Michigan soybean farmer digs up mammoth bones

October 3rd, 2015

Soybean farmer Jim Bristle was digging in a field in Lima Township, 10 miles southwest of Ann Arbor, Michigan, when he came across what he thought was an old bent fencepost. It was not a fencepost. It was a mammoth bone. When he realized it was a bone very much larger than any cow’s, Bristle contacted the University of Michigan on Tuesday, September 29th. Wednesday evening, Professor Dan Fisher, director of the University of Michigan’s Museum of Paleontology, inspected the bone and the pit where it found. By Thursday morning he had discovered teeth that identified the bones as belonging to a mammoth that roamed the vegetation rich tundra of Michigan between 15,000 and 11,700 years ago.

That same day Fisher was able to assemble a team of U-M graduate students with lightning speed, plus volunteers like excavator Jamie Bollinger who brought his own heavy lifting machinery to aid in the endeavor. They dug from 9:00 AM until sunset and were able to recover 20% of the mammoth’s bones: a dramatic skull with two large tusks still attached, the jaw, more teeth, the pelvis, parts of both shoulder blades, one kneecap and multiple ribs and vertebrae. The skull and tusks (which had zip ties all along their length to keep the fragile ivory from breaking off in shards) were raised in one piece and loaded onto a flatbed truck for transportation to the University of Michigan with the rest of the bones.

The team also found a small stone flake (a lithic) next to one of the tusks and three basketball-sized boulders in the pit next to the skull. Fisher thinks the mammoth was killed by humans and then stored in a pond that was once on the site, the pre-historic version of refrigeration. The three boulders were used to weight down the carcass. The lithic was broken off a sharp flint knife used to butcher the animal. Fisher has seen the pond preservation method in other prehistoric sites in the region. Only examination of the cleaned bones can confirm or deny this hypothesis. If the mammoth was butchered by people, there will be tell-tale cut marks on the bone.

Preliminary examinations indicate the animal was an adult male around 40 to 50 years old that stood about 10 feet high at the shoulders. It appears to be a hybrid of a woolly mammoth and a Columbian mammoth, a very rare find. According to Fisher, skeletal remains of about 300 mastodons and 30 mammoths have been unearthed in Michigan, but only 10 of the mammoths were as complete as this one. He suspects there are more bones to found down there too. Alas, they won’t be coming up anytime soon because Bristle only allowed the one day of excavation before refilling the pit. He was only digging in the first place to make way for the lift station of a new natural gas line and the discovery has not altered his plans.

Professor Fisher hopes Jim Bristle will donate the bones to the institution.

“It’s really the landowner’s call now,” [Fisher] said, explaining that Bristle now owns the bones. Normally, Fisher explained, the university wouldn’t have put resources into excavating remains without some reassurance that they’d be donated for research. But because these were under such a time crunch, Fisher and his colleagues decided to swoop in. He said on Friday that Bristle has yet to give a verdict on the fate of the bones.

“To really make conclusions about these bones and what they mean, we have to make the evidence available for other scientists to study, too,” Fisher said. “And we can’t do that without long-term access to the material.”


Mummification more widespread in Bronze Age Britain

October 2nd, 2015

A new study by the University of Sheffield has found new evidence that mummification may have been more widespread in Bronze Age Britain than previously realized. The damp climate is not conducive to the preservation of soft tissues, so unless a body was preserved in an aerobic environment like a peat bog, trying to figure out if a skeletonized body was once mummified is a challenge. Earlier studies have found a key difference between the bones of bodies that were mummified and those that never were: the bacteria that cause decomposition of soft tissues also degrade bone, gnawing on the proteins in the skeleton creating microscopic tunnels like termites in wood. The bones of mummified bodies show little or no sign of this kind of damage from putrefactive bacteria.

The study undertook to develop a methodology that would be able to distinguish mummified remains when only bones have survived. The research team did a microscopic analysis of the bones (mostly femurs) of 301 individuals from 25 archaeological sites in the UK. Thirty-four of the 301 dated to the Bronze Age. The samples were compared to a mummy from Yemen and one found in an Irish peat bog. Half of them had tell-tale indicators of putrefactive erosion; 16 of them had either no damage or very little.

Their examinations revealed that both the Yemeni and Irish mummies showed limited levels of bacterial bioerosion within the bone and therefore established that the skeletons found in the Outer Hebrides as well as other sites across Britain display levels of preservation that are consistent with mummification.

The research team also found that the preservation of Bronze Age skeletons at various sites throughout the UK is different to the preservation of bones dating to all other prehistoric and historic periods, which are generally consistent with natural decomposition. Furthermore, the Sheffield-led researchers also found that Bronze Age Britons may have used a variety of techniques to mummify their dead.

[Study lead researcher] Dr Booth added, “Our research shows that smoking over a fire and purposeful burial within a peat bog are among some of the techniques ancient Britons may have used to mummify their dead. Other techniques could have included evisceration, in which organs were removed shortly after death.”

This is the first study to use microscopic analysis to identify funerary practices in the bone itself, and it opens up a world of possibilities in understanding rituals that could previously only be discovered from rare soft tissue survivals.

“The idea that British and potentially European Bronze Age communities invested resources in mummifying and curating a proportion of their dead fundamentally alters our perceptions of funerary ritual and belief in this period.”

The research also demonstrates that funerary rituals that we may now regard as exotic, novel and even bizarre were practised commonly for hundreds of years by our predecessors.

Researchers hope the new technology can be used to identify cultures that mummified their dead not just in the UK but in Europe as well.


3 Civil War cannons raised from Pee Dee River

October 1st, 2015

A team of archaeologists from the University of South Carolina have raised three Civil War cannons from the Pee Dee River in Mars Bluff, South Carolina. The cannons were the armament of the Confederate gunboat CSS Pee Dee which launched in January of 1865 and was deliberately scuttled by her crew just a month later when defeat seemed imminent. With the impending arrival of General William Tecumseh Sherman’s army fresh from putting Columbia to the torch, the crew jettisoned the ship’s guns into the river, dismantled the boat, set it on fire and set it adrift down the river.

The three cannons are two Brooke rifles, a 6.4-inch and a 7-inch, and a 9-inch Dahlgren smoothbore which was originally a Union weapon. The cannon was salvaged from the wreck of the USS Southfield after it was sunk by the formidable Confederate ironclad ram CSS Albemarle during the Battle of Plymouth on the Roanoke River in Plymouth, North Carolina, on April 19th, 1864. The Albermarle had been commissioned literally two days earlier and would cut a deadly swath through the Union Navy until she was brought down in October of 1864 by Lieutenant William B. Cushing in a raid so daring it belongs in a Dumas novel.

The Southfield‘s Dahlgren was transported by train to the Mars Bluff Naval Yard where it was mounted on the Pee Dee. It wasn’t mounted on a traditional carriage, however, which one of the reasons the cannons are of particular historical significance. All three of the Pee Dee‘s guns were swivel mounted so they could turn a full 360 degrees. The Pee Dee was the only ship ever built at the Mars Bluff Naval Yard. The Confederacy had no navy when the war began. The naval yard was one of a few constructed inland, safe from Union interference, with the aim of producing vessels that could harry the Union blockade choking Confederate shipping.

Two of the guns, the 6.4-inch Brooke and the Dahlgren, were discovered in 1995 and 2006 by amateur diver Bob Butler of the Pee Dee Research and Recovery Team. The wreck itself was found in 2010 by the University of South Carolina’s Maritime Research Division. It turns out to have caught on the first bend of the river, but because of its destruction and drifting, the debris field is spread over a great deal of the river and several parts of the ship — the propellers, the boilers — have been salvaged by locals over the decades.

The third cannon was finally located in 2012. Unlike the other guns which were found in alignment close to the riverbank, the 7-inch Brooke was deeper in the water. It was discovered thanks to adjacent landowners Dutton and Rufus Perdue who took advantage of extreme low water levels which had exposed two piling stumps to search the river with metal detectors. They found a large anomaly and alerted the University team. Although they initially hoped to raise the cannons in late 2013, it took another two years for everything to get sorted out, so this has been a long time in coming.

The weapons appear to be in very good condition. They’ve been softly treated by the fresh water of the Pee Dee and retain identification markers like serial numbers and foundry marks. The cannons have a new home: the Warren Lasch Conservation Center in North Charleston where the CSS Hunley submarine is being conserved. After an estimate two-year process of stabilization and conservation, the cannons will be put on display in the Florence County Museum.


Plaster casts of Pompeii given first CAT scans

September 30th, 2015

CAT scans on 30 of the recently restored plaster casts of people killed in the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 A.D. have found that Pompeiians had far better teeth than their modern counterparts. The scans showed the victims’ teeth were in excellent condition (the orthodontist who analyzed the scans called their teeth “perfect”) without a single cavity among them. There was some evidence of wear, but no tooth decay whatsoever.

The sample is too small to draw broad conclusions about the dental health of the overall population of the city, but that they ate healthy high-fiber foods low in fat and sugar is in keeping with what we know of their diet from previous poop studies. There’s another reason for their fine teeth: samples of Pompeii’s water and air found high levels of fluoride. Volcanic rocks and hot springs are high in fluorine which dissolves into water as fluoride, the same thing 25 countries deliberately add to their tap water for public dental health purposes.

While the casts have been X-rayed before, this is the first time any of them have been CAT scanned. One of the reasons for that is that the density of the plaster varies — the oldest of it dates to the 19th century, plus layers from subsequent restorations — but it can be as dense as bone. People with our squishy outsides are comparatively easy to scan, but add a thick plaster exoskeleton and it gets tricky. The archaeological team was able to borrow a 16-layer scanner from Philips SpA Healthcare that allowed them to see through the plaster to the bones in great detail. The scanner is superfast, taking only 100 seconds for a full body scan, and is able to block distortions to the images caused by metal elements. It was designed for people with prosthetics or implanted devices. The dead of Pompeii don’t have titanium hips and pacemakers, but metal pieces were added to some of the casts to reinforce the plaster structure.

The aperture of the scanner is just 70 cm (28 inches), so they had to select smaller casts that would fit all the way through, or limit the scan to the head and chest. The 30 casts of men, women and one child, plus two more casts of animals (a dog and a pig or wild boar) were CAT scanned. The mother holding her child discovered under the staircase in the House of the Golden Bracelet, for example, could not be scanned, but a slighter older child, probably a boy, found a few yards away from the mother was small enough to be fully scanned. The cast of the child contained a full skeleton. The length of femur established that the child was between two and three years old at time of death. A bump on the sternum previously thought to be a knot has now been identified as a fibula, probably gold, a baby version of the heavy gold bracelet found on his mother’s wrist which gave the house its name.

The scans also found fractured cranial bones, indicating that some of the deaths believed to have been caused by asphyxia from volcanic gases were in fact the result of victims being struck hard on the head by falling roof tiles or rocks.

Another fascinating find was actually the lack of a find. The cast of a woman thought from her silhouette to have been pregnant at the time of her death is empty. The CAT scan found no fetal bones and no adult bones. This is an artifact from the 19th century when some of the early casts were done after the skeletal remains were removed, possibly for ethical or religious reasons. One of the most iconic casts, the dog writhing on its back from the House of Orpheus, is also completely devoid of bones and it’s unlikely they would have been removed out of respect for the dead.

The analysis of the scans is still in the beginning stages so we’ll hear more about this project as it progresses. They have collected sufficient data to create 3D virtual models that will not only provide invaluable information about the lives and deaths of the people of Pompeii, but also about the plaster itself which will be of great aid in future conservation decisions. The team is planning to create a database of the 3D models so scholars around the world have access to them.


Erebus summer dive season goes swimmingly

September 29th, 2015

Parks Canada‘s Underwater Archaeology Team has more than doubled the dive time on the wreck of the HMS Erebus thanks to an unexpected bout of good weather this summer. Divers explored the wreck from August 28th to September 10th, logging a total of 100 dives and 109 hours underwater. The excellent visibility and comparative warmth allowed them to remove the kelp from the full 30-meter (98-foot) length of the ship. With the kelp gone, the team was able to document the structure of the ship, identify the areas damaged by ice, record the debris field surrounding it and fully survey the upper deck. Divers were also able photograph all sides of the ship and thread small cameras through openings in the deck to get a look at what’s inside.

Using reference points and with lines stretched between them, the team took precise measurements to draw up a complete site plan of the wreck. They then noted the location of every new artifact revealed by the removal of the kelp. They selected a total of 39 objects to recover from the ship after they were carefully documented in situ. When the good weather ran out and a fierce Arctic hit Queen Maud Gulf, those precise measurements and the guide lines enabled the divers to locate the artifacts in the murky water.

Among the recovered artifacts are a piece of the ship’s wheel, a sword hilt, a leather boot, a belt plate and a Blue Willow pattern dinner plate. They are in good condition but require very careful conservation. They are being sent to the Parks Canada conservation labs in Ottawa where they will be kept wet and in cold storage while the objects are analyzed for their individual conservation needs.

Parks Canada has worked closely with local Inuit fist when searching for the wreck and in ongoing researching. Inuit tradition provided key information leading to the discovery of the Erebus, and the group of objects found on the upper deck is another confirmation of the accuracy of Inuit oral history about the wreck. The account handed down through the generations tells that the last Inuit to visit the ship before it sank assembled a number of belongings on the upper deck before leaving.

One of Parks Canada’s Inuit partners in the study of this history, Inuit oral historian Louie Kamookak, visited the site and performed a traditional blessing in honor of his ancestors and of the men who died on Sir John Franklin’s doomed expedition. Kamookak said about the visit: “It was a great honour to be there and do a ceremony in respect to my ancestors for their knowledge and wisdom that have played a valuable role in what we all have achieved.”

The success of this season’s dive has mapped out the next steps the team will take. The bow is almost entirely intact, stable enough that divers in future seasons should be able to swim right into it. Where the structure has been too damaged by ice and time, it will have to be reinforced before any divers attempt to go inside. There is no rush; this is a long-term project. Archaeologists expect the full exploration of the wreck will take at least five years. Meanwhile, the search for the Erebus‘ companion ship, the Terror, continues.


New clay tablet adds 20 lines to Epic of Gilgamesh

September 28th, 2015

A newly discovered clay tablet in the Sulaymaniah Museum in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq has corrected the order of chapters, filled in blanks and added 20 lines to the Epic of Gilgamesh. Since the invasion of Iraq and subsequent orgy of looting, the museum has a matter of policy paid smugglers to keep artifacts from leaving the country, no questions asked. The tablet was acquired by the museum in late 2011 as part of a collection of 80-90 tablets sold by an unnamed shady character. Professor Farouk Al-Rawi examined the collection while the seller haggled with museum official Abdullah Hashim. When Al-Rawi he saw this tablet, he told Hashim to pay whatever the seller wanted: $800.

Even caked in mud the tablet’s importance was instantly recognizable to the expert. Once it was clean, Al-Rawi identified it as a fragment of Tablet V of the Standard Babylonian Epic of Gilgamesh.
The tablet is the left half of a six-column tablet written in Neo-Babylonian. It’s composed of three fragments that have been glued together, oddly enough, probably either by the original excavators or the seller. It is 11 centimeters (4.3 inches) high, 9.5 cm (3.7 inchs) wide and three cm (1.2 inches) thick.

The tablet adds new verses to the story of how Gilgamesh and Enkidu slew the forest demigod Humbaba. Gilgamesh, King of Uruk, gets the idea to kill the giant Humbaba, guardian of the Cedar Forest, home of the gods, in Tablet II. He thinks accomplishing such a feat of strength will gain him eternal fame. His wise companion (and former wild man) Enkidu tries to talk him out of it — Humbaba was set to his task by the god Enlil — but stubborn Gilgamesh won’t budge, so Enkidu agrees to go with him on this quest. Together they overpower the giant. When the defeated Humbaba begs for mercy, offering to serve Gilgamesh forever and give him every sacred tree in the forest, Gilgamesh is moved to pity, but Enkidu’s blood is up now and he exhorts his friend to go through with the original plan to kill the giant and get that eternal renown he craves. Gilgamesh cuts Humbaba’s head off and then cuts down the sacred forest. The companions return to Uruk with the trophy head and lots of aromatic timber.

The newly discovered tablet casts a new whole light on Humbaba and his forest home. From the absolutely fascinating paper about the find (pdf), which includes the entire text of the tablet both transliterated and translated into English, published by Farouk Al-Rawi and Andrew George of the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies:

The most interesting addition to knowledge provided by the new source is the continuation of the description of the Cedar Forest, one of the very few episodes in Babylonian narrative poetry when attention is paid to landscape. The cedars drip their aromatic sap in cascades (ll. 12–16), a trope that gains power from cedar incense’s position in Babylonia as a rare luxury imported from afar. The abundance of exotic and costly materials in fabulous lands is a common literary motif. Perhaps more surprising is the revelation that the Cedar Forest was, in the Babylonian literary imagination, a dense jungle inhabited by exotic and noisy fauna (17–26). The chatter of monkeys, chorus of cicada, and squawking of many kinds of birds formed a symphony (or cacophony) that daily entertained the forest’s guardian, Ḫumbaba. The passage gives a context for the simile “like musicians” that occurs in very broken context in the Hittite version’s description of Gilgameš and Enkidu’s arrival at the Cedar Forest. Ḫumbaba’s jungle orchestra evokes those images found in ancient Near Eastern art, of animals playing musical instruments. Ḫumbaba emerges not as a barbarian ogre and but as a foreign ruler entertained with music at court in the manner of Babylonian kings, but music of a more exotic kind, played by a band of equally exotic musicians.

The aftermath of the heroes’ slaying of Ḫumbaba is now better preserved (300–308). The previously available text made it clear that Gilgameš and Enkidu knew, even before they killed Ḫumbaba, that what they were doing would anger the cosmic forces that governed the world, chiefly the god Enlil. Their reaction after the event is now tinged with a hint of guilty conscience, when Enkidu remarks ruefully that [ana] tušār ništakan qišta, “we have reduced the forest [to] a wasteland’ (303). The anxiety about offending the gods seems to a modern reader compounded by ecological regret. Enkidu goes on to imagine the angry questions that Enlil will ask them when they arrive home: minû uzzakunūma taraḫḫisā qišta, “what was this wrath of yours that you went trampling the forest?” (306). In the theme of the angry gods, the poems about Ḫumbaba in both Sumerian and Akkadian already displayed an ethical ambivalence toward the expedition to his Cedar Forest, arising from what one commentator has called the “double nature” of the forest’s guardian as ogre and servant of Enlil (Forsyth 1981: 21). This newly recovered speech of Enkidu adds to the impression that, to the poets’ minds, the destruction of Ḫumbaba and his trees was morally wrong.

Here is a video of Hazha Jalal, curator of the Sulaymaniyah Museum, displaying the tablet and talking about it in Kurdish. Translation below courtesy of neurologist and Mesopotamian history buff Dr. Osama S. M. Amin.

“The tablet dates back to the Neo-Bablyonian period, 2000-1500 BCE. It is a part of tablet V of the epic. It was acquired by the Museum in the year 2011 and that Dr. Farouk Al-Raw transliterated it. It was written as a poem and many new things this version has added, for example Gilgamesh and his friend met a monkey. We are honored to house this tablet and any one can visit the Museum during its opening hours from 8:30 morning to noon. The entry is free for you and your guests. Thank you.”


Oldest decapitation in the Americas found in Brazil

September 27th, 2015

A severed skull and hands found in a rock shelter in east-central Brazil in 2007 is the oldest known instance of decapitation in the Americas. Radiocarbon dating of a fragment of cranial bone returned an age range of 9,100-9,400 years before the present. The oldest known decapitation in North America was found in Windover Pond, Florida, and is 8,120–6,990 years old. The decapitation previously thought to be the oldest in South America dates to 3,000 years ago. It was discovered in the Peruvian Andes, as have all other similar archaeological decapitations, so until now the practice in South America was thought to have originated among the ancient Andean peoples. The discovery of a decapitated head in Brazil that is not only older than the Andean beheadings but is older than the North American ones to boot upends that theory.

Geographically, the archaeological record of North America and Mesoamerica shows a more widespread occurrence of decapitation compared to South America, with cases occurring from the Arctic to southern Mexico. Our findings suggest that South America had the same spatially widespread distribution observed for North America, making the occurrence of decapitation widespread across the whole continent since the beginning of the Holocene. In addition, they confirm that the vast territorial range of decapitation behavior described in ethnohistorical and ethnographic accounts for the New World has deeper chronological roots.

This burial is the last of 26 unearthed at the Lapa do Santo rock shelter in Lagoa Santa, Brazil, during excavations between 2001 and 2009. It was found about 22 inches under the surface in a circular grave 16 inches in diameter. Inside the grave was a skull with its articulated mandible and the first six cervical vertebrae. Both right and left hands were positioned in a fascinatingly symmetrical tableau. The right was placed over the left side of the face, fingers pointing down towards the chin. The left hand was over the right side of the face, fingers pointing up towards the forehead. Evidence of wear on the teeth and cranial morphology indicates the deceased was a young adult male.

Cut marks were found on the mandible, cheekbone the C6 vertebra and the right radius. The marks on the right hand indicate a sharp tool was used to detach the hand from the arm. The marks on the mandible and cheekbone appear to have been left during the cutting away of soft tissues, while the cuts to the vertebra were a result of severing the neck. A fracture in the atlas bone of the neck was likely caused when it was hyperextended and then pulled up. The atlas was also rotated 42 degrees, probably the result of it having been twisted to the side. This is strong evidence of postmortem decapitation.

Burial 26 also upends the widely accepted belief that heads were taken and displayed as war trophies, an unmistakable signifier of military dominance. Results of stable isotope analysis of the head matched the strontium isotope signature of other remains found in the rock shelter, so this person was local, not a captured enemy. Add to that the unique and deliberate positioning of the skull, vertebrae and hands and the decapitation appears to have been a funerary ritual, and a complex one at that.

The earliest burials at Lapa do Santo are 10,300-10,600 years old, and in this first phase people were buried intact in shallow graves capped by limestone blocks. The second phase began around 9,600 years ago and involved extensive modifications of the bodies. They reduced the mass of the body by various means — dismemberment, defleshing, burning — and then buried what was left following ritual strictures. Burial 26 is from the second phase. Archaeologists believe this was a means for Archaic hunter-gatherers, who had no funerary monuments or grave goods, to develop elaborate rituals and explore symbolism using the dead body itself.


Rijksmuseum acquires marksmen’s guild chain

September 26th, 2015

The Rijksmuseum has fulfilled a long-denied wish of one its planners by acquiring a rare 16th century marksmen’s guild chain. The silver chain with gilding and enamel decoration has no maker’s mark, but it was made in Bergen op Zoom or Breda for the marksmen’s guild Saint George of Zevenbergen.

The Schuttersgilde were voluntary militias which defended Dutch cities from enemy attacks and internal unrest in the Middle Ages, but by the late-16th century had few wars to fight. Organized into guilds by neighborhood or by weapon of choice (bow, crossbow, musket), the militias continued to hold regular target practice in fields and in indoor meeting halls.

Once a year the guilds would hold annual marksmanship competitions. The archers’ guild had “jay shoot” in which the members would compete to shoot a wooden bird off of a high pole. The winner would earn the title of “Marksman King” and be allowed to wear a splendid chain to which he would add a medallion with his own coat-of-arms. Only one medallion has survived on the Saint George of Zevenbergen chain, that of Cornelis de Glymes van Bergen, Lord of Zevenbergen, who won the competition on July 18th, 1546.

The chain is richly decorated with oak branches and various symbols. [...] In combination, it demonstrates to whom the work once belonged. Saint George and the Dragon refer to the patron saint of the marksmen’s guild, the seven rabbit mountains depict the name of the town where the guild was established: the city of Zevenbergen (“Seven Mountains”). The remaining symbols portray the task of the marksmen’s guild: to defend the Church and the State. The oak leaves represent “steadfastness in faith” and the birds represent “loyalty to Church and State”.

The centerpiece of the chain is a gilded Saint George slaying the dragon while the daughter of the king prays by beside him with her lamb on a leash.

Very few marksmen’s chains survived intact over the years, and this one is so elaborately decorated it stands out as the rarest of the rare. By the end of the 19th century it was recognized as a highly coveted object of cultural patrimony. Art historian and historic preservation pioneer Victor de Stuers, the visionary who commissioned architect Pierre Cuypers to design the new Rijksmuseum building against the wishes of King William III, was horrified when the chain was sold in 1874 to Alphonse James de Rothschild, scion of the French branch of the famous banking family and owner of the Château Lafitte vineyard. De Stuers thought the chain was an irreplaceable piece of Dutch cultural heritage.

The chain remained in the French Rothschild family until 2014 when they put it up for auction at Christie’s Paris. It sold to an anonymous buyer for $392,920, twice the pre-sale estimate. The buyer, who still prefers to remain anonymous, donated it to the Rijksmuseum.

There could no more fitting home for the chain because it has a thematic connection to the museum’s most famous masterpiece. The Schuttersgilde would also hold yearly banquets which were captured in group portraits. The static, stiff crowd around a table of the early 16th century evolved into more active postures in the 17th century. Rembrandt’s The Militia Company of Captain Frans Banning Cocq, better known today as The Night Watch, was a schutterij group portrait, a uniquely dynamic attempt to capture the group in action.


1000-year-old sarcophagus found in Odense

September 25th, 2015

Odense, Denmark, land of wonderous barrels of poop, has produced another treasure from deep within its bowels: an 11th century stone sarcophagus. The coffin was found on the site of the small timber church of St. Alban’s Priory where King Canute IV of Denmark, later canonized a saint, was assassinated by rebels in 1086. A light rail project was slated to cut through the area known to be the site of the historically important church, so archaeologists from the Odense City Museums surveyed it first. They were hoping to find out more about the church at the time of the murder of King Canute. Instead they found a sarcophagus on Wednesday, September 16th.

Cameras were present to capture the opening of the sarcophagus.

When they removed the heavy four-part limestone lid, archaeologists found an articulated skeleton, although only the leg bones were immediately visible because the upper body was covered in earth that had filled the top half of the sarcophagus through a large hole in the lid. The remains were excavated in situ and found to be the skeleton of a man about 30 years old of exceptional height. He was 187 centimeters tall, or just a hair short of six feet and two inches. The man was buried with a miniature eucharist set, a plate for the host and a chalice for the wine, near his hip.

The presence of communion gear suggests the man was a cleric, and the expense of a heavy limestone sarcophagus indicates he held an important ecclesiastical position. He was also buried just in front of the altar, the most honored placement in the church. Museum archaeologists believe the most likely candidate is Eilbert, Bishop of Odense from around 1048 to 1072. If it does prove to be Eilbert in that sarcophagus, it will be the oldest bishop’s grave discovered in northern Europe.

The skeletal remains and artifacts have been moved to the University of Southern Denmark for study. An X-ray of the disk revealed an inscription: “the Lord’s right (hand) has created strength amen.” It is likely a reference to Psalms 118:16, “The right hand of the LORD is exalted: the right hand of the LORD doeth valiantly.” It doesn’t help identify the deceased, but it confirms the disk is a communion plate.

We know the remains are not those of Canute even though he was buried there for a brief time. Canute’s ambition to invade England and wrest the throne from the ailing William the Conqueror (as Canute the Great’s great-grandnephew, Canute IV actually had a halfway decent claim to the throne, unlike William who was a) illegitimate, and b) only Edward the Confessor’s first cousin once removed) and his attempts to centralize power resulted in heavy tax and tithe increases. Peasants and noble in Jutland joined forces and rebelled against Canute’s taxes, chasing him to Odense where he and his brother Benedict took sanctuary in the church. The rebels broke in and ganged up on Benedict, slashing him to death. Canute, standing unarmed and unresisting in front of the altar, was struck with a spear or a sword (chroniclers differ on the point) and was struck on the head with a stone thrown through the window.

He and his brother were buried in the church where they fell. Miraculous occurrences at the church and years of famine that were seen as divine punishment for the martyrdom of Canute followed and a cult quickly grew up around him. In 1101, just 15 years after Canute’s death, Pope Paschal II canonized him. Canute was the first Danish saint and became patron saint of Denmark. A new stone church was built to accommodate the saint’s relics even before they were official saint’s relics. Canute and Benedict’s bones were moved to St. Canute’s Cathedral just over a decade after his death.

Further analysis of the St. Alban’s bones will hopefully answer some questions, like the cause of death and his country of origin. Bishop Eilbert was from Bremen which is about 260 miles south of Odense. I don’t know if stable isotope analysis can differentiate between northern Germany and Denmark. Researchers will also attempt to extract DNA which will give us information about his appearance and heritage.


Olmec relief looted 45 years ago found in France

September 24th, 2015

An Olmec relief chiselled off a rock face in the southern Mexican state of Chiapas in the early 70s has surfaced in France and was officially returned to Mexico in a ceremony at the Mexican Embassy in Paris.

The relief was discovered at the archaeological site of Xoc and dates to between 1,150 and 900 B.C. It’s 220 centimeters (7’2″) high, 115 cm (3’9″) wide and about 30 cm (one foot) deep. It depicts a man in profile, except for the chest an arms which face front. He has some characteristic Olmec features — thick legs, no neck, small feet, a very high headdress with a crossed band decoration — and some that are very rarely seen in Olmec art, like the round earplug with a curved tassel hanging from it and the sharp talons on his feet. He is clad in breechcloth tied by a large square element. He carries a baton or a knife in his right hand and a bundle in the crook of his right arm that is likely maize.

It was first discovered in the 1920s, but its remote location and the sparsity of information kept people from exploring it any detail. A few archaeologists saw it, like B. Traven, author of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre which 20 years later would become an iconic Oscar-winning movie by John Houston starring Humphrey Bogart, who photographed it in the 20s. Thirty years later the relief was photographed by Wolfgang Cordan, a German-born poet, fighter in the Dutch resistance against Nazi occupation and anthropologist who roamed the ancient sites of Chiapas in the 1950s and together with William Brito Sansores devised the (now largely discredited) Mérida System of deciphering Maya hieroglyphics. Cordan published the picture in a 1964 book about his Mexican travels, but was deliberately vague on its location.

Because very few traces of an Olmec presence have been found in the hot, humid jungles of the eastern highlands of Chiapas and all of the previous finds were small, portable artifacts, the relief was of great archaeological significance. In 1968 Susanna Ekholm-Miller of the New World Archaeological Foundation undertook to locate the relief in Cordan’s picture. She found a reference in a 1957 survey narrowing down the Xoc site to somewhere between the towns of La Martinica and El Porvenir. She took a puddle jumper to the El Porvenir landing strip and quickly discovered that the locals knew about the site and the relief. An hour-and-a-half horseback ride later, she was standing in front of the rock carving.

Ekholm-Miller’s expedition was a brief one. Her field director approved a two-day trip, so she had less than two days to clean, photograph and map the site before flying back out. In July of 1972, she got approval for a second, longer trip with a larger team. The elements conspired to make it a much harder and longer slog this time giving them only a day and a half to work on the site. When they arrived, they found to their horror that the relief had been looted.

From her 1973 paper on the find, The Olmec Rock Carving at Xoc, Chiapas, Mexico:

[I]t is impossible to describe the shock and anger we felt when we approached the nearby rock face where previously Eduardo Martinez and I had viewed the magnificent Olmec figure. The carving was no longer there. It had been brutally and completely removed. Apparently it was chiselled off the rock face, probably piece by piece. At least a 30 cm-thick layer of the surface had been removed; a huge pile of fragments of the stone lay at its base, though we could find none that bore any definite carving. We assume that the carved surface is on its way to the antiquities market, undoubtedly in many pieces, as the rock had fissures in it besides being of a limestone which fractures easily.

In the hope that the unique and priceless artifact might someday be found again, Ekholm-Miller published all her photographs of the relief. They were used to make copies for scholars to study. Though her paper was widely disseminated and the lost relief was very famous among pre-Columbian experts, neither hide nor hair of it was seen or even heard of in the past 45 years.

Now that the relief has been recovered, we know that it was cut into four pieces for transportation. When it arrived in France is unknown, but it was soon after the theft. The previous “owners” inherited it and had no idea what it was or where it came from. They contacted pre-Columbian art expert Jacques Blazy and Drouot auctioneer Jean-Claude Binoche to have it appraised. Even stashed in a dark basement, cut into four pieces and filthy, the relief was immediately recognized by the experts, thanks to Ekholm-Miller’s work. They told the family that the piece could not be legally sold.

Blazy and Binoche took the relief to a conservator to have it cleaned and then had it authenticated by preeminent archaeologist Dominique Michelet. One the authenticity of the piece was confirmed, they contacted the Mexican Embassy and arranged for the formal repatriation ceremony.





October 2015
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