Spitfire excavation suspended when human remains found

October 8th, 2015

An excavation to recover a Mark 1A Spitfire which crashed in the Cambridgeshire Fens during a training flight on November 22, 1940, was suspended when a fragment of human skeletal remains was found. The excavation began on Monday and was slated to last a week. Permission was only granted because the pilot’s remains were believed to have been recovered in the immediate aftermath of the crash. Before excavation can continue, the coroner must examine the remains and give the all clear.

Spitfire X4593 of the 266 Rhodesian Squadron Royal Air Force piloted by Harold Edwin Penketh was flying with other Spitfires over the fens when he suddenly broke formation and entered a precipitous dive. According to witnesses, the plane seemed to make a partial recover at around 2,000 feet above the surface, but it quickly turned back into the dive and crashed, hitting the ground at 300 miles per hour with its nose down and tail up. Pilot Officer Penketh was unable to deploy his parachute in time and was killed. He was 20 years old. A later investigation in the wake of the disaster determined that the cause was a physical failure of the airplane, possibly of the oxygen system. The RAF sent a recovery team who worked for a week to find Penketh’s body in the wreckage. The pilot’s remains were sent to his home in Brighton.

The exact location of the crash was lost over the years. It was rediscovered this August when archaeologists from Cranfield University Forensic Institute did a geophysical survey of the area. The Spitfire crashed in Holme Lode in the Great Fen, a waterlogged, peaty environment ideal for the preservation of organic materials. When it hit the ground it created a large crater that immediately began to fill with the water, so the unique preservative powers of peat were at work from the very beginning.

With the fenland water table rising and this year being the 75th anniversary of Battle of Britain (July 10th – October 31st, 1940), archaeologists were keen to recover whatever they could from the Spitfire as quickly as possible. Excavation began on Monday, October 5th, led by Oxford Archaeology East with the help of volunteers from the Great Fen Archaeology Group and from the Defence Archaeology Group, an exceptional initiative that teaches injured servicemen new professional skills in field archaeology. The volunteers used metal detectors around the crash site to locate any debris that may have been scattered in the crash. Every find was flagged and scanned so that a complete 3D model of the site can be made which will allow experts to better understand the angle and impact of the crash. The team hoped to recover key parts of the plane, like the its Rolls Royce Merlin engine, its armaments, that would add more information to the greater picture.

The peat was stripped in spits and on the second day the team uncovered the impact crater just over two feet under the surface. By the end of the day they had recovered some engine wiring, a piece of the fuel tank and the pilot’s headrest. On the third day they found ammunition, two more pieces of the fuel tank, part of the engine starter motor, the cover for the pilot’s headrest and part of the cockpit which was deliberately broken open by the RAF team who recovered P/O Penketh’s body. On day four they found the rest of the engine starter motor, one of the Spitfire’s lights, the pilot’s leather helmet in very good condition and the fragment of bone that immediately stopped all work.

The coroner has now given the go-ahead to continue excavation. Friday will be the last day of the dig.

The Oxford Archaeology Flickr page has a wonderful collection of photographs of the dig arranged in albums, one for each day of the excavation. You can also read a daily roundup of discoveries on the Oxford Archaeology website. A selection of finds will be on display at Holmewood Hall on Saturday, October 17th, and the dig is being filmed by the BBC for a program that will first air on November 8th, Remembrance Sunday.

Another hoard whose owner’s name is known

October 7th, 2015

Last month’s discovery of a hoard with a name scratched in the pot in Bulgaria was a first for me, but that’s just because I didn’t know about the hoard of Republican Roman silver denarii discovered in the 1960s in the archaeological site of Cosa, near modern-day Ansedonia in southern Tuscany.

Cosa was a Latin colonia founded in 273 B.C. on a hill overlooking the Tyrrhenian Sea. It was a small town of about 13 hectares enclosed by a wall built out of massive polygonal limestone blocks between 273 and 264 B.C. The wall was studded with 18 square towers and three gates which opened onto the main streets of the city. Cosa was designed on an octagonal grid system modified to accommodate the rollercoaster topography of the town: two peaks with a valley between. An arx (citadel) was built on the highest peak inside the walls. This was the religious zone whose most ancient temple was the Auguraculum where auspices were taken. Two other temples were built in the 3rd and 2nd centuries, dedicated to Jupiter and Mater Matuta. The temple of Jupiter was replaced in the second quarter of the 2nd century with the Capitolium, a temple dedicated to the Capitoline Triad (Jupiter, Juno, Minerva) modeled after the one in Rome.

From the Capitolium a broad street leads straight to the civic center of the town, a long rectangular piazza accessed by a monumental arch built around 170 B.C. and flanked on three sides by porticoes and surrounded by water channels. This is where you find Cosa’s main public buildings: the forum, the Comitium Curiae where the popular assembly met to vote, pass laws and hold court, the carcer or public prison, the Forum Piscarium where cisterns were built to hold fish for the city’s market. From 197 to 150 B.C., the forum saw a burst of development with the addition of eight commercial atria with shopfronts opening on the piazza, central pool and side rooms. A colonnaded basilica for judiciary use was also built during this period, as was a small temple possibly dedicated to Concordia.

The northwest sector of the city was the residential neighborhood. In the 3rd and 2nd centuries B.C., most of the houses were a standard size — one block each — with living space on a second storey and modest garden space behind, both floors surrounding a central atrium. About 20 of the 248 private homes were double the size. They were reserved for the decurions, the city senators. In the early 1st century A.D., larger, more luxurious homes were built next to the forum. They are characterized by fine mosaic floors and frescoed walls and an extensive garden. The house of Quintus Fulvius is one of these luxury homes.

Cosa was sacked around 70 B.C., possibly by Tyrrhenian pirates like the ones turned into dolphins by Dionysus when they tried to kidnap him. The town was rebuilt under Augustus Caesar and was occupied at least until the 3rd century. By the early 5th century, it was in ruins. Rutilius Claudius Namatianus, a poet of the late imperial era, mentioned it in the elegiac poem De Reditu Suo documenting his sea voyage home to Gaul from Rome in 416 A.D.:

Then we descry, all unguarded now, desolate Cosa’s ancient ruins and unsightly walls. ‘Tis with a qualm that I adduce mid serious things the comic reason for its downfall; but I am loath to suppress a laugh. The story runs that once upon a time the townsfolk were forced to migrate and left their homes behind because rats infested them! I’d sooner believe in losses suffered by the Pygmies’ infantry and in cranes leagued solemnly to fight their wars.

There is archaeological evidence — pottery, post-imperial construction — of a very reduced human presence in Cosa even after the urban legendary plague of rats, but even that stops by the 7th century at the latest.

The American Academy in Rome began excavating the ruins in 1948, reaching the larger homes in the mid-1960s. The domus had been partially reconstructed in the 1st century B.C. and two pottery fragments from that period were found with “Q. FVL.” inscribed on them, leading archaeologists to hypothesize that the owner of the pottery and the house it was found in was one Quintus Fulvius. The house became known as the House of the Treasure because the excavation unearthed a pot filled with 2,004 silver denarii from the Roman Republic buried in the pantry next to the kitchen.

The oldest coins in the hoard date to the end of the 2nd century B.C., but most of them date to the first third of the 1st century B.C. with the newest ones from 74-72 B.C. They’re in exceptional condition, almost uncirculated, so they must have been buried soon after they were struck. That suggests they went into the ground around 70 B.C., a key date for the town of Cosa. It seems Quintus was stashing his savings to keep them out of pirate hands before fleeing the city, only he never returned to dig them back up.

The amount of money was significant, but still relatively small potatoes compared to the vast sums that passed through the hands of Rome’s richest citizens. Cornelius Nepos reports that the wealthy but frugal Roman banker Titus Pomponius Atticus (110 – 32 B.C.), a close friend of Cicero’s, spent 187.5 denarii a day to keep his household running. A Roman legionary in the late Republic made 120 denarii. A family of four would spend 90 denarii a year on food. A hundred years later in Pompeii just before the eruption a slave cost 625 denarii and a kilo of bread cost 1/8 of a denarius. Savings clearly went a lot further in Cosa than in the big city.

The American Academy in Rome collaborated with the Superintendency for Archaeological Heritage of Tuscany to build an archaeological museum on the site in 1981. The Archaeological Museum of Cosa exhibits the most significant finds excavated from the public buildings, private homes, the port and the necropolis outside the city walls, but until September 20th of this year, the coin hoard was never put on display. It’s a security issue. This handsome masonry structure that could pass for a domus if you squint at it suits its ancient setting very well, but there’s no budget here for impenetrable glass cases, high tech security systems and 24 hour guards. Quintus’ kept his money safe for 2,000 years by burying it in the pantry; the museum is not about to break that streak and hand over his treasure to modern pirates. It does plan to create replicas, however, that will be exhibited alongside the model of Quintus’ home just like the real coins were last month.

Excavations of the site picked up again in 2013 after a long hiatus, and this time digitization is a priority. An international archaeological team is not only documenting the dig and blogging about it with infectious enthusiasm, but they’ve also photographed the entire museum collection and laser scanned a selection of artifacts to create 3D virtual models of them. They’ve also created an ambitious 3D virtual site tour so that people from all over the world can be super jealous of their fascinating work in paradisiacal surroundings.

Tintin drawing earns $1.23 million at Hong Kong auction

October 6th, 2015

A rare original drawing of Tintin by Belgian cartoonist Georges Prosper Remi, better known as Hergé, has sold at auction in Hong Kong for $1.23 million. The India ink and gouache drawing depicts Tintin and his dog Snowy riding in a rickshaw on the streets of Shanghai while a police officer keeps a watchful eye on them. It’s the third of five single-page drawings included as color plates, the first color elements in a Tintin book, in the first edition of The Blue Lotus, published in 1936 by Casterman. The drawings from this original Casterman edition are highly prized by collectors because The Blue Lotus is considered the first masterpiece of the Hergé oeuvre. In fact, every other surviving original drawing from The Blue Lotus is in a museum; this is the only one in private hands.

It’s not a record for Tintin art. That was set in May of last year when a double page of Tintin and Snowy vignettes sold for $3,434,908. It’s not even runner-up. That title goes to the original cover art of Tintin in America which sold in 2012 for $1.6 million. It is arguably a more historically significant piece, however, because Hergé included actual historic events in The Blue Lotus that had happened only five years before the publication of the volume, and because of how thoroughly researched this story was compared to his earlier outings.

When Georges Remi first began drawing Tintin comics in 1929, they were serialized in a newspaper called Le Petit Vingtième (“The Little Twentieth”). It was the children’s supplement to Le Vingtième Siècle (“The Twentieth Century”), a conservative Catholic newspaper published in Brussels whose editor, Abbé Norbert Wallez, was an outspoken nationalist, fascist fan of Mussolini. He was so ultraconservative that in 1940 he supported a Belgian political party that embraced Nazi occupation with open arms and after the war was tried and convicted of collaboration. Wallez’ ideological positions are what drove the first three volumes of Tintin. He saw Le Petit Vingtième and Hergé’s dashing young reporter as propaganda tools to spread his anti-communist, colonialist and anti-consumerist message to the youth of Belgium.

Wallez told Hergé what to write starting with Tintin in the Land of the Soviets (spoiler: the Soviets are bad), published in serialized form in 1929 and 1930, and followed by Tintin in the Congo (spoiler: the Congolese need white Belgian daddies to take care of them like the childish simpletons they are), published in 1930 and 1931. For the Tintin’s third outing, Hergé got to pick his own setting — the United States — but Wallez insisted he treat the subject with the paper’s far-right agenda which at the time held American-style capitalism, consumerism and increasingly mechanized industry to be as dangerous to the Belgian way of life as Soviet collectivism. Hergé wanted to focus on Native Americans, depicting their exploitation and rejecting the violent savage stereotype while still managing to make them look like gullible marks. Wallez won the argument, and most of the volume is about Al Capone, gangsterism and the literal meat-grinder of American industry with just a subplot about a Blackfoot tribe getting tricked into trying to kill our hero.

All three of these stories are problematic, to put it mildly, with the last two still causing waves today because of the stereotypical depiction of indigenous peoples. Tintin in the Congo was recently subject to a lawsuit because of its painfully racist images of the Congolese, and Tintin in America caused an uproar in Canada just a few months ago.

The fourth book, Cigars of the Pharaoh wasn’t a single pre-planned story, but rather part of a long mystery adventure à la Agatha Christie serialized as The Adventures of Tintin, Reporter, in the Orient starting in December of 1932. It was divided into two books for publication by Casterman, Cigars of the Pharaoh and The Blue Lotus. While Hergé had done some research for Tintin in America — read an ethnographic compendium of Indian tribes, visited a museum, meticulously copied Blackfoot garments from period photographs — The Blue Lotus was a whole new kettle of fish.

Chinese characters had cameos in Soviets as torturers and in America as would-be Snowy eaters, and a certain Abbot Léon Gosset wanted to stop Hergé from resorting to the same ugly stereotypes in a story set in China. He was a chaplain at the Catholic University of Louvain who had Chinese students under his tutelage. Since the students were made to read Le Petit Vingtième in class, Gosset reached out to Hergé asking him to maybe meet an actual Chinese person and learn something before tackling the subject.

Hergé was game, and Gosset arranged for him to meet two of his students, one of whom, Zhang Chongren, introduced Hergé to the traditional Chinese art and calligraphy that would influence the Belgian artist for the rest of his life. Zhang contributed some of his own artwork to The Blue Lotus, and Hergé believed he was so important a contributor that he should share credit as co-author. (Casterman disagreed, obviously. Hergé snuck Zhang’s name in several panels on shop signs.) Hergé also contacted scholars of Chinese history, read books by contemporary Chinese authors and learned about the Japanese invasion of Manchuria from the Chinese perspective which would become a key plot point in The Blue Lotus.

The end-result was an indictment of European cluelessness about and interference in China and of the Japanese occupation. It infuriated the Japanese, who are depicted as the bucktoothed bullies that would become so familiar in American propaganda during World War II, nearly causing a diplomatic incident. The Chinese, on the other hand, accustomed to being the ones depicted as opium-addled brutes in Western fiction and media, loved it. Through his wife, Chiang Kai-shek invited Hergé to visit China as his guest in 1939, but the war made it in impossible.

This history is part of the reason the Paris auction house Artcurial chose the drawing from The Blue Lotus for its first Hong Kong sale, because it has a particular appeal to Chinese buyers.

Original drawings of Nazi booby trap bombs found

October 5th, 2015

In 2005, the British National Archives released drawings and photographs of Nazi bombs disguised as everyday objects that had been collected by agents of the security service MI5 during World War II. The quotidian objects packed with hidden explosive devices would not be out of place in an episode of Get Smart: chocolate bars, Thermos flasks, cans of motor oil, canned peas, cough drops, lumps of coal, a shoe bomb, and my personal favorite, a tin of Smedley’s English red dessert plums.

(The Germans weren’t the only ones trying to sabotage the enemy with disguised explosives. The British can boast booby-trapped Chianti bottles with the bomb obscured by the traditional straw basket on the bottom then topped with wine, exploding beets and exploding cow excrement.)

MI5 agents intercepted the concealment devices from known Nazi spies and saboteurs, among them Herbert Heinz Tributh, a gymnast from German South-West Africa tasked with blowing up Buckingham Palace, English double agent Eddie “Zigzag” Chapman and French collaborationist Guy Vissault de Coëtlogon. Tributh and his two co-conspirators were caught wandering lost around County Cork Ireland asking random strangers if they knew anybody in the IRA. (Just because they were Nazi spies on a mission to bomb Buckingham Palace doesn’t mean they were any good at it. In their defense, apparently they only got one day of training.) When captured they were carrying four cans of peas packed with explosives.

MI5 was a shoestring operation in those days and its explosives and counter-sabotage unit B1C had exactly three employees: the head Victor Rothschild, scion of the great banking family and 3rd Baron Rothschild, his secretary and future wife Teresa Georgina Mayor, and police detective inspector Donald Fish. None of them were capable of drawing clear and recognizable diagrams of the explosive devices that could be used to train operatives on how to defused then safely. Donald Fish knew someone who could, however: his son, Laurence Fish, a self-taught graphic artist who had worked in advertising before the war.

Rothschild commissioned Laurence Fish to draw the intercepted devices. The letters Rothschild wrote asking Fish to draw, in one now-famous example, an explosive chocolate bar using an operative’s rough sketch as his sole guide, have survived.

Rothschild then asked artist Laurence Fish to draw poster-sized images of the chocolate to warn the public to be on the lookout for the bars.

“I wonder if you could do a drawing for me of an explosive slab of chocolate,” the letter, written from a secret London bunker and addressed to Fish read. “We have received information that the enemy are using pound slabs of chocolate which are made of steel with a very thin covering of real chocolate.”

He continued, “Inside there is high explosive and some form of delay mechanism… When the piece of chocolate is pulled sharply, the canvas is also pulled and this initiates the mechanism.”

Laurence drew the chocolate bomb and many more explosive devices. He developed a warm and friendly relationship with Rothschild and kept those commission letters for decades, hidden away in his papers. They were only rediscovered in 2009 after Laurence’s death when his widow Jean Bray was looking through his things.

Of the original drawings, however, no trace remained. Copies were part of the 2005 release, but the hand-drawn diagrams Fish had made were thought to be gone forever. This summer, Victoria Rothschild Gray found more than two dozen of Laurence Fish’s drawings in a chest of drawers in Rushbrooke Hall, the Rothschild estate in Suffolk, England, while cleaning out the house. (It was put on the market by Victoria’s son James, recently wed to hotel heiress Nicki Hilton, in April.) Victoria contacted Jean Bray to let her know of the marvelous find and arranged to give her her husband’s drawings.

There are 25 drawings ranging in size from A4, 8.27 x 11.69 inches (the standard page size in Europe), to A1 which is quite large at 11.69 x 16.53 inches. Bray is thrilled to discover they weren’t destroyed during the war. She’s keeping them in her husband’s studio for now, but she would like them to go to a museum or archive which will honor her husband’s clean and detailed freehand graphics and the truth-is-stranger-than-fiction wartime reality they depict.

Crowds wait 10 hours to spend minutes with “China’s Mona Lisa”

October 4th, 2015

Along the River During the Qingming Festival is a 12th century painted handscroll by Song Dynasty artist Zhang Zeduan (1085–1145) which is widely considered the greatest painting in China. Some scholars have dubbed it “China’s Mona Lisa,” because of its immense cultural hold, but artistically it has nothing in common with Renaissance portraiture.

The almost monochrome (there are some pops of green here and there) ink-on-silk scroll is 17 feet wide and just 10 inches high and depicts the vignettes of exuberant life on the Bian River, which runs through Kaifeng, capital of the Northern Song dynasty, during the Qingming Festival. Originally meant to unscrolled slowly by the viewer to enjoy an arm’s width at a time, from right to left, the painting moves from countryside to city and people change with it. Farmers tend their crops and men load their donkeys with wood outside the city so that they can sell it inside the city. Then the peaceful bucolic pursuits shift to hectic, population-dense urban environment bustling with activity: peddlers hawk their wares, fortune tellers tell fortunes, people buy food from street vendors or visit an elegant two-storey tavern, a long-range rice boat transports its cargo on the river. There are 814 people, almost all of them men, 28 different boats, 60 animals (livestock of various sorts), 30 buildings, 20 carriages and eight sedan chairs in the painting.

What there isn’t is any religious activity. The Qingming Festival, held in early spring, is dedicated to the worship of ancestors. People sweep their ancestral tombs and clean temples during the festival, but none of that is overtly present in the painting. The only hint of it is a group of people with willow brooms in a sedan chair who could conceivably have just come from sweeping their ancestors’ graves. There’s debate whether the Chinese title of the work, Qingming Shanghe Tu, actually refers to the festival. The scenes don’t match 12th century chronicles describing the city during the festival at all. “Shaghe tu” means “going along the river picture” but “Qingming” on its own means “clear-bright.” There are several possible interpretations not involving the festival.

In any case, the aim of the painting is to display the prosperity and peace. Most every stratum of society is represented except for the not-so-picturesque beggars, criminals and slum-dwellers. It’s not known exactly when Zhang Zeduan painted it, but if it was after the overthrow of the Northern Song Dynasty by the Jin in 1127, the artist was likely depicting an idealized view of the good ol’ days before Kaifeng was sacked by Jin armies and the emperor captured. Not that it’s literally Kaifeng in the painting. There are no recognizable landmarks, so it could be an ideal city from an ideal time.

The painting has been famous and coveted for 800 years. The first recorded time of many that it was stolen from the imperial collection was in the 1340s and for centuries afterwards emperors would find the stolen masterpiece when estates were confiscated from rich, troublesome nobles. There are more than one hundred seals and colophons (provenance notes) from different owners on the scroll. The earliest is by Zhang Zhu, a Jin Dynasty official, and dates to 1186.

Along the River During the Qingming Festival was a great favorite of the last emperor, Pu Yi, who took it with him when he was expelled from the Forbidden City in 1924. When the Soviet army captured him in 1945 as he attempted to flee the Japanese puppet state of Manchukuo of which he nominally ruled, Pu Yi had the painting on him. The Soviets put it in a bank in northern China where it remained until 1950 when it was moved to a local museum. Eventually it made its way back to the Forbidden City, just as it always had, this time to the Palace Museum where scholars announced its rediscovery in 1954.

It has been there ever since, but is rarely displayed because of how fragile and precious it is. It last saw light at the Tokyo National Museum in 2012. Before then it went to Hong Kong in 2007 to take part in a nakedly nationalistic exhibition of China’s greatest artistic masterpieces on the occasion of the 10th anniversary of Britain’s return of the island to China. The last time it was on display in Beijing was 2005 in honor of the museum’s 80th anniversary. Now it’s on display again in the Palace Museum for the 90th anniversary, and there are lines a thousand people long waiting to see the iconic masterpiece an hour before the museum opens.

“There’s been so much hype about this painting, so I decided to come early to check it out myself,” said Jacqueline Zhang, 25, who works at a bank in Beijing and came at 5 a.m. to secure a place at the head of the line. She added, “This just shows how easily excited Chinese people can get.”

Past exhibitions of the scroll have attracted huge crowds, but the heightened fervor these days comes as the term “wenhua,” or culture, and the desire to appear cultured have become increasingly prominent in China.

“Now that people have money and social status, they want to show other people that they understand culture,” said Chen Yimo, an expert in Chinese calligraphy and painting.

What a change from the Eliminating the Four Olds. It’s like The Cultural Revolution 2: The Re-Enculturing.

Here’s the whole scroll at a satisfyingly high resolution of more than 38,000 pixels wide. I recommend slowly scrolling from right to left, taking in all the details of dress, architecture, animals (Bactrian camels ftw), ship design, food, to experience the progression the way it was meant to be experienced.

Michigan soybean farmer digs up mammoth bones

October 3rd, 2015

Soybean farmer Jim Bristle was digging in a field in Lima Township, 10 miles southwest of Ann Arbor, Michigan, when he came across what he thought was an old bent fencepost. It was not a fencepost. It was a mammoth bone. When he realized it was a bone very much larger than any cow’s, Bristle contacted the University of Michigan on Tuesday, September 29th. Wednesday evening, Professor Dan Fisher, director of the University of Michigan’s Museum of Paleontology, inspected the bone and the pit where it found. By Thursday morning he had discovered teeth that identified the bones as belonging to a mammoth that roamed the vegetation rich tundra of Michigan between 15,000 and 11,700 years ago.

That same day Fisher was able to assemble a team of U-M graduate students with lightning speed, plus volunteers like excavator Jamie Bollinger who brought his own heavy lifting machinery to aid in the endeavor. They dug from 9:00 AM until sunset and were able to recover 20% of the mammoth’s bones: a dramatic skull with two large tusks still attached, the jaw, more teeth, the pelvis, parts of both shoulder blades, one kneecap and multiple ribs and vertebrae. The skull and tusks (which had zip ties all along their length to keep the fragile ivory from breaking off in shards) were raised in one piece and loaded onto a flatbed truck for transportation to the University of Michigan with the rest of the bones.

The team also found a small stone flake (a lithic) next to one of the tusks and three basketball-sized boulders in the pit next to the skull. Fisher thinks the mammoth was killed by humans and then stored in a pond that was once on the site, the pre-historic version of refrigeration. The three boulders were used to weight down the carcass. The lithic was broken off a sharp flint knife used to butcher the animal. Fisher has seen the pond preservation method in other prehistoric sites in the region. Only examination of the cleaned bones can confirm or deny this hypothesis. If the mammoth was butchered by people, there will be tell-tale cut marks on the bone.

Preliminary examinations indicate the animal was an adult male around 40 to 50 years old that stood about 10 feet high at the shoulders. It appears to be a hybrid of a woolly mammoth and a Columbian mammoth, a very rare find. According to Fisher, skeletal remains of about 300 mastodons and 30 mammoths have been unearthed in Michigan, but only 10 of the mammoths were as complete as this one. He suspects there are more bones to found down there too. Alas, they won’t be coming up anytime soon because Bristle only allowed the one day of excavation before refilling the pit. He was only digging in the first place to make way for the lift station of a new natural gas line and the discovery has not altered his plans.

Professor Fisher hopes Jim Bristle will donate the bones to the institution.

“It’s really the landowner’s call now,” [Fisher] said, explaining that Bristle now owns the bones. Normally, Fisher explained, the university wouldn’t have put resources into excavating remains without some reassurance that they’d be donated for research. But because these were under such a time crunch, Fisher and his colleagues decided to swoop in. He said on Friday that Bristle has yet to give a verdict on the fate of the bones.

“To really make conclusions about these bones and what they mean, we have to make the evidence available for other scientists to study, too,” Fisher said. “And we can’t do that without long-term access to the material.”

Mummification more widespread in Bronze Age Britain

October 2nd, 2015

A new study by the University of Sheffield has found new evidence that mummification may have been more widespread in Bronze Age Britain than previously realized. The damp climate is not conducive to the preservation of soft tissues, so unless a body was preserved in an aerobic environment like a peat bog, trying to figure out if a skeletonized body was once mummified is a challenge. Earlier studies have found a key difference between the bones of bodies that were mummified and those that never were: the bacteria that cause decomposition of soft tissues also degrade bone, gnawing on the proteins in the skeleton creating microscopic tunnels like termites in wood. The bones of mummified bodies show little or no sign of this kind of damage from putrefactive bacteria.

The study undertook to develop a methodology that would be able to distinguish mummified remains when only bones have survived. The research team did a microscopic analysis of the bones (mostly femurs) of 301 individuals from 25 archaeological sites in the UK. Thirty-four of the 301 dated to the Bronze Age. The samples were compared to a mummy from Yemen and one found in an Irish peat bog. Half of them had tell-tale indicators of putrefactive erosion; 16 of them had either no damage or very little.

Their examinations revealed that both the Yemeni and Irish mummies showed limited levels of bacterial bioerosion within the bone and therefore established that the skeletons found in the Outer Hebrides as well as other sites across Britain display levels of preservation that are consistent with mummification.

The research team also found that the preservation of Bronze Age skeletons at various sites throughout the UK is different to the preservation of bones dating to all other prehistoric and historic periods, which are generally consistent with natural decomposition. Furthermore, the Sheffield-led researchers also found that Bronze Age Britons may have used a variety of techniques to mummify their dead.

[Study lead researcher] Dr Booth added, “Our research shows that smoking over a fire and purposeful burial within a peat bog are among some of the techniques ancient Britons may have used to mummify their dead. Other techniques could have included evisceration, in which organs were removed shortly after death.”

This is the first study to use microscopic analysis to identify funerary practices in the bone itself, and it opens up a world of possibilities in understanding rituals that could previously only be discovered from rare soft tissue survivals.

“The idea that British and potentially European Bronze Age communities invested resources in mummifying and curating a proportion of their dead fundamentally alters our perceptions of funerary ritual and belief in this period.”

The research also demonstrates that funerary rituals that we may now regard as exotic, novel and even bizarre were practised commonly for hundreds of years by our predecessors.

Researchers hope the new technology can be used to identify cultures that mummified their dead not just in the UK but in Europe as well.

3 Civil War cannons raised from Pee Dee River

October 1st, 2015

A team of archaeologists from the University of South Carolina have raised three Civil War cannons from the Pee Dee River in Mars Bluff, South Carolina. The cannons were the armament of the Confederate gunboat CSS Pee Dee which launched in January of 1865 and was deliberately scuttled by her crew just a month later when defeat seemed imminent. With the impending arrival of General William Tecumseh Sherman’s army fresh from putting Columbia to the torch, the crew jettisoned the ship’s guns into the river, dismantled the boat, set it on fire and set it adrift down the river.

The three cannons are two Brooke rifles, a 6.4-inch and a 7-inch, and a 9-inch Dahlgren smoothbore which was originally a Union weapon. The cannon was salvaged from the wreck of the USS Southfield after it was sunk by the formidable Confederate ironclad ram CSS Albemarle during the Battle of Plymouth on the Roanoke River in Plymouth, North Carolina, on April 19th, 1864. The Albermarle had been commissioned literally two days earlier and would cut a deadly swath through the Union Navy until she was brought down in October of 1864 by Lieutenant William B. Cushing in a raid so daring it belongs in a Dumas novel.

The Southfield‘s Dahlgren was transported by train to the Mars Bluff Naval Yard where it was mounted on the Pee Dee. It wasn’t mounted on a traditional carriage, however, which one of the reasons the cannons are of particular historical significance. All three of the Pee Dee‘s guns were swivel mounted so they could turn a full 360 degrees. The Pee Dee was the only ship ever built at the Mars Bluff Naval Yard. The Confederacy had no navy when the war began. The naval yard was one of a few constructed inland, safe from Union interference, with the aim of producing vessels that could harry the Union blockade choking Confederate shipping.

Two of the guns, the 6.4-inch Brooke and the Dahlgren, were discovered in 1995 and 2006 by amateur diver Bob Butler of the Pee Dee Research and Recovery Team. The wreck itself was found in 2010 by the University of South Carolina’s Maritime Research Division. It turns out to have caught on the first bend of the river, but because of its destruction and drifting, the debris field is spread over a great deal of the river and several parts of the ship — the propellers, the boilers — have been salvaged by locals over the decades.

The third cannon was finally located in 2012. Unlike the other guns which were found in alignment close to the riverbank, the 7-inch Brooke was deeper in the water. It was discovered thanks to adjacent landowners Dutton and Rufus Perdue who took advantage of extreme low water levels which had exposed two piling stumps to search the river with metal detectors. They found a large anomaly and alerted the University team. Although they initially hoped to raise the cannons in late 2013, it took another two years for everything to get sorted out, so this has been a long time in coming.

The weapons appear to be in very good condition. They’ve been softly treated by the fresh water of the Pee Dee and retain identification markers like serial numbers and foundry marks. The cannons have a new home: the Warren Lasch Conservation Center in North Charleston where the CSS Hunley submarine is being conserved. After an estimate two-year process of stabilization and conservation, the cannons will be put on display in the Florence County Museum.

Plaster casts of Pompeii given first CAT scans

September 30th, 2015

CAT scans on 30 of the recently restored plaster casts of people killed in the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 A.D. have found that Pompeiians had far better teeth than their modern counterparts. The scans showed the victims’ teeth were in excellent condition (the orthodontist who analyzed the scans called their teeth “perfect”) without a single cavity among them. There was some evidence of wear, but no tooth decay whatsoever.

The sample is too small to draw broad conclusions about the dental health of the overall population of the city, but that they ate healthy high-fiber foods low in fat and sugar is in keeping with what we know of their diet from previous poop studies. There’s another reason for their fine teeth: samples of Pompeii’s water and air found high levels of fluoride. Volcanic rocks and hot springs are high in fluorine which dissolves into water as fluoride, the same thing 25 countries deliberately add to their tap water for public dental health purposes.

While the casts have been X-rayed before, this is the first time any of them have been CAT scanned. One of the reasons for that is that the density of the plaster varies — the oldest of it dates to the 19th century, plus layers from subsequent restorations — but it can be as dense as bone. People with our squishy outsides are comparatively easy to scan, but add a thick plaster exoskeleton and it gets tricky. The archaeological team was able to borrow a 16-layer scanner from Philips SpA Healthcare that allowed them to see through the plaster to the bones in great detail. The scanner is superfast, taking only 100 seconds for a full body scan, and is able to block distortions to the images caused by metal elements. It was designed for people with prosthetics or implanted devices. The dead of Pompeii don’t have titanium hips and pacemakers, but metal pieces were added to some of the casts to reinforce the plaster structure.

The aperture of the scanner is just 70 cm (28 inches), so they had to select smaller casts that would fit all the way through, or limit the scan to the head and chest. The 30 casts of men, women and one child, plus two more casts of animals (a dog and a pig or wild boar) were CAT scanned. The mother holding her child discovered under the staircase in the House of the Golden Bracelet, for example, could not be scanned, but a slighter older child, probably a boy, found a few yards away from the mother was small enough to be fully scanned. The cast of the child contained a full skeleton. The length of femur established that the child was between two and three years old at time of death. A bump on the sternum previously thought to be a knot has now been identified as a fibula, probably gold, a baby version of the heavy gold bracelet found on his mother’s wrist which gave the house its name.

The scans also found fractured cranial bones, indicating that some of the deaths believed to have been caused by asphyxia from volcanic gases were in fact the result of victims being struck hard on the head by falling roof tiles or rocks.

Another fascinating find was actually the lack of a find. The cast of a woman thought from her silhouette to have been pregnant at the time of her death is empty. The CAT scan found no fetal bones and no adult bones. This is an artifact from the 19th century when some of the early casts were done after the skeletal remains were removed, possibly for ethical or religious reasons. One of the most iconic casts, the dog writhing on its back from the House of Orpheus, is also completely devoid of bones and it’s unlikely they would have been removed out of respect for the dead.

The analysis of the scans is still in the beginning stages so we’ll hear more about this project as it progresses. They have collected sufficient data to create 3D virtual models that will not only provide invaluable information about the lives and deaths of the people of Pompeii, but also about the plaster itself which will be of great aid in future conservation decisions. The team is planning to create a database of the 3D models so scholars around the world have access to them.

Erebus summer dive season goes swimmingly

September 29th, 2015

Parks Canada‘s Underwater Archaeology Team has more than doubled the dive time on the wreck of the HMS Erebus thanks to an unexpected bout of good weather this summer. Divers explored the wreck from August 28th to September 10th, logging a total of 100 dives and 109 hours underwater. The excellent visibility and comparative warmth allowed them to remove the kelp from the full 30-meter (98-foot) length of the ship. With the kelp gone, the team was able to document the structure of the ship, identify the areas damaged by ice, record the debris field surrounding it and fully survey the upper deck. Divers were also able photograph all sides of the ship and thread small cameras through openings in the deck to get a look at what’s inside.

Using reference points and with lines stretched between them, the team took precise measurements to draw up a complete site plan of the wreck. They then noted the location of every new artifact revealed by the removal of the kelp. They selected a total of 39 objects to recover from the ship after they were carefully documented in situ. When the good weather ran out and a fierce Arctic hit Queen Maud Gulf, those precise measurements and the guide lines enabled the divers to locate the artifacts in the murky water.

Among the recovered artifacts are a piece of the ship’s wheel, a sword hilt, a leather boot, a belt plate and a Blue Willow pattern dinner plate. They are in good condition but require very careful conservation. They are being sent to the Parks Canada conservation labs in Ottawa where they will be kept wet and in cold storage while the objects are analyzed for their individual conservation needs.

Parks Canada has worked closely with local Inuit fist when searching for the wreck and in ongoing researching. Inuit tradition provided key information leading to the discovery of the Erebus, and the group of objects found on the upper deck is another confirmation of the accuracy of Inuit oral history about the wreck. The account handed down through the generations tells that the last Inuit to visit the ship before it sank assembled a number of belongings on the upper deck before leaving.

One of Parks Canada’s Inuit partners in the study of this history, Inuit oral historian Louie Kamookak, visited the site and performed a traditional blessing in honor of his ancestors and of the men who died on Sir John Franklin’s doomed expedition. Kamookak said about the visit: “It was a great honour to be there and do a ceremony in respect to my ancestors for their knowledge and wisdom that have played a valuable role in what we all have achieved.”

The success of this season’s dive has mapped out the next steps the team will take. The bow is almost entirely intact, stable enough that divers in future seasons should be able to swim right into it. Where the structure has been too damaged by ice and time, it will have to be reinforced before any divers attempt to go inside. There is no rush; this is a long-term project. Archaeologists expect the full exploration of the wreck will take at least five years. Meanwhile, the search for the Erebus‘ companion ship, the Terror, continues.

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