First Wolverine artwork exists & it’s up for auction

March 5th, 2014

The now-iconic mutant Wolverine made his first appearance on the last panel of The Incredible Hulk #180 in October of 1974. Designed by Marvel art director John Romita, Sr, and penciled by artist Herb Trimpe, the Wolverine debuted in “And the Wind Howls Wendigo,” a story by Len Wein in which Hulk wanders the wilds of Quebec only to become ensnared in an adventure with Wendigo. The Hulk draws the attention of the Canadian military who deploy Weapon X to intercept him. Wolverine is said weapon, “a living, raging powerhouse who’s bound to knock [Hulk] back on [his] emerald posterior.”

He only appears once in the final panel as a teaser for the The Incredible Hulk #181 which debuted in November, 1974, with Hulk and Wolverine fighting on the cover. Wolverine closed out the Wendigo story line in issue #182 and didn’t appear in print again until Giant-Size X-Men #1, published May 1975. When the old X-Men title was revived a few months later, Wolverine was part of the crew. He wasn’t immediately popular, but by 1982 he had enough of an audience to garner a solo title.

The next year, a teenaged fan met Herb Trimpe, who would remain a Marvel quota artist until the company went bankrupt in the mid-1990s, and Trimpe gifted him a piece of signed artwork. It was that last page of The Incredible Hulk #180 with the Wolverine challenging Hulk and Wendigo to tangle with him. The young man quietly kept the page for decades. Because he was not a collector, nobody in the comics community had any idea the page still existed, never mind where it might be.

Now that young man is all grown up and has decided to sell the prized possession Herb Trimpe gave him 31 years ago. The original artwork of Wolverine’s first appearance will go up for auction at Heritage Auction on May 16th.

In 1983, on the afternoon that Trimpe handed over the piece of original art to the then-teenaged consignor of the piece as a souvenir of their visit that afternoon, neither had any idea that the ink, graphite and blue pencil drawing would turn out to be one of the most influential comic book images ever created. As the decades drew on, and Wolverine soared in popularity and influence in Pop Culture, it because obvious to the owner of the art that he had something of significant value and importance.

Inspired by Trimpe’s generosity to him more than 30 years ago, the consignor has specified that the majority of the after-tax proceeds from the sale of the artwork be donated, including a large portion designated for the Hero Initiative, the first-ever federally chartered not-for-profit corporation dedicated strictly to helping comic book creators in financial need.

Because the industry paid so abysmally and played fast and loose with royalties, the people who drew and wrote some of the most beloved characters of all time (not the mention all the others who never made the big time but did the hard work of rotting young minds for decades) didn’t have much to fall back on. The Hero Initiative raises funds to support comic book artists and writers with whatever they might need, from medical care to food, rent and help getting back to work.

How fitting that the sale of what is sure to be a big ticket collector’s item will directly profit the comic creators.

As Marvel Editor-In-Chief at the time, Roy Thomas came up with the original idea for the character and tells us “Because Wolverine was introduced in the final panel of the final page of Hulk #180, that has become one of the holy grail pages from any 1970s comic book. I’m overjoyed to know that it still exists — and even happier that its sale will in part benefit the comics industry’s own charity, Hero Initiative, on whose disbursement board I’ve sat since its founding. Wolverine was never a do-gooder… but this time he’s going to do some good in spite of himself. Take that, Logan!”

Bidding will open online around April 25th, 2014. Track the lot here.

On a tangentially related note, if you’re a fan of Golden Age comics, including the lusciously lurid pre-code horror and detective titles, run, don’t walk, to the Digital Comic Museum. There you will find high resolution scans of complete issues of public domain comics available for perusal online and download. (Don’t look for the big names — Marvel, DC — because none of their stuff is in the public domain.) It’s a time sink of most epic proportions and every minute nothing but sheer joy. The advertising alone is enough to bring a nostalgic tear to my eye.

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Whole egg votive found under Sardis floor

March 4th, 2014

Archaeologists excavating the ruins of Sardis, onetime capital of Lydia, home of King Croesus whose control of gold deposits in the area made his name synonymous with enormous wealth, in western Turkey have unearthed two votive deposits buried under the floor of a Roman-era home. Both votives have the same ingredient list: a coin, a group of pointed metal nail or needle-like objects and an egg, all placed inside pottery vessels which were covered and buried. One was a jug found broken into pieces, its fragile egg smashed. The other was a bowl topped with an inverted bowl to act as lid and its egg was found intact except for a hole that was deliberately poked in its shell in antiquity probably to remove the contents so the egg wouldn’t rot and make the newly renovated home it was supposed to bless smell like sulfur.

The votive pottery dates to between 54 and 68 A.D. when Sardis was part of the Roman province of Asia. A few decades before then in 17 A.D. Sardis had been nearly leveled by a massive earthquake. Pliny the Elder called it “the greatest earthquake which has occurred in our memory.” Tacitus described the extent of the devastation in Annals II: 47:

In the same year, twelve important cities of Asia collapsed in an earthquake, the time being night, so that the havoc was the less foreseen and the more devastating. Even the usual resource in these catastrophes, a rush to open ground, was unavailing, as the fugitives were swallowed up in yawning chasms. Accounts are given of huge mountains sinking, of former plains seen heaved aloft, of fires flashing out amid the ruin. As the disaster fell heaviest on the Sardians, it brought them the largest measure of sympathy, the Caesar promising ten million sesterces, and remitting for five years their payments to the national and imperial exchequers.

So Sardis was rebuilt, thanks to a significant capital investment and tax breaks from the emperor Tiberius. The scars from the earthquake never did fade, however, and the city never regained its former splendor. The house in which the votives were found was built over the ruins of a previous structure that archaeologists believe was destroyed in the earthquake of 17 A.D.. It’s possible that the homeowners had that destruction in mind when they buried the votives under their new floor to protect it from any future such ravages.

They could also have been a simple purification ritual. Burying votives in a wall or under a floor was a relatively common practice in antiquity. The Lustratio ceremony, a Greco-Roman purification ritual, was used to bless and purify buildings after new construction or renovation. Eggs were used in the Lustratio ceremony. An egg was placed on the fire and if it cracked, it was a bad portent warning the owner of danger to the property. The Sardis home shows signs of having been renovated several times.

The coin found in the bowl along with the egg and pointy metal things may also provide a clue to the ritual purpose of the votives.

“The coin has a portrait of Nero on the front. The original reverse was hammered flat, and the image of a lion engraved in its place, which is very odd.” Expert numismatists have never seen anything like it. “The image of the lion is important because it is emblematic of the Lydian kings and of their native mother goddess Cybele,” [University of Wisconsin-Madison art history professor Nicholas] Cahill says.

There are references in the ancient sources connected Cybele and eggs. In Juvenal’s Satire V, the priests of Cybele (called “Galli” which also means roosters) are presented as effective against “black hobgoblins, and dangers from a broken egg.” That danger was sorcery, mainly. Pierced or broken eggs were an indication that they had been used in spell-casting.

Cybele isn’t the only deity with a possible votive egg connection in Sardis. In 1911, Princeton University archaeologists led by Howard Crosby Butler unearthed the temple of Artemis, long since buried by landslides. They found a number of vessels holding coins, eggs and pointy metal objects, but at the time there was little interest in such quotidian items and excavations were interrupted by World War I. When Butler returned in 1922, he found most of the artifacts had been destroyed or stolen. According to notes from the 1911 excavation, the votive eggs at the temple of Artemis were also deliberately perforated in antiquity.

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Germany’s second oldest church found

March 3rd, 2014

During renovations on the Evangelical Church of Saint John in Mainz, Germany, workers have discovered remains that make it the second oldest church in Germany. They were installing a heating system under the nave when they found remains of a previous floor built in the ninth century about three meters (10 feet) below the current floor level. This earlier floor dates to the construction of the church by Archbishop on Mainz Hatto I.

Archaeologists excavated further, exploring the basement as well where they found even older structures from the 7th and 8th centuries. The remains are impressive in dimension. Walls reach as high as 10 meters (33 feet). Hatto I consecrated what was then St. Salvator, the cathedral and seat of the Bishop of Mainz, in 911, but it seems the remains of an older church were incorporated into the new construction. Hatto’s cathedral walls were built against the older ones instead of on top of it, thus allowing a very rare survival of substantial Carolingian structures.

Professor Matthias Untermann from the Institute of Art History in Heidelberg said the remains of the Carolingian walls stretched from the basement to the roof.

“This is a big surprise,” he said.

The Rhineland-Palatinate state curator Joachim Glatz said: “This is the only surviving Carolingian cathedral in Germany.”

Usually a bishop would build a cathedral in the Middle Ages at the exact location of the previous building, getting rid of the older church. But in Mainz the 1,000-year-old “Old Cathedral” was incorporated into the Carolingian one.

The surviving structure points to a church with a very different configuration from Hatto’s cathedral. According to Professor Untermann, the church had a small nave with a transept on the west side and double altars, one in the west and one in the east, an unusual feature.

Archaeologists also discovered two graves in the basement. One was a sarcophagus without a lid, the other a stone walled cyst. Both held skeletal remains. They have yet to be dated, but they area likely to be older than the 7th-8th century walls. There are no inscriptions or grave goods pointing to the identity of the deceased, but they were probably people of importance, secular leaders or high clerics. The style of the sarcophagus indicates it was made in the early Middle Ages. That doesn’t testify to the age of the burial, however, because it could have been reused multiple times since it was first crafted.

If the dating of the walls and graves is confirmed as Carolingian or older, that will make St. John’s the second oldest church in Germany. Only the High Cathedral of Saint Peter in Trier can claim greater age, thanks to its central chapel which was built at the direction of Saint Helena, emperor Constantine’s mother, in the 4th century.

Excavations are ongoing. At some point the church is going to back to full service — right now its parishioners are using the city hall and other local churches — but St. John’s leaders are very excited about the finds and once the digging is done, want to find a way to integrate the archaeological remains with the current church and make them visible to the public. They are also beginning the process of having the church declared a national heritage site.

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Another wall collapses in Pompeii

March 2nd, 2014

Heavy rainfall has claimed new victims among the ruins of Pompeii: two more walls have come down.

Officials said the wall of a tomb about 1.7 metres high and 3.5 metres long collapsed in the necropolis of Porta Nocera in the early hours of Sunday.

That followed a smaller collapse on Saturday of part of an arch supporting the Temple of Venus. [...]

The Temple of Venus is in an area of the site which was already closed to visitors, while access to the necropolis has been closed following the collapse of the wall.

Heavy rains and continued neglect inflicted the coup de grace on a whole gladiator school and took down multiple walls in 2010. There much indignant harumphing about it, but not a lot of necessary maintenance to keep the deterioration at bay. In 2011, the European Union pledged $145 million to the conservation of Pompeii, a UNESCO World Heritage site, and the then-Culture Minister, Giancarlo Galan, asserted that Pompeii would be a priority for his tenure.

Two years later, after a damning UNESCO report identified the extensive structural damage, vandalism and unqualified employees plaguing the ancient site, Italy launched the Great Pompeii rescue project, a plan to restore the entire site using the UNESCO report as an action plan and the EU’s $145 million in funding. Great Pompeii also has a goal of increasing visitor numbers by 300,000 a year by 2017, however, which seems counterproductive given the danger posed by crowds.

Pompeii attracted more than 2.3 million visitors in 2010 and on the busiest days it had 20,000. Sheer numbers, along with careless behaviour, are causing considerable damage: “Visitors in groups rub against the decorated walls, all too often with their rucksacks, or lean against them to take the best possible photographs,” says the report.

Meanwhile, a cooperative group of German and Italian institutions has launched the Pompeii Sustainable Preservation project (PSP) which plans to spend €10 million ($13,781,000) over ten years restoring major structures in need of attention and training the experts of tomorrow.

Now that there’s a new government in Rome, there’s also a new Culture Minister. Dario Franceschini was appointed last month by the new prime minister Matteo Renzi. In response to the latest collapse, he has called an emergency meeting of heritage officials on Tuesday. He will hear a report on the collapses and on the progress of the Great Pompeii project. The trick is going to be continuing oversight, since basically every since culture minister has done the same thing every time Pompeii exposed them by falling a little more apart.

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Conserving the Staffordshire Hoard

March 1st, 2014

The 4,000 Anglo-Saxon pieces of gold, silver and garnet weapons fittings discovered in Staffordshire field in 2009 and in a 2012 follow-up excavation impressed with the exceptional quality of workmanship even when they were still encrusted with soil. The cleaning process has revealed metalwork and gemwork of such sophistication experts aren’t even sure how it was accomplished. Because the pieces were damaged when they were stripped from their original weapons, conservators have had a unique chance to examine construction features that are invisible in complete pieces like those discovered at Sutton Hoo or other burial sites.

Conserving intricately decorated gold artifacts requires the use of special tools. The scalpels and microdrills in the standard conservator toolbox are too dangerous to use with soft, malleable gold. They could scratch or gouge the surface. Instead, the Staffordshire Hoard conservators are using thorns, natural thorns like off a bush. They have sharp points for getting between tiny beads and edges, but they bend under pressure and don’t scratch the surface of the gold, glass or gem insets.

This video from the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, co-owner of the hoard along with the Potteries Museum & Art Gallery, shows a conservator cleaning the top of a sword pyramid and a fragment of silver foil stamped with two male faces. You can see the thorn held in a pin vice scrape away the dirt. Then the surface is wiped with a cotton swab dampened with industrial methylated spirit. Soft brushes and air puffers gently remove the loosened soil.

The video at the bottom of this page shows the thorn deployed in cleaning the gold filigree of a damaged hilt plate, but that’s one of the simplest filigree designs. Conservation of the hoard has found a great many incredibly tiny, incredibly detailed filigree patterns. This blog entry from a jeweler covers just a few of the techniques the Anglo-Saxon craftsmen used to produce wirework so fine that we need microphotography to fully explore today. This blog entry describes some of the patterns — linear, spiral, zoomorphic, etc. — in the Staffordshire filigree pieces.

One of the most breathtaking examples of filigree is the stylized seahorse mount. Those spirals are so minute, three of them are almost as long as a grain of rice.

The garnet cloisonné has proven to hold hidden depths revealed by conservation as well. Like all cloisonné, it was made by creating a cell (called a cloison) out of gold wires. The cells were backed with gold foil and filled primarily with garnets. Today cloisonné is filled with vitreous enamel which is powdered before it’s fired, but the Anglo-Saxon jewelers had a much more difficult task because they had to cut the garnets into small, thin shapes that precisely fit the cloisons. Garnets are hard gemstones and probably had to be ground to shape, using what tools we do not know. We do know that missing garnets were replaced by red glass. Blue glass insets have also been found as have opaque glass checkerboard or millefiori designs that experts believe are recycled Roman pieces.

The foil behind the garnets give the gems an added shine boost, and it may give historians a boost into a new understanding of Anglo-Saxon schools of metalwork. So far conservators have identified four distinct gold foil designs. If they can be compared to artifacts discovered in other locations, it may be possible to group them by workshop or regional style.

This blog entry describes the conservation of two cloisonné objects. You can see in the microphotographs miniscule marks left during the stripping of the fittings and during the initial workmanship. Tiny troughs incised in the gold outline where the cloison walls once were, troughs just a quarter of a millimeter thick which is thinner than a lot of cloisonné produced today.

Bookmark the Staffordshire Hoard Conservation & Research blog now, and say goodbye to the rest of your weekend because every entry is fascinating. Enhance your reading with the swooningly gorgeous images on the Hoard Flickr page.

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Mummy in Germany is murdered Inca woman

February 28th, 2014

A mummy that has been in the collection of the Bavarian State Archaeological Collection in Munich has been identified as a young Inca woman whose skull was smashed shortly before death. When the mummy came to the museum from the Anatomical Institute of Ludwig-Maximilians University in 1970, all documentation of its origin was lost. It was first recorded at the university in 1904, but its movements before then were unknown. Because of the mummy’s dark brown skin, it was thought to be a bog body, possibly recovered from the Dachauer moor outside of Munich. The plaited hair, the fetal position (minus the lower legs which were damaged by bombing in World War II), the well-preserved bone tissue all argued against a central European bog origin, however.

The mummy has been on display at the State Archaeological Collection since the donation. To finally identify the mummy’s origin, physical condition and cause of death, the museum decided to do a full forensic anthropological examination. They took CT scans of the entire body, did stable and unstable isotope analysis of the teeth, examined tissue samples microscopically, tested ancient DNA and reconstructed any injuries found.

Radiocarbon dating found the mummy dates to 1451–1642 A.D. and was between 20 and 25 years old at the time of death. Stable isotope analysis revealed that she ate maize and seafood and was from the Peruvian/Northern Chilean border along the coast. Her hair was dark in life (it has faded over the centuries) and her braids are tied with fiber bundles made from wavy camelid hair, a pattern characteristic of New World camelids (alpacas or llamas). Her skull also testifies to her origin: she has a Wormian or “Inca” bone at her occiput, an extra wedge of bone between sutures that is found in native South American populations but not European ones, and the flattened back of her skull is typical of Inca intentional cranial deformation.

It was the skull that held the biggest surprise. She lost her front teeth after death and there’s a small wound on her forehead, but other than that, from the outside, the head looks intact. The CT scans revealed impressions are vastly deceiving. She was a victim of massive blunt force trauma to the skull. her forehead, upper skull and face were completely staved in. The upper jaw was broken. Large chunks of bone are lying against the back of the skull, along with the remains of brain tissue and possible sites of blood accumulation.

This was a perimortem injury, inflicted around the time of death, not damage done to the body after death. Terrace-like shapes on the inside back of the skull suggest a rounded weapon was used to beat her face in by someone standing in front of her. How she might have encountered this brutal skull-collapsing fate is unclear. Ritual murder is one possible explanation, but without a burial context, it’s probably unprovable. Osteological evidence suggests she lived fairly well — her dental wear was low and her joints and vertebra show no sign of stressful labor — but she was ill. Thickening of some of her heart and large intestine tissue and DNA found in rectal tissue indicate she suffered from a chronic parasitic infection by the protozoan Trypanosoma cruzi, known as Chagas disease, since infancy. Perhaps her lifetime debilitating illness made her a candidate for sacrifice. If she’s going to die anyway, goes the logic, might as well give her demise religious significance.

As far as how she got from Peru to Germany, researchers believe the mummy was one of two brought to Germany by Princess Theresa von Bayern of Bavaria at the turn of the century. Princess Theresa was the daughter of Prince Regent Luitpold who ruled Bavaria while King Ludwig II, the great palace builder sometimes known as Ludwig the Mad, was sidelined by purported mental illness. In her youth she and her cousin Otto, Ludwig’s brother and successor, were in love but could not marry because of Otto’s own struggles with mental illness and the political complications of her father being regent. She never married, dedicating her life to educating herself (women were not allowed to attend university) in the natural sciences.

In 1898, Princess Theresa went on an expedition to Peru. According to her records, she carried two mummies with her back to Bavaria. There are no records of where she installed the mummies. She died in 1925, leaving her extensive collection of South American anthropological remains to the State Museum of Ethnology in Munich. Since this mummy appears in the Anatomical Institute records in 1904, just six years after her Peruvian expedition, if it was one of the Princess Theresa mummies, she probably donated it to them directly.

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Confirmed: Tetrarchs looted from Constantinople

February 27th, 2014

Framing a corner of the facade of St. Mark’s Basilica in Venice are high relief sculptures of four Roman emperors known as the Portrait of the Four Tetrarchs. Each pair is on a separate panel carved out of Imperial Porphyry, a dark purple-red color reserved in antiquity for emperors, in the early 4th century A.D. The figures are the two senior emperors (Augusti) and two junior emperors (Caesares) of the tetrarchy, a power-sharing system instituted by Emperor Diocletian in 293 that established one senior-junior pair to rule over the eastern empire (Oriens) and another over the western empire (Occidens). It only lasted two decades. By 313 civil war had chipped away at various usurpers and claimants leaving only Constantine I as Augustus Occidens and Licinius I as Augustus Oriens.

It’s not possible to identify the specific rulers depicted in the sculpture. Unlike the portraiture of earlier Roman emperors, the Tetrarchs are not realistic. There are no identifying characteristics or attributes, no naturalism, no individuality in the carving of garments or the men wearing them. Each pair shares an embrace, one bearded figure and one clean-shaved. It’s probable the bearded figures are Augusti and the Caesares are smooth-cheeked, but that’s symbolic of their relative ages and ranks, not a reflection of tonsorial reality. It’s also possible they were carved after the functional demise of the tetrarchy and are actually the three sons of Constantine (Constantine II, Constantius II, Constans) and his nephew Dalmatius, all of whom held the rank of Caesar.

What’s certain is they didn’t originate in Venice. They were looted, carried back to the city after the 1204 Sack of Constantinople during the Fourth Crusade. Their exact provenance has long been debated. No contemporary chronicles mention the Tetrarchs explicitly. There are references in 14th century sources to marble and porphyry tablets plundered from Constantinople, but not to sculptures. There are also references to stonework being looted from Acre after Venice defeated Genoese forces there in 1258.

Some historians have posited that the 1258 date is accurate, but that it refers to the arrival of the Tetrarchs in Venice rather than plunder from the Genoese castle in Acre. By this theory, the Tetrarchs had remained in Constantinople during the short-lived Latin Empire when Crusaders ruled Byzantium between 1204 and the restoration of the Byzantine Empire under Michael VIII Palaiologos in 1261. When the situation started getting hairy for the Latin Empire, the Tetrarchs and other loot were sent to Venice and arrived contemporaneously around the time of the Genoese loss at Acre.

A popular legend dispenses with all this Crusader jazz. According to this version of events, the sculpture was once four thieves who were caught in the act trying to steal of the basilica’s treasure by Saint Mark himself. They were petrified for their crime affixed to the wall where the treasure is kept to guard it for eternity.

In 1965, a Turkish-German archaeological excavation underneath the Bodrum Mosque, originally a 10th c. church called the Myrelaion, in Istanbul recovered a porphyry fragment of a heel standing on a rectangular base. It seemed to fit the Tetrarchs whose fourth figure is missing his original feet and base. The Myrelaion was built over a 5th century rotunda and next to the Capitolium, a temple associated with the imperial cult built during Constantine’s reign. The Capitolium was also known as the Philadelphion, the “temple of brotherly love,” after the sons of Constantine.

This is the likely source of the Tetrarchs. Each pair would have adorned one of the massive porphyry columns on the portico of the main entrance. The building may even have become known as the Philadelphion because of the Tetrarchs. They were soon identified as Constantine’s sons, regardless of whether that was the original intent, and since they’re embracing, they were seen as representations of fraternal love. (This site has some neat reconstructions of the Philadelphion and the Tetrarchs on their columns.)

So the evidence has piled up, enough that for decades the Tetrarchs were widely assumed to have been plundered from Constantinople, but it has taken until now for an official confirmation.

Last year, the Procurator of St. Mark made an exact replica of all four Tetrarchs in Venice and the foot found in Istanbul. The fragments were combined in one piece, which fits perfectly together. Additional analyses were also made of the materials and the porphyry used for the making of the sculptures and the foot fragment. The results have confirmed that indeed the same material was used for both and therefore they are identical.

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World’s oldest cheese found on Chinese mummy

February 26th, 2014

Researchers have found the world’s oldest cheese around the neck a of Chinese mummy that was buried almost 4,000 years ago in the arid and salty Taklamakan Desert of the Tarim Basin, now in the Xinjiang region of northwest China. The Tarin mummies, first discovered in the 1930s, have already made a name for themselves because of their exceptional state of preservation and their European features. Now they can add wearing the oldest known cheese to their considerable mystique.

Chemist Andrej Shevchenko of Germany’s Max Planck Institute of Molecular Cell Biology and Genetics led the study which analyzed the yellow clumps adorning the neck and chest of the Beauty of Xiaohe, one of the earliest Tarin mummies at approximately 3,600 years old. The research team found proteins and fats characteristic of cheese, not other dairy products like milk or butter. These oldest cheese crumbles dates to approximately 1,615 B.C., an exceptional survival given how quickly dairy products decay.

The analysis also showed the mummies’ cheese was made by combining milk with a “starter,” a mix of bacteria and yeast. This technique is still used today to make kefir, a sour, slightly effervescent dairy beverage, and kefir cheese, similar to cottage cheese.

If the people of the cemetery did indeed rely on a kefir starter to make cheese, they were contradicting the conventional wisdom. Most cheese today is made not with a kefir starter but with rennet, a substance from the guts of a calf, lamb or kid that curdles milk. Cheese was supposedly invented by accident when humans began carrying milk in bags made of animal gut.

Making cheese with rennet requires the killing of a young animal, Shevchenko points out, and the kefir method does not. He argues that the ease and low cost of the kefir method would have helped drive the spread of herding throughout Asia from its origins in the Middle East. Even better, both kefir and kefir cheese are low in lactose, making them edible for the lactose-intolerant inhabitants of Asia.

We don’t know why the Tarin mummies were buried with cheese. A snack for the afterlife is one obvious possibility and they were certainly interred with elaborate grave goods and rituals. The Beauty of Xiaohe was coated head to toe in a milky white substance then wrapped in a be-tasseled white woolen cloak. Her elegant attire also includes a felt hat, a string skirt and fur-lined leather boots, all of them in like-new condition. On her chest was placed a wooden phallus and the cloak has three small pouches attached the right edge which contain fragments of the evergreen ephedra, a stimulant with thousands of years of use in Chinese herbal medicine. So sure, the cheese could have just been food for the voyage, or it could have had some entirely distinct ritual significance that we don’t understand.

There is far older evidence of cheesemaking — pottery cheese strainers found in Poland a few years ago date to 5,500 B.C. — so it’s not like it’s a surprise that people were making cheese 2,000 years after that, but these are the first ancient cheese pieces to have survived and been identified.

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Couple walking dog find biggest gold hoard in US

February 25th, 2014

A couple walking the dog on their property in Northern California last spring discovered the biggest and most valuable gold coin hoard ever unearthed in the United States. They were treading the same well-worn path they’ve trod hundreds of times for the dog’s daily constitutional when they spotted the rusted top of a metal can sticking up out of the eroded ground. They dug the can out with a stick and took it home.

It was so heavy lugging it back proved to be quite an effort. They figured there was lead paint inside. When the lid cracked off the husband saw the seductive rib of a single gold coin. Clearing out the rest of the contents, they found a lot of dirt and a stack of $20 liberty head gold coins from the 1890s. The pair promptly returned to the find spot, an area they dubbed Saddle Ridge, and dug some more. They immediately found another can about a foot to the left of where they had found the first can. Then they found five more smaller cans, and one last can they used a metal detector to locate.

The eight cans contained a total of 1,427 gold coins. Most of them, 1,373, to be precise, were $20 coins, 50 were $10 coins and four were $5 coins. Most were minted in San Francisco; one of the $5 coins was minted in Georgia. They date to between 1847 and 1894 and were stacked in approximate chronological order; all the 1840s and 50s coins in the first can and the rest by date in subsequent cans. The arrangement of coins and the varying condition of the cans suggest they were buried by someone over the course of years rather than the result of a single caper like a bank robbery. The total face value of the coins is $27,980.

In a panic over what to do with the immense gold treasure they had just found walking the dog, the owners took a page out of the original hoarder’s book. They put the coins in plastic bags and the bags inside an old cooler. They then dug a hole under the wood pile buried the cooler there. Two months later, they invited coin dealer Don Kagin and numismatic expert David McCarthy of Kagin’s, Inc. to examine the hoard. They found an incredible wealth of rare coins in beautiful condition. Fully thirteen of them are either the finest examples known to exist or tied for the finest. One of them, an 1866-S No Motto Double Eagle, is estimated to be worth $1 million on its own.

It’s fitting that such a rich find would be made in Gold Country, the region of the Sierra Nevadas east of Sacramento to the Nevada state line where an 1848 gold strike at Sutter’s Mill set off the madness of the California Gold Rush. Someone in the area was bucking the trend and putting gold back into the ground, oftentimes before it had even circulated. Many of the Saddle Ridge Hoard coins are in near-perfect condition, even the older ones. Paper money wasn’t legal in California until the 1870s, which means most of the coins from before then saw a great deal of circulation and wear. People didn’t start keeping California gold coins in uncirculated condition until the 1880s.

The exceptional condition and rarity of the coins makes their estimated market value around $10 million, far exceeding the estimated $1 million value of the other contender for biggest gold hoard found buried in the United States. The Tennessee Hoard was found in Jackson by workers building a city parking lot in 1985. The exact quantities found are not known because the workers pocketed much of the coins before the site was protected. Judging from the assessment of gold dealers who bought most of the Tennessee coins, there were hundreds totaling about $4,500 in face value and while the condition of some pieces was excellent, many of them were damaged by heavy machinery during the discovery while others were cleaned so roughly the coin surface was cracked.

The couple has chosen to remain anonymous and keep their exact location secret to avoid turning their peaceful rural home into Sutter’s Mill 2: Now We Have Metal Detectors. They plan to sell 90% of the coins in a landmark deal with Amazon’s new Collectibles & Fine Art store. This is the first coin treasure to be sold via Amazon. Most of the rest will be sold privately directly to collectors. The couple plans to keep a small selection of the hoard. As “John” says in this great interview with the finders “Mary” and “John” on the Kagin’s website, “We would like to hold onto a cross section of it – something to leave to relatives when we pass on.”

I love their response to the question about whether they had noticed anything unusual about the find spot before:

John: Years ago, on our first hike, we noticed an old tree growing into the hill. It had an empty rusty can hanging from it that the tree had grown around – that was right at the site where we found the coins… At the time we thought the can might be a place for someone to put flowers in for a gravesite – something which would have been typical at the time.

There was also an unusual angular rock up the hill from where the coins were buried – we’d wondered what in the heck it was.

Mary: It wasn’t until we made the find that we realized it might have been a marker: starting at the rock, if you walk 10 paces towards the North Star, you wind up smack in the middle of the coins!

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700-year-old tea jar Chigusa at the Sackler

February 24th, 2014

Chigusa, glazed stoneware tea storage jar, mid-13th to mid-14th century ChinaChigusa was not born into refinement and elegance. It was a utilitarian piece, a large stoneware jar made in southern China in the 13th or 14th century and exported to Japan for use as a commercial container. Large at 16.5 inches high with four lugs around the neck and a mottled amber iron glaze that swoops down in overlapping ovals, once in Japan it was used to store tea, and it was this association that paved its road to glory.

Ciphers of past owners on Chigusa's baseChigusa worked uncomplainingly for centuries to earn a proper name, exquisite adornments and the contemplative gaze of some of the greatest masters of Japan’s tea culture. It had an important job. Matcha, the powdered green tea used in the tea ceremony, is harvested in May when the leaves are still young. Tea connoisseurs would stamp their names on the base of their jars and send them to the growers in the spring so the freshly picked and steamed leaves could be placed directly in the vessel. The mouth was sealed with a stopper and the tea left alone for six months to allow the flavor to ripen and mature. In November, the jar was opened and the first tea of the year drunk, an important ritual in Japan’s chanoyu (meaning “the way of tea”).

Tea master Kamiya Sotan's diary entry describing Chigusa, 1587The base of Chigusa has four names written in black lacquer. The first of them is Noami, a 15th century artist and tea expert for the Ashikaga shogunate. The next owner to leave his mark was Torii Insetsu (1448-1517), a tea master in the city of Sakai who would be revered by his successors. Ju Soho’s cipher is next. He is known to have hosted a tea in 1573 attended by Chigusa and the tea master Sen no Rikyu, one of the most influential masters, if not the most influential, in the development of tea culture. We know Chigusa was there at this ceremony because another guest, Imai Sokyu, wrote about seeing the “large jar … Chigusa” which had once belonged to the great Insetsu. A few years later the fourth owner, merchant Kondaya Tokurin, added his name to the base.

Chigusa's historical documentsWe don’t know who named the jar, but it was likely a poetry reference. The word means “myriad varieties” or “thousand plants” (it alters depending on which characters are used). By the time Sokyu wrote about Chigusa, its name was already known and the once workaday storage jar had become a meibutsu, a “celebrated tea object” that inspired masters to look at it carefully, writing journal entries about the smallest details of its glaze, shape and aesthetic significance. Tea master Yamanoue Soji observed Chigusa at a ceremony hosted by warlord Toyotomi Hideyoshi in Osaka Castle in 1584 and recorded it in his diary. So did Kamiya Sotan three years later.

Chigusa with mouth cover, cords, silk net bagOver the centuries, its rustic beauty would be adorned with precious materials worthy of its importance: a mouth cover made out of gold brocade Ming Dynasty silk, a blue silk net bag from the Muromachi or Momoyama period in the 16th century, blue ornamental cords from the Meiji era (1868–1912). It has three nested storage boxes to keep it and its accoutrements safe. The innermost box was made during the Edo period (1615–1868) from lacquered paulownia wood. What is now the middle box was originally the outer box. It was also made in the Edo period out of cedar wood stained with persimmon tannin. The outermost box today is from the Meiji era. Trays inside the innermost box hold the cords, net, letters and other documentation that illustrates the rich history of this unique jar.

Chigusa's three nesting storage boxesBy the 17th century, Chigusa was so important it played a part in Japanese politics. During the Tokugawa shogunate, shoguns and daimyos gave it as a gift to seal alliances and prove their loyalty. It remained in Tokugawa hands until the end of the shogunate in 1868, after which Chigusa entered the tea collection market. Wealthy industrialists owned it, allowing it to go on display very occasionally. It only left Japan once in 2009 when it went to New York City to find a new home. At a Christie’s auction on September 17th, Chigusa with all its goods was bought by the Freer Gallery of Art for $662,500.

Tray of innermost box with cords and envelopes holding documentationThe Freer and the adjacent Arthur M. Sackler Gallery are the Smithsonian’s Asian art branches, centered on core collections built by their eponymous founders. Chigusa is therefore in good company, despite its great distance from home. There are only a few hundred such large tea storage jars with all their accessories and documentation remaining in Japan, and only a smattering of remotely comparable pieces abroad.

On February 22nd, Chigusa and the Art of Tea debuted at the Sackler.

In Chigusa and the Art of Tea, Chigusa holds court alongside other cherished objects, including calligraphy by Chinese monks, Chinese and Korean tea bowls and Japanese stoneware water jars and wooden vessels that were used and enjoyed during this formative time of Japanese tea culture. In order to create the intimate feel of a 16th-century tea gathering, part of the exhibition space recreates a Japanese tea room, complete with tatami mats.

“Tea men looked at Chigusa and found beauty even in its flaws, elevating it from a simple tea jar to how we know it today,” said Louise Allison Cort, curator of ceramics at the Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery. “This ability to value imperfections in objects made by the human hand is one of the great contributions of Japanese tea culture to the world.”

Chigusa with brocade mouth cover and knotted ornamental cordThe exhibition includes a video of a tea master ceremonially adorning Chigusa, tying elaborate decorative knots with the blue cords, connecting the blue silk net bag, and tying the brocaded cover on the mouth. A traditional tea ceremony will be hosted for visitors on March 23rd and April 6th. There are also regular lunch tours led by curators and panel discussions with researchers Oka Yoshiko and Andrew M. Watsky. See the full list of events and dates here.

The exhibition closes on July 27th, 2014, after which Chigusa will travel to the Princeton University Art Museum in Princeton, New Jersey, where it will be on display from October 11th through February 1st, 2015.

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