Opiates found in 17th c. patients of Milan hospital

Analysis of the bones and preserved brain tissue of nine 17th century patients of the main hospital in Milan has revealed the presence of codeine, morphine, noscapine and papaverine, all derivates of the opium poppy. This is the first time the presence of Papaver somniferum has been detected in historical and archaeological human remains.

The Ospedale Maggiore, also known as Ca’ Granda, was founded in the mid-15th century by Francesco Sforza, duke of Milan, to provide free health care for the poor. By the 16th century it was the city’s main hospital and held in high esteem throughout Europe for its innovative medical care, hygiene practices and treatment by specialized doctors. Some of those practices like the daily change of bed linens are givens today, but were revolutionary in the 1600s.

The hospital’s archives have been preserved from its founding in 1456 until it was closed in the 20th century. They provide a rich record of centuries of hospital administration and medical practices, including the medicines in its pharmacopeia. The records of the medications are incredibly detailed, listing plant and animal ingredients, how they were made and type of preparation.

Researchers seeking to verify the usage of drugs as described in the historical archives turned to another extraordinary record, this one archaeological: the hospital’s crypt. The Ospedale Maggiore had a dedicated burial crypt that was constantly expanded and used throughout the 17th century. An estimated 2.9 million bones lie in its 14 chambers today, the remains of more than 10,000 people who died at the hospital.

Bone and brain tissue trap traces of medicine that were in the body at time of death, so the research team took biological samples from the bones in the crypt and from brain tissue preserved by natural saponification (a process that converts organs into adipocere, in insoluble soap). Out of the nine samples of preserved brain tissue and eight cranial samples, toxicological analysis found alkaloids from different derivatives of the opium poppy in six of them, four from the brain tissue, two from the crania.

Specifically, noscapine, papaverine, and codeine (active principles of Papaver somniferum) were noted in preserved brain tissue, whereas in addition to these molecules, morphine was also detected in bone samples. The skeletons with traces of Papaver somniferum belonged to three females (including two young adults), one male, and one subadult of 11–12 years (for whom sex estimation could not be performed). In one case with positive toxicological findings, signs of ante-mortem trauma were seen on the left parietal bone with loss of bone tissue and possible trepanation. This could have been responsible for chronic inflammation and pain which may have been treated with the use of the Papaver somniferum plant at the hospital. […]

Papaver somniferum is present in the Ca’ Granda pharmacopoeia archives, showing not only that it was present in the pharmacy, but that it was also actively used as a medical treatment. Opium was listed in the apothecary’s archives as early as 1558 in form of laudanum or black poppy seeds; in the inventory list of 1604 the presence of white poppy seeds, black poppy seeds, poppy syrup and thebaic opium is reported, while in 1617 the hospital also introduced laudanum patches39. Additionally, according to the registries preserved at the former hospital, the doctors of the Modern Age, and in particular at the Ca’ Granda, used opium reduced to dried or juice pill (Capsulae sicca et succus capsularum inmaturarum) and as tincture of opium (Laudanum), as a narcotic, analgesic, astringent, coagulant, spasmolytic and antitussive. The findings presented in this research therefore confirm the archival data and implement our knowledge of the history of medicine in Milan.

The results of the study have been published in the journal Scientific Reports and can be read here.

North Sea oil rig technology saves Viking ships

The Gokstad ship, the Oseberg ship and the Tune warship are the three best-preserved Viking ships in the world. They have been housed in Oslo’s Viking Ship Museum for nearly a century, along with hundreds of associated objects recovered from their burial mounds, many of them fragile organic remains (textiles, tapestries, plant material) and intact wooden conveyances like the three elaborately carved sleighs and a four-wheeled cart found in the Oseberg grave.

When the Viking Ship Museum opened in 1926, it was designed to accommodate approximately 40,000 annual visitors. By the time of its closure in 2021, it had become Norway’s most visited museum by far, averaging more than half a million annual visitors. Vibrations from all of those footfalls, temperature and moisture shifts from humans breathing and speaking and coughing and generally being the gross organisms we are put the ships at great peril. The bracing supports keeping the ships standing were also insufficient to keep the planks stable over time.

Clearly a new museum was going to have to be built to house the ships, but after an international commission of experts determined the ships were too fragile to survive the move to a new location, in 2013 the Norwegian government announced a plan to build an extension to the current Viking Ship Museum. The new facility would feature state-of-the-art climate control, supports and three times the space to house and manage the ships and their collection of associated objects. The ships would also only have to be moved a few hundred feet.

An architectural competition ensued, followed by drafts, feasibility studies, analysis on the feasibility studies, quality assurance studies and, of course, arguments about how much money this was all going to cost. Six years passed.

When two large cracks appeared on the Gokstad ship in 2019, conservators realized they were out of time. They had already added additional supports the year before, so when the planks cracked, experts knew there was no band-aid that could be applied to keep the ships from collapse in their current facility. That September, Norway granted the first funds to begin the new museum project.

After delays from budget overruns and the pandemic, construction on the new museum finally began in February of this year and is scheduled to reopen as The Museum of the Viking Age in 2026. There was still a thorny problem in how to keep the ships from falling apart in the interim, however. In fact, noise, movement and vibration from the construction of the annex posed an even greater threat to their stability than the cumulative footsteps of millions of people.

The ships have never been moved since their arrival at the museum. They have to stay put, as do the Oseberg sleighs, for their own safety. There are no other institutions with comparable experience to guide conservators in how to protect the vessels while earthmovers and jackhammers are rumbling about a few hundred feet away. So museum researchers looked a little further afield for relevant expertise, specifically to the North Sea offshore oil industry.

The team in the SGO [safeguarding of objects] project has found the solutions in collaboration with Imenco Smart Solutions, a company that normally produces equipment for the offshore industry in the North Sea.

To reduce vibrations and other impacts from the construction process, the ships are protected in huge, custom-made steel rigs weighing up to 50 tons each. The rigs, which will later serve as moving rigs, now rest on four strong steel beams that are founded in the basement of the former Viking Ship Museum.

“The energy from the building project is captured in these beams and reduced by vibration isolators. That way, the Viking ships are exposed to minimal vibrations and shaking,” explains [SGO conservator David] Hauer.

During the construction work, the Viking ships and sleighs left at the Viking Ship Museum will be closely monitored. Everyone who works on the construction site has an alarm that goes off if the vibrations exceed the permitted value.

You can see the ships in their badass protective steel rigs in this video:

One of Vasa’s crew was a woman

One of the crew on the 17th century Swedish royal warship Vasa has been confirmed to be a woman, not a man as originally believed.

Commissioned in 1625 by Sweden’s King Gustav II Adolf, Vasa was to be the flagship of Sweden’s new fleet of warships — better, stronger, faster, the dominant naval force on the Baltic Sea for the next three decades. It couldn’t even dominate Stockholm harbour, sinking less than 400 feet from the dock on its maiden voyage on August 10, 1628. Before the horrified king and assembled dignitaries, Vasa rapidly sank to the sea floor taking a crew of about 30 people down with it.

After the ship was rediscovered in 1956, it was gradually raised in a sequence of lifts between 1959 and 1961. The Vasa, so remarkably well-preserved that it is largely intact, and the wreck site were thoroughly excavated. Human skeletal remains were found in the excavation. Osteological examinations revealed some information about the lost crew — approximate age, height, etc. — but modern technology, including DNA analysis, can reveal much more.

For the past 20 years, experts at the Vasa Museum have worked with immunologists, geneticists and pathologists at Uppsala University to systematically examine all the Vasa skeletons. The challenges of the project are significant, starting with identifying which bones belong to a specific individual. Extracting DNA from skeletal remains that spent 333 years on the harbour bed is also very difficult.

One particular skeleton, dubbed G, initially classified as male, was upon review suspected of being female due to the shape of the pelvis. Subsequent DNA results also suggested they might have been female. There were no Y chromosomes found in the genetic sample. The DNA could have been contaminated and damaged, however, from its long underwater sojourn, so the evidence was not conclusive.

The result has now been confirmed thanks to an interlaboratory study with Dr Kimberly Andreaggi of the Armed Forces Medical Examiner System’sArmed Forces DNA Identification Laboratory (AFMES-AFDIL) in Delaware, USA. The AFMES-AFDIL is the American Department of Defense’s laboratory, specializing in human remains DNA testing from deceased military personnel. They have established a new testing method for the analysis of many different genetic variants.

“We took new samples from bones for which we had specific questions. AFMES-AFDIL has now analysed the samples, and we have been able to confirm that G was a woman, thanks to the new test”, says Marie Allen. […]

For the Vasa Museum the results of the DNA analysis are an important puzzle piece in the museum’s research into the people on the ship. Dr. Anna Maria Forssberg, historian and researcher at the museum, explains:

“We want to come as close to these people as we can. We have known that there were women on board Vasa when it sank, and now we have received confirmation that they are among the remains. I am currently researching the wives of seamen, so for me this is especially exciting, since they are often forgotten even though they played an important role for the navy“.

The team is expecting the results of the DNA analysis of the rest of the new samples shortly. Researchers hope to find out more about the crew members’ appearances — from big things like hair and eye color to minutiae like whether they had freckles or wet vs. dry ear wax — geographic origin, and propensities to certain illnesses.

Scotland’s oldest tartan found in Highlands bog

A piece of woolen textile discovered in a peat bog four decades ago has been identified as the oldest surviving authentic tartan in Scotland. Dye analysis confirmed that no synthetic dyes were used which suggests it was made before the 1750s and radiocarbon testing narrowed the range down to 1500-1600 A.D. That means it is not only the oldest true tartan (a textile with multiple intersecting stripes in different colors) known to survive, but it was woven within a century or so of the earliest written record of tartan: a purchase made by James III in 1471.

The 55 cm-by-43 cm (22″ x 17″) fragment was discovered in Glen Affric in the Scottish Highlands by peat cutters in the 1980s. Fabric does not usually survive in the harsh soil of Scotland, but the anaerobic environment of the peat preserved the organic material for centuries. Its stripes of green, brown and red were still visible against a tannish-yellow background making it recognizable as tartan. The peat cutters gave the fragment to the Scottish Tartans Authority (STA), who stored it in their textile archive.

V&A Dundee curators came across when looking for examples of early woven checked or plaid textiles for the museum’s upcoming Tartan exhibition. The piece had never been on display and looked a little ratty, but Curator James Wylie noticed that the Glen Affric piece was home-spun and thought it worth further investigation. Experts from the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh and the Scottish Universities Environmental Research Centre performed the dye and radiocarbon analysis.

The first investigation was dye analysis carried out by analytical scientists from National Museums Scotland. Using high resolution digital microscopy, four colours were visually identified for dye analysis: green and brown and possibly red and yellow.

The dye analysis confirmed the use of indigo/woad in the green but was inconclusive for the other colours, probably due to the dyestuff degradation state. However, there were no artificial or semi-synthetic dyestuffs involved in the making of the tartan, which pointed to a date of pre-1750s.

Further clarification on the age of the tartan involved radiocarbon testing at the SUERC Radiocarbon Laboratory in East Kilbride. The process involved washing out all the peat staining, which would have otherwise contaminated the carbon content of the textile.

The cloth is a rustic, loose weave, so despite the presence of red (considered a status symbol by the Gaels of Scotland), this textile was used in practical clothing, likely an outdoor work garment.

The Glen Affric tartan will go on display for the first time at V&A Dundee when the exhibition opens on April 1st. Tartan runs through January 14th, 2024.

Private Garden of the Camelias opens to public for the 1st time

A secret garden within the grand park of Florence’s Boboli Gardens has opened to the public for the first time since it was created in the middle of the 17th century. The Garden of the Camelias was reserved for the personal use of the Medici grand ducal family, so even though it was built under the towering ramparts and walls that separate the Palazzo Pitti courtyard from the park, it was designed to keep it safe from prying eyes.

Built in the mid-17th century for Mattias de’ Medici, third son of Grand Duke Cosimo II and governor of Siena, the garden was directly connected to Mattias’ apartments in Palazzo Pitti. He had it filled with exotic plants, rare citrus fruits and water features. An artificial arched cave near the entrance blocked the view into the secret garden. Rumor has it he enjoyed cavorting with his lovers there, hence the deliberate effort to keep the section closest to his apartments out of view.

In 1688, Mattias’ grand-nephew Ferdinand, Grand Prince of Tuscany, restructured the garden to celebrate his wedding to Violante of Bavaria. The grottos, frescoes, pathways and overall look of the garden today springs from Ferdinand’s redesign. The fine collection of camelias that give it its name was added in the 19th century.

Over the centuries, the garden fell into disrepair. Drainage issues caused major structural damage, to the point where it subject to landslides and walls were falling apart. It was so dangerous opening it to the public was out of the question. In 2021, the funding was secured to embark on a complex restoration of the architecture, structure, frescoed surfaces, sculptures, water features and landscaping.

The first section goes from the entry into a stone walk-through grotto built with stones of various sizes meant to simulate a natural cave. This section is in direct contact with the public Boboli Gardens. The second section is the private garden on the other side of the grotto. A path bordered by flowers, shrubs and planters full of flowers leads into the Lorraine Grotto, frescoed in 1819 and centered around a statue of Hygieia. The water features have now been enhanced with new lighting to illuminate the frescoed vault.

The garden is small and delicate, so visitors will only be allowed 15 people at a time and only with guided tours.

This playlist of short video clips gives a lovely walkthrough of springtime in the Garden of the Camelias.