Skeleton of soldier unearthed at Waterloo identified

April 7th, 2015

The skeletal remains of a soldier unearthed at the Waterloo battlefield in June of 2012 has been identified. He was 23-year-old Friedrich Brandt, a private in the 2nd line battalion of the King’s German Legion, felled by a French musket shot to the chest during the Battle of Waterloo on June 18th, 1815. Although the identification cannot be confirmed with DNA analysis because no descendants are known, the circumstantial evidence makes a strong case.

Like a certain other historical figure whose remains were discovered in 2012, Brandt’s skeleton was found underneath a parking lot (an overspill lot for the battlefield visitor’s center). His skull was destroyed by mechanical diggers clearing the area for the planned reconstruction of the visitor’s center, but as soon as the crew realized they’d unearthed human remains they alerted the Ministry of Archaeology for the region of Walloon Brabant and archaeologists excavated the rest of the skeleton which was virtually intact, missing only a foot and some hand bones. They found the deceased also had something else in common with the other personage found under a parking lot: a spinal curvature that would have rendered him unfit for battle by modern standards. He was slight at just 5’1″ tall.

The young man had been hastily buried under 15 inches of soil, probably by his comrades who carried his moribund or dead body 109 yards behind the British front line in the shadow of what is today Lion Mount — a monument built in 1820 on the site where the Prince of Orange was wounded constructed out of 390,000 cubic yards of earth removed from the battlefield — but which in 1815 was the escarpment at the center of Wellington’s line. Victor Hugo describes the altered terrain poetically in Volume 2, Chapter 7 of Les Misérables:

Where the great pyramid of earth, surmounted by the lion, rises to-day, there was a hillock which descended in an easy slope towards the Nivelles road, but which was almost an escarpment on the side of the highway to Genappe. The elevation of this escarpment can still be measured by the height of the two knolls of the two great sepulchres which enclose the road from Genappe to Brussels: one, the English tomb, is on the left; the other, the German tomb, is on the right. There is no French tomb. The whole of that plain is a sepulchre for France.

Found with the soldier’s remains were 20 coins, an iron spoon, an unidentified wooden object with the initials “CB” and the date 1792 carved into it, the remains of the leather epaulets from his uniform, a flint and a small red sphere that nobody seems interested in explaining but we were all pretty curious about when it was discovered three years ago. The coins were corroded and only a half franc from 1811 could immediately be identified. Once cleaned, the coins were found to be German and French amounting to a month’s wages for a private in the King’s German Legion.

Researchers were hoping the epaulets might help identify which regiment the soldier had belonged to, but alas that came to naught. The only additional piece of evidence they were able to find was on the wooden object with the initials. Additional tests performed this February revealed that there was another initial before the CB, an F.

The discovery of the first initial was the breakthrough Gareth Glover, military historian, former Royal Navy officer and treasurer of the Waterloo Association, needed. KGL troops been positioned close to the area where the remains were found. When he checked the KGL muster rolls, he found only three soldiers with the initial FB. One had survived the battle. One died in the hospital in August of 1815. One was Friedrich Brand.

The King’s German Legion was formed after Napoleon conquered Hanover in 1803 and disbanded its army. King George III of England was also Prince-Elector of Hanover, so when his soldiers fled the French occupation, he welcomed them in England. KGL infantry, when they weren’t fighting the French mainly in Spain and Portugal, were quartered in barracks at Bexhill-on-Sea from 1804 until Napoleon’s first abdication in April 1814. Bexhill was a small village of about 100 houses with a population of 2,000. The arrival of 5,000-6,000 troops was initially jarring to the locals who compared them to Cossacks, but they soon settled in and became valued members of the community.

In August of 1814 the 5,000 KGL troops in Bexhill were ordered to return to the continent, much to the dismay of the Bexhillians who had come to love their German friends who sang so beautifully at St. Peter’s church, spent their wages so generously in the shops and hostelries and married their daughters. When Napoleon returned from exile on Elba and took his final stand at Waterloo, the KGL played a key role in the Allied victory, valiantly defending the farm of La Haye Sante 200 yards in front of the center of the
Allied line from late morning until they ran out of ammunition around 6:00 PM. Out of 360 KGL troops holding La Haye Sante, only 39 survived the French onslaught.

The rest of the King’s German Legion fought on Wellington’s right flank between Merbe Braine and Hougoumont farm. Private Brandt was part of this group. Glover believes he was slain in the early afternoon between 1:00 and 4:00 PM before his battalion advanced on Hougoumont.

Mr Glover said: “No-one can be 100% sure that the skeleton is Friedrich Brandt but with the information we have, this candidate is by far the most likely.”

It’s amazing they got anywhere near so educated a guess. Brandt’s is the only complete skeleton recovered from the Waterloo battlefield in two centuries. Close to 50,000 people died in that battle, but the Allied victors claimed their dead and buried them in consecrated ground while the French were burned or buried in mass graves. The graves were picked clean in the 1830s and 40s, the bones ground up to make valuable fertilizer for farmers and the teeth harvested for dentures that became known by the macabre moniker of “Waterloo teeth.”

To commemorate the bicentennial of the Battle of Waterloo this summer, Belgium is planning a number of special events and exhibitions. The skeleton will be part of an exhibition that opens in May at the Waterloo Battlefield museum, after which I hope he is buried with all due honors.

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WWI soldier graffiti found on Naours quarry walls

April 6th, 2015

Starting in the 3rd century with the Romans, chalk was quarried from the limestone of the Picard plateau underneath the northern French town of Naours. The digging continued long after the quarrying, so much so that eventually an entire underground city was carved out of the stone, a network of man-made caves with 3 kilometers (2 miles) of roads, 300 rooms, piazzas, three chapels, cowsheds, six chimneys and a bakery with ovens. The locals used it as hiding place during the Middle Ages and early modern era when the area was subject to an endless succession of conflicts and invasions among them the Hundred Years’ War, the peasant revolt of the Jacquerie, the Burgundian Wars, the French Wars of Religion and the Thirty Year’s War. During the upheavals of the French Revolution the Naours caves were used to smuggle contraband. As many as 3,000 people plus their livestock could take refuge in the underground city.

The entrance was closed off in the 19th century and the caves fell into obscurity until a local priest rediscovered the site in 1887. It became a well-known tourist attraction after that and its location 25 miles behind the front lines of the Somme must have made it a popular destination for Allied troops stationed in the area during World War I. Allied forces did use Vignacourt, just five miles to the west of the caves, as a staging area, however troops were not quartered in the Naours tunnels, nor was there a field hospital in the caves as there were in some of the other underground shelters carved out of the limestone elsewhere in Picardy.

That’s why it was such a surprise to Gilles Prilaux, an archaeologist with France’s National Institute for Preventive Archaeological Research (INRAP), when he discovered thousands of graffiti carved on the walls of the caves by World War I soldiers. Prilaux began studying the tunnel network last July as part of a three-year project to learn more about the site’s use during the Middle Ages when he found the marks of far more recent history. While soldier graffiti is plentiful in shelters like the massive 15-mile tunnel network at Arras, they were on the front lines and Allied troops actually lived there. The soldiers who left their mark in the walls of Naours were just visiting.

Texan photographer and doctor Jeffrey Gusky started documenting the graffiti last December. By his tally, there are almost 2,000 names etched into the walls: 731 Australians, 339 British, 55 Americans, a few French and Canadians and 662 others of unknown nationality for a total of 1,821. Chichester University historian Ross Wilson notes that the extraordinary density of graffiti in the Naours caves give them “one of the highest concentrations on inscriptions on the Western Front.”

Prilaux thinks that the young soldiers from distant countries would have heard about the famous “Naours caves” and taken advantage of a break from war to do some sight-seeing.

That idea is backed by an entry in the diary of Wilfred Joseph Allan Allsop, a 23-year-old private from Sydney, Australia. “At 1 p.m. 10 of us went to the famous Caves near Naours where refugees used to hide in times of Invasion” Allsop wrote on Jan. 2, 1917. [...]

One of the most moving inscriptions at Naours was made by Herbert John Leach, a 25-year-old from Adelaide. His inscription reads “HJ Leach. Merely a private. 13/7/16. SA Australia.”

Barely a month after Leach added his name to the wall he was killed in action on Aug. 23, 1916, during the Battle of Pozieres.

On his grave, in the Australian cemetery in nearby Flers, his father inscribed “Duty Nobly Done.”

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Russian billionaire buys Salvator Mundi, dealer makes $50 million killing

April 5th, 2015

When the rediscovery of Salvator Mundi, Leonardo da Vinci’s painting of Christ as the Savior of the Word, exploded onto the world stage in June of 2011, details about who owned the painting and their future plans for the work after its exhibition at the London’s National Gallery blockbuster exhibition Leonardo da Vinci: Painter at the Court of Milan were not forthcoming. It was revealed by art trade insiders last year that the masterpiece had been privately sold by the consortium of art dealers to, whom else, an anonymous private collector in May 2013 for between $75 million and $80 million. Sotheby’s brokered the sale and of course they never kiss and tell, nor did Robert Simon, one of the few known members of the consortium, when the New York Times asked him about it.

That little item in the Times’ ArtsBeat blog had quite the unintended consequence when the anonymous private collector in question found out that the painting he’d bought for $127.5 million was sold for $50 million less that, and that wasn’t the only artwork for which he’d paid through several noses. Irked by these revelations, the collector took it to the authorities and now all that precious secrecy that the art and antiquities trade loves so much has blown up in everyone’s faces.

The owner of the Salvator Mundi is Russian potash billionaire Dmitry Rybolovlev, or technically the trust he’s created to shelter the vast art collection worth an estimated $2 billion he’s amassed over the past decade. More than 40 of these works — including important pieces by Picasso, Toulouse-Lautrec, Modigliani, Magritte, Gauguin, Degas and Rothko along with the Leonardo — he acquired through his preferred art dealer, Swiss businessman Yves Bouvier who first got into art dealing by owning tax-free warehouses in the same shady freeports that so prominently feature in the looted antiquities trade. When he saw the kind of insane amounts of money changing hands, he figured out he could make the big bucks trading in the contents of the warehouses, not just the rental of the space.

Their lucrative business relationship came to a screeching halt when Rybolovlev found out at a party last New Year’s Eve that the Modigliani painting Nu Couché au Coussin Bleu he had purchased for $118 million was sold by its previous owner for $93 million. Even for the billionaire luxury goods market, a $25 million mark-up is bold. That proved to be modest by comparison to the mark-up on the Leonardo. Rybolovlev already paid Bouvier a commission of two percent on every sale — he was presented with two separate invoices each time, one for the cost of the artwork, one for two percent of its value — so he was less than pleased to find a whole other level of commission hidden in the price of the paintings.

Nine days after the New Year’s Eve party, Rybolovlev filed a criminal complaint against Bouvier in Monaco for document forgery (the invoices) and fraud (the inflated price of the art). In Monaco individuals and companies can file criminal complaints that the police and prosecutors will investigate without alerting the potential defendant. Apparently the investigation in this case bore fruit and on February 25th, Rybolovlev invited Bouvier over to his office in Monaco ostensibly to discuss payment of Rothko’s N° 6 – Violet, Green and Red he’d purchased for $140 million last year. The dealer was greeted at the door by eight cops who arrested him on charges of document forgery and fraud.

He was detained for three days until he could rustle up 10 million euros in bail money, which apparently took some time to raise despite his wallowing in filthy lucre because said lucre isn’t in fluid cash. Meanwhile, Rybolovlev’s legal team also got Singapore, where Bouvier owns freeports, to freeze $500 million of his company’s assets. Prosecutors in Geneva searcherd Bouvier’s company’s headquarters for documents related to the sales of the Modigliani nude and Salvator Mundi.

Bouvier insists he’s innocent, that he is not a broker but a seller. He bought those works from the owners fair and square and then resold them to Rybolovlev. That makes the tens of millions he made on top of the original sale price perfectly legitimate resale margin, “administrative costs,” not fraudulent hidden commissions. He says that the Russian oligarch is just using the courts to get out of paying the tens of millions he still owes on that Rothko. He claims that Rybolovlev laid the trap to have him arrested because he wanted to put him “in the gulag” and let him stew there, to intimidate him into giving up his claim to the as-yet unpaid Rothko moneys.

Rybolovlev responds that as per their agreement, he is paying off the Rothko in stages and the payments are still on schedule so there are no millions outstanding. His complaint presents evidence refuting Bouvier’s claim to be a reseller rather than a broker, namely letters in which Bouvier discusses negotiating terms of sale with owners on Rybolovlev’s behalf and insists on the importance of secrecy because if word gets out that the owner wants to sell, then they run the risk of “losing it to auction.” Or of Rybolovlev finding out that Bouvier was pocketing tens of millions in the transaction.

So the bad news is that one of fewer than 20 known surviving Leonardo da Vinci paintings is squirreled away in wherever Rybolovlev hoards his preciouses. The good news is that the we get to watch all of this play out in the light of day for a change.

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UV reveals erased poetry in 13th c. Welsh book

April 4th, 2015

The Black Book of Carmarthen is the oldest surviving manuscript written entirely in the Welsh language. It was penned by a single scribe working at different periods around the year 1250. Its name refers to the color of the binding and to the Augustinian Priory of Saints John the Evangelist and Teulyddog in Carmarthen, west central Wales, which is reputed to have been the manuscript’s original home. It has passed through many hands over the years, several of whom have left their mark on the vellum pages and at least one of whom sought to erase those marks. Now thanks to an ultraviolet lamp and photo editing software, what was lost has been rediscovered.

With the exception of a handful of Welsh triads about the legendary horses of Welsh heroes, the contents of the Black Book are poems dating from the 9th to the 12th century. They’re a varied lot, with religious verses, odes of mourning and praise and some of the first written versions of Arthurian tales rubbing shoulders in the 54 folios. The first poem in the book is Ymddiddan Myrddin a Thaliesin (A Conversation Between Merlin and Taliesin), a dialogue between the legendary mage and the great Welsh poet who, like Merlin, was reputed to have the power of prophesy. Two of the pieces later in the manuscript are prophetic poems ostensibly authored by Myrddin during his “wild man” phase.

The first owner of the Black Book whose name we know was Sir John Price of Brecon (ca. 1502-1555) who had been tasked by King Henry VIII with searching dissolved monasteries for loot. He got it from the treasurer of St. David’s Cathedral on the westernmost tip of Wales almost 50 miles from Carmarthen which is where he learned of its origins at the priory. It next appears on the historical record in the hands of 17th century Welsh book collector Robert Vaughan, but there are notes on the pages of the book that identify owners between the two. Scholar, book collector and warden of Ruthin Hospital Jasper Gryffyth (d. 1614) wrote his name in Hebrew and a note about the poems on one of the pages. William Salesbury (ca. 1520-1584), polyglot author of a Welsh-English dictionary and translator of the New Testament into Welsh, left a note on the bottom of a page as well. Also, Vaughan wrote in another manuscript that the Black Book had been owned by poet Siôn Tudur (d. 1602) at some point.

One of those 16th century owners — researchers believe it was probably Jasper Gryffyth — took it upon himself to clean up the Black Book and erase the notes and drawings his predecessors had left in the margins. University of Cambridge PhD student Myriah Williams and Professor Paul Russell noticed there were shadows on some of the pages and thought they might be able to see what was erased using ultraviolet light and playing with the spectrum using photo editing software. They spent three years examining the fragile volume — it’s so delicate can’t be opened at more than a 90 degree angle — and last year found two ghostly faces staring back at them. The little drawings, dated to the 14th or 15th century, were accompanied by an inscription that indicates the book was donated to a family member.

[T]he 16th century owner’s penchant for erasure has been partly reversed to reveal snatches of poetry which are previously unrecorded in the canon of Welsh verse. Currently, the texts are very fragmentary and in need of much more analysis, although they seem to be the continuation of a poem on the preceding page with a new poem added at the foot of the page.

Williams said: “It’s easy to think we know all we can know about a manuscript like the Black Book but to see these ghosts from the past brought back to life in front of our eyes has been incredibly exciting. The drawings and verse that we’re in the process of recovering demonstrate the value of giving these books another look.

“The margins of manuscripts often contain medieval and early modern reactions to the text, and these can cast light on what our ancestors thought about what they were reading. The Black Book was particularly heavily annotated before the end of the 16th century, and the recovery of erasure has much to tell us about what was already there and can change our understanding of it.”

The new poem has no known match in Welsh verse, so it was probably the original work of the annotator. Williams and Russell will give a lecture about their discovery at the National Library of Wales on Wednesday and will emphasize the importance of this research which has the potential to reveal so much about medieval Welsh literature.

The National Library of Wales has digitized the entire manuscript. You can browse through it page by page. There are no transcripts or translations, but the notes from previous holders are eminently legible in the first few pages.

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Visually imparied touch the art of the Prado

April 3rd, 2015

In 2012 I blogged about the Penn Museum’s pilot program of Touch Tours to give blind and visually impaired visitors the opportunity to explore select ancient artifacts by touch. It was an immense success and the next year was expanded to include even cooler elements like raised line diagrams, visually impaired assistant docents and the opportunity to smell mummification oils. Touch Tours are now an annual event at the Penn Museum.

One of the reasons this was possible, despite the almost universal strictures against touching exhibits in museums worldwide, is that Penn Museum focused on stone artifacts with all kinds of textural and relief features from their ancient Egyptian collection. Visitors still had to meticulously clean their hands with sanitizer wipes before being allowed to explore the pieces, but granite and limestone and basalt can take a lot of touching without being damaged and their three-dimensional designs give the non-sighted rich details to explore. Paint, on the other hand, is highly susceptible to damage from our grubby paws, and paintings are two-dimensional. Even if visitors were allowed to put their oily, sweaty and oozy mitts on the art, touch can’t convey much of the painted image (unless it’s a Jackson Pollock).

The Prado has overcome those challenges with a brilliant idea: relief reproductions of select artworks. The project began a year ago when the museum commissioned the innovative Basque graphics company Estudios Durero to create relief images that would allow blind and low-vision visitors to explore paintings from the Prado’s collection with their hands. Because many visually impaired people can still see color but standard 3D printing hasn’t yet gotten to the point of being able to recreate accurately the vast range of colors in a painting, Estudios Durero used a proprietary technique they’ve developed called Didú which uses a high resolution image of the work printed in special ink as the base. The areas that need to be in relief are marked and a chemical is added to them which makes the ink develop volume and texture up to six millimeters deep. The image of the painting with accurate colors is then printed onto that base.

Museum curators worked with the Estudios Durero team to pick the paintings best suited to this kind of exploration. Extremely detailed pieces would be too hard to follow, and the scale of the paintings had to be manageable both for the printing process and for the visitors to be able to reach every part of them. Blind and low-sighted consultants were enlisted to help the team figure out which parts of the painting should be highlighted in relief. The eyes, it turned out, worked better as concave elements rather than convex because the holes provided a reference point for the visually impaired to orient themselves as they explored the artwork.

Six works were chosen for this exhibition: Noli me tangere (ca. 1525) by Correggio, Vulcan’s Forge (1630) by Velázquez, The Parasol (1777) by Goya, Mona Lisa (1503-1519) from the workshop of Leonardo da Vinci, The Nobleman with his Hand on his Chest (ca. 1580) by El Greco and Still life with Artichokes, Flowers and Glass Vessels (1627) by Juan van der Hamen. That copy of the Mona Lisa, by the way, is the one which was painted contemporaneously with the original and has details that on the original are obscured by thick, darkened varnish. In addition to the paintings, the exhibition features new explanatory materials created specifically to convey information to the non and low-sighted on braille panels next to the works and in audio tours. The museum also provides opaque glasses for sighted visitors to experience the paintings by touch the way the visually impaired do.

Touching the Prado opened January 19th and runs through June 28th. The exhibition has been a smashing success so far and it’s only in its infancy. The museum is planning on expanding the exhibition with additional paintings. Estudios Durero is working on finding new ways to convey the sensory experience of skin, hair, textiles, metal, glass, all kinds of materials represented in the paintings. Other museums have contacted them about setting up similar programs, so this could small project could have far-reaching consequences in making the visual arts accessible to those who have been all but cut off from them.

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17th c. Ottoman war camel unearthed in Austria

April 2nd, 2015

In 2006, archaeologists excavating a site of a future shopping center in the town of Tulln on the Danube in Lower Austria discovered the skeleton of a large mammal. The location once boasted a tavern named “Auf der Rossmühle” (On the Mill) and it was in what would have been the tavern’s cellar that they found the skeleton. At first they thought it was a bovine or a very large horse, but archaeozoologist Dr. Alfred Galik identified it as a camel.

Testing of both the mitochondrial DNA and the nuclear DNA confirmed the morphological evidence that the animal was a hybrid of a dromedary mother and a Bactrian camel father. Its teeth and bones indicate the animal was an adult male, probably gelded, older than seven years. Lesions on the mandible show the camel was accustomed to wearing a harness and lesions on the shoulder blades were likely caused by the animal being made to rise and sit frequently to allow riders to mount and dismount. These are relatively minor repetitive stress deformities. Had the lad been used as a beast of burden, there would be significantly more damage to the bones. He was also fairly slender, so not ideally suited to bearing heavy loads but well suited as a riding animal. There are no signs of abuse or malnutrition. This guy was treated well.

Researchers were able to date the animal with some precision to the second half of the 17th century thanks to artifacts found buried in the backfill with the remains. A Rechenpfenning, a coin or token used for math calculations rather than legal tender, bearing the face of King Louis XIV dates to between 1643 and 1715. A lead bottle containing the cure-all theriac (I don’t think this one is going to get revived any time soon) labeled with the name of a Vienna apothecary’s shop placed it squarely in the 17th century as “Apotheke zur Goldenen Krone” was in business between 1628 and 1665. Documentary evidence found that the the property changed hands in 1690 which is doubtless when the cellar was backfilled for new construction above it.

While camel remains ranging in date from the Roman to the early modern era have been discovered before in Central Europe, they were disarticulated bones or partial skeletons at best. This is the first complete camel skeleton found and the timing makes it all the more intriguing because the late 17th century saw the final culmination of three centuries of war between Habsburg Austria and the Ottoman Empire where the camels came from. The overwhelming victory of the allied European powers at the Battle of Vienna in September of 1683 marked the turning point. Fighting continued until the Treaty of Karlowitz was signed in 1699, but the Ottoman forces were on the defensive the entire time and ultimately lost Hungary and Transylvania for good.

One of the leaders of the Holy League alliance, King of Poland John III Sobieski, who famously led the largest cavalry charge in history (18,000 horsemen) to inflict the coup de grace on the struggling Ottomans at the Battle of Vienna, wrote to his wife afterwards:

God and our Lord forever blessed be, He gave victory and glory to our people as the past centuries never knew before. All over the camp, countless riches fall into our hands. The enemy, their dead littering fields and the camp, flees in confusion. Camels, mules, cattle, sheep, which it had on the sides, our troops now take….

Tulln is just 25 miles northwest of Vienna. It was the staging ground where the allied troops met before the Battle of Vienna. Perhaps this camel made his way to the city as part of the spoils King John III Sobieski mentioned, or it may have been part of a peaceable exchange earlier that summer. Ottoman troops occupied the countryside around Tulln in August of 1683 but never conquered the town. Diplomatic channels were open since the Holy Roman Emperor’s ambassador and his secretary were released to Tulln by the Ottomans at that time.

We know it wasn’t still in Ottoman hands when it died, because they would have butchered it (which is part of the reason why there are so few complete camel remains found in Europe). There are no cut marks on the bone and the position of the articulated skeleton means it was buried intact. Researchers believe the camel may have been kept as an exotic animal exhibit in Tulln. With little experience in the care and feeding of camels and limited resources in a time of war, the locals probably wouldn’t have been ideal zookeepers. When the camel died a few years later, it was put in the cellar with a bunch of trash and covered by the backfill.

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Anglo-Saxon eye salve kills MRSA superbug

April 1st, 2015

Since Alexander Fleming first noticed that the Penicillium mold that had accidentally contaminated his petri dish was lethal to the Staphylococcus bacteria inside it in 1928, humans have become accustomed to a world where infections can be cured with no more effort than having to swallow a few uncomfortably large pills for a week. The days when a scraped knee could kill seem like ancient history, but they’re not. Bacteria have become increasingly resistant to the antibiotics in the medical arsenal and with very few new antibiotics discovered over the past two decades, the prospect of a world of infectious microbes we cannot kill has become a terrifying reality. According to the CDC, 23,000 people a year die from antibiotic-resistant bacterial infections.

Even Fleming knew the antibiotic gravy train ran on unstable tracks. He noted in the official Nobel Lecture (pdf) he delivered in the days leading up to the ceremony awarding him the 1945 Nobel Prize in Medicine: “It is not difficult to make microbes resistant to penicillin in the laboratory by exposing them to concentrations not sufficient to kill them, and the same thing has occasionally happened in the body.” The bacteria that survive the antibiotic onslaught and their descendants develop resistance to that antibiotic. If any survive the next antibiotic deployed against them, they become resistant to that one as well and on and on through the entire pharmacopoeia.

That’s how Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) bacteria came to set up shop particularly in hospitals because MRSA laughs at our puny human doctors with their losery old penicillins and amoxicillins. The rate of MRSA infections at US academic hospitals doubled between 2003 and 2008, and since there hasn’t been a new class of antibiotics discovered since the 1980s, MRSA and other drug-resistant bacteria are only getting stronger.

The potential disaster here is so far-reaching it’s hard to grasp. It’s not just pneumonia and injuries that used to be easily treated that will become many times more fatal. Cancer treatment, organ and device (mechanical knees, hips, etc.) transplants, dialysis, open-heart surgery, any surgery at all, for that matter, including plastic surgery, even getting tattoos all rely heavily on antibiotics to keep patients alive. See the World Health Organization’s Antimicrobial Resistance: Global Report on Surveillance (pdf) to learn more about the post-antibiotic apocalypse we’re facing.

Scientists all over the world are looking for new drugs to combat the rise of superbugs, among them a team from the University of Nottingham who have taken an approach so old it’s new again. The brain child of Dr. Christina Lee, an Anglo-Saxon expert from the University’s English department, the study tested the efficacy of a recipe for a salve to treat eye infections found in Bald’s Leechbook, a collection of remedies for illness written in Old English around 950 A.D. in Winchester that is now in the British Library. Here is a translation of the recipe in volume two of Oswald Cockayne’s outstandingly titled Leechdoms, Wortcunning, and Starcraft of Early England, published in 1864-6. (I need to integrate “wortcunning” into my daily vocabulary.)

Work an eye salve for a wen, take cropleek and garlic, of both equal quantities, pound them well together, take wine and bullocks gall, of both equal quantities, mix with the leek, put this then into a brazen vessel and let it stand nine days in the brass vessel, wring out through a cloth and clear it well, put it into a horn and about night time apply it with a feather to the eye; the best leechdom.

No disrespect to Oswald Cockayne and his mastery of the catchy book title, but his translation needed updating for use in a scientific context. Dr. Lee translated the recipe from the original manuscript, researching ambiguous words for optimal accuracy. Researchers, led by microbiologist Dr. Freya Harrison, were meticulous in recreating the recipe as faithfully as possibly, even securing the wine from a vineyard that is known to have been in use in the 9th century. They made four batches of the salve and a control batch without any of the vegetable ingredients, then applied Bald’s salve to well-established MSRA cultures (with a dropper, not a feather) and waited for 24 hours before counting the surviving bacteria.

The team made artificial wound infections by growing bacteria in plugs of collagen and then exposed them to each of the individual ingredients, or the full recipe. None of the individual ingredients alone had any measurable effect, but when combined according to the recipe the Staphylococcus populations were almost totally obliterated: about one bacterial cell in a thousand survived.

The team then went on to see what happened if they diluted the eye salve – as it is hard to know just how much of the medicine bacteria would be exposed to when applied to a real infection. They found that when the medicine is too dilute to kill Staphylococcus aureus, it interfered with bacterial cell-cell communication (quorum sensing). This is a key finding, because bacteria have to talk to each other to switch on the genes that allow them to damage infected tissues. Many microbiologists think that blocking this behaviour could be an alternative way of treating infection.

Bald’s onion and bile salve, it turns out, is an MRSA-killing machine.

Dr Harrison commented: “We thought that Bald’s eyesalve might show a small amount of antibiotic activity, because each of the ingredients has been shown by other researchers to have some effect on bacteria in the lab – copper and bile salts can kill bacteria, and the garlic family of plants make chemicals that interfere with the bacteria’s ability to damage infected tissues. But we were absolutely blown away by just how effective the combination of ingredients was. We tested it in difficult conditions too; we let our artificial ‘infections’ grow into dense, mature populations called ‘biofilms’, where the individual cells bunch together and make a sticky coating that makes it hard for antibiotics to reach them. But unlike many modern antibiotics, Bald’s eye salve has the power to breach these defences.”

It worked in vivo, too, on mice with MRSA-infected skin wounds at Texas Tech University.

As promising as this study is, it’s still in the early stages. The AncientBiotics program is crowdfunding to hire a summer intern to help them move forward briskly with this incredibly exciting research. They just reached their goal of £1,000 so they’ll definitely get funded, but given the modesty of the original goal and the global importance of this project, I’d love to see them raise a lot more than that. There are 26 days left in the fundraiser. Donate!

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Rare Earl of Lancaster devotional panel found on Thames riverbank

March 31st, 2015

Archaeologists from the Museum of London Archaeology (MOLA) have unearthed a rare 14th century devotional panel dedicated to the death of rebel-turned-martyr Thomas, 2nd Earl of Lancaster. The team was excavating the north bank of the Thames near London Bridge in advance of construction in 2000 when they found the rare piece in a medieval land reclamation dump. The waterlogged soil of the Thames riverbank is an outstanding preserver of artifacts, and this lead alloy panel with its delicate openwork has survived in excellent condition along with organic artifacts like timber revetments from the Roman period and the Middle Ages, the remains of plants used for cloth dyeing and a medieval leather knife sheath.

The panel was originally a mass-produced object sold at a pilgrimage site dedicated to the earl. People bought them as devotional objects, often for use in small home shrines. Thomas Plantagenet, Earl of Lancaster, would not at first glance seem to be the ideal subject for religious reverence. A holy man he was not. What he was was a powerful baron, the holder of no fewer than five major earldoms (Lancaster, Lincoln, Salisbury, Leicester, Derby) that made him the second wealthiest man in England after the king, the paternal grandson King Henry III of England and a thorn in the side of the unpopular King Edward II, his cousin.

At first Thomas supported Edward, but the bloom was soon off the rose, in large part thanks to Edward’s lavishing of titles, monies and power on his low-born favorite Piers Gaveston. By 1311, three years after he’d carried Curtana, the sword of St. Edward the Confessor, at his cousin’s coronation, Thomas was the leader of the Ordainers, a group of barons, earls and bishops demanding, among other things, that Gaveston be exiled. When Gaveston returned less than two months after this his third exile and Edward gave him all his lands and titles back, the Ordainers went to war. He was captured, tried and beheaded. Lancaster was one of the judges and Gaveston was executed on his property.

From then on it was one fight after the other between the royal cousins. For a while Lancaster had the upper hand in a big way, becoming the de facto king after Edward’s army was defeated by the forces of Robert the Bruce at the Battle of Bannockburn in 1314, but in 1318 he was ousted and the two Hugh Despensers, father and son, took over as power behind the throne and Edward’s favorite. Lancaster marshalled his private army, struck up a deal with Robert the Bruce and rebelled against the crown.

On March 16th, 1322, Lancaster and the King’s allies went head to head at the Battle of Boroughbridge. Lancaster lost. He was taken prisoner and tried for treason in a sham court (the judges included both Despensers and the King) in his own castle at Pontefract where he was not allowed to speak in his own defense. He was convicted, of course, and on March 23rd, he was executed by beheading (Edward had commuted the traditional sentence of hanging, drawing and quartering on account of Lancaster’s royal blood).

Within weeks after Lancaster’s execution, shrines dedicated to him began to crop up, at the site of his execution at Pontefract Castle, his tomb in Pontefract Priory and at Old St. Paul’s Cathedral in London. Rumors of miracles at the priory tomb and execution site abounded and soon Thomas was venerated as a popular saint. He was so popular Edward II put an armed guard around the priory to keep the crowds away. In response money was raised from all over England to build a chantry chapel on the site of his execution.

His saintliness rested not in his personal piety or holy behavior (there certainly wasn’t much of the latter), but in his rebellion against a despised king. This was a thing in Medieval England: make saints out of fallen political/military heroes. Simon de Montfort received similar devotions after his death in 1265. What better way for Edward III to distance himself from his father after Edward II’s murder than to side with the cult of St. Thomas of Lancaster? In 1327 petitioned Pope John XXII that Thomas be canonized as an official saint of the Church, but it never happened.

Notwithstanding his lack of a Church-sanctioned halo, Thomas continued to be revered locally at least until the Dissolution of the Monasteries. His relics were believed to hold specific healing properties — his belt helped women in labour, his hat cured migraines — and a hymn called the Lancaster Suffrage was included as part of the daily prayers in the psalters and Books of Hours of wealthy Lancastrians. Here’s the one from Manuscript 13 (ca. 1330) in the Bridewell Library at Southern Methodist University:

Antiphon: Oh Thomas, Earl of Lancaster,
Jewel and flower of knighthood,
Who in the name of God,
For the sake of the state of England,
Offered yourself to be killed.
Versicle: Pray for us, soldier of Christ.
Response: Who never held the poor worthless.
Collect: Almighty everlasting God, you who wished to honor your holy soldier Thomas of Lancaster through the lamentable palm of the martyr for the peace and state of England just as he is lead through the sacrament for God’s own exceeding glory [and] through your holy miracles. Bestow, we pray, that you grant all faithful venerating him a good journey and life eternal. Through Christ our Lord, Amen.

For people who could not afford to have French illuminators make them their own personal prayer books, devotional panels provided a less expensive entre into the private veneration of St. Thomas. Although they were very popular in the 14th century, few of these panels have survived. The British Museum has two examples, one smaller and one larger, neither of them are in great condition. The figures on the smaller piece are crudely designed and while the larger panel has an elaborate Gothic cathedral-like structure and more people in it than the MOLA panel, they aren’t as finely crafted and the piece is fragmented. You can see in the picture that it’s being held together with wires.

The MOLA piece is five inches high and 3.5 inches wide and divided into four scenes that are to be read clockwise from the top left. In scene one, Thomas is captured. The caption in French reads “Here I am taken prisoner.” In scene two he is put on trial. The caption reads “I am judged.” In scene three he is convicted and conveyed by horse (the quality, or lack thereof, of this horse was a big issue in some of the chronicles) to the site of execution. The caption: “I am under threat.” In the last scene Thomas is beheaded by sword. The caption states simply: “la mort” (death). These shenanigans are presided over by Jesus Christ and the Virgin Mary, perched atop the sun and moon, waiting to welcome Lancaster’s saintly soul to heaven.

This is the only Lancaster devotional panel known to have French labels explaining each scene. It’s also the only one known with surviving gilding which highlights the sun and moon.

Up until now the panel has only been known by Museum of London experts, but the riverbank excavation, including detailed information about the panel, has just been published (Roman and Medieval Revetments on the Thames Waterfront) so the museum is putting the panel on display for the first time. The exhibition in the museum’s Medieval Galleries will run from March 28th to September 28th of this year.

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Pharaoh Senebkay died a violent death in battle

March 30th, 2015

Forensic studies on the skeletal remains of Pharaoh Senebkay discovered last year at Abydos have found numerous sharp-force injuries indicating that he died a brutal death in battle. A pharaoh from a weak transitional dynasty in Egypt’s Second Intermediate Period (1650 and 1550 B.C.), Senebkay was beset by enemies to the north — the Canaanite Hyksos 15th Dynasty — and south — the Theban 16th and 17th Dynasties (1650 – 1590 B.C., 1580 – 1550 B.C.). These were turbulent times that would only come to end with the unification of Egypt under Pharaoh Ahmose I, founder of the 18th Dynasty and of the New Kingdom.

Senebkay lived somewhere in the middle of the Second Intermediate Period, probably around 1600 B.C., which makes him the earliest pharaoh known to have died in battle. Before this study the first pharaoh thought to have died in battle was Theban Pharaoh Seqnenre of the 17th Dynasty (ca. 1558 B.C.), father of the future Ahmose I. Although Seqnenre too was viciously slaughtered, there are no defensive wounds so he could well have been attacked in his sleep or executed by his Hyksos enemies.

Osteologists found that Senebkay was between 35 to 49 years old at the time of his death and of unusual height for his era at five feet seven inches to six feet tall. His wounds were so extensive he must have been the target of multiple attackers.

The king’s skeleton has an astounding eighteen wounds that penetrated to the bone. The trauma includes major cuts to his feet, ankles, knees, hands, and lower back. Three major blows to Senebkay’s skull preserve the distinctive size and curvature of battle axes used during Egypt’s Second Intermediate Period. This evidence indicates the king died violently during a military confrontation, or in an ambush.

The weapon in question was a bronze duckbill axe. University of Pennsylvania archaeologist Josef Wegner, leader of the excavation team, believes the pharoah’s injuries, the weapons they were inflicted with and force with which they were used indicates professional soldiers took the king down in a fight rather than, say, assassins or muggers.

Senebkay appears to have been on horseback when the assault began. Wounds to his lower body — a cut to his right ankle so severe it would have all but amputed his foot, slashes on his knees and hands — were inflicted from the ground upwards and the strikes on his lower back indicate he was seated when he received them. That was more than enough to unhorse him. By the time his assailants embedded their axes in his skull, the pharaoh was probably on the ground.

Another surprising result of the osteological analysis is that muscle attachments on Senebkay’s femurs and pelvis indicate he spent a significant amount of his adult life as a horse rider. Another king’s body discovered this year in a tomb close to that of Senebkay also shows evidence for horse riding, suggesting these Second Intermediate Period kings buried at Abydos were accomplished horsemen.

This is a significant discovery because the introduction of the horse to Egypt was still recent at the time. The first inscriptions referring to the use of horses among the Egyptian elite appear shortly after this period and the chariots that would become inextricably associated with pharaonic Egypt weren’t introduced until the New Kingdom.

One of other skeletons thought to be from a royal tomb (other than Senebkay’s, none of the seven other royal tombs had cartouches identifying the deceased), was a powerfully built man trained to perform a strenuous, repetitive activity with his left arm, possibly archery or combat. Between their prowess on horseback and their tough physical training, it’s possible these Abydos pharaohs were warrior-kings. The research team is hoping to be able to confirm with DNA testing if any of the people found buried in the tombs bore a familial relationship to each other.

Because we know so little about the Abydos kings, the geographic boundaries of their territory are unclear. It seems Senebkay did not die close to Abydos, however. The linen bandages wrapping him are close to the bones, which means the body had already been decaying for a while when he was mummified. He could have been exposed, perhaps by the enemies who killed him, before being sent home, or the voyage home was so long it took several weeks to get his decomposing body to the royal necropolis at Abydos.

Possibly the king died in battle fighting against the Hyksos kings who at that time ruled northern Egypt from their capital at Avaris in the Nile Delta. However, Senebkay may have died in struggles against enemies in the south of Egypt. Historical records dating to Senebkay’s lifetime record at least one attempted invasion of Upper Egypt by a large military force from Nubia to the south. Alternatively, Senebkay may have had other political opponents, possibly kings based at Thebes.

The University of Pennsylvania team will continue excavations at Abydos and to study the remains in the hope of answering some of these questions.

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Mithras tauroctony, Picasso painting found in Italy

March 29th, 2015

The Carabinieri art theft squad has recovered two major artworks in separate investigations: an early Cubist work by Pablo Picasso and an ancient Roman sculptural group of Mithras slaying the bull, a scene known today as a tauroctony. Only one of them, the sculpture, is known to have been looted. The Picasso painting is currently under investigation, but its purported provenance is a classic art smuggler’s tall tale, and a particularly bold iteration at that. It could be true, sure, but the Carabinieri clearly don’t think so or they wouldn’t have confiscated it.

The Picasso came to light when Sotheby’s, in the name of the putative current owner, filed an export license request in Venice for the oil painting Violin and Bottle of Bass made in 1912 by Pablo Picasso. The painting is listed in the 1961 edition of the great multi-volume catalogue raisonné of the artist’s works compiled by Christian Zervos. It was done in the early Analytic Cubist style developed by Picasso and Georges Braque characterized by a palette of browns and other neutrals and as such is extremely rare and desirable.

Yet, the declared value of this early work was 1.4 million euros ($1.5 million). That’s a ridiculously lowball figure for a painting that would go for at least 15 million euros ($16.2 million) in the open market and could easily make more at auction. The weirdly cheap Picasso drew the unblinking eye of art squad investigators who sought an explanation from the owner. Said owner turns out to be a retired Roman frame maker. In 1978, a gentleman of advanced age came to his shop holding a picture frame with a photo of his beloved late wife inside. The maid had apparently knocked over the frame and broken the glass, devastating the widower. The frame maker repaired the frame for free because it was such an easy fix. In gratitude, the customer repaid the frame maker by returning two days later with a gift: Violin and Bottle of Bass. The frame maker had no idea what a treasure he’d been given for replacing a two-cent piece of glass, so he just stashed it somewhere and forgot about it for 36 years until discovering by accident that he might have a Picasso.

Mysteries abound in this less than entirely believable story. Tests have confirmed the attribution of the painting to Picasso, but more will be forthcoming while the investigation proceeds.

The statue of Mithras is a looter’s special, too. The Carabinieri found it during a complex operation of surveillance centered in the Fiumicino area outside Rome where the airport is, a crossroads of the market in illicit archaeological goods. Carabinieri noticed a nondescript van with no external identifiers that for some reason had a motorized escort — a motorcycle in front and a Smart Car taking up the rear. They pulled the van over and searched it. The back was filled with flowers and plants under a tarp. Cops saw the nose of a bull sticking up through the plants and found the marble sculpture group with the soil from its illegal excavation still caked on it.

The sculpture dates from the 2nd-3rd century A.D. and depicts an iconic scene in Mithraism wherein the hero tilts back the bull’s head and slays the beast with a knife while a dog and snake lick its blood and a scorpion has a go at the bull’s testicles. Every Mithraeum had at least one representation of this scene, usually reliefs and frescoes. A large freestanding sculpture like this would have been extremely luxurious then, and it is even more so today. Experts put its value at a minimum of 8 million euros. Only two other large tauroctonies like this one are known to exist today, one in the British Museum, one in the Vatican Museums.

Soil tests of the dirt on the sculpture pinpointed two possible locations of origin in central Italy: the ancient Etruscan cities of Tarquinia and Vulci. The regional Culture Ministry immediately began emergency excavations at the possible sites and found the exact spot from which the statue had been looted. It was Tarquinia, and archaeologists found two smoking guns in the form of the little rampant dog missing from the sculpture and the head of the missing snake. They also unearthed a few other marble fragments, the remains of a mosaic floor and a terracotta tile floor that suggest this was once a Mithraem.

A map of Switzerland and Swiss traveling routes found in the van make it very clear where the tauroctony was headed if it hadn’t been intercepted. Its value on the open market would be something in the neighborhood of 8 million euros ($8.7 million), a meager thing compared to its immense historical value. The statue will go on temporary display at the Vatican Museums in a few weeks after which it will return to Tarquinia in July.

The Carabinieri announced a third recovery at the same press conference, an 18th century oil painting by Luca Carlevarijs entitled View of Piazza San Marco from the Dock. It was stolen on April 28th, 1984, from the home of a private collector and discovered last September in the hands of an art dealer in Milan indicted for receiving stolen goods and illegal export of a painting now in the United States. While searching the dealer’s home, cops found 190 photographs of paintings. One of them was the Carlevarijs. They compared the photos against the squad’s database of stolen cultural goods and discovered the 30-year-old theft. It seems the artwork had been given to the dealer by a collector in anticipation of its sale.

Carlevarijs was the founder of the Venetian school of vedute, meaning views or landscapes of the city, starting with etchings in 1703 and then moving on to oil paintings. Canaletto was strongly influenced by him, as you can see in this piece, and probably met Carlevarijs around 1720 when the young artist moved back home to Venice after studying in Rome. Canaletto may have been Carlevarijs’ pupil at this time — the sources are murky — but if so, he soon surpassed the master. In 1725, just five years after Canaletto’s return, art merchant Alessandro Marchesini would suggest to his client, collector Stefano Conti who was looking for vedute of Venice, that he acquire a piece by Canaletto who “inevitably amazes everyone here who sees his works, which are in the manner of Carlevaris, but light shines out from the sun.”

Compared to the Picasso and the tauroctony I’m afraid poor Mr. Carlevarijs doesn’t quite make the headline, but it amuses me how each of these stories touches on the standard tropes of the traffic in illicit art and antiquities. We’ve got a supershady provenance story, a recently excavated, high-quality ancient sculpture that was destined for surreptitious sale in Switzerland where it doubtless would have received brand new papers certifying it as having been in “an anonymous Swiss collection” for the past 50 years, and we have the art dealer acting as a fence and keeping a big cache of incriminating photographs of the pieces he is trying to sell/has sold illegally. It’s like looter’s bingo.

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