never have to see a Roman again if he took his annoying crew across the Channel and stayed there for good. Coins have been found in Silchester with Commius’ name, so it seems he followed through and was indeed left alone.

A hundred years later times had changed. Now the Romans were interested. One Roman in particular. Specifically the biggest Roman kahuna of them all: the Emperor Nero. He bought Calleva, land, buildings, lock, stock and barrel, as his personal property. He seems to have taken the town as a kind of pet project, endowing it with major public buildings and converting the Atrebates settlement into a symbol of Roman industry, splendour and powder. Perhaps it was carrot, perhaps it was stick, probably a little of both, but he wanted his subjects way up at the perimeter of empire to feel his (and Rome’s) reach keenly. With imperial moneys flowing in for construction, the new city became a hive of proper Roman industry. Lots of new trades, lots of temples and other civic structures.

University of Reading archaeologists have been excavating in Silchester for years, always hoping to find a little Nero under the next shovel-full of soil. Two years ago they found a two-letter inscription and even that meagre material (albeit very cool because it was the second fragment of an inscription whose first fragment had been discovered in 1891) was enough to give them hope they might find Nero’s name somewhere. They didn’t that time, but this time they sure have.

The temple remains were found within the grounds of The Old Manor House in the Roman town at Silchester, along with rare bricks stamped with the name of the emperor, who ruled AD54-68.

Professor Michael Fulford CBE said: “The stamped bricks we’ve found were made just south from Silchester at a place called ‘Little London’.

“They were stamped to show the Emperor’s ownership of what was being built there, and are quite unique to Silchester.

“The stamping of Nero’s name on the bricks essentially acted like a batch marker.”

Four fragments of the bricks were found in a ritual pit within the temple site – the largest concentration ever found in the town – along with another three at the kiln site which made the tiles in Little London.

“These findings are a crucial piece of the jigsaw as we look to solve the mystery of Nero’s links to Silchester. This is something that has puzzled archaeologists for more than a century.

“Only a handful of Nero-stamped tiles have ever been found in the UK, so to unearth this many was very exciting.”

No references to specific deities have been found that would explain which temple this one, or which gods the other two temples were dedicated to. Fulford speculates that if there were only three temples total, they could each have been dedicated to the central triad of Jupiter, Juno and Minerva which was a common combination. There is no hard physical evidence either way.

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A portrait mummy and a particle accelerator walk into a bar…

November 30th, 2017

Okay so she didn’t walk, she was transported, and it wasn’t to a bar. It was to the Advanced Photon Source at Argonne National Laboratory where the first time ever, a mummy was scanned by a particle accelerator. The mummy was donated years ago to the Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary at Northwestern University by the Hibbard family, wealthy patrons who had funded archaeological digs in Egypt in the early 20th century and received the mummy as a gift (goes the story). They gave this mummy, the remains of a little girl just five years old at the time of her death in the late 1st century A.D., with a portrait of her over her face as if she were peering through the bandages wrapped around her body. It’s that portrait that captured researcher’s interest.

The encaustic-on-wood panel paintings preserved in pristine color and detail by the dry desert heat of Egypt are so personal, evocative and haunting that they’ve been a hot-ticket item for wide sale and distribution in the shady antiquities trade since the first ones were found in the 17th century. Today the mummy portraits number about 900, most of them unearthed from the Faiyum necropolis southwest of Cairo, as was the little girl whose remains were discovered in Hawara at the entrance to the Faiyum oasis. The Faiyum portraits are the largest assemblage of ancient panel paintings still in existence today.

Only 100 of them are still intact and attached to the mummies they depict so expertly. The Hibbard mummy is part of an elite cadre, therefore. And yet, nobody in the archaeological department or on the staff of Northwestern’s Block Museum of Art had any idea she existed. She just hung out at the Seminary for a century, uncommented upon, until museum curator Essi Rönkkö saw her in person. With the curatorial team already in the process of collecting mummy portraits for an upcoming exhibition Paint the Eyes Softer: Mummy Portraits from Roman Egypt (ie, Faiyum), Rönkkö took advantage of the unbelievably rare opportunity to add the girl’s mummy to the portraits going on display.

The child’s body is wrapped tightly in thick layers of linen wrappings, the outer layer of which cross each other in a painstaking geometric arrangement that secure and frame her painted visage. Painted with pigment and sealed with beeswax, the girl is shown with her hair is tied at the nape of her neck and wearing a red tunic with gold jewelry. Because of her secure bindings, there was no way for researchers to study her insides without causing damage, but now that they had a real matched pair, the bones still safely wrapped in their original bandages and the intact portrait above them, researchers wanted to examine both the human and her representation with the best technology at their disposal.

In August they took the mummy to Northwestern Memorial Hospital where she was given a CT scan. This provided the team with a 3D map of the mummy’s inside and confirmed she was about five years old when she died. On Monday they considerably upped the ante and took her to the Argonne National Laboratory in Evanston to see what the immense light power of X-ray scattering (the technology that revealed the contents of that medallion box from the French crypt so clearly I heard my own jaw drop when I first saw the video) could tell us about her.

“Intact portrait mummies are exceedingly rare, and to have one here on campus was revelatory for the class and exhibition,” said Marc Walton, a research professor of materials science and engineering at Northwestern’s McCormick School of Engineering. […]

“This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for our undergraduate students — and for me — to work at understanding the whole object that is this girl mummy,” Walton said. “Today’s powerful analytical tools allow us to nondestructively do the archaeology scientists couldn’t do 100 years ago.”

The synchrotron experiment at Argonne is a modern-day version of 19th-century England’s “mummy unwrapping” parties, Walton said. The Northwestern team collaborated with scientists at Argonne and used the extremely brilliant high-energy synchrotron X-rays produced by Argonne’s Advanced Photon Source to probe the materials and objects inside the mummy, while leaving the mummy and her wrappings intact.

“From a medical research perspective, I am interested in what we can learn about her bone tissue,” Stock said. “We also are investigating a scarab-shaped object, her teeth and what look like wires near the mummy’s head and feet.”[…]

At the Advanced Photon Source, Stock and his team shined the pencil-shaped X-ray beam (about twice the diameter of a human hair) on areas of high-density in the mummy that were identified by the CT scan. They now will use the X-ray diffraction patterns as “fingerprints” to identify each crystalline material. For example, is the black rounded object seen on the CT scan a gold object or a rock?

The findings from the synchrotron experiment, CT scan and other scientific analyses and studies of history conducted by the students will help researchers and historians better understand the context in which the Garrett mummy was excavated in 1911 as well as Roman-period mummification practices. Also, conservators will use the information to best preserve the mummy.

“We’re basically able to go back to an excavation that happened more than 100 years ago and reconstruct it with our contemporary analysis techniques,” Walton said. “All the information we find will help us enrich the entire historic context of this young girl mummy and the Roman period in Egypt.”

Paint the Eyes Softer: Mummy Portraits from Roman Egypt opens at the Block Museum of Art on January 13th and runs through April 22nd, 2018.

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Best sphinx head from 1923 Ten Commendments found

November 29th, 2017

Archaeologists have unearthed another piece of colossal scenary from Cecil B. DeMille’s 1923 epic silent movie The Ten Commandments from the sands of the Guadalupe-Nipomo Dunes near Pismo Beach, California. At least one filmmaker, enthusiasts, nature conservancy advocates and archaeologists have been looking for the fabled set since 1982. DeMille claimed to have deliberately destroyed it after filming wrapped to keep it from being used by copy-cats to get their movies to look as good as his without having to spend the Croesonian budgets studios allowed him. He said he had it dynamited to smithereens and bulldozed the remains into a trench.

A few bits and pieces were indeed found by filmmaker Peter Brosnan in 1983, who had to do assiduous research to even find the general area where this landmark film was shot. While there was a small flurry of interest from the Hollywood community when the first discoveries were made, the next shiny thing came along to distract potential moneyed supporters and Brosnan spent the next 30 years looking for more of the set and trying to raise funds to finish a documentary about the search that he’d been filming since 1982.

In 1998, Brosnan’s organization teamed up with a nature preserve advocacy now known as the Guadalupe-Nipomo Dunes Center and together they were able to recover more pieces of the set. DeMille had not in fact dynamited it, it seemed. There would have been evidence of that in the fragments, damage, scatter pattern, etc. He just broke the whole thing down and buried it and then the harsh elements did the rest, turning all that plaster and balsa wood to dust. Leave it to him to spin a yarn featuring a big dramatic action sequence complete with pyrotechnics when describing striking a set.

The pursuit of the fabled lost land of Fake Movie Egypt picked up steam in the second decade of the 21st century. An archaeological dig discovered the head of one of the 21 plaster sphinxes (originally each one was 12 feet tall and weighed five tons even though they were hollow) that DeMille used to line the dramatic corridor leading to the main gates of “The City of the Pharaoh,” a vista he borrowed from the Avenue of Sphinxes that connects the temples of Karnak and Luxor. The archaeologists were not able to transport the head so they reburied it hoping the sands would preserve it, but the Guadalupe-Nipomo Dunes are not Luxor. They’re at the beach, after all, and there’s a saltwater marine layer that blocked the adhesion of the expoxy archaeologists had coated the plaster in for its protection. When they returned in 2014, the head had fallen to pieces. They were able to find another of the The City of the Pharaoh sphinx heads nearby that year, and that one was successfully recovered and conserved for display at the Guadalupe-Nipomo Dunes Center.

In October of this year, archaeologists finally returned to the site. (Funding in an unending migraine, hence the irregular digs.) The excavation was very brief, from October 23rd through November 4th, but the team made a big find even in that brief window: a 300-pound piece of the head of another one of the plaster sphinxes, the largest and best preserved yet.

“The piece is unlike anything found on previous digs,” said Doug Jenzen, executive director of the Guadalupe-Nipomo Dunes Center.

What makes the recent find significant is its size and how well-preserved researchers found it.

“The majority of it is preserved by sand with the original paint still intact,” Jenzen said. “This is significant and shows that we’re still learning unexpected facets to film historical movie production, such as the fact that objects in black-and-white films were actually painted extremely intense colors.” […]

The sphinx head, which is about 5 feet by 8 feet, is currently being stored so it can dry out for a few months before art restorers can get to work preserving the artifact.

“It”s 94 years old and has been buried near the beach for that long; it is wet. If you think of the drywall in your house buried for 94 years at the beach, that is the consistency of the material we are working with,” Jenzen said.

Sphinx head removed from the sand to the Guadalupe-Nipomo Dunes Center for conservation. Photo courtesy the Guadalupe-Nipomo Dunes Center.

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Iron Age cauldrons discovered at feasting site

November 28th, 2017

A team from the University of Leicester Archaeological Services (ULAS) has unearthed an unprecedented collection of Iron Age metal artifacts at Glenfield Park in Leicestershire. The excavation took place in the winter of 2013/2014 in advance of construction of a large-scale warehouse and distribution center on the site which was known to have had Iron Age remains from a small excavation in the 1990s and occasional discoveries after that by field walkers. What nobody knew was the size, extent and age of the Iron Age occupation.

The team focused on a four-hectare area dense with features characteristic of an Iron Age settlement — roundhouses, enclosures, postholes, pits — located at the north end of the development site. The trenches dug by ULAS archaeologists revealed that the full size of the settlement was almost 12 hectares in area and was inhabited throughout the Iron Age and Roman era. The ULAS team also unearthed metalwork, and lots of it: 11 metal cauldrons, either complete or all but, several ring-headed dress pins, an iron involuted brooch, a cast copper alloy horn-cap that may have been part of a ceremonial staff or mace.

The cauldrons are the stand-out discovery. It is the only second multiple cauldron Iron Age find in Europe, the farthest north on mainland Britain and unique in the East Midlands area. The combination of metalwork is entirely unique; nothing of this range and variety has been found before.

Most of the cauldrons appear to have been deliberately laid in a large circular enclosure ditch that surrounded a building. They had been placed in either upright or inverted positions, before the ditch was filled in, suggesting that they were buried to mark the cessation of activities associated with this part of the site. Other cauldrons were found buried across the site, suggesting that significant events were being marked over a long period of time as the settlement developed.

The cauldrons are made from several separate parts, comprising iron rims and upper bands, hemispherical copper alloy bowls and two iron ring handles attached to the upper band.

They appear to have been a variety of sizes, with rims ranging between 360mm and 560mm in diameter, with the total capacity of all cauldrons being approximately 550 litres, which illustrates their potential to provide for large groups of people that may have gathered at the settlement from the wider Iron Age community of the area.

John [Thomas, director of the excavation and ULAS Project Officer] said: “Due to their large capacity it is thought that Iron Age cauldrons were reserved for special occasions and would have been important social objects, forming the centrepiece of major feasts, perhaps in association with large gatherings and events.

“The importance of cauldrons as symbolic objects is reflected in their frequent appearance in early medieval Irish and Welsh literature, which has been drawn upon in studies of Iron Age society. They are rarely found in large numbers and, with the exception of a discovery in Chiseldon, where 17 cauldrons were found in a pit, there have been few excavated examples in recent years.”

Ritual depositions of objects used for ceremonial banquets appears to have been a common practice in Iron Age Britain and Europe, and the cauldrons would have been very important, very expensive, essential parts of the feast preparations which made them worthy candidates for deposition after the feasting was over.

Because they were in such fragile condition, the cauldrons were not fully excavated in situ, but raised en bloc still encased in the soil in which they’d lain for thousands of years. Before the painstaking excavation of the soil blocks in laboratory conditions could begin, the cauldrons were sent to the hospital, Paul Strickland Scanner Centre in Middlesex, which had CT scanners large enough to fit the massive metal-stuffed soil blocks.

The scans gave archaeologists a roadmap to follow when excavating — the orientation of the cauldrons, their sizes, fragment placement — and a glimpse at even more exciting possibilities, namely evidence of decoration, something that is very rare on metalwork from this period. One of the complete cauldrons has a raised stem and leaf decoration on the iron band near the handle, a motif that is reminiscent of the “Vegetal Style” of Celtic art from around the 4th century B.C. One of the smaller copper alloy bowls appears to have a domed rivet or raised boss decoration.

Conservation and excavation of the cauldrons will be taking place at the Museum of London Archaeology (MOLA), and things are already looking promising.

Liz Barham, Senior Conservator at MOLA said: “Already we have been able to uncover glimpses of the detailed histories of these cauldrons through CT scanning, including evidence of their manufacture and repair, and have identified sooty residues still clinging to the base of one of the cauldrons from the last time it was suspended over a fire. During the upcoming conservation we hope to discover much more about the entire assemblage. If we’re lucky, we may even find food residues from the last time they were used – over 2000 years ago.”

This video gives a brief overview of the site and the discoveries, including clips of the first cauldron’s CT scan.

This one focuses on the CT scans of the cauldrons:

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Clark acquires politically daring portrait of child

November 27th, 2017

The Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, Massachusetts, is renown worldwide for the size and quality of its Impressionist collection. Sterling Clark, an heir to the Singer Sewing Machine fortune, was highly discriminating in the pieces he chose to buy. He was entirely self-taught and relied solely on his own excellent taste, the input of a few trusted dealers and of the opinions of his wife Francine, a French-born actress who he described as his “touchstone in judging pictures.” The result was a collection of such depth that it eclipsed in quality the collections amassed by his wealthier contemporaries.

He kept it all on the down low, collecting for decades in the background, never publishing, promoting or displaying his artworks until th opening of the Clark Art Institute in 1955. Out of nowhere, it seemed, and set in a small college town in the remote Berkshire Mountains, one of the greatest private collections ever pieced together exploded on the scene. The Impressionists, the main focus of Sterling and Francine Clark’s acquisitions after 1920, made the most lasting impression overall, but the Clark also has a phenomenal collection of paintings from the 14th century through the 19th, decorative arts, Remington bronzes, porcelain and British and American silver.

Its location next to Williams College was not a coincidence. From the beginning, the Clarks evisioned the museum not just as a venue for the display of their flawless collection, but as a hub of art historical research and education. The museum sponsors the college’s world-class art history graduate program have developed a truly symbiotic relationship that has produced curators and directors who have worked in the greatest museums in the country and internationally.

Alexandre Jean Dubois-Drahonet (French, 1791-1834), Portrait of Achille Deban de Laborde, 1817, Oil on canvas, 59 x 39.6 in. Clark Art Institute, 2017.2.The Clarks’ judiciously ecclectic approach has continued in the museum they founded. The permanent collection has grown significantly since 1955 as the Clark Art Institute very selectively acquires pieces to flesh out certain areas, time periods and subject matters. One of its latest acquisitions is the Portrait of Achille Deban de Laborde (1817) by Alexandre-Jean Dubois-Drahonet, a French portraitist who may not have the highest name recognition today, but who was preeminent in his field and specialized in studies of military uniforms, several of which are now in the collection of Windsor Castle. Purchased at auction this past April for $295,500, far above its pre-sale estimate, it is a full-length oil on canvas painting of a boy dressed in full Napoleonic military uniform.

The striking garb and composition of the portrait is a tribute to Achille’s father, Baron Jean-Baptiste Deban de Laborde, a First Empire Hussar who was died in combat at the Battle of Wagram in 1809. His son was just one year old at the time. Seven years later, he sat for a portrait wearing a child-sized version of his father’s uniform with its characteristic silver frogging and wee tasselled hessian boots. The youth leans on a ceremonial sword his father was given as an award for bravery as squadron leader at the Battle of Marengo in 1800. His sabre and its scabbard are on the floor on the lower right. Pinned to the velvet drapery in the upper left of the painting is the late baron’s 1804 Légion d’honneur medal, among others. On the couch behind Achille are Jean-Baptiste’s plumed shako cap and sabretache (a pouch worn on cavalrymen’s belt). The cap bears the number 8, Jean-Baptiste’s hussar regiment.

“This beautiful painting enhances the Clark’s collection of early nineteenth-century portraiture,” said Olivier Meslay, Felda and Dena Hardymon Director. “It invites a close comparison to the Jacques-Louis David portrait Comte Henri-Amédée-Mercure de Turenne-d’Aynac (1816) that is in our collection, and provides a poignant juxtaposition between a Napoleonic war hero and a child honoring one who was lost on the battlefield.”

Dubois-Drahonet primarily worked as a portraitist but also produced a number of studies of military uniforms. His work was notable for its clean lines and a command of light similar to that of his contemporary Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres. Drahonet exhibited at the Salon from 1812 to 1834 and was awarded a medal in 1827. The portrait of Achille Deban de Laborde combines Drahonet’s talent for portraiture with his detailed knowledge of military uniform and accoutrements.

“The Dubois-Drahonet and David portraits were created within one year of each other, and both represent bold statements of Napoleonic support in a time of staunch anti-imperial sentiment,” said Esther Bell, Robert and Martha Berman Lipp Senior Curator. “David was living in exile when he painted comte de Turenne. In painting such a daring portrait memorializing a soldier with a distinguished military career under Napoleon, Dubois-Drahonet and his patrons were taking a political risk.”

They took it twice, in fact, because that same year Achille’s older brother Edouard-César Deban de Laborde was also immportalized in a portrait by Dubois-Drahonet. The son and heir is even more elaborately kitted out in uniform as he wraps a garland of flowers around the laurel-crowned marble bust of his noble but sad father. When he grew up, Achille, like his father, chose a military career. Also like his father, he rose to the rank of colonel, although not in the Hussars but the Fourth Cuirassiers Regiment. When his brother Edouard died without issue in 1851, Achille inherited his father’s title too.

After it was bought from a Belgian private collector by the Clark, the Portrait of Achille Deban de Laborde spent a few months getting some love from the experts at the Williamstown Art Conservation Center. They found it in exceptional condition, its canvas, stretchers and frame all original. It just required a thorough cleaning, the removal of a discolored varnish layer (not applied by the artist) and a few fill-ins here and there of small spots where the paint had flaked off over the years. After 65 hours of conservation work over the course of weeks, the beautiful portrait was ready for primetime. It is now on display at the Clark with other early 19th century works.

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Repton Viking camp is larger, older than realized

November 26th, 2017

Archaeologists have unearthed weapons fragments, artifacts and the remains of workshops from a 9th century Viking camp next to St Wystan’s Church in Repton, Derbyshire. The University of Bristol team discovered the objects in the garden of the Vicarage adjacent to the church and were able to date by them precisely to the winter of 873-4, thanks to the application of cutting edge technology to retest bones from a mass grave found a few feet from the new dig site in the 1980s.

Archaeologists had long suspected that there might be a Viking camp there because it’s in The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle: The Great Army “moved from Lindsey to Repton and there took winter quarters” in 873. They relieved the King of Mercia, Burghred, of his heavy crown and took his kingdom. They let him keep his head, at least; he was simply expelled from Mercia. A location on the River Trent seemed likely. River access is probably one the main reasons they moved to Repton and set up a camp for the winter in the first place; the presence of a large and wealthy monastery on the banks of the Trent that contained the tombs and mortal remains of several Mercian kings was another good incentive.

In 1975, archaeologists excavating near the church on the banks of the Trent for the Viking camp site referred to in The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle thought they’d found what they had been seeking. They unearthed the remains of a medieval D-shaped enclosure built after the monastery. Dig co-leaders Professor Martin Biddle and Birthe Kjølbye-Biddle thought the enclosure and artifacts indicated this was indeed the Repton Viking Camp. The only problem was finding hard evidence of it. For a Viking camp, it was uncharacteristically tiny at about 1.5 hectares in surface area. Other Great Army camps are far larger, like the one at Torksey which is 26 hectares in area.

Additional archaeological explorations of the site in the 1980s made another major discovery: a mound containing a mass charnel grave with the remains of more than 300 people. Researchers believed them to be Vikings killed in battle, but radiocarbon testing dated the remains in the 7th or 8th centuries, so at least a century too early to be part of the Great Army.

In pursuit of fresh information regarding the size of the camp, University of Bristol doctoral candidate Cat Jarman and Professor Mark Horton of the University’s Department of Anthropology and Archaeology picked a location on the west side of the enclosure and just outside of the boundary to see if there were other structures or other evidence of Viking occupation.

Geophysics, including ground penetrating radar, revealed structures including paths and possible temporary buildings.

Excavations showed these to be gravel platforms that may have held ephemeral timber structures or tents with deposits including fragments of Saxon millstones and a cross fragment from the monastery.

Associated were broken pieces of weaponry, including fragments of a battle-axes and arrows, and evidence for metal working. Also found were substantial numbers of nails, two of which had roves, the particular feature of Viking ship nails, as well as several lead gaming pieces. These are of a type that has been found in large numbers at the camp in Torksey and appear to be specifically connected to the early Viking armies.

Cat Jarman … said: “Our dig shows there was a lot more to the Viking Camp at Repton than what we may have thought in the past. It covered a much larger area than was once presumed – at least the area of the earlier monastery – and we are now starting to understand the wide range of activities that toonok place in these camps.”

As significant as they are, artifacts and structural remains alone could not provide archaeologist with the date evidence they needed. It was the bones from the charnel mound, found a few yards north of the most recent excavation, that stepped up to the plate. It’s not the 1980s anymore, and radiocarbon dating technology is more advanced and precise today than it was then. It also requires far smaller samples. We also have stable isotope analysis now which allows researchers to determine from levels of certain isotopes in the teeth where a person was born and raised, what kind of food he or she ate and more.

Jarman’s latest and greatest radiocarbon dating and isotope analysis results found that not only are the bones 9th century, but they died in the winter of 873-4, just when The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle the Vikings set up camp in Repton. They also found a direct connection between the remains of the workshop and the charnel mound.

The remains were placed in a deliberately damaged Saxon building along with Viking weapons and artefacts.

The building also contained evidence of use as a workshop by the Vikings before it was converted into a charnel house.

The Bristol team located a path linking their workshop area and the charnel house, further strengthening the link between the two.

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