Grave of early Celtic woman found in Germany

July 29th, 2016

The burial an early Celtic woman with rich grave goods was unearthed last August at Kirchheim unter Teck, 20 or so miles southeast of Stuttgart in the southern German state of Baden-Württemberg. State Conservation Office archaeologists had been excavating the site slated for development on the outskirts of city since July of 2014, a comprehensive and thorough salvage operation to recover any remains from a Neolithic settlement from the sixth millennium B.C. that was known to have been at that location. They were shocked to find a far more recent archaeological treasure.

No skeletal remains have survived due to the high levels of lime in the soil, but archaeologists were able to get some idea of the layout of the burial from the position of the artifacts. Immediately visible were three small gold rings which may have been earrings and/or hair jewels, so they marked where he head would have been. Underneath the presumed skull area were two round objects made of sheet gold. Archaeologists believe they were part of a headpiece or hood of some kind which has not survived. A pair of bronze anklets and a bracelet of jet beads were also found.

The style of the gold jewelry dates the grave to around 500 B.C., which puts it within a few decades of the fabulously rich chieftain’s grave mound discovered at Hochdorf, less than five miles north of Kirchheim unter Teck, in 1978. Very few graves of Celtic women from such an early date have been found, even fewer with such high quality goods. It’s possible she too may have had a burial mound marking her grave. It has eroded to nothingness, but there are discolorations in the soil which suggest the was once a burial mound surrounded by a rectangular enclosure. She may not have been alone either, as evidence of two more enclosures was found nearby, but there were no artifacts or remains of any kind within them.

To preserve whatever microscopic fragments of organic material might be present and make sure they covered as much ground as possible, the team excavated a big soil block weighing 500 kilos (1100 pounds) which encompassed the artifacts. The block was then moved to the State Conservation Office in Esslingen where archaeologists could excavate it punctiliously in laboratory conditions. Quite literally punctilious, in fact, since among the tools used to excavate the artifacts from the soil block were porcupine quills.

It took two months to dig through the thick soil block with quills and small spatulas. They unearthed a total of six ornate gold rings and five sheet gold spherical objects. The pressure of being underground for 2,500 years has deformed the sheet gold artifacts, but the gold rings are in very fine condition.

The excavation of the Neolithic settlement ended in September of last year and the development of the industrial park on the site went forward. The artifacts from the Celtic woman’s grave will likely go on display at a museum in Kirchheim near where they were found.

Spanish colonial adobe bricks found at the Alamo

July 28th, 2016

The Alamo Mission of San Antonio, location of an 1836 battle during the Texas Revolution that has attained legendary status and given the site reputation as “the shrine of Texas liberty,” is Texas’ greatest tourist draw, with approximately 2.5 million visitors a year. It isn’t in the greatest condition, however. Many of its walls were torn down and outbuildings burned by the retreating Mexican army when the war ended a few months after the Battle of the Alamo. Later construction, poor moisture control and political conflicts over ownership and restorations have left the complex in need of extensive refurbishing to emphasize its historical features. In conjunction with the 180th anniversary of the famous siege, the Reimagine the Alamo project seeks to effectuate much-needed renovations, repairing rotting wood beams and roof damage, removing eyesores like random storage shacks attached to the historic walls and condenser units and building new visitor and museum facilities.

As part of the Reimagine project, earlier this month archaeologists began the first systematic archaeological study of all five and a half acres of the Alamo complex. Only the the church and the lower floor of the long barracks of the 1836 fort still stand above ground. The project’s aim is to rediscover the footprint and any remains of the original 18th century Spanish mission, the Mission San Antonio de Valero, and the 19th century fortress, particularly the mission’s western and southern walls. They also hope to find materials from the mission period — ceramics, trash, glass, personal items — and from its military days — weapons, ammunition, household goods. The archaeology is integral to determining where the new facilities will be built and in the accuracy and rigor of the historical interpretation of the Alamo which last year was designated a UNESCO World Heritage site.

The team started with a geophysical survey of the complex, using ground penetrating radar to narrow down areas of interest. Then they raised the flagstone pavers and began digging. On July 22nd, the excavation team unearthed the remnants of an adobe brick wall 23 inches below the surface. The Spanish colonial adobe bricks were found in what archaeologists believe was the location of the original mission’s west wall.

Discovery of the bricks on Friday marked a major step toward uncovering the construction history of the world-famous Texas landmark.

“Because we’ve got something from the Spanish colonial period, we know we are digging in the right place,” archaeologist Nesta Anderson said in a press conference Monday. “Now we know we can get information from the ground over here that will support the master plan and the reinterpretation.”

Adobe is very delicate and soft and these bricks have been hard-used by centuries of conflict and the elements. The team is studying the bricks to confirm their Spanish origin, pin down the date of construction and determine the wall’s place in the structure of the 18th century mission. As far as we know, the mission didn’t have a full exterior wall around its perimeter. Instead, the walls of some of the buildings became defacto outside walls. If the adobe bricks were not part of the western wall, they could have been part of another building on the mission grounds or even one of the Native American dwellings that grew up around the mission.

Here’s a short video of an archaeologist pointing out the adobe bricks in the trench.

The excavation is scheduled to last four weeks. For regular updates on the dig, follow Reimagine the Alamo’s Facebook page.

Stinky cheese found on 17th c. Swedish shipwreck

July 27th, 2016

Divers have recovered a tin of very old, very stinky cheese from the wreck of the Swedish royal ship Kronan off the coast of Öland in the Baltic Sea. The ship went down in 1676, so the cheese is 340 years old. (One hopes it hadn’t been on the ship a full year or more before it went down.)

“It looks a bit like some kind of granular Roquefort cheese. It’s been in the mud, so it’s reasonably well preserved, but at the same time it has been at the bottom of the sea for 340 years – we’re not talking Tutankhamun’s burial chamber,” [Lars Einarsson of the Kalmar County Museum] said.

Einarsson said the thick, gooey find smells strongly of cheese and yeast.

“I think it smells quite nice, because I like exotic food. But I would not want to taste it.”

I wonder why. What, you can’t handle 340-years worth of bacterial growth in unpasteurized cheese, Mr. Einarsson? Somebody get Andrew Zimmern over there.

The cheese is being kept cool at the Kalmar County Museum for now. It will be subjected to a battery of scientific test to identify it first as cheese (it’s almost certainly a dairy product, but it could have gone bad and been contaminated by God knows what to make it clumpy and smell like cheese), and then perhaps what type it is.

The royal ship Kronan was built by shipwright Francis Sheldon who had fled England after participating in a failed attempt to free King Charles I from prison. He was received in Sweden most warmly by King Charles X Gustavus who promptly put him to work building ships for his navy. In 1655, the Swedish admiralty hired Sheldon as master shipwright of the navy. He was in the right place at the right time. In the 1660s Sweden began a program of replacing its aging fleet with new warships, larger, more heavily armoured and armed, capable of withstanding the popular tactic of brutal broadside attacks that had replaced the old-fashioned style of short-range artillery exchanges culminating in boarding the wounded but functional enemy vessel.

Construction on the Kronan began on October 27th, 1665, when the keel was laid in Stockholm’s royal shipyard. It was meant to replace the previous flagship and bearer of the name which was by then 33 years old. Made entirely out of oak (about 20 acres of a 100-year-old oak forest was cut down to make the ship), the Kronan was 197 feet long and 42 feet wide, the third or fourth largest ship in the world at that time. It took another three years before the hull was laid. The admiralty and Sheldon fought the whole time, them accusing him of delaying construction by working on private projects, including a lucrative side business selling some of that oak to England; he accused them of holding back promised funds making it impossible for him and his crew to do the job.

Finally in 1672 the Kronan was finished. The gaudy ship, so known because of the decorative style meant to intimidate the enemy with gloriously gilded details, sailed for the first time in December in the celebration of Charles XI’s coronation. When loaded for bear, the ship carried 126 bronze cannons on three decks. It was manned by a large crew of 500 sailors and 350 soldiers. In 1675, the new Kronan officially became the flagship of Sweden’s royal navy. It only had a year to live.

During a storm before the beginning of an action at the Battle of Öland on June 1st, 1676, the Kronan capsized after making a sharp turn with too much sail unfurled. The gunpowder stores ignited and the bow of the ship exploded. Laden with cannon, coin, weapons and the personal items of nearly a thousand men who called it home much of the year, the Kronan sank rapidly, taking 800 souls with it. Only 50 men survived. Its fellow gaudy ship the Svärdet, whose wreck was found in 2011, sank after a fireship attack in the same battle, an immense toll on Sweden’s navy inflicted in just one encounter.

Some of the cannons were salvaged from the Kronan wreck in the 1680s, but it wasn’t until 200 years later that the wreck of the Kronan was rediscovered off the southwest coast of Öland and fully explored by maritime archaeologists. It was found by Anders Franzén, famous for having found the exceptional wreck of the Vasa in Stockholm harbour, and has been dived regularly ever since. In the 36 years since its discovery, more than 30,000 artifacts have been recovered from the wreck site, including Sweden’s largest ever find of gold coins — 255 ducats minted in Sweden, central Europe, Egypt, Syria and Turkey — and Sweden’s largest ever find of silver coins.

The dives this month that discovered the cheese also found another 14 gold coins, the most that have been recovered the Kronan in 16 years, a large number of pharmaceuticals, many of them for gastrointestinal illnesses (cheese, we’re looking in your direction), and a very rare gold and diamond ring. A jeweler in Kalmar who examined the ring said it was the oldest diamond ring he’d ever seen.

The wreck is about 90% mapped now. Lars Einarsson estimates it will take another three years of summer dives to complete the survey, which means the Kronan will have provided archaeologists with fascinating new material every year for 40 years. The Kalmar County Museum has a permanent exhibition dedicated to the Kronan with many of the artifacts recovered from wreck on display. Visitors can even load one of the cannons.

Canal system found under Pakal’s tomb

July 26th, 2016

Archaeologists with Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH) have discovered a system of canals that was built underneath the Temple of Inscriptions in Palenque where the Maya king K’inich Janaab’ Pakal (603-683 A.D.) was buried. The main canal is made of rows of large cut stones, clay and rubble. It has a limestone floor and is capped by a roof made of larger stones. It is a near square at 50 x 40 cm (1.6 x 1.3 feet) and is about 17 meters (55.8 feet) long. The main channel follows a straight line south under the temple, eventually widening into a basin 80 x 90 x 60 cm. To the southeast, there’s a second smaller channel (40 x 20 cm) that runs parallel to the main channel but about 20 cm higher level. The second channel eventually joins the main one which changes direction to the southwest and goes on at least another five meters (16.4 feet).

Because the canals are so small, archaeologists could only explore them by sending a remote-controlled vehicle equipped with a camera. The vehicle could not go around the sharp turn in the main canal, so as of now we don’t know where the canal ends. Archaeologists believe they are connected to an active water source as there is still running water in the canals today. Construction dates to the Maya late Classic Period (600-900 A.D.).

Excavations began in 2012 after a crack developed in the pyramid. A geophysical study found anomalies under the pyramid’s front steps. Concerned there might be a sinkhole or weak spot that could lead to serious structural damage to the pyramid, archaeologists dug test pits at the bottom of the temple’s main facade. They encountered a layer of large stones sealed together with clay. Underneath that was another layer of heavy stones packed with mud, and then a third and fourth layer of the same. It was under the fourth stone layer than the channel was found. The stone layers are all level and their width matches that of the north wall of Pakal’s burial chamber.

Pakal, who ruled the city-state of Palenque for 68 years, the longest known reign of any ruler in the Western hemisphere and the 30th longest reign in the world, began construction of his funerary monument in the last decade of his life. After he died, Pakal was deified and the temple completed by his son and successor K’inich Kan Bahlam II. When the tomb was discovered by archaeologist Alberto Ruz Lhuillier in 1952, Pakal’s remains were found in a sarcophagus with an elaborately carved lid. His face was covered by a jade death mask with large ear flares, also made of jade. The ear pieces have an inscription that claims that in order to be received by the god of the underworld, Pakal had to submerge himself in the waters of the rain god Chaac.

One of the newly discovered canals run directly underneath Pakal’s burial chamber, and the matching dimensions of the stone cap layers are probably not a coincidence. Archaeologists believe the canals were built first, tapping into the unknown source that is still supplying fresh water to the tunnels today, and the funerary pyramid constructed above them. One possibility is that they were originally built to drain rainwater from the terraces of Temple XXIV, just south of the Temple of the Inscriptions, but they wouldn’t need a river or spring source for that purpose. Although there has been no vertical conduit found connecting the burial chamber to the canal below, archaeologists believe there was a religious significance to the canals in keeping with the inscription on the ear flares on top of any practical purpose. The builders may have directed a river to flow under his tomb so that the king’s soul could travel unimpeded to the underworld via the waters of Chaac.

Investigations into the channel system will continue. Archaeologists would like to explore the main channel to its end, if not by remote camera that by using geophysical tools like ground penetrating radar to track the underground architectural features.

Explore the Apollo 11 Command Module

July 25th, 2016

The Smithsonian’s 3D model of the Apollo 11 Command Module Columbia is complete and ready to explore with a click of a mouse. The incredibly close quarters were home to Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins during the first manned lunar landing voyage from the launch of the Saturn V rocket on July 16th, 1969, until splashdown on July 24th. (Armstrong and Aldrin spent a day or so on the Lunar Module Eagle.)

The creation of the model was challenging thanks to the reflective aluminium surfaces and the intricacies of the interior dashboard. All the buttons, toggles and gizmos put the laser scanners through their paces, so much so that the technology used by the institution to scan other objects in its collection couldn’t quite cut it. The Smithsonian partnered with Autodesk Inc. whose experts created custom scanning equipment and whose advanced software converted the scan data into a model that is pretty damn amazing, to my civilian eye.

Now you can turn around in the cramped space, examining every detail in high resolution. You couldn’t get anywhere near that close at the National Air and Space Museum. You can’t see inside the Command Module at all, in fact. Click the quote bubble icon on the top left of the screen to get a diagram and annotations about the compartment. If you also click on the marker icon (the one that looks like a Ouija paddle), labels will pop up throughout the space. Click on the labels to get more details. The globe icon at the top gives you an excellent guided tour through the labeled areas. That was my favorite because of how smoothly it moves from stage to stage.

The Smithsonian has also made 3D print ready files available for download should you wish to print up a your own miniature Apollo 11 Command Module, and virtual reality renders for viewing with VR goggles. They have also some of the raw data available in medium resolution. They’re working on getting the highest resolution models available.

This video gives an overview of the complex laser scanning process of the Command Module.

40,000-year-old rope-making tool found in famed German cave

July 24th, 2016

Archaeologists excavating the Hohle Fels Cave in the Swabian Jura of southwestern Germany have discovered a 40,000-year-old tool used to make rope. The piece was unearthed in August of last year by an international team led by Prof. Nicholas Conard of the University of Tübingen. Carved from mammoth ivory, the object is eight inches long and the wider side is dotted with four holes 7-9 millimeters in diameter. The holes are incised with deep spirals which are not decorative, but practical features that help thread plant fibers into strong rope.

Some of the most important Paleolithic artifacts in the world have been found in the Hohle Fels Cave, including the Venus of Schelklingen, the oldest known human figurative art, and the world’s oldest flutes. The recently discovered tool was found in the same layer of the cave as the Venus and flute, which is how it was dated to around 40,000 years ago.

Rope or string prints have been found before in Paleolithic clay and there are some depictions of ropes in artwork from this period, but next to nothing is known about the process by which the first anatomically modern humans in Europe produced rope.

Similar finds in the past have usually been interpreted as shaft-straighteners, decorated artworks or even musical instruments. Thanks to the exceptional preservation of the find and rigorous testing by the team in Liège, the researchers have demonstrated that the tool was used for making rope out of plant fibers available near Hohle Fels. “This tool answers the question of how rope was made in the Paleolithic”, says Veerle Rots, “a question that has puzzled scientists for decades.”

Excavators found the rope-making tool in archaeological horizon Va near the base of the Aurignacian deposits of the site. Like the famous female figurines and the flutes recovered from the Hohle Fels, the rope-making tool dates to about 40,000 years ago, the time when modern humans arrived in Europe. The discovery underlines the importance of fiber technology and the importance of rope and string for mobile hunters and gatherers trying to cope with challenges of life in the Ice Age.

Researchers from the University of Liège in Belgium demonstrate how the tool was used to make rope from green plants:

Researchers test the durability of the finished rope:

The ivory tool went on display yesterday at the Blaubeuren Prehistoric Museum where the Hohle Fels Venus and three bone and ivory flutes are already on view to the public.

Roman coin hoard found by students in Spain

July 23rd, 2016

A team of archaeology students has unearthed a Republican-era Roman coin hoard at the Empúries site on the Costa Brava of Catalonia, northeastern Spain. The hoard was discovered secreted in a hole in the ground inside a 1st century B.C. domus. A small ceramic pot shaped like an amphora contained silver denarii from the same period as the home. This was a great deal of money in the 1st century B.C. when a soldier’s yearly pay was 225 denarii and two denarii would pay rent for a month. There is evidence of a fire destroying the property shortly thereafter, likely making the treasure irretrievable.

The vessel still holding its hoard of coins was carefully excavated in a lab. Much to the archaeologists astonishment, the little amphora held 200 coins, the largest group of coins ever found in the Roman city of Empúries. They appear to be in good condition. Once the coins are cleaned and conserved, they will be identified and catalogued.

The ancient city of Emporion was founded in the 6th century B.C. by Greek colonists from Phocaea in western Anatolia (modern-day Turkey). Its coastal location between Massalia (Marseille), also founded by Phocaeans, and the major trade center of Tartessos in southwestern Iberia, made Emporion a prosperous town. Its population boomed when the Phocaea was conquered by Cyrus II of Persia in 530 B.C. and refugees moved to the colony, making it the largest Greek settlement on the Iberian Peninsula.

When much of the rest of Iberia was conquered by Rome, Emporion was allowed to remain independent, but the city backed the wrong horse during the civil wars of the 1st century B.C., and when Pompey was defeated by Caesar, Emporion was occupied by Roman legions. A new city, Emporiae, was built adjacent to the Greek town and populated by Roman veterans. The domus and insula are part of the Roman city.

The students are part of the Empúries Archaeology Course offered by the Archaeological Museum of Catalonia. It’s open to students working on an Archaeology or History degrees and graduate students, ideally with excavation experience. The program has been running every year without interruption since 1908. This year, the 30 students enrolled in the course have been excavating the tabernae (shops) and living spaces on the southern side of an insula (apartment building), with a particular focus on ceramics from the Late Republican period. The domus and its wine cellar occupied the southern side of Insula 30 in the earliest days of the Roman city. The room with the hoard was on the southwest side of the building.

The pot in which the denarii were stashed puts the discovery of the hoard exactly on topic, plus a nice bonus of 200 silver coins. Even more on topic, the team also found 24 wine amphorae of Italian origin and a bronze simpulum, a long-handled ladle used to extract wine from the large vessels, in the wine cellar of the domus.

Gems of Australia’s rich quilting history

July 22nd, 2016

A new exhibit at the National Gallery of Victoria is putting on display an exceptional collection of quilts and related pieces from Australia’s rich history of patchwork. Making the Australian Quilt: 1800–1950 brings together almost 100 quilts, blankets, coverlets, and patchwork clothes from museums and private collections all over the country. They date to the first decades of English colonization through the middle of the 20th century. Some of the pieces have never been on public display, like the Hexagon quilt made in 1811 by Sarah Wall (nee Litherland or Leatherland), an English convict who arrived in Australia about the HMS Earl Cornwallis in 1801, 13 years after the first convicts arrived in Botany Bay and eight years after the first free settlers. Hers is the earliest known pierced hexagon quilt made in Australia.

Others are so fragile they’ve only been shown very rarely. The most signficant of these is The Rajah Quilt, made in 1841 by the female convicts transported to Australia aboard the HMS Rajah. It is the only known surviving quilt made during the voyage from London to Van Diemen’s Land. The necessary supplies were donated by The British Ladies Society for Promoting the Reformation of Female Prisoners. Founded in 1821 by the Quaker prison reform advocate Elizabeth Fry, the society distributed bibles, combs, sewing supplies for personal use and all the materials needed for a collaborative quilt — 100 needles, pins, white, black, red and blue cotton thread, black wool, 24 hanks of coloured thread, and two pounds of patchwork pieces — to female convicts, first at Newgate prison, and then to transportees.

Elizabeth Fry had a great impact on the way women sentenced to transportation were treated. She ensured they were taken to the ships in closed carriages so they wouldn’t be subject to the stone-throwing, filth projectiles and derision of the public. Loaded onto ships weeks before they sailed, the prisoners were horribly neglected. Fry and the ladies of the Society visited them every day, tending to their needs and giving them care packages that included the needlecraft supplies.

Fry thought patchwork in particular was ideal employment for women prisoners, because it taught them how to sew and, because it’s so complex and time-consuming, it gave them something to focus on during the long dreary hours of confinement. At the end, they’d have new skills and a beautiful result to show for their hard work. Patchwork converted the drudgery of a prison sentence, or a dangerous, unpleasant three-month ship voyage across the world, into productive time. It also had a meditative quality, an inward-looking contemplation which in Fry’s Quaker philosophy led to spiritual salvation.

The 180 female convicts on the Rajah were given patchwork materials by the Society and guidance in the person of Miss Keiza Hayter. Hayter was not a convict. She had worked with Fry at the Millbank Penitentiary, and Fry recommended her to Lady Jane Franklin to help found the Tasmanian Ladies’ Society for the Reformation of Female Prisoners. Yes, that Lady Jane Franklin. John Franklin was lieutenant-governor of Van Diemen’s Land when the Rajah unloaded its women convicts and their quilt, and Lady Franklin was in regular contact with Elizabeth Fry. It was Fry who inspired her prison reform efforts in Tasmania, a colony largely populated with current and former convicts, although Jane did not share Fry’s focus on rehabilitation. Lady Franklin believed hard labour, long stretches of solitary confinement and shaving female prisoners’ heads were more effective means to instill “corrective discipline” than contemplation and job training.

Keiza Hayter’s mission on the Rajah was to instill useful values and skills in the transportees. Part of that was the improvement of their minds and characters through needlework. Experts believe Hayter oversaw the design of the quilt. It has a central square of Broderie Perse (appliquéd chintz that resembles Persian embroidery) from which twelve frames radiate forming a medallion quilt. Florals and birds decorate the center and frames. Experts believe at least 29 of the transportees worked on the quilt. The passenger manifest lists 15 women whose professions were tailoring/needlework, but there’s evidence on the quilt itself that novices worked on it as well. Small bloodstains were probably left by less experienced women when they stuck themselves with needles.

A silk yarn inscription expresses the convicts’ proper sentiments of gratitude and industriousness.

TO THE LADIES
of the
Convict ship committee.
This quilt worked by the Convicts
of the ship Rajah during their voyage
to van Diemans Land is presented as a
testimony to the gratitude with which
they remember their exertions for their
welfare while in England and during
their passage and also as proof that
they have not neglected the Ladies
kind admonition of being industrious.

June 1841

The quilt is now in the permanent collection of the National Gallery of Australia. It has survived in remarkable condition, all told, but it is very fragile and light-sensitive so for conservation’s sake, it is only displayed once a year.

That’s just scratching the surface of the beautiful works on view at this exhibition which opens today and runs through November 16th. Because the museum was kind enough to supply outstanding photographs of many stand-out pieces and because I know there are many needlework afficionados reading this, here’s a generous complement of quilt porn to take you into the weekend. And not just quilts either. The Press Dress, an unbelievable ball gown worn by Mrs. William W. Dobbs to the the Mayor of Melbourne’s fancy dress ball in 1866, was made of silk satin printed with pages of 14 different Melbourne newspapers, including The Age, The Australasian, Herald and Punch. I love the table cover made from cigar silk, too. Oh! And the Westbury Sampler quilt! It’s all deadly.









Indigenous, colonial interaction writ on Caribbean cave walls

July 21st, 2016

A team of British and Puerto Rican archaeologists have discovered a collection of early colonial inscriptions alongside earlier indigenous iconography on the walls of a cave on the Caribbean island of Mona. It’s a unique document of the interaction between indigenous and European culture and at the time of their earliest interactions.

Columbus first encountered Mona, a small island between Hispaniola and Puerto Rico, on his second voyage in 1494. Its location within a day’s canoe trip of the larger islands ensured the indios of Mona were well-connected to interregional trade networks, and when the Spanish arrived, the island found itself on one of the main Atlantic routes to and from the Indies. The indigenous population sold supplies to the ships — cassava bread, water — and produced consumer goods like cotton shirts and hammocks to the first settlers. Thus the people of Mona were involved with Europeans from the beginning, modifying their own behaviors and traditions in response to first contact and colonization, and in turn having an impact on the Spanish as they and their children began to forge a new American identity.

The archaeology of Mona reflects this cultural blending process. European glass beads, storage jars, ceramics, coins and the remains of livestock from 1493 through 1590 have been found on the island mixed with indigenous artifacts — ceramics, tools — and equipment for the processing of food. The vast cave networks dotting the Isle of Mona display the same mixing of cultures in the form of art and inscriptions on the walls and ceilings.

Mona is practically more cave than anything else. Sheer limestone cliffs line the shores, peppered with more than 200 cave systems. Because the surface of the island is thick with plant life, the cool, rocky caves became a sort of subway system where the locals could travel to other points without having to hack their way through dense vegetation. The caves were also the island’s sole source of fresh water. Clear indications of indigenous usage has been found in 30 of the 70 cave systems on the island that have been studied by archaeologists since 2013.

The caves of Mona have the greatest variety of surviving indigenous iconography in the Caribbean. Symbols including geometric shapes, swirling meanders, anthropomorphic and anthrozoomorphic figures have been found on the walls and ceilings of cave chambers. The inscribed caves are hard to get to, their entrances small, person-sized holes high up on the cliff face, and the indigenous artwork only appears in the deep dark inside the caves, far from the light of the entrance. These were likely deliberate choices, as caves and the iconography held religious significance. The Europeans followed, perhaps literally, in indigenous footsteps to add their own religious spin to the sacred spaces of Mona.

In Cave 18, archaeologists found 250 indigenous works on the walls and ceilings 10 chambers and tunnels. The soft, swirling motifs were made by “finger-fluting,” ie, dragging one or more fingers through the mineral and organic deposits on the surfaces, and have been radiocarbon dated to the 14th and 15th century. More than 30 inscriptions in Spanish and Latin followed, applied to the same areas. They include proper names, dates and Christian symbols like crosses and the IHS Christogram.

Unlike the locals who climbed and crouched to apply their artwork to a variety of locations, the Europeans added their stuff where they stood, at about 1.8 meters — average height for Europeans at that time — above the floor. Also unlike the locals, they carved their inscriptions with edged tools into the limestone.

Three inscribed phrases are present in chambers H and K: ‘Plura fecit deus’, ‘dios te perdone’ and ‘verbum caro factum est (bernardo)’. Palaeographic analysis of letter forms, the use of abbreviation and writing conventions place these in the sixteenth century…. ‘Plura fecit deus’, or ‘God made many things’, is the first inscription encountered after entering chamber H. There is no obvious contemporary textual source; the commentary appears to be a spontaneous response to whatever the visitor experienced in the cave. There is a strong spatial inference that ‘things’ is a reference to the extensive indigenous iconography present. The phrase may express the theological crisis of the New World discovery, throwing the personal human experience and reaction into sharp relief. [...]

Particularly striking are two depictions of Calvary. The first consists of three crosses, the central one with the Latin inscription ‘Iesus’ (Jesus) set at a height of over 3m in chamber G…. Stylistically, all three are barred cross-on-base motifs, in use in the sixteenth century; similar examples are found from contemporary contexts in Europe and South America…. A second Calvary panel is made up of two crosses, one of which is a barred cross-on-base, the other a simple two-stroke Latin cross. These flank a pre-existing indigenous anthropomorphic figure. This triptych has clear compositional parallels with representations of Calvary in which the central figure is strikingly cast as an indigenous Jesus.

There are 17 more crosses in the cave, from simple downstroke-and-crosstroke Latin crosses to more complex Potent and Calvary crosses. Some are finger-drawn, probably by converted indios. Many of them were made near and above pre-existing indigenous iconography.

We know it wasn’t indigenous converts doing the carving because several of the Spanish artists did us the courtesy of leaving their Kilroy Wuz Here. From the mid-16th century, Myguel Rypoll, Alonso Pérez Roldan el Mozo and Alonso de Contreras signed the wall. The above-mentioned Bernardo signed off on his “verbum caro factum est” line, and one Capitán Francisco Alegre, a royal official in Puerto Rico in the mid-16th century, signed his name. It’s actually quite impressive considering he was carving it in the wall how similar it is to his actual signature on a page.

[Dr. Alice Samson from the University of Leicester School of Archaeology and Ancient History] said the marks were made by some of the earliest colonisers to arrive in the Americas. These colonisers would have been taken to the caves, places considered particularly sacred, and were responding with respect to what they saw, engaging in a religious dialogue.

“We have this idea of when the first Europeans came to the New World of them imposing a very rigid Christianity. We know a lot about the inquisition in Mexico and Peru and the burning of libraries and the persecution of indigenous religions.

“What we are seeing in this Caribbean cave is something different. This is not zealous missionaries coming with their burning crosses, they are people engaging with a new spiritual realm and we get individual responses in the cave and it is not automatically erasure, it is engagement.”

You can read the full paper published in the journal Antiquity free of charge here.

Oldest papyri from oldest port go on display

July 20th, 2016

Dating to around 2600 B.C., the harbor at Wadi al-Jarf on the Red Sea in Egypt is the oldest port complex ever discovered in the world. It was built during the reign of the Pharaoh Snefru (ca. 2620–2580 B.C.), the founder of the 4th Dynasty, and was primarily used for boat travel to the Egypt’s main copper and turquoise mines on the Sinai Peninsula. An L-shaped pier extended east from the shore into the water for 160 meters (525 feet) before turning southeast for 120 meters (394 feet). Its remains are still clearly visible at low tide. The pier created a breakwater and large sheltered area where ships could be moored. This was confirmed when a group of at least 22 limestone ship anchors were found south of the east branch of the pier.

Carved into limestone hills next to a water spring, archaeologists found a warehouse system of 30 storage galleries, the largest of which are more than 100 feet long. They average about 10 feet wide and eight feet high. The galleries were used to store boat parts, shipping materials and food and water supplies for the seafaring voyages. They were also used to make repairs on ships. There are pottery kilns nearby and large quantities of pottery believed to have been used as a water containers have been found in the galleries.

In 2013, archaeologists discovered hundreds of papyrus fragments, some of them more than two feet long. The papyri had been deposited in front of galleries G1 and G2 where large blocking stones were placed to close off the entrance to the galleries. Written in hieratic (simplified hieroglyphics used by priests and scribes), several of the papyri were dated to the end of the reign of the Pharaoh Khufu (ca. 2580–2550 B.C.). One of the documents was very specific, noting it was written the year after the 13th cattle count of Khufu’s reign. The cattle count was done every other year, so the year after the 13th cattle count was the 27th year, which according to our current best information was the last year of his reign. The precise dating identifies this papyrus as the oldest ever discovered in Egypt.

There are two types of documents in the papyrus group: accounts organized in tables anyone who has ever worked in Excel will immediately recognize, and the logbook of a Memphis official named Merer. The accounting tables record deliveries of food from areas elsewhere in Egypt including the Nile Delta. Revenue is recorded in red; outlay in black. Merer’s archive recorded the daily activities of his team of around 200 men, and as archaeological luck would have it, most of the surviving papyri don’t cover the minutiae of their operations at Wadi al-Jarf, but rather their work relating to the construction of the Great Pyramid at Giza. There are descriptions of quarrying the limestone, the transportation over the Nile and canals of massive blocks of stone from the quarries of Tura to the “Horizon of Khufu,” meaning the Giza construction site. These limestone blocks were probably used for the outer layer of the Great Pyramid, now lost, but which would have glowed white in the Egyptian sun.

Merer’s logbook was found in the same archaeological context as the 13th cattle count document. It confirms that in Khufu’s last regnal year, the pyramid was in the final stage of construction. It also identifies the role of a major player, the pharaoh’s half-brother Ankh-haf who as “chief for all the works of the king” was in charge of this last phase of the Great Pyramid’s construction.

A selection of the papyri, including the 13th cattle count document, the largest pieces of Merer’s journal and the accounting spreadsheets have gone on display for the first time at Cairo’s Egyptian Museum. It will be a lightning quick exhibition, unfortunately, so unless you’re in Egypt right now or plan to be there in the next week or so, you’ll miss it. It opened on July 14th and closes on July 29th.

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