Roman gold curse tablets found in Serbia

August 9th, 2016

Extremely rare curse tablets made of gold and silver instead of the usual lead have been unearthed at the ancient site of Viminacium in Serbia, about 60 miles east of Belgrade. Archaeologists were excavating land adjacent to power plant before construction of an addition to the plant when they found a large family tomb decorated with colorful wall paintings. There were multiple rooms containing multiple burials from the middle of the 3rd century A.D. through the 5th.

Buried with one of the skeletons dating to the 4th century were two small lead cylinders holding three rolled up sheets, one of silver, two of gold. The silver and gold sheets had writing and symbols inscribed on them. One of them has Greek letters but is written in Aramaic, not Greek. Archaeologists have identified an intriguing combination of names on it: Baal, Yahweh, and Thobarabau, Seneseilam and Sesengenfaranges, three deities/demons (depending on whether your perspective is polytheistic or Christian) native to what is now Syria. A curse tablet inviking the powers of both Baal and Yahweh is unprecedented.

The other two aren’t inscribed with letters at all, but unknown symbols. Traditionally curse tablets (defixiones in Latin) were written in Greek or Latin with some ununderstandable words. These were voces mysticae, belonging to no known human language, meant to appeal to the deities and demons in words only they could understand. They also used charakteres, symbols believed to represent astrological signs or cosmic forces, or, in the case of Christian curses, angels and other heavenly host. The silver curse tablet is the only one ever discovered written solely in symbols.

Found throughout the Greco-Roman world even well into the Christian era, curse tablets called on spirits, demonic or divine powers to control a target — destroy an enemy, force restitution of stolen goods, get someone in the sack or make the opposing team lose. The tablets were thin sheets of lead on which invocations against the targets were scratched. They would then be rolled or folded up and placed in a relevant area usually below the ground, graves, wells, temples, sanctuaries or the homes of the cursed.

The earliest known extant curse tablets were found in the Greek colony of Selinunte in Sicily (modern-day Castelvetrano where they grow the greatest bright green olives) and date to the early 5th century B.C. The 22 Selinute tablets were mostly litigation curses intended to kneecap opponents in a lawsuit. Other popular types of curses include ones against rival sports teams, rival businesses, thieves and love or sex spells. Men tended to deploy curse tablets to arouse women’s passion, while women mostly used curses to stimulate men’s affection.

About 1,500 ancient curse tablets have been found. The vast majority are made of lead, some of lead mixed with tin and copper. A tiny fraction are inscribed on precious metals. These are the first curse tablets ever discovered in Serbia. It’s a testament to the wealth of Viminacium that the only defixionis ever found there are extremely rare examples in gold and silver.

Viminacium was the capital of the Roman province of Moesia Superior. Its strategic position near the border with the Goths made it one of the most important cities in the empire. It had a permanent military camp and was a prosperous trade center. Excavations since its rediscovery in the late 19th century have unearthed the largest Roman amphitheater in the Balkans, 40,000 artifacts, 700 of them gold and silver, and more than 14,000 Roman-era graves (the largest Roman cemetery ever discovered), some of which contained extremely fine and rare jewels, one of which contained unique gold and silver curse tablets.

The section of the cemetery in which the tablets were unearthed is also home to a number of Christian graves, and archaeologists don’t rule out that some of the dead in the tomb may have been Christian. Orthodoxy wasn’t cemented in the 4th century and the syncretism evinced in the tablet could be the work of a Christian drawing in influences from adjacent, albeit seemingly conflicting, beliefs.

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12,300-year-old hearth left by early inhabitants of Utah

August 8th, 2016

Archaeologists excavating the Utah Test and Training Range inside the Hill Air Force Base have discovered a 12,300-year-old hearth that sheds new light on the earliest inhabitants of Utah. The 2,675-square-mile training range is in the arid West Desert of Utah, which is why it was selected for training exercises and bomb testing, but it was once a lush wetland, a network of rivers, lakes and marshes that was home to a great variety of flora and fauna.

The West Desert is a potentially inestimable source of archaeological information because it was thriving wetland from the release of Lake Bonneville about 14,500 years ago until about 8,500 years ago. That window of 8,000 years is the only time before the modern era when people lived in the oasis while the area around it began to dry up. It also has geologic features that give archaeologists the rare opportunity to date artifacts found there. Black mats, for instance, decayed plant material in ancient marshland that are now layers of black soil, can be radiocarbon dated. They also preserve plants, fish, shells and other organic remains which open a window into the prehistoric environment.

The Air Force has worked with the Utah State Historic Preservation Office for years to identify and preserve archaeological materials on the range. Because it’s such a large area in which cultural treasures could easily be lost or destroyed by military activities, archaeologists don’t wait to hear about random discoveries. They survey areas with the highest likelihood of archaeological remains as calculated by a probability model based on previous finds, comparable environments and existing research. Between four and eight square miles of the range are surveyed every year.

Last year, the archaeological team surveyed several thousand acres pinpointed for exploration. The hearth was identified in one of those digs. Other artifacts were discovered elsewhere in the surveyed area, but the hearth overshadows them all in its significance. This year excavators returned to the hearth site. They recovered more than 60 objects, including tools, charcoal, duck and goose bones, tobacco seeds and lithics from tool manufacture. It’s a uniquely rich find.

The significance of the find helped the archaeologists determine that people occupied the region many thousands of years ago.

“Then there are questions about the significance of these people,” [Far Western senior archaeologist and lead for the current project Daron] Duke said. “They really are the first occupants of the Great Basin that we can demonstrate. If we went from the earliest accepted date of man in the Americas, approximately 13,400 years ago, people seemed to have dispersed all across the continent within a short, 500-year timespan.”

According to Duke, the first few people inhabiting this area moved around a lot.

“We do know that by the time of 13,000 years ago, 400 years after people are in North America, we get evidence of people in this area and the Great Basin,” he said. “The people then seemed to be pretty transitory. They might have seen megafauna (large animals) and possibly were hunting mammoths and giant forms of bison.”

The tobacco seeds are extraordinary as well. They are by thousands of years the earliest evidence of tobacco use. The next time tobacco appears on the archaeological record is about 3,000 years ago, a gap of more than 9,000 years.

After the initial finds, the team dug a larger trench around the fire pit and found refuse all around it, from people tossing away the trash while seated around the fire. They also found a spear point.

“Here in this location, we see possibly a more generalized diet of several species of ducks, which is not surprising [for people] working and living in a wetland,” [D. Craig Young, Far Western senior geoarchaeologist,] said. “Also of significance is that these people were carrying their big game tool kits, as evidenced by the big point found right next to the hearth. It’s about 8 to 10 centimeters long and one wouldn’t think that was being used to capture ducks. It could have been used to process the water fowl, but those large points tend to be associated with hunting of large game.”

The objects discovered at the fire pit will be conserved and possibly displayed at the Natural History Museum of Utah in Salt Lake City.

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Maya Snake dynasty tomb found in Belize

August 7th, 2016

Archaeologists have discovered the tomb of a lord from the Maya Snake dynasty inside a temple at the ancient site of Xunantunich in western Belize. At 4.5 by 2.4 meters (14’9″ by 7’10″), it’s one of the largest burial chambers ever found in Belize, and is the largest royal one. It was discovered 16-26 feet underground, buried under layers dirt and debris beneath the central stairway of a pyramidal structure.

Inside were the remains of an adult male between 20 and 30 years old when he died. He was lying on his back with his head pointing south. Initial osteological analysis found that he was fit and well-muscled with no obvious signs of disease or fatal injury. Buried with him were jaguar and deer bones, six jade beads, 13 obsidian blades and 36 ceramic vessels. Two other offering caches were found at the base of the stairway. They contained nine obsidian and 28 chert flints and artifacts known as eccentrics which are flaked and chipped around the edges like flints, but instead of having a functional design are carved in symbolic animal or plant shapes.

While there is no direct evidence of who was buried in this tomb, it had to be someone of great importance. Maya tombs are usually “intrusive,” built into or dug out of pre-existing structures. This tomb was built inside the temple from the beginning, a very rare design in Maya architecture. Two hieroglyphic panels were also discovered, not in the burial chamber but in the central staircase, and those panels may be the most exciting part of this very exciting find.

The Snake dynasty was one of the dominant dynasties of the Maya Classic Period (200–1000 A.D.). Its seat was the city-state of Calakmul, now in southern Mexico, but through conquest, alliances and strategic marriages, its area of influence extended south to Guatemala and Belize.
Xunantunich, just east of the border with Guatemala more than a hundred miles south of Calakmul as the crow flies, was founded around 600 A.D. as a subordinate of the Naranjo polity 10 miles to the west. Naranjo was at first allied with Tikal, Calakmul’s greatest enemy, but was conquered by Calakmul’s ruler Tuun Kab Hix in 546 A.D.

Tikal’s influence in the region suffered a devastating blow in 562 when Tikal’s Lord Wak Chan K’awiil (Lord Double Bird) was defeated by Lord Yajaw Te’ K’inich II (Lord Water) of Caracol, an important city 25 miles south of Xunantunich. The defeat kicked off 120 years of decline in Tikal, with significant population loss, destruction of monuments and no new buildings erected for the entire period.

Calakmul was more than glad to step into the breach. In 619, Lord K’an II of Caracol formally allied his polity to Calakmul and its mighty Snake Lords (and Lady Snake Lords). During the 40 years of Lord K’an II’s reign, Caracol grew in population, architecture and size. He also went to war with Naranjo, a former ally with a mutual Calakmul connection, no fewer than four times, killing its king during one of those wars. To celebrate his long reign and many victories, in 642 Lord K’an commissioned an elaborately carved hieroglyphic stairway at Naranjo.

K’an II died in 658 A.D. and a couple of decades later, Naranjo reestablished its regional prominence when it decisively defeated Caracol in 680 A.D. Lord K’an’s hieroglyphic stairway was dismantled but not destroyed. Its symbolic power was destroyed, however, because most of the panels were reassembled out of order and four of them were scattered so the hieroglyphics no longer made sense and K’an’s gloating was rendered meaningless. One of the four missing panels was unearthed at the archaeological site of Ucanal in northern Guatemala. Another was found at Caracol. Archaeologists believe the two panels found at Xunantunich are the last missing pieces of the stairway, the first and the last, no less, alpha and omega. That makes it a hugely significant discovery for Mayan epigraphy.

The panel hieroglyphs indicate the stairway was built in 642 (earlier estimates put it at 637) and note the death of Lady Batz’ Ek’, Lord K’an’s mother. Her titles suggest she was probably born in Yakha, a nearby Snake-ruled city in Guatemala, and was married to the lord of Caracol to cement their alliance.

[Epigrapher Dr. Christophe] Helmke said the panels “tell us of the existence of a king of the dynasty that was murky figure at best, who is clearly named as Waxaklajuun Ubaah Kan”. This ruler reigned sometime between 630 and 640AD, and may have been Kan’s half-brother.

“This means that there were two contenders to the throne, both carrying the same dynastic title, which appears to have been read Kanu’l Ajaw, ‘king of the place where snakes abound’,” he wrote in an email.

The panels clarify what Helmke called a “tumultuous phase of the snake-head dynasty” and explain how it splintered between cities before dominating Maya politics in the region.

The panels identify the origin of the snake dynasty at Dzibanche, in the Yucatan peninsula of modern Mexico, and refer to the family’s move to their capital of Calakmul.

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Boys ruin iconic skier petroglyph trying to “fix” it

August 6th, 2016

An iconic prehistoric carving of a person on skis has been irreparably damaged by two dumb kids who took a sharp object to it. The skier, part of a larger design known as Valentine Field which depicts a Stone Age hunting scene, was carved about 5,000 years ago on a rock face on the island of Tro off the coast of Nordland, northern Norway. The carvings have weathered over the millennia, making them hard to see on the dry rock. The vandals thought they could fix that problem by scratching out the lines with a sharp stone or similar object. Then they did the same to the figure of a whale that is also part of Valentine Field.

The vandalism was reported by one of the residents of a summer home on the island to Tor-Kristian Storvik, the Nordland County archaeologist, who immediately went to assess the damage. What he found was tragic.

“It’s a sad, sad story,” he said. “The new lines are both in and outside where the old marks had been. We will never again be able to experience these carvings again the way we have for the last 5,000 years.”

Experts will return to the site in September to study the skier and whale in depth and determine what, if anything, can be done to repair the damage, but as of now, there is little cause for optimism. The petroglyph appears to be irretrievably altered.

When the story broke, it made national and international news. The perpetrators, apparently chastened by the outraged reaction to their recklessness, confessed. They claim their intentions were good — to make the carvings more legible — and didn’t realize they were violating the law and every basic principle of how to interact with ancient and precious things. Their names and ages have not been released to the public.

Storvik has filed a police report on the vandalism and the boys could be criminally prosecuted as a violation of the Cultural Heritage Act, but no legal action has been taken as of yet. Bård Anders Langø, the mayor of Alstahaug, is discussing with county authorities how best to proceed. Apparently the boys are very young and remorseful, so it doesn’t seem likely at this point that they’ll have the book thrown at them. Last week they relayed an apology in a statement from the Alstahaug municipality.

The image of the skier was the inspiration for the set of pictograms illustrating the sports of the 1994 Winter Olympics in Lillehammer. Each host city creates their own pictograms to identify events and venues by sport with an easily recognizable image. Mostly they look like very active versions of the signs on bathroom doors, but Lillehammer embraced its ancient heritage of winter sports and artist Sarah Rosenbaum created luges, hockey players and skaters that could easily have been carved on rock faces 5,000 years ago.

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6th c. walls unearthed at Tintagel Castle

August 5th, 2016

Archaeologists excavating the site of Tintagel Castle in Cornwall, legendary birthplace of King Arthur, have unearthed the remains of massive walls built in the 6th century. The excavation is the first in a new five year archaeological exploration commissioned by English Heritage, the first major research project at Tintagel in 20 years. A team from the Cornwall Archaeological Unit did geophysical surveys of unexcavated terrace areas on the vertiginous headland where structures from the earliest iteration of the castle (5th-6th century) were believed to have existed. The survey confirmed there were walls and other elements of varied size from post-Roman structures underground.

Excavations began on July 18th and continued through August 2nd. Four trenches were dug on the terraces and as the geophysical survey indicated, the remains of ancient walls three feet thick emerged. The formed two rooms about 11 meters (36 feet) and four meters (13 feet) wide. This was a massive, imposing structure, at the very least a high-status building, and possibly even a royal palace complex. No similar structures from ancient Cornwall, then known as Dumnonia, have ever been found, so if these large walls can be confirmed as royal, it suggests this may have been a central, static court, as opposed to a mobile one that moved from stronghold to stronghold without a Camelot-like headquarters.

Other finds include more than 150 fragments of pottery and glass, including pieces of imported late-Roman amphorae, glass, probably imported from Merovingian France, and a rim from a bowl or serving dish made of expensive Phocaean red-slip ware made in western Turkey. They date from the 5th or 6th centuries.

Tintagel was a bustling settlement in the centuries after the Roman retreat from Britain. Surveys have found evidence of almost 100 buildings, plus gardens and pathways, on the headland alone. Thousands of pottery fragments, most of them imported from the Mediterranean in the 5th to 7th centuries, attest to Tintagel’s importance as a trade center and as the home of regional rulers during the post-Roman period. Many luxury items have been identified at the side: wine from Turkey, olive oil from the Aegean, glassware made in Merovingian France, dishware from North Africa.

The settlement was abandoned in the late 6th or early 7th century, possibly due to a catastrophic occurrence like plague. Tintagel lived in memory, however, as the home of Cornwall’s early kings, which is probably what inspired its literary connection to King Arthur. The 12th century chronicler Geoffrey of Monmouth wrote in his History of the Kings of Britain that Gorlois, Duke of Cornwall, tried to keep his beautiful wife Igerna from the lustful depredations of Uther Pendagron by hiding her at Tintagel. Uther’s advisor Ulfin noted that only magic could get Uther past its impregnable defenses.

“[N]o force will enable us to have access to her in the town of Tintagel[.] For it is situated upon the sea, and on every side surrounded by it; and there is but one entrance into it, and that through a straight rock, which three men shall be able to defend against the whole power of the kingdom. Notwithstanding, if the prophet Merlin would in earnest set about this attempt, I am of opinion, you might with his advice obtain your wishes.”

As the story goes, Merlin magically disguised Uther to look like Gorlois, he and the lady Igerna made sweet, fraudulent love and nine months later, with Gorlois safely dead and Uther and Igerna now married, Arthur was born.

Geoffrey made no distinction between history and legend, and his version of the Arthur story was embellished even more than it already was in his sources. There was already a tradition in Cornish and Breton folklore at the time Geoffrey was writing that associated Tintagel with the famous love story of Tristan and Iseult. That was later woven into Arthurian legend, with Tristan becoming one of the Knights of the Round Table, but in the late 12th-century it was its own tale. Tintagel was the fortress of King Mark of Cornwall, Tristan’s uncle and Iseult’s husband.

The Arthur legend as recorded by Geoffrey of Monmouth and the Cornish legends of Tristan are the reason the ruins of the Tintagel Castle that still stand today exist. Richard, Earl of Cornwall, the brother of King Henry III, was as erudite as he was rich. He traded three manor houses for the site, which had no defensive value whatsoever, and the only castle that could be built on that rocky outcropping was rather small and inelegant for a man of Richard’s refined tastes and financial wherewithal. It was purely its association with the great ancient kings of yore that inspired Richard to build a castle there. By the 14th century it was already in decay.

Using the information and materials discovered in this year’s dig, the team will make plans for more extensive excavations next year. They’ll have a clearer picture of the footprint of the medieval structures and they’ll be able to analyze samples that may fill in more blanks about how buildings were built, when and for what purposes.

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Tiny Viking chair-amulet found on Lolland

August 4th, 2016

A very rare and very tiny chair-amulet from the Viking era has been discovered on the Danish island of Lolland. Metal detectorist Torben Christjansen, whom you might recall from the killer Thor’s Hammer amulet he discovered in 2014, found it in a field near Nybølle on the west side of the island. He had scanned the field before, lured by its black soil which is sometimes and indication of ancient activity, and found 65 objects, but he’d never seen anything like this little piece. Christjansen brought the artifact to Anders Rasmussen, curator at Museum Lolland-Falster, who identified it as a Viking chair-amulet.

No larger than a fingernail, the amulet depicts a wide chair with an abstract figure seated on it. On either side of the back of the chair are two smaller figures meant to represent ravens. The figure may be Odin, who according to an Icelandic saga from the 13th century, sat on a great chair named Hlidskjalf and observed our mortal goings-on from there. He would send his two ravens, Hugin and Munin, to explore the world and report back on what they’d seen during their voyage.

Only 15 or 20 chair-amulets have been found in Scandinavia, and just two of them in Denmark. One was found in Hedeby, an important Viking trade center now just over the Danish border in Schleswig-Holstein, Germany. The other at Lejre in Zealand in 2009. They have differences in design but all date from the late 10th and early 11th centuries. The amulets from Hedeby, Lejre and Nybølle are also quite different, but they share one thing in common. Two things, actually: the clearly identifiable ravens on the back of the chair.

The ravens strongly suggest that the shape in the chair represents Odin and the Lejre amulet, which is larger with more detailed carving, certainly features Odin. So it’s a reasonable assumption that Odin is sitting in this chair too, but it’s so amorphous a shape it could represent another character from the Norse mythology, an animal or perhaps another deity naughty enough to keep Odin’s seat warm for him.

The area where the amulet was found has proven to be rich with Iron Age and Viking artifacts; jewelry, coins, rune stones and silver hoards have all been found near where the amulet was discovered. Archaeologists believe that Lolland, while not the large trade center that Hedeby and Lejre were in their medieval heyday, must have been very wealthy and prosperous for centuries.

The amulet is heading to the National Museum where it will be examined by experts to determine whether it should be declared treasure trove (it will be). The finder will be compensated based on the valuation of the piece and then the local museum, in this case the Museum Lolland-Falster, will be given the amulet for study and display.

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80 shackled skeletons found in ancient mass graves

August 3rd, 2016

Archaeologists excavating the Falyron Delta necropolis in Athens, Greece, have unearthed two mass graves containing the skeletal remains of 80 people, some with iron shackles still clamped to their wrists. In one mass grave, the bodies had been laid carefully side by side in a long line. In the other, they were more haphazardly tossed into the pit, their skeletons found one on top of the other. Analysis of the teeth indicates these are the remains of young, healthy men.

The cemetery was in use from the 8th to the 5th century B.C., and two small vases found in the mass graves date to between 675 and 650 B.C., a time when the city was in the grip of series of political crises. Archaeologists speculate that the young men were executed during one of those crises.

“They have been executed, all in the same manner. But they have been buried with respect,” Dr. Stella Chryssoulaki, head of excavations, said.

“They are all tied at the hands with handcuffs and most of them are very, very young and in a very good state of health when they were executed.”

The experts hope DNA testing and research by anthropologists will uncover exactly how the rows of people died. Whatever happened was violent — most had their arms bound above their heads, the wrists tied together.

But the orderly way they have been buried suggest these were more than slaves or common criminals.

One possibility the archaeologists are batting around is that these might have been the supporters of a failed would-be tyrant named Cylon. In 632 B.C., Cylon, an Athenian aristocrat and champion of the double-stadion race (ca. 400 meters) at the 640 B.C. Olympic Games attempted to take Athens with the backing of his father-in-law, Theagenes, tyrant of Megara. He had consulted the Oracle of Delphi and Apollo’s mouthpiece assured him that he should conquer the citadel of Athens during a festival of Zeus. Prophecies are tricksy things, though, and the ancient sources report that he picked the wrong festival and he and his select cadre of noble young fighters met unexpected resistance. With their coup attempt quickly defeated, Cylon and his supporters took sanctuary near the statue of the goddess in the temple of Athena on the Acropolis. Cylon and his brother managed to sneak out, but the rest of his followers were stuck in the temple.

Thucydides describes the result of the failed coup in his History of the Peloponnesian War (1.126).

Now those that were besieged with Cylon were for want of both victual and water in very evil estate, and therefore Cylon and a brother of his fled privily out; but the rest, when they were pressed and some of them dead with famine, sat down as suppliants by the altar that is in the citadel. And the Athenians, to whose charge was committed the guard of the place, raising them upon promise to do them no harm, put them all to the sword. Also they had put to death some of those that had taken sanctuary at the altars of the severe goddesses as they were going away.

The killing of suppliants was considered a profane act, a sacrilege that would take generations to expiate. The archon Megacles, who ordered the executions, and his extended family, the Alcmaeonidae, were exiled from Athens and cursed with a miasma, a “stain” that would taint the Alcmaeonidae for generations even after the archon Solon allowed them to return to Athens in 594 B.C. Pericles, the great statesman and general of Athens, was Alcmaeonid on his mother’s side and the miasma still caused him political trouble well into the 5th century.

If archaeologists are able to successfully extract DNA from the remains, it’s possible they may be able to help narrow down who they were, although I seriously doubt they can pinpoint participants in the Cylonian Affair. Best case scenario they figure out the method of execution, probably through osteological analysis. They didn’t die in a plague, that’s for sure, and there’s no way of doing any kind of kinship analysis, so I don’t see how DNA can link them to Cylon.

More than 1,500 bodies were buried in the Falyron Delta necropolis during its centuries of use. It was the cemetery for regular people; Athens’ rich and famous were buried in the Kerameikos cemetery. Now part of a vast park in the shadow of the new opera house and library between downtown Athens and the port of Piraeus, the necropolis continues to be excavated. Chryssoulaki hopes it will eventually become an open-air museum.

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V&A acquires largest peepshow collection

August 2nd, 2016

The Victoria & Albert Museum is the new proud owner of the country’s largest collection of peepshows, not the Madonna Open Your Heart video kind of peepshow, the paper kind that staged scenes from history, literature, landscapes, buildings, military parades, architectural and engineering wonders. They’re like pocket dioramas, with cutouts and multiple panels that convey complex scenes and hives of activity in some, sometimes in much, depth of field.

The collection of more than 360 peepshows was given to the nation by collectors Jacqueline and Jonathan Gestetner under the Cultural Gifts Scheme which allows UK taxpayers to donate artworks or other objects of important cultural patrimony. In return, donors get a tax deduction in the amount of a set percentage of the object’s value. An advisory panel then recommends which institution should receive the donated item.

The Gestetner collection covers the full history of the paper peepshow from the earliest examples in the 1820s to the present day. The oldest piece in the collection is called Teleorama No. 1 and was made in Austria by Heinrich Friedrich Müller around 1824-25. Müller was a pioneer in the printing of high quality picture books for children. He rejected the more rudimentary style of illustration prevalent in the children’s books of the time, and starting in 1811, turned to master artists, engravers, colorists and painters to create lesson books, educational workbooks, texts and readers with beautiful color illustrations.

His picture books were massively successful and other printers fell all over themselves to copy him. Meanwhile Müller kept it moving, expanding his business to other fine color-printed products including board games, embroidery panels and peepshows. The peepshows captured the consumer imagination swell, first in Austria and Germany, then outwards to northern Europe and Britain. Thousands of the detailed depictions of idyllic exteriors and luxurious interiors were bought by foreign buyers.

British printers got on the bandwagon and peepshows celebrating momentous national events or the latest marvel of the Victorian era soon became popular souvenirs. The Thames Tunnel and Crystal Palace were particularly popular subjects, if the Gestetner collection is any proof. There are more than 60 peepshows on those two wonders of the age.

Some of the related optical artifacts in the collection predate the peepshows. The oldest object beats Mr. Müller’s work by almost a century. It’s a boîte d’optique of British manufacture, made ca. 1740, a precursor to the peepshow. It’s a mahogany box with a lens. A print of something exotic would be placed in the box and viewers would pay to see the subject in full-screen.

The range of sizes is enormous. The longest peepshow wasn’t the work of a professional printer. It was handmade and handpainted in around 1910 and depicts riflemen on manoeuvre over nine panels that when stretched all the way is more than 6.5 feet long. The smallest is an Italian work from ca. 1900. L’Onomastico (“The Name Day”) is tiny, just the size of a small matchbox, but it holds large wonders. When stretched all the way out, it’s almost eight inches long and depicts the revelries of a name-day street party.

Dr Catherine Yvard, Special Collections Curator at the National Art Library, on the V&A’s new baby:

“This collection is a real treasure trove and makes a wonderful addition to our holdings, which focus particularly on the art of the book. Peeping into one of these tunnel-books is like stepping into another world, travelling through time and space. In an instant you can join Napoleon on the Island of St Helena or a rowdy masquerade on London’s Haymarket. Peepshows were 19th century virtual reality. They offer wonderful insights into social history. Considering that most of them would have been made quite cheaply, it is a miracle that so many have survived.”

For now the peepshows can only be viewed in person by appointment at the Victoria & Albert’s National Art Library. They will soon be digitized and available to search both in the National Art Library Catalogue and in the V&A collection database.

NB: All of the objects pictured in this post were accepted under the Cultural Gifts Scheme by HM Government from the collections of Jacqueline Gestetner and Jonathan Gestetner and allocated to the Victoria and Albert Museum, 2016.

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Smithsonian seeks beer historian

August 1st, 2016

This is a real job posting and it’s a great one. The Smithsonian is looking for a historian to research the history of American brewing, with a particular emphasis on craft brewing. The new hire will be part of the National Museum of American History’s American Brewing History Initiative, a three year project to collect and conserve documents and artifacts relating to the history of beer and brewing in the United States, and to explore the connections between the history of beer and broader themes of American history including industry, advertising and social issues like the temperance movement. It is funded by a donation from the non-profit trade association the Brewers Association of Boulder, Colorado.

The National Museum of American History owns several collections of brewiana, mostly from the second half of the 19th century through the 1960s. There are artifacts from the brewing industry, instruments, ads, bottles, taps, technical documents, photographs, many of them collected by former Brewmaster Walter Voigt of Ruxton, Maryland. Just over a hundred items related to beer and brewing in the Smithsonian collection have been digitized.

“Brewing has a long and deep connection to our country’s history, and the museum’s collections explore the history of beer from the late 19th to early 20th centuries,” said John Gray, the director of the museum. “The support of the Brewers Association allows our staff to collect the more recent history, including the impact of small and independent craft brewers who continue to advance the U.S. beer culture and inspire brewers worldwide.”

The new staff beer historian will be working on that. Here is the full job posting (pdf):

Historian / Scholar
American Brewing History Initiative
IS-11 ($64,650 plus benefits)

The Smithsonian Food History project at the National Museum of American History, in Washington, DC, is seeking a professional historian / scholar to conduct archival and field research for a new initiative on American brewing history, with special emphasis on the craft industry. The position is located in the Division of Work and Industry and will be a three-year appointment. The successful candidate will have proven experience in scholarly research, organizing and conducting oral history interviews, writing for both scholarly and general audiences, and knowledge of material culture and archival materials. The candidate will work with members of the curatorial staff on collections work and develop content for a wide variety of programs and applications, including digital formats. Candidates with an advanced degree in American business, brewing, food, cultural, or similar specialization within history are encouraged to apply. Must be able to travel, work independently as well as within a team environment, to meet deadlines, and to communicate effectively with co-workers and the public.

So you have to have a solid grounding in scholarly research, not just beer research. Your degree doesn’t have to be in history per se, but it does have to be in a related field and you have to have experience using both archival and material resources in your research. As long as you have that background, all those years you’ve spent slaving over the minutiae of craft beers entirely of your own volition can finally pay off in more than just outré flavor adventures.

If this sounds like your dream job, send your CV, a cover letter, and names of three references to Abigail Karow at NMAHApplications@si.edu by August 10th, 2016.

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NYU student finds 12th c. brooch on Irish beach

July 31st, 2016

An American film student at New York University discovered a rare 12th century brooch during a field trip in Ireland earlier this month. McKenna McFadden was on a walking tour of Omey Island in Connemara, western Ireland, led by archaeologist Michael Gibbons when she spotted the back of a metal brooch while exploring rabbit burrows on the shore.

“When I first looked at it, I really thought nothing of it! It was really pretty and I thought someone had possibly dropped it,” [McFadden] recalled, not thinking that whoever dropped it did so centuries ago.

“I kept it with me until I caught up with Michael and he was very intrigued. He had me take him back to the site at which I found it. I didn’t fully realize how important the find was at the time. Now, I’m amazed and surprised and I’m very happy that I was able to place it in the hands of people who would appreciate it.”

A local radio personality took umbrage at an American making such a discovery in between stops on her bus tour of tourist traps. They worked it out with Ms. McFadden later after their listeners took them to task for being mean, but she didn’t get a chance to explain on the air that while it is her first time in Ireland, she’s gone quite a bit beyond the cheesy leprechaun-logo tour. McFadden is enrolled in NYU’s Summer in Dublin, a six-week program based at Trinity College, Dublin, in which students study Irish culture through multi-disciplinary classes in sociology, history, literature, Irish language, creative writing and faculty-led educational and cultural excursions like the one she was on when she stumbled on a 12th century kite brooch poking out of the sand.

The radio people went off on a goofy fantasy ramble about the great diplomatic incident that would ensue should McFadden have kept the brooch, but there was never any question of that. According to Ireland’s National Monuments Act, all archaeological objects found in Ireland belong to the Irish state. Anyone who makes an archaeological discovery must report it to the government or face a fine of up to 60,000 euros and five years in prison. Of course Connemara-born Michael Gibbons, a professional archaeologist with 30 years experience, was well aware of the legal requirements, and McFadden was just delighted to have found so beautiful and significant an archaeological treasure on her archaeology field trip to Omey Island.

They reported the piece to Galway city heritage officer Jim Higgins who identified it as a kite brooch from the 12th century. These types of pins were used to fasten cloaks and shawls 900 years ago. Only a handful of them have ever been found in Ireland. The brooch is now at the National Museum of Ireland where it will be studied and conserved.

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