Happy belated Sigillaria!

December 24th, 2013

This is going to be a shamelessly short entry due to the yearly flurry of present and nog-related activities. Thankfully, the University of Reading has done all the work for me. Classics professor Dr. Matthew Nicholls, developer of Virtual Rome, a digital model of the ancient city, has compiled a neat rundown of the ancient sources on the Roman festival of Sigillaria. Held on December 23rd, Sigillaria was the culmination of a week of Saturnalia celebrations, a day of gift-giving and quaffing the questionable wine combinations that Romans were so fond of.

Quality of presents varied enormously. The traditional present for the Saturnalia was some nuts – not unlike old fashioned handful of walnuts in a Christmas stocking. Martial mentions ‘gifts given and received’ some of which sound rather familiar.

“Fish-sauce, jars of honey, bottles of wine, toothpicks, a pencil case, perfume, a flask encased in wicker-work and clothing – even an item that sounds like an ugly but warm Christmas sweater…a ‘shaggy nursling of a weaver on the Seine, a barbarian garment … a thing uncouth but not to be despised in cold December … that searching cold may not pass into your limbs … you will laugh at rain and winds, clothed in this gift’.

Uncouth compared to a toga, perhaps, but surely no worse than a tunic, albeit a fuzzy one. Besides, if it comes from the a weaver on the banks of the Seine, that makes it couture by default. Anyway it’s the thought that counts, right? Right!

“It’s warming to hear that the festive spirit was alive 2000 years ago. Martial tells us that the quality of a friendship can’t be measured by the value of the gifts, and even tells recipients of his cheap presents that he’s been ‘mean’ to save them the expense of buying something expensive in return (Ep. 5.59: ‘people who give much, want to receive much in return’). Simple presents were a token of friendship.

In Epigrams Book 13 and Book 14, Martial makes long lists of what presents to give during the winter festival. The range is vast, from knives to hatchets to nuts to toothpicks to letter-writing parchment to a golden hair pin to pomatum, a hair pomade (spot the etymology) the Germans used to redden their barbarous locks. That’s not the only hair dye on the list either. There are plenty of items Martial would have given his friends that we give today.

Then there’s all the food. Did you put barley water and large-headed leeks under your tree for the kiddies this year? If you did, I hope you survive to tell the tale.

Happy belated Sigillaria, all!

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Thousand-year-old trepanned skulls of the Andes

December 23rd, 2013

UC Santa Barbara archaeologists excavating the south-central Andean province of Andahuaylas, Peru, have unearthed the remains of 32 people whose skulls bear the tell-tale signs of 45 different trepanations. Nine out of the 32 had more than one hole drilled or cut into their skulls. The burials date to the Late Intermediate Period (ca. 1,000-1,250 A.D.), a time of great upheaval following the collapse of the Wari Empire.

“For about 400 years, from 600 to 1000 AD, the area where I work — the Andahuaylas — was living as a prosperous province within an enigmatic empire known as the Wari,” [UC Santa Barbara bioarchaeologist Danielle Kurin] said. “For reasons still unknown, the empire suddenly collapsed.” And the collapse of civilization, she noted, brings a lot of problems.

“But it is precisely during times of collapse that we see people’s resilience and moxie coming to the fore,” Kurin continued. “In the same way that new types of bullet wounds from the Civil War resulted in the development of better glass eyes, the same way IED’s are propelling research in prosthetics in the military today, so, too, did these people in Peru employ trepanation to cope with new challenges like violence, disease and depravation 1,000 years ago.”

Earlier studies have found that trepanation was frequently used in response to blunt force wounds. One noted that holes were drilled over or next radiating fractures from trauma in 44% of cases, and that figure may be low because the trepanation could easily obscure the evidence of blunt force trauma if the damaged bone was all removed. It follows, therefore, that times of conflict would see an increase in cranial surgery simply because there are more wounds to be treated.

That’s not to say that there blunt trauma was the only condition trepanation was prescribed for. Any cranial affliction from an infection to swelling to a persistent headache could be dealt with via skull drilling surgery. Not everyone was a candidate, however. There was a cultural taboo in the Andahuaylas against trepanning the skulls of women and children. Out of the 32 skulls found, 25 of them are male and only three female (there are four adults whose gender could not be established.)

The skulls Kurin’s team found displayed a variety of different trepanation techniques: scraping, cutting and hand drilling. In some cases they were administered post-mortem and are clearly experiments just like cadaver studies in med schools today.

“As bioarchaeologists, we can tell that they’re experimenting on recently dead bodies because we can measure the location and depths of the holes they’re drilling,” [Kurin] continued. “In one example, each hole is drilled a little deeper than the last. So you can imagine a guy in his prehistoric Peruvian medical school practicing with his hand drill to know how many times he needs to turn it to nimbly and accurately penetrate the thickness of a skull.”

It’s a fascinating picture:

The top inset photograph is of the side of the skull where a previous trepanation had been successful enough to allow bone regrowth. So this fellow had it done, it worked for at least a time, then when he died he left his body to science (or science just took it) and became a drill depth tester.

A mummified skull provided a glimpse into the treatment. It has a scraped trepanation on the posterior right parietal bone that was in the process of healing at the time of death. This area has no long hair, unlike the rest of the scalp, and under a microscope it looks cleanly cut. The fellow shaved or was shaved to keep the wound site clean and free of infection. He also has a small second hole, this one bored into the bone, on his forehead. It’s in an area associated with migraine pain, just the kind of thing you might to drill a hole in your skull to treat. There is no post-surgical bone growth, so either the patient did not survive the surgery or he too was a port-mortem experiment. There are, however, the remains of a dark substance over the bore hole, a thick sludge with a finger print embedded in it. Archaeologists believe it may be the leftovers of an herbal poultice.

The group of skulls has already proven a treasure trove of information, and will likely yield more in the years to come. It is the largest well-contextualized collection of trepanned skulls in the world. There are plenty of holey crania in museums and institutions, but they were gathered a century ago under conditions that would make any archaeologist today shudder. There is little information about the sites where they were discovered and all-important contextual issues weren’t investigated or recorded.

But thanks to Kurin’s careful archaeological excavation of intact tombs and methodical analysis of the human skeletons and mummies buried therein, she knows exactly where, when and how the remains she found were buried, as well as who and what was buried with them. She used radiocarbon dating and insect casings to determine how long the bodies were left out before they skeletonized or were mummified, and multi-isotopic testing to reconstruct what they ate and where they were born. “That gives us a lot more information,” she said.

“These ancient people can’t speak to us directly, but they do give us information that allows us to reconstruct some aspect of their lives and their deaths and even what happened after they died,” she continued. “Importantly, we shouldn’t look at a state of collapse as the beginning of a ‘dark age,’ but rather view it as an era that breeds resilience and foments stunning innovation within the population.”

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Terrifying new facial reconstruction of Robespierre

December 22nd, 2013

Philippe Charlier, forensic pathologist and indefatigable researcher of historical medical conundrums, and Philippe Froesch, facial reconstruction specialist with Visual Forensic in Barcelona, Spain, have created an intense facial reconstruction of French Revolutionary leader Maximilien de Robespierre. The main source for the image is a plaster copy of a death mask Madame Tussaud claimed* to have made from his decapitated head after he was guillotined on July 28th, 1794.

Froesch used a hand-held scanner to create a 3D computer model of the face. He then added details to the smooth-faced model, like the more than 100 pockmarks caused by a bad case of smallpox he suffered 30 years before his death when he was a boy of six. The eyes were a particular challenge because the closed eyelids didn’t leave an impression in the plaster so they were drawn on. Using an FBI technique that allowed him to calculate the eye size and position from marks left on the mask by the corneas, he was able to correct the crude eyelid line. (There are some pictures of the eye work on the Visual Forensic website.)

The end result is very far from the mild face conveyed in his portraits:

Portrait artists were then and are now notoriously heavy-handed with the painterly Photoshop, and the uncertainties of the French Revolution would have made it a very bad idea to cross someone who could easily have you decapitated, but damn yo, if this reconstruction is the real deal, I hope Robespierre paid those painters generously.

Charlier and Froesch also studied contemporary accounts of Robespierre and those coupled with the newly reconstructed face, suggested a possible diagnosis for the illness known to have afflicted him.

Several clinical signs were described by contemporary witnesses: vision problems, nose bleeds (“he covered his pillow of fresh blood each night”), jaundice (“yellow coloured skin and eyes”), asthenia (“continuous tiredness”), recurrent leg ulcers, and frequent facial skin disease associated with scars of a previous smallpox infection. He also had permanent eye and mouth twitching. The symptoms worsened between 1790 and 1794. [...]

The retrospective diagnosis that includes all these symptoms is diffuse sarcoidosis with ophthalmic, upper-respiratory-tract (nose or sinus mucosa), and liver or pancreas involvement.

Sarcoidosis is a rare autoimmune syndrome where granulomas (collections of immune system cells) develop in any number of organs. Symptoms include all the ones mentioned above and a slew of others. The skin can be affected too, causing nodules or lesions that last several weeks. Treatment these days is corticosteroids, but Robespierre died 80 years before the disease was identified by Sir Jonathan Hutchinson and 160 years before the introduction of prednisone. His treatment would have been more along the lines of bleeding and dietary changes.

The reconstruction has not gone over well with Robespierre fans, for some reason.

When the first 3D images emerged earlier this month, far left politicians denounced it as a plot to make their hero look evil.

“These days, with 3D, heroes are derided and tyrant kings are magnified … A sad era,” wrote Alexis Corbiere, a Paris official and member of the Leftist Front, which is among many to view Robespierre as a champion of social justice.

*Some historians think Madame Toussaud lied about the authenticity of the mask to promote her work, that the Revolutionary authorities would have had no interest in preserving Robespierre’s visage and would want to bury him and the rest of the daily pile of bodies as soon as possible. However, the Terror leaders did commission her to make death masks of King Louis XVI, Queen Marie Antoinette and many other notable victims of Madame Guillotine. There’s no reason to assume they’d be inimical to the very idea of preserving the faces of whoever they deemed enemies of the Revolution. Masks of aristocrats and Terror victims were paraded through the streets.

The original of the mask is in Madame Tussauds London. The copies Froesch used are from the Granet Museum in Aix-en-Provence and the National Museum of Natural History in Paris. They were commissioned by artist and phrenologist Pierre Marie Alexandre Dumoutier who amassed a large collection of casts as part of his fascination with the bumps on people’s heads.

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Riace Bronzes back on display after four years

December 21st, 2013

The Riace Bronzes, the pristine pair of 5th century B.C. Greek bronze warriors discovered off the coast of Calabria, the toe of Italy’s boot, in 1972, have gone back on public display after an involuntary hiatus of four years. At 4:30 PM Italian time, Culture Minister Massimo Bray officially opened the doors of the Palazzo Piacentini, home of the National Museum of Reggio Calabria, allowing the invited guests to view the splendid Bronzes, vertical again for the first time since 2009. The doors will open to the general public tomorrow.

The museum building was designed in the late 1930s by Fascist favorite architect Marcello Piacentini and was in fairly good condition but needed extensive renovations to expand and modernize the space and update the facilities and technology. The Bronzes are world-class artifacts, unique and famous all over the globe. A lot of work was necessary to make the Palazzo Piacentini suitable for the crowds of people who would visit the statues if they could. It was also in desperate need of anti-seismic retrofits to ensure the safety of its precious contents in a city that has been virtually leveled by earthquakes at least a half-dozen times since antiquity.

To make way for the refurbishment, in 2009 the Riace Bronzes were removed from their bases and gingerly transported to the nearby Palazzo Campanella (see the video in this entry for footage of the painstaking transportation process), seat of the Regional Council of Calabria, where they were placed on their backs in a climate-controlled glassed-in space. There experts were able to take advantage of the opportunity to study, test and conserve the statues. That opportunity was only supposed to be two years long, but budgetary problems and a million other delays got in the way of the museum’s renovation. While Palazzo Piacentini continued to be indisposed, the Bronzes, Reggio Calabria’s greatest tourist draw, were indisposed along with it.

In their newly renovated hall, the statues now stand on new anti-seismic pedestals which anchor the statues to the floor even as they allow them to move by balancing the floor the Bronzes stand on over four spheres of marble. A system of counterweights ensures the statues will be able to remain standing on their pedestals should an earthquake strike. A handsome Carrara marble casing surrounds the pedestal.

Their idealized musculature is set off to its best advantage by a new lighting system and the reopening of windows that had been bricked up years ago. A state-of-the-art climate control and air filtration system ensures that the many artifacts from Magna Graecia (Greater Greece, the collective term for Greece’s southern Italian colonies) on display in the museum and in particular the Riace Bronzes are kept free of contaminants and in proper climactic conditions.

Other changes to the museum building include the addition of a roof restaurant with a beautiful view of the Straits of Messina, a new great hall for temporary exhibitions, a conference hall, a library and an underground level for storage of artifacts. The internal courtyard just beyond the entrance doors has been topped with a glass roof over an airy steel structure (it’s the first tensegrity roof in Italy) to create a new lobby from which visitors can see the Bronzes in their dedicated hall in the distance. They’ll get to see them up close in all their glory at the end of the route through the museum.

The renovation isn’t quite finished yet. Work on the roof, the conference hall and some of the other new spaces continues. The complete museum is expected to be open for business in April of next year, but considering that this was all supposed to be finished in 2011 in time for the 150th anniversary celebrations of the unification of Italy, I’d take that date with a grain of salt. At least the Riace Bronzes and many of the other ancient treasures of the museum are back in public view where they belong. As recently as last month the talk was they wouldn’t be back until the new year at the earliest.

It’s all the more important that these masterpieces of Early Classical Greek art have a permanent, stable home because the odds of them traveling again are basically nil. They are so delicate, especially in the solder joints, that any movement at all is a major risk to their integrity. Both warriors have braces on their left arms, the ones bent at the elbow that probably once held spears, to relieve the stress on the joints. When the Bronzes were moved from the Palazzo Campanella two weeks ago, it took one hour to transport them less than a half a mile. Extrapolate that speed, and they would have to leave now to make it to Milan by 2015.

Not that Reggio would let them go even if they could. The region has hard a time of it lately, between the economy and the struggle against the pervasive ‘Ndrangheta organized crime syndicate (last fall the entire Reggio city council was dismissed for suspicion of ‘Ndrangheta infiltration), and the return of the Riace Bronzes is seen as a rebirth of Reggio and of Calabria as a whole, a fresh start with a focus on the regions rich cultural patrimony bringing in much-needed tourist revenue.

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Stone armor pit at Terracotta Army tomb excavated

December 20th, 2013

The mausoleum of Emperor Qin Shi Huang (reigned 247 B.C. – 220 B.C.) is famous for the vast Terracotta Army interred with him to protect him in the afterlife. Only a fraction of the warrior pits have been excavated. There are an estimated 8,000 warriors and horses in the three main pits. Two thousand have been unearthed, and just over half of them are in good enough condition to be on display. The Terracotta Warriors aren’t even in the main tomb. They’re a garrison just under a mile (1.5 kilometers) east of the emperor’s tomb, which is a mound 250 feet high.

The emperor’s tomb is at the center of the underground palace necropolis. While the imperial burial itself remains largely unexcavated, archaeologists have dug around it and found chariots, horses, terracotta court officials, terracotta acrobats, musicians, strongmen, bronze birds, the remains of real sacrificed horses served by terracotta grooms, mass graves of some of the estimated 700,000 workmen who labored 38 years in the construction of the necropolis complex.

In 1998, Chinese archaeologists unearthed a burial chamber to the southeast of the tomb mound. There they excavated more than 80 sets of ceremonial armor made out of limestone plates, forty helmets and horse armor. The armor was made out of limestone plates, more than 600 individual plates per set, which were connected by bronze wires that gave the plate enough flexibility to allow theoretical movement. This was not actual usable armor, however. They’re stone copies of the two kinds of armor that were used: the leather armor with rectangular plates of the common soldier and the iron fish-scale armor of the generals.

The artisans who created the stone armor painstakingly created each individual plate by hand, using sandstone to grind them to a consistent thickness of .3 centimeters. They perforated the plates repeatedly so that the bronze wires could be threaded through. This was a significant technical challenge, because the thin limestone plates are easily cracked. Archaeologists believe the stone was kept constantly wet while craftsmen drilled the holes with an iron spiral hand drill. There are six to 14 holes on each plate. When they experimented with replica materials, archaeologists found it took about three minutes to drill one hole. That means in drilling time alone, the plates for a single set of armor would have taken 350 work hours to complete.

The armor in the pit is in multiple layers, some containing relatively complete sets still connected, some with a jumble of strewn plates, some in good condition, some burned, possibly by the dastardly Xiang Yu. Archaeologists weren’t able to remove the armor plates that were still connected with the bronze wire, so, tragically, they cut the wires, pulled them out and then recovered the individual plates. Obviously this was very far from ideal, what with the destruction of priceless historical material, so researchers went back to the drawing board to figure out some way to remove the armor while still intact.

Experiments with cyclododecane (CDD), a consolidant compound that is liquid at around 140 degrees Fahrenheit (60 degrees C) and forms a wax-like coating when it solidifies. At ambient temperatures, it steadily sublimes until it’s gone. After years of trials, in 2004, CDD-impregnated cotton gauze was applied to a section of armor. It worked like a charm, essentially gluing the armor together. The section was encased in cardboard frame reinforced with wood. The frame was filled with polyurethane foam and straps were embedded in it. Once the poly foam had fully hardened, archaeologists pulled on the straps and the whole thing came out cleanly. No pieces were lost or damaged. The bottom of the plates and wires were cleaned, then the poly and CDD removed and the top cleaned.

The test was so successful that in 2005 a complete set of armor was removed from the pit. It was restored and put on display in the Qin Shi Huang Terracotta Warriors and Horses Museum at the mausoleum site and on the road.

Meanwhile, back at the pit, an estimated 6,000 more sets of armor slumbered in their thick layers. Now excavations have begun again and there is fantastic footage of the crazy puzzle of armor in the pit. I can’t embed it, but you can see the excavation in this CNTV video.

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Nobody bought the Tiffany Bat Lamp

December 19th, 2013

Granted, it was prohibitively expensive for most of the world with a pre-sale estimate of $550,000 – 750,000, but it’s so rare and so wonderful that I expected Tiffany Studios’ Bat Table Lamp to be snapped up right quick by one the many deep-pocketed buyers that frequent Sotheby’s auctions. They were certainly on hand, since someone shelled out $1,565,000 for the iconic Wisteria Table Lamp which was estimated to sell in the same range ($600,000 — 800,000) as the Bat.

No disrespect to the Wisteria, but nobody puts the Bat Table Lamp in a corner. Behold its genius:

The Bat lamp, like its cousin the Dragonfly Table Lamp, was a departure from the floral patterns that had dominated the glassworks since its inception in 1893. Louis Comfort Tiffany was inspired to start the Queens factory after being “overwhelmed” by Emile Gallé’s pioneering Art Nouveau glass at the 1889 Paris Exposition. Gallé, who would make several wonderful bat-themed pieces including a lamp that pre-dates Tiffany’s, focused on natural motifs with an emphasis on flowerforms and so did Louis’ new glass company.

It was the influence of Japanese and Chinese art that brought the bat into the picture. Instead of being symbols of death and night, the Bram Stoker bat, if you will, in Asian art bats represent long life and good fortune. Japonisme, as the trend was called in France, inspired Art Nouveau designers from architecture to jewelry to wallpaper, and bats started to crop up more and more the last decade of the 19th and first decade of the 20th century.

Tiffany Studios’ introduction of a “Bat” lamp after 1902 is timely within this historical context. Although still unusual, the bat motif had gained prominence and was stylish. Moreover, its use on lamps was particularly appropriate since, after all, lamps are used at night, the temporal realm of bats. The decoration expresses the object’s function, but in a poetic and charming way.

Tiffany first explored the bat in a vase that he exhibited at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. Like he would later with the Bat Table Lamp, he set the flying mammals against a starry night sky. When he took the theme to leaded glass, the background became darker, a rich midnight sky with blue and yellow stars against which the contrasting oranges and browns of the articulated bats glow.

Created around 1905, on the Tiffany Studios 1906 Price List the Bat lamp was priced at $125. In a time when the average wage was 22 cents an hour, this was a high luxury item. The glass mosaic inlay you can see above the bats on the base was particularly costly and time-consuming to produce. Just to give you some comparisons, the Wisteria lamp, made out of 2,000 pieces of individually cut glass, was listed on the 1906 Price List at $400. The Cobweb Table Lamp was even more expensive, listed in 1906 for $500. One example sold at auction last year for $3,250,000. They were all three popular in their day — Wisteria most of all — but today there are only seven known Cobwebs extant and five Bats.

The Bat Table Lamp was discontinued in 1910 when Tiffany Studios stopped producing mosaic inlay models because of how expensive and labor-intensive they were to make.

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Holocaust Museum digitizes Rosenberg Diary

December 18th, 2013

The diary of Nazi Party leader, racist philosopher and close Hitler confidant Alfred Rosenberg was officially handed over to the US Holocaust Memorial Museum on Tuesday. Museum staff must have had access to the diary before then, because the entire 400 pages plus of loose-leaf paper have been digitized and uploaded to the web. Each page is scanned in readably high resolution and accompanied by a transcript.

“The Museum encourages people to think about why the Holocaust happened and how it was possible in such an advanced society,” said United States Holocaust Memorial Museum Director Sara J. Bloomfield. “The Rosenberg diary will add to our understanding of the ideas that animated the extremist ideology of Nazism. We are grateful to our partners at ICE who helped us secure this important piece of history, a significant addition in our urgent efforts to rescue the evidence of the Holocaust.”

Alfred Rosenberg played a key role in the development of Nazi anti-semitic policy, both philosophically and practically. In 1930, he wrote The Myth of the Twentieth Century, an impenetrable tome nobody read about the noble Aryan struggle against the insidious Jew, liberal and Bolshevik. He was instrumental in promoting the theory of Lebensraum and as Reich Minister for the Occupied Eastern Territories organized the deportations of Eastern European Jews to concentration camps. As head of the Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg (Reichsleiter Rosenberg Taskforce), he was also directly responsible for the orgy of looting of art and antiquities from occupied territories.

He was captured by Allied forces in May of 1945. His papers, including the diary, were confiscated in August and used as evidence against him at the Nuremburg Trials. He was tried for conspiracy to commit aggressive warfare, crimes against peace, war crimes and crimes against humanity and convicted on all counts. Alfred Rosenberg was hanged on October 16th, 1946.

After that, the diary and many other papers disappeared, probably taken by Dr. Robert Kempner, a German-Jewish lawyer who had fled Germany in 1939 and returned after the war to serve as deputy chief counsel at the Nuremberg Trials. When he went back home to the United States after the trials, he brought a great number of unclassified documents with him, including apparently the Rosenberg diary. Kempner practiced law, focusing mainly on Nazi restitution cases, and published his own personal research, including several papers that quoted parts of the Rosenberg diary nobody else had ever seen.

After Kempner’s 1993 death, his heirs decide to donate many of the documents. A 1997 inventory of the Kempner papers did not find the diary. The museum continued to search for it for years, until in November of 2012 they discovered the information that would break the case. US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) found the long-lost diary in April of this year at the home of an individual in home in Lewiston, north of Buffalo, New York. Authorities have still not announced who that individual was, but one possibility is Robert Kempner’s former secretary.

Because of their checkered trajectory, the Rosenberg diary pages have been separated. The ones at the Holocaust Museum are the bulk of the diary, covering years 1936 through 1944. Earlier entries from 1934 to 1935 are part of the collection of the National Archives and Records Administration.

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Medieval mummies protected by wall inscriptions in Sudan

December 17th, 2013

The archaeological site of Old Dongola in what is today Sudan has a rich history. Originally built as a fortress in the fifth century, Dongola grew into a prosperous town thanks to its Nile-side location and, after its conversion to Christianity by the end of the sixth century, became the capital of the Coptic Christian kingdom of Makuria. In the seventh century, Makuria was able to defeat the forces of the Rashidun Caliphate after its successful invasion of Egypt. The ensuing peace treaty established trade relationships between Muslim Egypt and Christian Nubia that lasted for 600 years, a long period of stability that allowed the Kingdom of Makuria to flourish. The kingdom’s power began to wane in the 12th century and it was finally defeated by the Sultan of Egypt in the 14th century.

In 1993, the Polish Archaeological Mission (PAM) discovered three burial crypts in the northwest annex of a monastery in Old Dongola. Archaeologists believe they were part of a commemorative complex built either at the direction of or for the burial of Archbishop Georgios, Dongola’s primary cleric who was appointed directly by the Coptic Patriarch of Alexandria rather than via a national church hierarchy. According to a funerary stele found in the annex near the crypts, the archbishop died in 1113 A.D. when he was 82 years old.

Inside each chamber were several natural mummies, some wrapped in textiles, and the walls of the southernmost crypt were covered with inscriptions written in Greek and Sahidic Coptic. The crypts were photographed and then resealed to preserve the contents until a more thorough excavation could be done. That finally happened in 2009.

They found that the southern crypt (crypt 1) held seven mummies, one of which is thought to be the body of Archbishop Georgios. Archaeologists were not able to single out which of the bodies, if any, was the Archbishop’s. They are all adult males older than 40 and, judging from the extensive evidence of chronic and degenerative illnesses, probably older than that at the time of death. The bodies were dressed fairly modestly, mainly in linen garments, wrapped in shrouds and then interred in the crypt over a course of years. Four pectoral crosses were found in the crypt as well, two of them wood, one of them stone, one of them glass.

The inscriptions on the walls of crypt 1 provide a particularly fascinating glimpse into Makuria’s unique religious culture. Painted in black ink over a thin layer of whitewash, they cover the four walls of the barrel chamber almost entirely. They are in very good condition, except for areas where the walls themselves were damaged. The writing was all done by the same person, one Ioannes, who did us the favor of signing his name at the end of the inscriptions on the north, east and south walls. He probably signed the west wall too, but it was lost due to damage.

Ioannes was better at Coptic than he was at Greek. There are copious errors in the Greek, some of which he covered with whitewash and redid, like Medieval white-out, which suggests he may have been trying to copy a text, which suggests he had access to a library, either in the monastery or perhaps the private library of the archbishop. It’s a reversal of what you might expect, since Greek was still going great guns in the Eastern Church while Sahidic Coptic was already a dying language by the end of the 11th century.

The inscriptions begin on the west wall with an invocation of the Holy Trinity. Underneath that the writings are defined as a phylakterion malakias, a phylactery or amulet against weakness. A series of magical symbols in a frame follow, and beneath them are two lists, one of numerical cryptograms representing the names of god and angels, the other of magical divine names. Quotations from the gospels and prayers in Greek are next. One of the prayers, said to by the Virgin Mary, is well-known in a languages from Coptic to Arabic, but this is the first time it’s ever been found in Greek. Since Greek was probably its original language, it’s a highly significant find. The prayer ends abruptly with the invocation of a magical ritual meant to chase evil spirits from the tomb.

The inscription on the east wall quotes from the Gospel of Luke in Greek then moves on to a Coptic piece on the death of the Virgin Mary. It includes the prayer she spoke before she died and describes her final scene. This is an excerpt from a popular fourth century Coptic work by Saint Cyril of Jerusalem, but unlike every other extant version of the text known, the crypt inscription has a curious line: after Mary finishes praying, death appears to her “in the form of a rooster.”

From the paper on the inscriptions in the journal Polish Archaeology in the Mediterranean by University of Warsaw professor Adam Łajtar:

The decoration of the burial vault may therefore be properly described as a silent ritual, intended to safeguard not only the tomb, but primarily those who were buried inside of it during the dangerous liminal period between the moment of dying and their appearance before the throne of God. The entire ensemble of texts and architecture must be considered a unique and important witness to the funerary beliefs and practices of Christian northeastern Africa in medieval times.

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1850s prison memoir of African-American man found

December 16th, 2013

A manuscript at Yale University’s Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library has been authenticated as the prison memoir of 19th century African-American inmate Austin Reed. Finding a previously-unknown Black writer from the before the Civil War is extremely rare, and this work stands out as the earliest prison memoir ever written by an African-American (that we know of). A rare book dealer purchased the notebook and two sewn folios at an estate sale Rochester, western New York state, some years ago. The family selling it had no information about it other than it had been in their family for as long as anyone could remember. The Beinecke bought it from the dealer in 2009 and set about researching the 304-page memoir and its author.

The unpublished book is entitled The Life and Adventures of a Haunted Convict, or the Inmate of a Gloomy Prison by Rob Reed and it’s an autobiography of Reed’s experiences in the criminal justice system from the 1830s to the 1850s. Most of that time he served for theft at Auburn Prison, the second state prison in New York and the oldest prison in the country still in use today. The traditional horizontal black and white striped prison uniform was invented at Auburn, and the first electric chair execution took place there in 1890.

Built in 1816, Auburn Prison was relatively new when Reed was a guest. Its approach was novel because the focus was on rehabilitation, but the Auburn System, as it became known, was hardly touchy-feely. The aim was instill dedication to work and responsibility by breaking down prisoners’ sense of self and community with other inmates. Prisoners to work for at least 10 hours a day, to live in solitary confinement when not working, to march in lockstep exactly one arm’s width from each other while looking at the side and never looking at the guards or other inmates, and to observe complete silence at all times.

Punishments for violations of the rules including floggings with whips and cat-o-nine-tails, the “shower bath,” an elaborate form of waterboarding, and the “yoke,” a 40-pound bar of iron attached to the back of the prisoner’s neck and both hands.

Reed’s memoir was intended to introduce a curious public to life in the new institution – the solitary cells, the dining hall and the hospital, the work to be done in the various workshops, and regulations for inmate conduct. Reed’s account also aimed to expose the unusual and brutal punishments inflicted on dissenters, and he made a pointed comparison between New York prisons and the slaveholding South.

“The Reed prison narrative manuscript is a revelation. Nothing quite like it exists,” says Blight. “Reed is a crafty and manipulative storyteller, and perhaps above all he left an insider’s look at the American world of crime, prisons, and the brutal state of race relations in the middle of the 19th century.”

Yale English professor Caleb Smith worked with Beinecke archivists and Christine McKay, a genealogical researcher at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, to research Austin Reed and authenticate the manuscript. Using newspaper articles, court records and prison files, they were able to identify “Rob Reed” as Austin Reed, a free Black man born near Rochester. He was in trouble with the law from an early age and spent time in the House of Refuge in Manhattan, a reformatory school where he learned to read and write. It was a letter Reed wrote to the warden of the House of Refuge that linked Austin Reed to his nom de plume. In it, he gives some of his background and asks whether the House has kept any of his juvenile records. He was researching his youth, apparently, to include in the memoir.

“The Reed manuscript is an astonishing discovery and a unique resource documenting the lives of African-American prisoners in antebellum America,” says Nancy Kuhl, curator of poetry for the Yale Collection of American Literature. “Handwritten manuscripts of novels and memoirs by 19th-century African Americans remain extraordinarily rare. The Reed manuscript significantly enriches the canon of 19th-century African-American Literature and deepens our understanding of all 19th-century America.”

The memoir never made it into print, despite Reed’s clear intention that it be published, but that will soon change. Caleb Smith is preparing an annotated version of the manuscript for print. Meanwhile, the Beinecke Library has scanned and uploaded every page of the notebook and folios. You can view them here. The handwriting is impressively legible. There are grammatical and spelling errors, but nothing that makes it hard to read.

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Sotheby’s to return looted statue to Cambodia

December 15th, 2013

Seven months after the Metropolitan Museum of Art returned a pair of 10th-century Khmer statues known as the Kneeling Attendants that had been looted from the Prasat Chen temple in Koh Ker, Cambodia, Sotheby’s has agreed to return a statue looted from the same temple that has pbeen blocked from sale for two years. It’s been a long, arduous process of diplomacy, negotiation and legal wrangling, none of it pretty and some of it impressively nasty, even for a cultural property dispute.

Our story begins more than a 1,000 years ago when King Jayavarman IV moved the capital of the Khmer Empire to Koh Ker, a remote site 75 miles northeast of Siem Reap and the previous capital of Angkor. It was 928 A.D. and up until this point, Khmer sculptural art was characterized by static figures, most of them carved bas reliefs of Hindu deities and mythology. Jayavarman IV commissioned a whole new style of carving for his new capital. In Koh Ker, statues of gods and warriors were made to be freestanding, their poses dynamic captures of figures in movement. One group in front of the western pavilion of Prasat Chen Temple featured 9 statues depicting the final battle between Duryodhana and his nemesis Bhima from the Sanskrit epic Mahabharata. Massive 500-pound sandstone statues of the two enemies were posed facing each mid-fight, surrounded by their supporters.

Koh Ker only remained capital until 944, after which it decayed into ruin while the jungle reclaimed its former dominance. The site’s remoteness was both a blessing and a curse, contributing to its decay and keeping it safe from the kind of predation Angkor was victim to. It wasn’t until the 1950s that French archaeologists recognized Koh Ker’s historical significance and paid regular attention to it. In 1965, the site was explored and documented by Madeleine Giteau, curator of the National Museum, who found it exceptionally well-preserved with the statues and structures virtually untouched. When a French archaeologist returned two years later, he found looting had already begun, thanks in large part to the construction of a new road which made the removal of artifacts to Thailand for sale more practical. Political upheaval and spillover from the Vietnam War put a lot of local armed insurgent groups and foreign fighters in the area and made looting antiquities to sell for hard cash a particularly attractive prospect.

According to an amended complaint from the United States Attorney’s Office of the Southern District of New York, the statue of Duryodhana was cut off its base in around 1972 by an organized network of looters and sold to a dealer in Bangkok. There it was purchased by Douglas Latchford, the same collector of Khmer art who donated the bodies of both Kneeling Attendants and one of their heads to the Met, who arranged for the illegal export of the statue to the London auction house of Spink & Son, the same auction house from which he either bought the Kneeling Attendants directly or acted as a front for the Met to buy them from, depending on whose story you believe. Spink & Son sold Duryodhana to a Belgian collector in 1975. The widow of said collector, Decia Ruspoli di Poggio Suasa, consigned the statue to Sotheby’s for sale in 2010.

Duryodhana became the centerpiece of Sotheby’s Asian sale in March of 2011. He was on the cover of the catalog and was extolled as a unique and exceptional example of Khmer artistry. Just hours before it was to go on the block, Cambodian Deputy Prime Minister Sok An sent a letter to the auction house officially requesting the return of the statue as an artifact illegally exported from Cambodia. Sotheby’s withdrew its flagship artifact, estimated to sell for $3 million – $4 million, from the sale. For a year after the first blocked sale attempt, Sotheby’s negotiated with the government of Cambodia to arrange a private sale. Hungarian art collector Istvan Zelnik volunteered to buy the statue for $1 million and donate it to Cambodia.

The talks fell through — Sotheby’s claimed it was the Department of Homeland Security’s fault because they pressured the Cambodian government not to agree to the sale so they could get all the kudos for a diplomatic arrangement; the US Attorney said it was Sotheby’s fault because they turned down the million dollar offer — and in April of 2012, the U.S. Attorney filed a civil suit in federal court seeking forfeiture of the statue on Cambodia’s behalf. Sotheby’s denied strenuously that there was sufficient evidence to prove the statue was looted (even though its matching feet are still in place in Koh Ker), denied knowing all along that it was stolen (even though there’s a long email discussion between the auction house and an expert they contracted to write up the statue before sale in which the expert underscores that it was recently removed from the temple but ultimately suggests they go ahead with the sale because her Cambodian sources say they have no interest in contesting it) and denied that there’s even an applicable law in Cambodian that makes the export of 1,000-year-old Khmer statues illegal.

On Thursday, December 12th, truce was called. Sotheby’s, Decia Ruspoli di Poggio Suasa and the federal government have come to an agreement and I’d say it’s a big win for Cambodia, although as so often happens everyone still gets to deny having willfully trafficked in stolen antiquities.

The Belgian woman who had consigned it for sale in 2011 will receive no compensation for the statue from Cambodia, and Sotheby’s has expressed a willingness to pick up the cost of shipping the 500-pound sandstone antiquity to that country within the next 90 days.

At the same time, lawyers from the United States Attorney’s Office in Manhattan who had been pursuing the statue on Cambodia’s behalf agreed to withdraw allegations that the auction house and the consignor knew of the statue’s disputed provenance before importing it for sale.

The accord said the consignor, Decia Ruspoli di Poggio Suasa, who had long owned the statue, and Sotheby’s had “voluntarily determined, in the interests of promoting cooperation and collaboration with respect to cultural heritage,” that it should be returned.

Andrew Gully, a spokesman for Sotheby’s, said the auction house was gladdened that “the agreement confirms that Sotheby’s and its client acted properly at all times.”

:lol: Oh yes, ever so properly. At all times. And ever so voluntary too. It just took them two years and a federal court case to volunteer.

Now we’ll see if the last domino falls: the Norton Simon Art Foundation in Pasadena which owns Duryodhana’s counterpart, Bhima.

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