Remains of soldiers in mass grave show toll of Napoleon’s Russian campaign

July 27th, 2015

In late 2001, workers doing construction on the site of a former Soviet Army barracks in a northern suburb of Vilnius discovered a mass grave which fragments of military uniforms identified as the final resting place for more than 3,000 soldiers and support staff of Napoleon’s Great Army who died during the horrific retreat from Russia in the winter of 1812. The grave was excavated in two stages in 2002 and the preliminary results of the study of the skeletons were published in February of 2004 (pdf). Thanks to two new studies on the skeletal remains, we now know more about the geographical origin and diet of some of the men and women who died in Napoleon’s disastrous Russian campaign.

First an infographic. I get emails all the time from people asking me to post their ostensibly history-related infographics and I decline because they tend to be marketing gimmicks that are very light on content. This one is different. Created in 1869 by French civil engineer Charles Joseph Minard, a pioneer of statistics relayed in graphic form, this chart plots the advance of the Great Army into Russia and its devastating retreat. The width of the line marks the size of the army at any given time. The beige line, obese with troops in the beginning, thins out to a quarter of its original size when the army reaches Moscow. The black line then shows the retreating army as it doubles back in the sadly vain attempt to make it out of the Russian winter alive. By the time the black line reaches where the beige line begins, it’s pencil-thin. The 422,000 invasion troops are reduced to 10,000 in retreat, starving, frozen, defeated on an unthinkable scale by a brutal Russian winter and overly extended supply lines.

The deceptively simple chart captures six variables: the size of the army (represented by the thickness of the line), the longitude and latitude of the army (represented by the position of the line), the direction of the army (represented by the two different colored lines), the location of the army on certain dates and, in a line chart underneath the main graphic, the temperature during the retreat. Many cartographers and graphics experts today consider it the greatest information graphic ever made. (Click here for a much larger version translated into English.

The immensity of the disaster that Minard’s graphic conveys so adroitly is exposed on a more human scale by the bones of the fallen. Buttons found in the two trenches of the mass grave identified soldiers and officers from around 30 regiments, most of them infantry, some cavalry, dragoon and foot artillery. There were uniform remains from Italian, Polish and Bavarian regiments as well as the Imperial Guard. There are female skeletons in the mass grave because since 1805 the French army had an official cadre of women working as cooks, laundresses, nurses and sellers of goods like tobacco and alcohol which accompanied the Grand Army in every campaign. Archaeologists were able to determine the sex of 29 female skeletons, but there were probably more women buried with the men as the remains of 1317 individuals were impossible to sex.

The two new studies by University of Central Florida researchers used stable isotope analysis to find out where some of Napoleon’s dead came from and what, if anything, they ate. In one of the studies (pdf), oxygen isotopes in the bones revealed that none of the dead tested were from Vilnius. Of the eight males and one female tested, five of the men were from central and western Europe, three from the Iberian peninsula. The woman was most likely from southern France.

The other study (pdf) took specimens from the bones of 73 men and three women for stable carbon and nitrogen isotope analysis. Carbon isotopes revealed that most of Napoleon’s troops ate wheat in their youth and a few, perhaps from Italy, were raised more on millet. More than a third of the specimens were found to have exceptionally high nitrogen isotope values. While that’s often an indication of a diet high in protein (Richard III, for instance, had a diet rich in game, meat and sea fish and the nitrogen values to prove it), it’s also a reaction to the exact opposite: protein deprivation dramatically raises nitrogen isotope values. Disease can spike nitrogen values as well.

Napoleon’s men were not in good health, even before their ill-fated stop in Vilnius. Research on the teeth of the soldiers in the mass grave showed rampant dental cavities and indications of stress during childhood, and over one-quarter of the dead had likely succumbed to epidemic typhus, a louse-borne disease. A febrile illness like typhus could cause increased loss of body water through urine, sweat, and diarrhea, which may also cause a rise in nitrogen isotopes. And, of course, historical accounts detail how troops fruitlessly scoured the countryside for food and how many of them ate their dead or dying horses.

Consumption of seafood is unlikely to be the cause of the high nitrogen since the frozen Vilnia River wasn’t producing and there were no salted stores to be had. Canning was still in its infancy as French brewer Nicolas Appert had only devised a method to seal food in glass jars in 1809. He did so specifically for the French army, incidentally, after Napoleon offered a 12,000 franc reward to anyone who could solve the military’s thorny supply problems. Glass doesn’t transport well and while a metal can system was invented by Peter Durand in 1810, Durand was British and his patented food preservation products went straight to the Royal Navy, not the Grand Armée.

The culprit is almost certainly prolonged nutritional stress.

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Five oversized Bronze Age axes found in Jutland Christmas tree farm

July 26th, 2015

Just before Easter of this year, Christmas tree farmer Esben Arildskov asked a metal detecting friend Bent Rasmussen to survey a field on his farm in the village of Boest near Nørre Snede in Jutland, Denmark. Bronze artifacts had been found on the field before, and Arildskov wanted to be sure any historic artifacts were recovered before he cleared the area for planting. That responsible choice proved prescient. Rasmussen’s metal detector alerted to a large metal find and when he dug down, he found two large bronze axe heads. He immediately stopped digging and notified experts at the Museum Midtjylland of the find.

The two axes Rasmussen unearthed are 30 and 26 centimeters (one foot and 10 inches) long. The larger one weighs almost a full kilo (980 grams, 2.16 pounds); the smaller weighs 650 grams (1.4 pounds). Bronze Age axes are usually half this size, so the museum’s archaeologists were excited by the find. They examined the site and realized there was more to be found underneath the surface. They had to wait until after Easter to get started so on April 7th the official excavation began. Archaeologists, museum curators, journalists, neighbors and interested observers made the dig something of a party, complete with coffee and homemade cake. They had good cause to celebrate when three more oversized axes were unearthed. The axe hoard was painstakingly buried, each axe placed deliberately on top of the others inside a pit that was padded with grass.

Radiocarbon dating found the axes were made between 1,800 and 1,500 B.C., a period bridging the end of the Stone Age and the beginning of the Bronze Age. This places them among the earliest bronze artifacts ever discovered in Denmark.

Bronze axes from this era are so rare only five of them have been found before in Denmark, Sweden and northern Germany. That means the Boest find has in one fell swoop doubled the number of these Bronze Age axes in the archaeological record of northern Europe. When you consider that
Bent Rasmussen and his brother, enlisted by Bent during excavations to cover more ground with their metal detectors, found another four smaller axes and a spear tip, it’s clear that this field in Boest was an important place during the early Bronze Age.

The would-be Christmas tree lot continued its archaeological hot streak when rows of large postholes were discovered. Four parallel rows of holes so large the posts they held would have been at least the height of a man. At first archaeologists thought they might be the remains of a dwelling or a fence, but as they kept excavating they kept finding more postholes. Ultimately they were able to follow an uninterrupted path of postholes for 109 meters before it disappeared into the forest. Now they’re thinking it may have been a processional route leading to burial mounds known to be on the property. This find is unique in Danish history, more akin to the pre-stone standing structures of Avebury and Stonehenge. Archaeologists hope to be able to excavate the entire processional in the near future, but first the funding has to be secured.

At the end of April, archaeologists unearthed another treasure across the post rows and slightly to the right of the axe hoard: two gold bracelets, one gold finger ring and two flint blades. The bangles weigh 21 grams (.74 ounces) apiece while the ring weighs a massive 16 grams (.56 oz). Modern wedding rings weigh a single gram, so this ring is exceptionally heavy. The gold deposit also dates to the transitional period between the Stone and Bronze Ages.

The axes are being conserved at the Museum Midtjylland after which they will be sent to the National Museum in Copenhagen for further analysis. Museum Midtjylland hopes the axes will be available for display this summer. Esben Arildskov has accepted that he won’t be planting Christmas trees on this land anytime soon, but he’s consoled by the fact that he’s the owner of a Bronze Age ceremonial center with huge axes and gold rings the weight of 16 regular rings buried hither and yon. He, his wife Birthe Rosvig and two daughters (aged five and eight) are thrilled to have found actual treasure in their back yard.

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Birmingham Qur’an folio one of world’s earliest

July 25th, 2015

A partial Qur’an manuscript in the University of Birmingham’s Cadbury Research Library has been radiocarbon dated to between 568 and 645 A.D., which makes it one of the earliest Qur’ans known to survive, perhaps even the earliest. The Prophet Muhammad lived around 570 to 632 A.D., so the sheep or goat who whose skin was used to make the parchment was his contemporary or died very soon after he did.

Muslim tradition holds that the Prophet received the revelations of the angel Gabriel in the last two decades of his life, transmitting them orally to his closest and most trusted companions who memorized them word for word. According to Sunni Islam, Abu Bakr, Muhammad’s father-in-law and after his death the first caliph of the Rashidun Caliphate, fearing that the people who memorized the scripture would die before they could pass it down, ordered the verses written down. That text was then used by the third caliph, Uthman Ibn Affan, as the basis for the definitive version of the Qur’an which was widely copied and distributed in 650 A.D., just 18 years after Muhammad died. (The Shi’ite tradition holds Uthman Ibn Affan solely responsible for collecting the revelations into a single written scripture.)

The manuscript consists of two folios with parts of Suras 18 through 20 written in a beautiful tilted Arabic script called Hijazi that is so clear it can be easily read by Arabic readers today. The pages have been in the library for decades, one of more than 3,000 of Middle Eastern manuscripts collected by Chaldean priest Alphonse Mingana in the 1920s at the behest of Edward Cadbury, chocolate magnate in a long line of chocolate magnates who, when they weren’t busy making delicious creme-filled confections, founded a consortium of colleges later absorbed by the University of Birmingham. The folios were mistakenly bound with the folios of another Qur’an written 200 years later in a very similar hand. There are no records of where Mingana acquired these particular leaves, but the parchment and script look like Qur’an fragments from the earliest mosque in Egypt (founded 642 A.D.) that are now in the Bibliothèque Nationale de France in Paris.

Dr. Alba Fedeli noticed the folios while doing research for her PhD. While the handwriting on those two pages at first glance seemed identical to that on the rest of the manuscript, she saw that the content stuck out, that it didn’t seem to fit with what came before and after. Fedeli pointed out the discrepancy to Susan Worrall, director of the library’s special collections, who decided to have them carbon dated by experts at the Oxford University Radiocarbon Accelerator Unit. They were shocked by the results.

Dr Muhammad Isa Waley, Lead Curator for Persian and Turkish Manuscripts at the British Library, said: “This is indeed an exciting discovery. We know now that these two folios, in a beautiful and surprisingly legible Hijazi hand, almost certainly date from the time of the first three Caliphs. [...]

“The Muslim community was not wealthy enough to stockpile animal skins for decades, and to produce a complete Mushaf, or copy, of the Holy Qur’an required a great many of them. The carbon dating evidence, then, indicates that Birmingham’s Cadbury Research Library is home to some precious survivors that – in view of the Suras included – would once have been at the centre of a Mushaf from that period. And it seems to leave open the possibility that the Uthmanic redaction took place earlier than had been thought – or even, conceivably, that these folios predate that process. In any case, this – along with the sheer beauty of the content and the surprisingly clear Hijazi script – is news to rejoice Muslim hearts.”

The folios will go on display at University of Birmingham’s Barber Institute of Fine Arts from October 2nd through October 25th.

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Floor of 4,000-year-old dwelling found in Ohio

July 24th, 2015

Archaeologists excavating the Burrell Orchard site in Sheffield, Ohio, have discovered the floor of a dwelling built 4,000 years ago.

“There’s nothing like this anywhere in Ohio. It’s very significant, a much more significant site than we previously thought,” [excavation director Dr. Brian] Redmond said. “These are house structures. This was like a village site.”

The builders lived in what archaeologists classify as the Late Archaic period in North America, so far back that they don’t have a tribal name.

“We have no idea what they called themselves or what language they spoke,” Redmond said. “The only reason we know anything about them is archaeology.”

The floor is about three inches thick and composed of yellow clay that was dug up elsewhere and carried to the site. Features were built into the floor, among them a basin, cooking pits, storage holes that held tools and food supplies like hickory nuts. Around the perimeter of the floor are post molds, spots of decayed organic material left in post holes that once held hickory saplings. Those saplings were tied together at the top and draped with mats of woven cattails to make a proto-wigwam.

This is remarkably solid construction for nomadic hunter-gatherers. They didn’t live here permanently, but rather visited the area to hunt and forage. It must have been an excellent spot for their purposes — productive, sheltered — because they stayed there for months before moving on only to return again over and over.

The Cleveland Museum of Natural History team under Dr. Redmond first explored the Burrell Orchard site in 2008 when they discovered multiple layers of middens — ancient refuse piles — under the surface. Flint flakes, broken weapons, fire-cracked rocks, butchered animal bones and the remains of many cooking pits were found in deposits as much as 1.6 feet deep. Shovel-test excavations pinpointed the perimeter of the buried midden deposit: it is more than an acre in surface area. So vast a trash collection indicates the site was used for centuries by dozens, possibly hundreds, of hunter-gatherer families as a food collecting and processing spot.

The 2008 excavation also revealed the first of post molds. Some of them appeared to be the remnants of simple structures like food drying racks, but others were found in groups of three or more, which suggests the posts were used to make a more elaborate structure. They found layers of yellow-brown clay as well. While similar clay layers at archaeological sites in Illinois and Kentucky were found to be the floors of Late Archaic homes, at first the team thought the yellow clay might just be the natural subsoil underlying the middens. Digging underneath the layer revealed prehistoric artifacts, however, so either the clay was backdirt dug up from nearby pits that sank into the natural subsoil, or it was deliberately placed there to act as a floor or working surface. Now we know it’s the latter.

In 2014, the Cleveland Museum of Natural History’s Archaeology in Action program began excavations at the Burrell Orchard site to follow up on the post molds and clay found in 2008. One of the excavation pits found the yellow clay layer with an arc of post molds following the edge of the clay that penetrate through the layer. When they returned this year, they scanned the field with Ground Penetrating Radar (GPR) and found a section that generated a very similar signal to the one caused by the 2014 floor discovery. The excavation turned up the same kinds of materials — flint flakes, fire-cracked rock, burned animal bones, burned soil, charcoal — found in the shallower layers of the 2014 find. Then the team struck gold: the yellow clay layer, this one less deep than the one from the year before. A core sample them revealed there was a second yellow clay layer at the same depth as the one found in 2014. It looks like the Late Archaic people using the site constructed a dwelling over the floor of an older one, which makes sense when you’re returning to the same spot for generations.

Dr. Redmond has blogged about the 2014 and 2105 excavations on the Cleveland Museum of Natural History’s website. I suggest reading the entries chronologically to follow the discoveries as they were made.

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1,000,000 minutes of historical news on YouTube

July 23rd, 2015

Remember when British Pathé uploaded their archives to YouTube last year and I was all “Smell ya later, guys. I’ma be watching newsreels for the next 48 hours straight.”? Well, those 85,000 historic films comprising 3,500 hours of footage were a modest little rabbit hole compared to this one. The Associated Press and its partner British Movietone are putting their entire archives on YouTube. That’s a grand total of more than 550,000 videos and 16,500 hours of footage filmed from 1895 until the present. The British Movietone channel will host the oldest pieces, footage from 1895 through 1986. The AP channel has plenty of historical news as well, but also focuses on current events with new film from its breaking news channel added daily.

They’re also bringing together the past and the present in a very clever way. In the wake of the publication of that video of the future Queen being taught how to do the Nazi salute in 1933 when she was seven years old, British Movietone put together a collection of videos showcasing pre-World War II attitudes to Nazism and Fascism in England. Even polar bears were being taught the Nazi salute in 1934.

In happier memories, English football fans won’t want to miss the glorious conclusion of the 1966 World Cup final between England and West Germany in color for the first time. (The whole match is available in black and white here for comparison.)

The 1906 San Francisco earthquake, filmed almost 110 years ago:

I remember this clip like it was yesterday:

The AP has been very slow to adapt to the brave new world of free online content. It wasn’t that long ago that they were issuing cease-and-desist letters to bloggers who quoted too much of an article. They’ve had their video archives available on their own website for some time, but only unembeddable, painfully low resolution previews. The good stuff had to be paid for, which left it the province of documentarians and big budget news outlets. It’s nice to see the AP finally catch on to the fact that they’ll get more licensing requests by opening up their archives to the place pretty much everyone goes to look for videos rather than by keeping them squirreled away on their website.

Alright guys, smell ya later. If you don’t hear from me in a month, send food and water. I won’t be needing soap BECAUSE I’M NEVER LEAVING THE HOUSE AGAIN.

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Captain’s Kidd treasure neither treasure nor Kidd’s

July 22nd, 2015

A UNESCO investigation into the claimed discovery of a massive silver ingot from the wreck of Captain Kidd’s ship Adventure Galley has found that the silver ingot isn’t silver and the wreck isn’t a ship. The so-called ingot is 95% lead and has no silver in it at all. It’s just a large hunk of ballast. As for the so-called wreck, it’s a pile of stones, probably rubble from a broken section of the port.

Days after the putative discovery was made in the shallow waters of the bay of the island of Sainte Marie off the east coast of Madagascar, UNESCO’s Scientific and Technical Advisory Body (STAB) sent an emergency mission to the island at the behest of the Ministry of Culture and Crafts of Madagascar. A team composed of seven divers, archaeologists, curators and photographers was to report on the general condition of the historic wrecks in the bay and to evaluate Clifford’s excavation project. They explored the site for four days, ultimately finding nothing that could be part of a ship, just stones. Team leader Dr. Michel L’Hour, a French underwater archaeologist who has explored 150 wrecks in his career and is in his ninth year as Director of the Department of Underwater Archaeological Research of France’s Ministry of Culture, thinks the stones may be all that’s left of a jetty or the base of a sea wall.

Determining that the bar wasn’t silver was a simple matter of testing it. Clifford admits that he never did have the metal tested before announcing to the world it was the biggest silver ingot ever found on a shipwreck. He claims he was going by the word of his collaborator John de Bry, a historian who has worked with Clifford for 15 years, but de Bry says he never got a chance to examine it or touch it, that he only saw the piece from a distance. “It looked like a silver bar except the markings were unusual.” Clifford persists in believing that it could still be silver despite UNESCO’s results.

John de Bry, who is not an archaeologist despite having been erroneously described as such in the media and by Clifford, was quoted at the time of the discovery saying that the underwater remains and the ingot were “irrefutable proof that this is indeed the treasure of the Adventure Gallery.” Yet, shortly thereafter he was cooperating with the UNESCO investigation very much against Clifford’s wishes, sharing the expedition’s research data which according to UNESCO Clifford refused in writing to provide.

Clifford has a history of UNESCO disputing his breathlessly announced finds. I didn’t post about this story at the time because it was just so blatantly crap, but last May Clifford claimed to have discovered the wreck of Christopher Columbus’ flagship the Santa Maria off the coast of Haiti. Five months later UNESCO announced their team had investigated the wreck and found bronze or copper fasteners which conclusively date the ship’s construction to the 17th or 18th century.

Now that they’ve poured cold water on his Captain Kidd fantasies too, Clifford insists UNESCO is out to get him. The organization is only trying to besmirch his discoveries because it’s opposed to all private archaeology, he says, and is “heavily anti-American and anti-British.” Sam Browne, producer of the documentary about the wreck for the History Channel, agrees that UNESCO is just hating on Clifford. Apparently without a shred of irony, Browne decries UNESCO’s “frankly shocking lack of transparency and impartiality throughout,” which is pretty rich coming from the people who emerged out of the sea with a hunk of lead, called a press conference to announce without proof or even a single decent picture of the site that they’d found Captain Kidd’s treasure and then refused to share their research data with UNESCO. He insists that their methods were scientifically rigorous, that they conducted “the most comprehensive geophysical study ever done” of Sainte Marie bay, that the UNESCO team wasn’t even looking in the right place.

Judging from the UNESCO report (pdf), it’s not Clifford’s private funding and Americanness that irks them, but rather his shameless mediawhoring and lack of adherence to the strictures of its Convention on the Protection of the Underwater Cultural Heritage.

The work of the film team and its lead‐explorer, undertaken in spring 2015, as well as prior work by the same explorer, was distinguished by a media‐led approach, which has not respected the regulations of the 2001 Convention, and which jeopardized the scientific understanding of the sites concerned and the preservation of the artefacts recovered.

UNESCO’s 2001 Convention on the Protection of the Underwater Cultural Heritage, ratified by Madagascar, requires, among other things, that any contact with the wrecks be led by a qualified underwater archaeologist. Clifford is not an archaeologist, nor is de Bry or the members of the film crew documenting the find. October Films, the production company shooting the documentary, said that “all the work was carried out by a team of experienced underwater explorers lead by a respected marine archaeologist,” the last apparently being a reference to Clifford who is not in fact an archaeologist.

It’ll be interesting to see if this documentary ever sees the light of the day. They should just edit in an addendum questioning ominously whether the UNESCO team might be aliens. The History Channel will eat that right up, no questions asked.

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Sharp flint dug cavity out of tooth 14,000 years ago

July 21st, 2015

Researchers have found the earliest known evidence of dentistry in the molar of a Palaeolithic man who lived between 13,820 and 14,160 years ago. The young man, who was around 25 years old at the time of death, had a cavity removed with a sharp flint, beating the dental work previously thought to be the oldest (a molar found in a Neolithic graveyard in Pakistan that was perforated by a bow drill) by 5,000 years.

The skeleton was found in the Ripari Villabruna rock shelter in the Dolomite mountains of northern Italy in 1988. The skeletal remains had been laid to rest in a shallow grave along with what were probably the hunter’s most prized possessions: a flint knife, a hammer stone, a flint blade and a piece of sharpened bone. Stones decorated with red ochre marked the burial mound. The bones were in usually good condition and a large cavity in his lower right third molar was noticed at the time, but the attempted treatment was not visible to the naked eye. It was only when researchers recently examined the molar with a scanning electron microscope (SEM) that they realized the cavity was signficantly larger than the decayed tissue and that there were striations and chips on the walls of the cavity even in the most inaccessible parts of the tooth.

The striations look like tiny versions of cut marks on bone. The research team experimented with sharpened wood, bone and flint points on the enamel of three molars and confirmed that the striations and enamel chipping on the cavity walls were made before death by pointed stone tool scratching and digging into the lesion. That means someone took a very small, very sharp tool, probably a flint, and dug out as much of the decay as they could. The striations go on in all different directions so the cavedentist really got down in there, changing angles and positions to clean out the rotted parts. The pain and difficulty of this procedure suggests that the dangers of tooth decay were known in the Late Upper Palaeolithic.

Evidence of Palaeolithic concern for dental hygiene has been found before. They were known to use toothpicks made of bone or wood to clean food particles stuck between their teeth, but this is the first evidence of treatment of tooth decay. It’s the first evidence of surgical intervention period.

The find represents the oldest archaeological example of an operative manual intervention on a pathological condition, according to researchers led by Stefano Benazzi, a paleoanthropologist at the University of Bologna.

“It predates any undisputed evidence of dental and cranial surgery, currently represented by dental drillings and cranial trephinations dating back to the Mesolithic-Neolithic period, about 9,000-7,000 years ago,” Benazzi said.

You can read the full study here (pdf).

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Metal detectorist finds actual Nazi gold

July 20th, 2015

On October 10th of last year, licensed metal detectorist Florian Bautsch struck gold on the outskirts of Lüneburg in the northern German state of Lower Saxony. Nazi gold. Scanning an area with hillocks that archaeologists suspected might be ancient burial mounds, Bautsch first found a single gold coin and then nine more in the hollow under a pine tree. He recorded the find location by GPS and notified the relevant authorities at the Lüne­burg Museum .

Thanks to Bautsch’s conscientiousness, archaeologists were able to do something they rarely get the chance to do: excavate a portable treasure in its proper context. The two-week excavation unearthed another 207 gold coins buried under that three, bringing the total up to 217. The oldest coin dates to 1831, the newest to 1910, and none of them were minted in Germany. The majority — 128 coins — are Belgian. Another 74 coins were minted in France, 12 in Italy and the last three in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Despite their diverse origins, all of the coins have the same diameter (21 millimeters) and weigh the same (6.45 grams). The total coin weight is 1.4 kilos (3 lbs). These are not circulation coins. They were minted in large batches to be purchased by individuals and banks for investment purposes.

Archaeologists also found two aluminium seals bearing the swastika, the imperial eagle and stamped “Reichsbank Berlin 244.” They also found remnants of tar paper and some individual fibers. These elements are what’s left of two coin bags, lined with tar paper and sealed by the Berlin Reichsbank during World War II. Those type of seals were used starting in 1940 and the chemical composition of the tar paper identifies it as a type produced before 1950. It is the greatest treasure from this period ever found in northern Germany. Had the finder just dug it all out himself and taken the gold, nobody would have been the wiser and the key evidence identifying it as Nazi gold, as fragile as it is important, would have been lost forever.

The working theory right now is that the gold coins, likely looted by Nazis from occupied territories before being grouped by exact size and weight, bagged and sealed, were stolen in the waning days of the Second World War. If so, it was almost certainly an inside job, a theft by a bank employee looking for some financial security in the most insecure of times.

As the coins were buried relatively recently under shady circumstances, at first authorities gave any potential legitimate owners the opportunity to claim the treasure. It was a long shot (although it has been known to happen) and indeed, nobody stepped forward to claim ownership. Then, because the find bears the marks of a previous government bank, state authorities contacted the German Ministry of Finance but they weren’t interested in claiming the coins either. Finally the orphaned gold was adopted by Lower Saxony which of course had wanted it all along.

England’s Treasure Act has a mechanism that gives finders and landowners a reward in the amount of the discovery’s market value as assessed by a valuation committee. German monument protection laws (they differ from state to state) have no such mechanism, so while the estimated value of the coins is €45,000 ($49,000), Florian Bautsch will receive a €2,500 ($2,710) reward from the state of Lower Saxony. He’s a proper history nerd, bless his heart, so the money isn’t what matters to him. The archaeological significance of the find is reward enough.

The gold coins went on temporary display at the Lüne­burg Museum yesterday. Curators are now discussing how best to integrate the hoard into the museum’s permanent display in the future.

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“Forgotten Winchester” had cartridge in butt stock

July 19th, 2015

The cracked and weathered Winchester ’73 rifle found leaning against a Juniper tree in Nevada’s Great Basin National Park like its owner just stepped away for a moment 132 years ago and forgot to come back gets more mysterious the more it’s studied. The rifle was found in November of last year by park archaeologists and was sent to the Cody Firearms Museum in Cody, Wyoming, for conservation and additional research.

When the rifle arrived, the wood of the stock was chipping and a white salt encrusted it. Museum curators first stabilized the wood with a solution of adhesive, distilled water and ethanol and then sent the weapon to nearby West Park Hospital for non-invasive examination of its insides. At the hospital patient “Rifle” — literally, that’s the name on the file — was X-rayed and found to have an object lodged in its butt stock, namely a cartridge stuck in the trap. To remove the cartridge, conservators lubricated the butt plate with penetrating oil* so it would loosen up enough that it could be unscrewed without damaging the splintered stock. The cartridge was taken out and identified as a Union Metallic Cartridge Company .44 WCF cartridge, manufactured between 1887 and 1911.

The Winchester also had an unusual modification. The carrier block and carrier lever are missing. These parts are necessary for the rifle to fire repeatedly, so that means someone deliberately customized the a repeating rifle so that it could only fire a single shot. As a single shot rifle it could still be used for hunting, but it would be less than adequate for personal defense. What the advantage might be to the modification is unclear to me. It’s not like you have to fire back-to-back shots just because it’s a repeater. What’s to prevent hunters from firing one cartridge at a time, if that’s what they want?

As far as identifying the owner or even any elements of the story behind the rifle’s century of Rip Van Winkling, that continues to be an enterprise with a very remote chance of success. When the Winchester was first discovered, Great Basin Cultural Resource Program Manager Eva Jensen found the serial number of the lever action repeating rifle listed in the Cody Firearms Museum’s archive of Winchester factory data, but the only information noted was its year of manufacture: 1882. The information of the cartridge shaves five early years off the possible date of the rifle’s abandonment.

So far nothing else has been discovered to help narrow down the dates. Park archaeologists examined the find site for clues, maybe even human remains, and found nothing. Nor do area records help. Researchers perused fire records to see if there was one in the area. Since there is no evidence of fire damage to the Forgotten Winchester, if there had been fire in there then that the rifle could only have been left leaning against the tree significantly after the flames were doused. They found no recorded fire in the area. Cody Museum researchers are still studying the museum’s vast collection of Winchester company records to see if anything else might be buried in the files.

The Forgotten Winchester is currently drawing crowds at the Cody Firearms Museum where it is on display with another example of the same rifle in good condition so visitors can make a before and after weathering visual comparison. It will stay in Cody until this fall when it will return to Great Basin in time for the park’s 30th anniversary and the centennial of the National Park Service in 2016. After that it will remain on permanent display behind security glass at the Great Basin Park visitor’s center.

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Mayan hieroglyphic stele found in Guatemala

July 18th, 2015

Archaeologists from the La Corona Regional Archaeological Project have discovered Mayan hieroglyphic stone panels (pdf) at the archaeological sites of La Corona and El Achiotal in Western Petén, Guatemala, that lend new insight into important periods of Mayan history.

La Corona was occupied in the Maya Classic period (Classic period (c. 250–900 A.D.) while El Achiotal, a smaller site 12 miles east of La Corona, was occupied earlier, in the Late Preclassic and Early Classic between 400 B.C. and 550 A.D. Both sites, which are about 12 miles away from each other in the dense Petén jungle, have been heavily preyed upon by looters who left deep trenches and tunnels in almost all of the buildings, but archaeologists have only recently reached the remote area. For 40 years it was known from the plethora of looted stone panels in museums, galleries and collections all over the world as the mysterious Site Q. Mayanist Ian Graham and University of Texas at Austin epigrapher David Stuart finally found Site Q in 1997 and named it La Corona after its ring of five temples that resemble a crown. The discovery of a hieroglyphic stone panel in 2005 that was made of identical stone and had identical content to Site Q monuments confirmed La Corona’s identity.

That discovery led to the creation of the La Corona Regional Archaeological Project, co-directed by Marcello Canuto of Tulane University (discover of the 2005 panel) and Tomás Barrientos of the Universidad del Valle de Guatemala, in 2008. Its aim was to recontextualize the looted artifacts, Since then, the Project has been excavating La Corona and environs, establishing a permanent camp, involving residents in creating a long-term plan to protect this center of ancient lowland Maya civilization from looters, poachers and illegal settlers who burn the jungle to make pasture land for cattle. Despite the destruction wrought by looters, archaeologists have made momentous discoveries, including a hieroglyphic staircase in 2012 that documented 200 years of Maya history and referred to the December 21st date that made so many people freak out about the so-called Mayan apocalypse that year.

What the excavations have found is that La Corona, a very small city compared to the great Mayan powers like Calakmul and Tikal, had a disproportionately high number and quality of stone inscriptions. Like El Perú-Waka’, La Corona was a key city on the essential trade route from Calakmul (in modern-day Mexico) through the Mayan lowlands to its southern allies. It therefore had close ties to Calakmul — generations of Calakmul Snake dynasty princesses married lords of La Corona — access to the best scribes and artisans, and, coincidentally, a rich source of limestone all of which combined to give rise to a unique carving tradition. While the inscriptions found at other small Mayan cities tend to focus on local history and rulers, La Corona’s also detail the history of people and places far outside of its boundaries, including important city-states that are not mentioned anywhere else in the epigraphic record.

The newly discovered panels fit neatly into this tradition. They are extremely high quality carvings and describe people and events described nowhere else. In La Corona, two stele in excellent condition were found embedded in a wall in the palace on the main plaza. They had originally been installed elsewhere in the city, possibly a temple, and were later reset in a masonry bench near the northeast corner of the palace. One, depicting a Calakmul king mid-dance, dates to 702 A.D. The other is a grid of glyphics from the late 7th century that describes the deeds of a ruler of La Corona named Chak Ak’ Paat Yuk.

The panel inscriptions tell fascinating stories of rituals of kingly accession that involve travel, costuming, dancing, invocation of gods and reverence of ancestors. Stuart, who also deciphered the panels, states: “The gorgeous hieroglyphs give us new insights about the ceremonies that led up to a new king being crowned. And they fill important gaps we had in La Corona’s rich history.”

David Stuart has written a fascinating blog entry about the glyphs on the La Corona panels here.

At El Achiotal, researchers found two pieces of a 5th century stela placed in a shrine in a building in the central plaza. They had also been moved in antiquity from their original site to the enclosed shrine. The panel was already broken when the pieces were installed in the shrine and El Achiotal residents left offerings to it for generations, underscoring its cultural importance. Although broken, the carving and stone are in such good condition that much of the original red paint is intact.

Expert epigrapher David Stuart of the University of Texas at Austin estimated the stela’s date to be November 22, A.D. 418. “This was a time of great political upheaval in the central Maya area, when a Teotihuacan warrior-ruler named Siyaj K’ahk’ arrived in A.D. 378 and set up a new political order centered at Tikal. It seems that the Achiotal king came to power shortly after that time” says Stuart.

So, besides individual accolades, this stela places the long reign and accomplishments of El Achiotal’s king into a larger historical framework. “Based on parallels known from other sites, we think that this stela relates to this watershed event in Maya history — the installation, in the Maya lowlands, of a foreign power that can ultimately be traced to Teotihuacan. Indeed, although details of this event remain murky, this stela provides another piece of the Maya historical puzzle,” says Canuto.

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