Archive for June, 2021

Rijksmuseum acquires unique 17th c. Persian miniature

Tuesday, June 8th, 2021

The Rijksmuseum has acquired a unique Persian miniature with a Dutch inscription that dates to the early 17th century. The Dutch handwriting on the back marks the miniature as the earliest known example of Persian art in the Netherlands.

The miniature is 6.9 by 4.6 inches and features a central panel of a stylishly attired young man standing near a tree. A mendicant dervish sits on the ground looking up at him. A frame is drawn in around it and on the other side of the frame is a wide border of gold flowers, plants and birds. Across the top a herd of deer leap away from a hunting tiger.

The drawing was made by a still anonymous artist in Isfahan. On the back of the leaf are two Iranian cancels with the dates 1620/21 and 1630/1. The miniature therefore dates from the time of Shah Abbas the Great (1586-1628). This period is considered the pinnacle of Safawadic art.

These were the earliest days of Dutch engagement with Iran. Abbas had been the first Safavid Shah to make contact with European powers seeking allies against the Ottoman Empire. The first treaty between the Dutch East India Company and Iran, a deal to trade silk, was signed in 1623.

On the back is an inked inscription that reads “kalawat en sijne mat,” but its precise meaning is unknown. It does appear in Indonesian literature as the world for prince, and “mat” was an abbreviation for “majesty.” Rijksmuseum researchers believe the inscription is a curatorial note, evidence that the miniature was part of a Dutch collection shortly after it was made.

Only four other Iranian miniatures with an old Dutch inscription are known. Two of these are also in the collection of the Rijksmuseum. But all four are probably from around 1700 and of a much lesser quality. They may even be specially made for foreign travelers as a souvenir. The miniature that the Rijksmuseum has now acquired is not only of a much higher quality, but also almost a century older.

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First burial of fettered man found in Britain

Monday, June 7th, 2021

In an archaeological first, the skeletal remains of a man who was buried with his ankles shackled and padlocked together have been discovered in Great Casterton, eastern England. Radiocarbon analysis dates the bones to 226 to 427 A.D. Roman types of shackles — neck-shackles, manacles and fetters — have been found before in Britain, but this is the first time they’ve been discovered in a burial context still attached to the last person locked into them.

The body was discovered in 2015 by builders digging a foundation for a new conservatory. They stopped when the bones were exposed and archaeologists took over, excavating the skeletal remains and revealed the ankle fetters. The skeleton was on its right side, left arm flexed and elevated, right arm by the hip. The position suggests the body was casually thrown into the grave, not placed. The grave was not purpose-dug, but rather a pre-existing ditch as evidenced by the nature of the fill.

Osteological analysis found the deceased was a male between 26 and 35 years old when he died. Lesions with new bone formation were found on his tibiae, evidence of an unclassified trauma, and a bony spur on the femur attests to an injury caused either one traumatic event or repetitive physical activity. The skull and cervical vertebrae were missing, destroyed by modern utility works.

Ancient shackles have been widely interpreted as the material remains of Roman slavery, but the existence of shackles says nothing about the status of the people made to wear them. They could have been free-born prisoners awaiting trial, for example, and we know they were certainly worn by convicts on chain gangs. Most of the Roman shackles found in Britain were in rural locations, however, which suggests they were worn by people who worked the rural agricultural estates and mines, whether enslaved, condemned or subject to abusive discipline (ie, made to wear shackles as humiliating and painful punishment).

The iron fetters and padlock are heavily corroded, but X-rays revealed they are of the Sombernon type found in Gaul and Britain. Two penannular loops slide onto a crossbar on a pivoting iron ring. The bar curves around to a padlock. Both bar and padlock have an aperture through which a bolt is inserted to lock the shackles with an L-shaped key. When locked, both ankle hoops were fastened to each other via the bar. In this example, the fetters were reinforced with additional iron strips and bolt is still in its locked position.

These types of fetters would have allowed some limited foot movement, enough to take tiny slow steps less than half the length of a natural stride. Doing agricultural labor with such restricted foot mobility would be challenging, to say the least. We know from literary sources that miners were chained with fetters that left their upper bodies free.

The Great Casterton burial is perhaps the best candidate for the remains of a slave in Roman Britain. By providing evidence for the use of shackles, the burial illustrates some of the potential consequences of slavery and re-emphasises our obligation to engage with this topic at a level beyond the scarce epigraphic sources available for the province. However, it does not resolve the larger problem of identifying the enslaved of Roman Britain. The man’s precise legal status remains a moot point, as others punished and coerced into labour, such as convicts and coloni, could also be chained in the manner of slaves. Some of the burials in iron restraints may well have been executed convicts but, unfortunately, due to truncation, it is unclear whether the fettered individual from Great Casterton had been decapitated like some of the iron-ring burials from York and London and several other burials in the nearby cemetery. While we might wish to use this burial to define criteria that would allow us to identify other people who had been shackled, this does not seem to be possible. The bioarchaeological evidence provides some suggestion of stress and physical activity, and there is lower leg pathology that could have been caused by the fetters. Similarly, the bony spur present on the left thigh bone could be a result of intentional blows to the leg. However, none of this evidence is strictly diagnostic, and in isolation from the fetters it would certainly be insufficient to identify the individual as being a slave. Even here the evidence for slave status cannot be considered conclusive, and, short of epigraphic evidence, determining the precise lived experiences and/or legal status of the individual is impossible.

The study has been published in the journal Britannia and can be read here.

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First prehistoric animal carvings in Scotland found in cairn

Saturday, June 5th, 2021

Rock art discovered inside Dunchraigaig Cairn in Kilmartin Glen, Argyll, are the first prehistoric animal carvings ever found in Scotland, and the earliest clearly identifiable carvings of deer ever found in the UK. Archaeologists estimate that they are between 4,000 and 5,000 years old, carved in the Neolithic or the Early Bronze Age.

The rock art was discovered by amateur archaeologist Hamish Fenton. He was walking by Dunchraigaig Cairn and took a peek inside the third cist (one of three stone burial chambers in the cairn) with his flashlight. He noticed for the first time that there were carvings on the underside of the roof slab, and recognized one of them as a deer.

Fenton reported his find and experts from Scotland’s Rock Art Project and Historic Environment Scotland examined the carvings, using light scans and digital technology to create detailed 3D models of the cairn. They confirming the authenticity of the carvings.

They depict two male red deer, recognizable from their large antlers and the short tail on one of the two. There are three other quadrupeds in the panel. There are no tell-tale antlers, but archaeologists believe two of the group of three may be juvenile deer.

Kilmartin Glen has one of the most important concentration of Neolithic and Bronze Age remains in mainland Scotland, including some of the finest cup and ring markings in the country. This is the first time that animal carvings of this date have been discovered in an area with cup and ring markings in the UK.

There are over 3,000 prehistoric carved rocks in Scotland. The vast majority are cup and ring markings which are abstract motifs created by striking the rock surface with a stone tool, such as a large river-washed pebble. Most commonly, cup and ring markings are composed of a central cup mark surrounded by pecked concentric circles. While many of these mysterious carvings can still be seen in the open landscape today, we know little about how they were used, or what purpose they served.

Dr Tertia Barnett, Principal Investigator for Scotland’s Rock Art Project at HES, said: “It was previously thought that prehistoric animal carvings of this date didn’t exist in Scotland, although they are known in parts of Europe, so it is very exciting that they have now been discovered here for the first time in the historic Kilmartin Glen.”

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Message in a bottle found in Michigan Central Station wall

Friday, June 4th, 2021

Work crews restoring Michigan Central Station in Detroit have discovered a message in a beer bottle left there in 1913 when the station was being built. The bottle of Stroh’s Bohemian Beer, much of its label intact, contained a rolled up piece of paper stuffed into its neck. The message reads:

“Dan Hogan and Geo Smith stuck this.

(Unreadable word) of Chicago

July 1913.”

The historic Beaux Arts building, the tallest train station in the world at the time of its completion, opened ahead of schedule right after a fire devastated Michigan Central Station on December 26th. It was located in the Corktown district south of downtown and relied on passengers taking mass-transit options like streetcars and interurban railways. There was no parking to speak of, and after World War II as people rapidly adopted automobile travel, the station’s usage plummeted. Most train services stopped running through the station in the 60s and the last Amtrak limped out of the station in 1988.

Various plans have been made since then to repurpose it and restore it, but none of them ever came to fruition and the building’s decline has been unrelenting. Finally in 2018 Ford Motor Company bought the station  and it has been undergoing a massive restoration which will continue through the end of 2022 when it will be the jewel in the crown of Michigan Central, a mixed used campus of shops, restaurants and Ford research facilities.

So far construction crews have discovered 200 items from women’s shoes to original elevator call button parts. More than 400 people are currently employed in the restoration, which is focused on the once-glamorous ground floor including the grand waiting room which has 65 foot-high tile vaulted ceilings. The space is filled ground to ceiling with scaffolding so workers can do the necessary repairs to the masonry and plaster moldings high on the walls and ceiling. That’s where the message in a bottle was found.

The bottled, stamped with the date 7-19-13 – the station opened in 1913 – was discovered at around 6 p.m. on May 4 by Lukas Nielsen and Leo Kimble, laborer and foreman, respectively, for Homrich, a plaster restoration contractor working in the station’s tea room. The men were praised for resisting the urge to open the bottle themselves.

“It was extremely tempting, it really was,” said Nielsen. “If we did anything to remove it, we would have destroyed it.”

Nielsen and Kimble were on a scissor lift to reach a high section of plaster cornice that would be removed from the wall when Nielsen noticed something behind the cornice – a glass bottle stuffed upside-down and situated behind the wall’s crown molding. Kimble was about to strike the wall when Nielsen stopped him. They stopped working and removed the bottle instead.

The men were filled with excitement as they returned to the floor at 6:45 p.m., taking the bottle straight to David Kampo, project superintendent for Christman-Brinker, the construction team leading the restoration project. Later that night, they also found a Finck’s overalls button believed to have fallen off a worker during the original construction. It too was found inside the wall. In the early 1900s, when the station was built, Finck’s “Detroit Special” overalls were synonymous with quality denim garments for laborers.

“I think the bottle was left there with the hope that someone finds it in the future,” said Kampo.

The bottle, its message and the other artifacts recovered during the restoration will be conserved and stored in the Ford archives in Dearborn. Eventually they will be integrated into the larger Ford collection.

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Lendbreen surprise box opened

Thursday, June 3rd, 2021

A box discovered on the Lendbreen ice patch in Norway’s Breheimen National Park has been opened to reveal a surprise: the remains of a beeswax candle. When the wooden box was found in the melting ice of the Lendbreen pass, it was intact with its lid and leather carrying handles firmly in place. Archaeologists at first thought it was a tinderbox, probably from the Viking era or Middle Ages, that was lost by accident on the pass. Analysis of the contents has revealed that it is in fact a candle box. The pine wood of the box was radiocarbon dated to 1475-1635.

The wooden box was one of more than 1600 artifacts discovered in archaeological surveys of the rapidly thawing ice since 2006. Fragile organic materials including wood, leather and textiles survived for thousands of years, frozen in the ice. The candle box joins exceptional finds like the Roman-era tunic and a horse snowshoe.

Candle boxes were commonly used in Norway to transport expensive beeswax candles between seasonal farms. This was a practical aspect of the Norwegian practice of seterbruk, or summer pasture farming. Farmers would move their livestock from their home farms to summer pastures to graze. The summer farms had spartan living quarters where caretakers, usually just two people, a cattle hand and a milk maid, would stay for the whole season while they tended to the stock, milking the animals and making dairy products on site. This practice maximized the limited resources of a cold, forested and mountainous country, giving farmers access to larger grazing areas not available on the home farm and allowing them to harvest hay and fodder to supply the farm during the long winter.

The livestock were led over over tracks and passes, sometimes very long distances. They had to bring the basic necessities with them on the journey. If they were lucky they had pack-horses. If not, schlepping the food and supplies they needed to live was up to them. The candle box held one of those essential supplies, the sole source of illumination for the summer farm workers from early spring until fall.

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Curse jar found in Athens Agora

Wednesday, June 2nd, 2021

A pottery jar containing chicken remains and engraved with the names of more than 55 curse targets has been discovered in the ancient Agora of Athens. Pierced with an iron nail and buried in a corner of the Classical Commercial Building around 300 B.C., the vessel was a class-action curse, an offering of dismembered chicken parts to the underworld deities to hobble the bodies and minds of dozens of named opponents.

The jar, a rounded cooking pot known as a chytra, was unearthed in 2006 by archaeologists from the American School of Classical Studies at Athens but has only now been fully translated and published, revealing that the simple unglazed pot was intended to be a weapon of mass destruction. The names of the curse victims were inscribed on the sides and bottom of the pot in two different hands. Today about 30 full names are legible; the rest have worn over the centuries and now survive only as a disconnected letter or lines. Inside were the remains of the head and lower legs of a chicken and one bronze coin.

The experts involved in the discovery believe that the nail and chicken parts together most likely played a role in the curse on the 55 different individuals. Nails, which are a common feature associated with ancient curses, “had an inhibiting force and symbolically immobilized or restrained the faculties of (the curse’s) victims,” [Yale Classics professor Jessica] Lamont stated in her scholarly article.

The archaeologists determined that the chicken that had been killed had been no older than seven months before it was slaughtered to be used as part of the ritual; they believe that the people who employed the magic may have wanted to transfer “the chick’s helplessness and inability to protect itself” to those they cursed by writing their names on the outside of the jar, Lamont stated.

She further explains that the head of the chicken, which had been twisted off, and its piercing, along its the lower legs, meant that the corresponding body parts in the 55 unfortunate people  would also be similarly affected.

“By twisting off and piercing the head and lower legs of the chicken, the curse sought to incapacitate the use of those same body parts in their victims,” Lamont notes.

Lead curse tablets were the most common means to activate the power of chthonic deities against enemies in antiquity. Thirty of them were found in just one 4th century B.C. well in Athens. Curse jars are far more rare. Tablet or pot, the mechanism of most of these curses was the same: they were binding spells, intended to disable a rival’s physical and cognitive prowess. The target would be named, the curse articulated, a nail driven through the conveyance which would then be buried, often near a source of water, to put them in closer proximity to the underworld gods being invoked.

The use of a pot in this case is extremely unusual, and may be directly connected to the beef. With so many names on the curse list, it’s likely the conflict was over a court case. Legal disputes were the subject of many of the Athenian curse tablets, and everyone involved, from litigants to lawyers to judges to witnesses, were often targeted for binding spells. Given the jar’s burial in a commercial building known to have been used by potters, it’s possible the vessel was used rather than a more traditional lead tablet to inhibit participants in a potter-related lawsuit.

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Decapitated bodies evidence of Roman military executions

Tuesday, June 1st, 2021

The decapitated bodies discovered in a late 3rd century Roman burial grounds in Somersham, Cambridgeshire, were likely victims of Roman military executions. The remains were first discovered more than a decade ago during excavations of the Knobb’s Farm Quarry site, but thorough analysis of the findings has just been published now.

In three small cemeteries, archaeologists unearthed 52 burials, 17 of which were decapitated bodies buried with their heads at their feet or between their legs. By percentage, this is much higher than the average number of decapitation burials in Roman Britain — 33% versus up to 6%. In addition to the decapitated inhumations, 13 prone burials, which are even more statistically rare (2-3%), were found. Six burials were both decapitations and prone.

The Knobb’s Farm site was part of a large Roman farm settlement, which sadly has been most lost thanks to gravel quarrying activity in the 1960s. The cemeteries were located at the southwestern edge of the settlement. The farm was active from the 1st century A.D., and it expanded in the 2nd century to include extensive grain processing facilities. The buildings were dismantled and the site was abandoned in the late 3rd or early 4th century.

Osteological examination of the bones suggest the deceased worked at the form. There was significant skeletal trauma (breaks, fractures, dislocations) unrelated to decapitation. There are other pathologies evident in the teeth and bones that indicate childhood malnutrition and chronic illness, plus cavities, abscesses and tooth loss. Osteoarthritic changes and other signs of repetitive stress suggest the deceased worked hard in life.

“DNA shows there were nine different types of groups that had come from various places,” Isabel Lisboa, archaeological consultant on the project, told CNN on Monday.

“These settlements were extensive rural settlements that provided grain and meat to the Roman army.”

It’s not clear why so many were decapitated, but Lisboa said the most likely explanation is executions for crimes, with another possibility being ritual practice.

During the later part of the Roman occupation of Britain, the number of crimes carrying the death penalty increased from 14 to 60, as state instability became more prominent, according to research cited by the study.

“Roman laws seem to have been applied particularly harshly at Knobb’s Farm because it was associated with supplying the Roman army, so there were many decapitations,” said Lisboa, who is a director at Archaeologica, an archaeological consulting company.

“Crimes normally would have been let go, but there were probably tensions with the Roman army.”

Somersham is only 40 miles northwest of Great Whelnetham where another Roman-era cemetery was discovered in 2019 that also had an unusually high proportion (40%) of decapitated individuals. It was very high in prone burials too, bringing the overall total of deviant burials in that one cemetery to 60%. An unknown religious practice was proposed as an explanation for those decapitations and burials as the incision marks on the neck were made neatly under the jaw after death.

The sandy, highly acidic soil of the area left the Knobb’s Farm bones in very poor condition. Only four of the decapitated bodies were sufficiently preserved complete with at least some cervical vertebrae to attest to how and when the heads were removed. Only one had actual surviving cut marks. Even so, the evidence of the four makes it clear that these individuals were killed by a violent blow from behind severing their necks. The angles indicate the victims were kneeling. There are no defensive wounds, no evidence whatsoever of battle or a raid or any other type of conflict. For whatever reason, they were given the chop.

The study has been published in the journal Britannia and can be read in its entirety here.

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