7th century tavern with plates still on shelf found in Ephesus

November 26th, 2015

The Austrian Archeological Institute (OAI) has unearthed a 7th century Byzantine-era tavern in the ancient Greek city of Ephesus one mile southwest of the town of Selçuk, Turkey. The tavern was discovered by accident during work to protect one of the three main roads of the city, the Embolos (the OAI call it the Kuretenstraße), from landslides. In its heyday during the Roman imperial era, the road linked the Commercial Agora with the State Agora and ran through the valley between the two hills that framed the city. It was paved with marble slabs and decorative mosaics, lined with colonnades, funerary monuments to prominent citizens, public fountains, shops, a brothel and overlooked by luxury homes on the slopes. When those buildings collapsed from earthquakes, sacking and abandonment, the denuded hillsides became subject to erosion and landslides. In order to protect the archaeological remains of the city, the OAI team regularly monitors their condition and takes necessary measures to prevent landslides, like shoring up the slopes and building dry-stone retaining walls to make the site safe and legible for visitors.

They were building just such a wall when they unearthed the tavern. While the street was dotted with many shops, archaeologists were able to identify this one as a tavern because they found an exceptional collection of more than 100 vessels — cups, bowls, plates, amphorae — in perfect condition. Archaeologists even found a shelf with dishes stacked on it ready for service. Low benches, chairs and small marble tables (probably recycled from earlier buildings in ruin) were also found.

According to Sabine Ladstätter, OAI’s excavation director of Ephesus, the discovery increases our understanding of the road as a community lifeline and center of communication in late antiquity when the once-dominant city was in steep decline. The main focus of public, social and economic life in the city moved from the Agorae of old to the streets and the businesses that lined them. The tavern served local food and wines as well as beverages from further afield. The amphorae were found to contain local grape varieties and ones from Gaza and Cilicia, which means that trade was still active enough and there was enough money in the citizens’ hands to make it worthwhile for the pub to stock premium brands.

The tavern’s fate was indicated by coins found in a highly destructive fire layer. A greater than average number of large denomination coins were discovered in the tavern, left behind in a fire so severe that people didn’t even bother trying to recover valuable cash in an era when monetary circulation dropped precipitously to a tenth of its previous quantity and coin was scarce. This was during the reign of Emperor Heraclius (610-641 A.D.), who was engaged first in fighting off a Persian invasion, and then the forces of the Umayyad caliph Muawiyah I. The Persians sacked Ephesus in 616, two years after an earthquake had brought down a significant portion of the city.

Whether it was the Persians or fires in the wake of earthquake that caused the destruction of the tavern, it was never rebuilt. It wasn’t even pillaged for supplies. It was just closed and left to decay as were the other shops along the street. The street itself was swept and kept clear of debris for centuries after that, probably because it was a useful connection to the port before it silted up irredeemably and a straight shot for Christian pilgrims to use when visiting shrines.

The Austrian Archeological Institute assumes that duty now, which is how it found the tavern. The OAI has a long, strong connection to the city of Ephesus. In fact, the organization was founded specifically to excavate the ancient city. German archaeologist Otto Benndorf started excavating Ephesus in 1895, financed by a large donation by Austrian businessman Karl Mautner Ritter von Markhof. Benndorf founded the Austrian Archaeological Institute in 1898, with the excavation of Ephesus as its first brief. The Institute had been digging and conserving the site ever since, pausing only during both world wars.


Staedtler erasers help solve mystery of ultra-thin 13th c. parchment

November 25th, 2015

For a short window of about 80 years in the 13th century, small, portable bibles were produced on a large scale to satisfy the needs of the growing mendicant friar community and university students. Both groups needed bibles that were lightweight and easy to transport, a far cry from the large, thick-paged, multi-volume bibles common in scriptoria, libraries, churches and learning institutions. Between around 1220 and 1300, at least 20,000 and possibly as many as 30,000 portable bibles were produced, most of them in Paris, but also elsewhere in France, plus England, Italy and Spain. The university centers of Paris, Bologna and Oxford were the main production centers.

The first pocket bibles were pandects (single-volume bibles) and were consistently organized which made them easy to scan for a particular passage, a handy tool for the student and itinerant preacher. The script was tiny, with each letter a mere two millimeters high, and of course written painstakingly by hand. Each page was made of a tissue-thin parchment known as uterine vellum, the key to the books’ portability. Without pages a fraction of a millimeter thick, the pocket bibles of the 13th century could not have existed.

The economic woes and turmoil of the 14th century ended the pocket bible boom and soon the technology used to make the ultra-thin parchment, which had been kept hush-hush by producers keen to keep their lucrative trade secrets secret, was forgotten. Approximately 2,000 pocket bibles still exist today, the majority of them, about 54%, of French manufacture.

Codicologists, people who study the physical object of the book, have long debated how uterine vellum was made. Some medieval and early modern sources refer to the parchment as abortivum or charta non nata (meaning “unborn sheet”), suggesting that it was made from the skin of miscarried or aborted fetal calves. The sheer numbers of aborted livestock fetuses necessary to produce enough parchment for thousands of pocket Bibles and other manuscripts would have materially damaged the health of any herd, however, so some scholars have proffered alternative animal sources for the parchment, like rabbits or squirrels which unlike cows already have very thin skins. Others theorized that the thicker skins of cows or sheep could have been split to produce the ultra-thin parchment.

A study led by University of York bioarchaeologists sought to unlock the mystery of uterine vellum, to discover whether it was made using animals with exceptionally fine skin or the result of a specialized craft that worked any skins into tissue-thin sheets. The research team studied samples of uterine vellum drawn from 72 pocket Bibles and seven nonpocket Bibles. The sampled parchment ranged in thickness from .03 to .28 mm. The delicate, more than paper-thin pages were sampled using one of the greatest school supplies of all time: the Staedtler Mars Plastic eraser. Remember how the bright white eraser would make little tubular crumbs greyed with pencil graphite that you had to blow or brush off your paper? Those characteristic crumbs were the means by which the samples could be taken without damaging the fragile parchment.

Participating archives and libraries were sent a kit with erasers, acid-free paper, nitrile gloves and 1.5 mL microcentrifuge tubes. Staffers donned gloves and collected the sample by erasing in one direction on an area of the page that had no writing, holes, tears or any other indication of weakness in the structure. The crumbs were caught on a folded page of acid-free paper and tipped into the tubes which were sealed and sent to the University of York laboratory.

The gentle unidirectional rubbing of the eraser on the pages generated an electrostatic charge that extracted protein from the parchment surface. Those protein samples were then studied using zooarchaeology by mass spectrometry (ZooMS) peptide mass fingerprinting and hair follicle pattern analysis, technologies that can determine which species of animals were used to make the parchment and their age at slaughter. The study found that none of the parchment was made from the skin of fetal or neonate animals. The youngest were eight week old calves and adult sheep and goats were also used. Of the 220 folios from 72 pocket bibles sampled, 68% were calfskin, 26% were goat, and 6% were sheep. Most of them were consistent within one bible, but five bibles were found to have parchment from more than one species. Researchers think that those five may be composite bibles rather than a single producer using skins from multiple animals to create one bible.

So since exotic animal hides weren’t behind the production of this practically see-through parchment, it must have been a specialized craft.

In order to make goat, sheep and eight week old calf parchment look as fine as if it had all come from new-born calves, the medieval artisans had to immerse the skins in alkali-rich liquefied lime so as to get rid of the fats in those skins by transforming the lipids into a form of detergent. That natural soap not only helped thin the skins but also helped whiten them by dissolving all the ingrained grime and stains.

The alkali in the lime also served to remove the thousands of tiny hairs in the skin – by weakening the chemical bonds which hold protein molecules together. However, too much exposure to lime would have also turned the skins’ collagen content into gelatine – thus irreversibly swelling and damaging the product. The medieval craftsmen seem to have discovered the precise time required to thin and whiten the skins in the lime, while not destroying them.

As well as immersing the skins in lime, the artisans also stretched them on wooden frames, scraped them with a special bladed tool – then spent many hours rubbing them with volcanic pumice stone to further thin and smooth them.

The study has been published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) and can be read in its entirety here (pdf).


Pendant found in Bulgaria is among oldest known gold jewelry

November 24th, 2015

Archaeologists excavating the Bronze Age site of Solnitsata near the northeastern Bulgarian town of Provadiya have discovered what may be some of the oldest known worked gold in Europe. It’s a small pendant made of two ounces of what archaeologists estimate is 24-carat gold although it hasn’t been assayed yet. It was found in a necropolis dating to around 4,300 B.C., but lead archaeologist Professor Vasil Nikolov believes the piece could be 200-300 years older.

The earliest known gold hoard in the world was unearthed about 23 miles east of this settlement in a prehistoric necropolis in the Black Sea resort town of Varna in 1973. Radiocarbon testing dates the Varna tombs to around 4560-4450 B.C., so the Solnitsata piece is at least contemporary with the Varna gold and may be older. Unlike the Varna riches, however, this wee pendant was not found in a grave.

“What’s interesting regarding the gold jewel that we have found now is that it was discovered not inside one of the graves but between them, which might testify to some kind of a more special ritual. In any case, this jewel is another specimen of the art of jewelry making that was developed at the time,” the lead archaeologist elaborates.

He notes that the term “jewel” might not be the most precise one for the gold item found near Bulgaria’s Provadiya because it was not worn as a decoration but as a status symbol.

The Solnitsata settlement was immensely prosperous thanks to the salt trade. Salt processing at the site began in the Late Neolithic (about 5500 B.C.) when brine from salt water springs was boiled in small, thin-walled ceramic vases and baked into blocks in large domed kilns. The production of salt increased markedly in the Middle Chalcolithic (4700-4500 B.C.) through the Late Chalcolithic (4500-4200 B.C.) when the method of extraction shifted to boiling brine in large ceramic vases placed inside deep, open-air pits up to 10 meters (33 feet) wide. This allowed salt to be produced on an industrial scale and salt blocks were traded locally and throughout the Balkans on pack animals or possibly sleds. There was no wheel yet, so no carts were involved.

The settlement, which archaeologists estimate had a population of 350 people at its peak, was fortified with wood palisades and earthworks in the Late Neolithic and then strengthened during the Chalcolithic with stone walls whose bases were as much as 13 feet thick. By then the Solnitsata salt complex was producing an eye-watering 4,000 to 5,000 kilos (8,800 to 11,000 pounds) of dry salt at a time (the Neolithic kilns produced about 25 kilos or 55 pounds of salt in one load). At a time when salt was highly valued as the only means of food preservation, the small Solnitsata settlement might as well have been a mint. That’s why they needed such thick walls, to Fort Knoxify the place.

Given that their neighbors in Varna were mining copper and gold at the time, you might expect the salt-based wealth of Solnitsata to result in burials with similar valuables, but the little pendant is the first gold excavated at the site and it wasn’t a grave good.

It’s one of several exciting finds at the site. The exploration of the masonry fortifications is of particular interest as Solnitsata’s defensive wall is the oldest stone fortress in the world. Professor Nikolov explains:

“The [fortress] wall that we are unearthing right now shows that the fortress had a shape of a circle with a diameter of about 90 meters. It is interesting that back then the people had valuable knowledge about military affairs. In order to ensure a better defense, the wall was not made round but its sections follow straight lines. That’s because the round shape would have been harder to defend.”


Historical archive found in Russian birds nests

November 23rd, 2015

Archaeologists have discovered an archive of 19th and early 20th century Russian history assembled by birds nesting in the attic of the Cathedral of the Assumption in Zvenigorod, a small medieval town 40 miles west of Moscow. Restorers have been working on the church, built in the early 15th century, since 2009, repairing the facade, windows and dismantling 19th century brick archways to return the arches and vaults to their original dimensions. Underneath the brick they found a fragment of a fresco of a seraphim surrounded by saints whose composition suggests it may have been painted by Andrei Rublev, Russia’s greatest medieval artist of icons and frescoes, or an artist from his school.

This summer restoration began on the roof of the cathedral. To clear the space before construction, archaeologists surveyed the attic which had a thick layer of debris deposited by the swifts and jackdaws that have been nesting under the roof for centuries. The debris is composed of soil, organic litter, branches and layer upon layer of soft and warm paper fragments collected by the birds to line their nests. Among the fragments are pieces of personal letters, scores of them written in an aristocratic hand that mention Russian foreign minister Count Karl Nesselrode, pieces of printed books, pre-revolutionary official documents drawn up by the military and police, a birth certificate, a college diploma, student notebooks with multiplication tables and Easter hymns. The oldest piece is thought to date to the 1830s when the church roof was last replaced.

One fragment holds historical weight out of proportion to its dimensions. It’s a calendar page from December 6th, 1917, Tsar Nicholas II’s name day, that has a handwritten note on the back quoting a verse by poet Yakov Polonsky about taking comfort in the loss of hope and happiness which in hindsight seems a little premonitory. Nicholas and his family were still alive at the time, but imprisoned in a mansion in Tobolsk. The scrap is a keyhole into the transition of the Old Style Russian dating to the New Style. Russia had used the Julian calendar for centuries, but the Soviets finally switched the country over to the Gregorian system on January 1st, 1918. Both dating systems appear on this calendar page scrap. The big red six is the Julian date, while underneath it in French is the Gregorian date, December 19th, 1917.

There are also fragments of ration coupons, a bread coupon from December of 1933, and a stamped ration card from August of 1941. Other financial records found in the attic are a contract on the delivery of a cow in 1936, a donation to the monastery of St. Sava Storozhevsky and a loan to a merchant. There’s even a piece of a 1,000 ruble banknote which was worth a great deal of money when it was lost and claimed by the avian archivists.

Some of the most intact pieces are candy wrappers, probably just because they’re small and didn’t need tearing. They were also probably popular discards on the street, giving the birds a rich source of litter to warm their babies. There are numerous wrappers from pre-revolutionary caramels and candies, plus cigarette packaging of brands from the Petrograd Soviet.

The scraps suffered beak damage — there’s extensive hole punching — but they are still legible, some with great graphics in surprisingly bright color. Zvenigorod Museum archaeologist Alexey Alexeev has uploaded dozens of pictures of the bird archive scraps to this photo album.


Movie posters found under old linoleum sell for more than $200,000

November 22nd, 2015

From the annals of every history nerd’s fantasies, a home renovation revealed a treasure trove of vintage movie posters under a linoleum floor (and the original hardwood to boot). Builder Robert Basta purchased the southern Pennsylvania home cheap at auction because it needed a lot of work. He planned to renovate it for resale, something he’s done many times before. While he was away on business, his son Dylan wanted to earn a little extra money while he was home from college, so Robert had him take on a bear of a job — tearing up the lino in a small upstairs room. Robert had seen a newspaper from 1946 peeking out through the broken flooring; he told Dylan to keep it in case it was interesting.

The newspaper preserved, Dylan and his brother Bob went on to find a poster of Tarzan the Ape Man, the 1932 movie starring five-time Olympic gold medalist swimmer Johnny Weissmuller as Tarzan and Maureen O’Sullivan as Jane. They texted a photo of the poster to Robert. By the time he got back home and the linoleum was all gone, Bob and Dylan had found 16 more movie posters, all in excellent condition. There were other newspapers under the lino too. It seems a previous owner of the house, possibly artist MSW Brungart who is known to have worked for the local movie theater, used paper he had lying around to protect the floorboards before covering them with linoleum.

At first they didn’t realize what a treasure they had found. None of the posters were for films they recognized, so they figured they were of small value. A little Googling soon illuminated them to the fact that they had stumbled on a stash that included some of the rarest posters highly desirable to collectors.

They’re all one sheets from the pre-Code era, a woefully brief period between 1929 and 1934 when studios largely ignored the censorship rules of the Motion Picture Production Code because the Great Depression had hit them like a freight train and sex, nudity and violence sold then just like they sell now. The party came to an abrupt end when the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America began enforcing the code with the iron fist of committed fanatic and equally committed hypocrite Joseph Breen. One of his henchmen Val Lewton explained Breen’s do-as-I-say-not-as-I-do philosophy to producer David O. Selznick:

“Mr. Breen goes to the bathroom every morning. He does not deny that he does so or that there is such a place as the bathroom, but he feels that neither his actions nor the bathroom are fit subjects for screen entertainment. This is the essence of the Hays’ office attitude towards prostitution, at least as Joe told it to me in somewhat cruder language.”

Breen, in concert with Catholic Legion of Decency (the Production Code was co-written by Jesuit priest Father Daniel Lord), threatened the studios with nation-wide protests, draconian local censorship and the possibility of federal censorship and they had the muscle to make real trouble. The studios caved and for the next 20 years the sex and violence was hidden in oblique dialogue, those weird face-mashing close-mouthed kisses and implied off-screen.

I really, really love pre-Code movies, but I wouldn’t have seen any of them were it not for Turner Classic Movies. Unlike other classic movies, the pre-Codes never aired on TV until TCM revived interest in them in the 1990s. This is why the Basta family didn’t recognize any of the films on the posters.

The Bastas contacted Heritage Auctions for an expert valuation and that’s when they discovered they had been standing on more than $200,000 worth of movie posters. This weekend, the 17 under the floor posters went under the hammer at Heritage Auctions’ Vintage Movie Posters sale.

It was the first poster they found, Tarzan the Ape Man (MGM, 1932) that was the rarest, most desirable piece. The movie was Johnny Weissmuller’s first appearance on film in the role that would make him famous. In fact, other than a non-speaking, uncredited, seconds-long practically naked cameo in the 1929 Ziegfield musical Glorifying the American Girl, this was Weissmuller’s first part in any movie. He would go on to shoot another 11 Tarzan movies, five of them with Maureen O’Sullivan. This one-of-a-kind Style D one sheet is the only one that pictures him and O’Sullivan in a scene from the film. It sold yesterday for $83,650.

The second biggest seller is my favorite poster from one of my favorite movies. It’s one of only three known surviving Style C one sheets of Red Headed Woman (MGM, 1932), starring Jean Harlow at her gleefully naughty best. This is one of the greatest of all pre-Code movies, certainly the most unrepentant. The bad girl wins in the end and she wins big. Jean Harlow, a literal scarlet woman, glowers alluringly from this vivid poster like a demon from the flames of Hell. It is a perfect encapsulation of the character and just freaking gorgeous. It sold for $77,675.

The poster for another terribly juicy pre-Code movie, Doctor X (First National, 1932), sold for $23,900. This was Fay Wray’s first horror movie. There’s a creepy doctor, an amputee with a penchant for cannibalism, murder and some quality mad science. It’s also a very early example of a two-color Technicolor movie. The poster is even more vivid than the movie.

Three other posters from the under the floor collection are the only known surviving posters of their movies:

    1. Congorilla (Fox, 1932), a documentary filmed in the Congo which is the first to have authentic sound recorded in Africa, sold for $2,390.
    1. Any Old Port (MGM, 1932), a classic Laurel and Hardy short produced by Hal Roach, sold for $8,962.50
    1. Sporting Blood (MGM, 1931), Clark Gable’s first starring role in a picture, sold for $2,987.50.
  • Heritage Auctions didn’t note which of the lots came from under the linoleum, so I wasn’t able to make a complete list. Based on news stories, the following pieces were also part of the collection: The Golden West (Fox, 1932) sold for $6,572.50; The Rider of Death Valley (Universal, 1932) sold for $4,302; The Long, Long Trail (Universal, 1929) sold for $2,987.50; Blondie of the Follies (MGM, 1932) sold for $1,792.50; The Dance of Life (Paramount, 1929) sold for $1,254.75. Tess of the Storm Country (Fox, 1932) sold for $776.75. Some of the articles about this story claim this movie was Academy Award nominated, but I believe that’s a misreading of Heritage Auction’s lot information which refers to the first Janet Gaynor-Charles Farrell outing, the 1927 silent picture 7th Heaven as receiving three Oscar nominations. I searched the Academy Awards Database and there are no nominations for Tess.

    Counting only the dozen posters that I could confirm were part of the subflooring collection, sales topped $217,000. Robert Basta was still in shock before the first hammer fell.

    “You always dream of coming across something valuable hidden in a closet or under the floorboards but it had never happened – until now.”

    “I’m a simple man – I own my house but I don’t have a pension and at some point soon I’ll want to retire. The money from this sale will be life-changing.

    “It will make things so much easier for me and my family – it’s a real blessing.”


    Speaking of the Rijksmuseum…

    November 21st, 2015

    Some of you might remember the greatest of all flashmobs that was created to celebrate the reopening of the museum and the return of Rembrandt’s The Night Watch to its original location. It’s been more than two years since I posted it, and I still regularly rewatch the video. It’s just so, so good. A quick refresher for those of you not as obsessed as I or for anyone who may have missed it the first time:

    The only bad thing about that sublime video is that it’s too short. I said at the time that I wished there were a director’s cut so we could see more of the story as it unfolds. Well, there isn’t a director’s cut, but there’s a making of video! It was uploaded a week after the first one and since I watched the embed on the blog entry rather than going to the YouTube channel, despite my repeated viewings I didn’t realize the second one was there. I’m making up for it now, though. I’ve already watched it three times. I love the curator puttering around like a kid at Christmas fixing people’s costumes and props. Click the CC icon for English subtitles.

    There’s one thing I wish they’d addressed that has niggled at me all these years: why did they cast the taller man as Willem van Ruytenburch (in the fabulous yellow outfit) and the shorter man as Frans Banninck Cocq (in the center with the red sash)? In the painting van Ruytenburch’s shortness is very noticeable, and since he was Banninck Cocq’s lieutenant, their comparative height was a meaningful distinction that communicated their difference in status. The curator sniffed about the purple outfit one of the guards was wearing as inaccurate. Surely he had something to say about the choice to make van Ruytenburch so tall.


    Vermeer’s Little Street discovered

    November 20th, 2015

    The exact street in Delft that Johannes Vermeer depicted in his 1658 painting View of Houses in Delft, better known as The Little Street, has been identified. It’s the Vlamingstraat, at the current house numbers 40 and 42, and even though the original buildings are gone, it’s eerie how similar the modern scene is to the 17th century one even though the details are very different.

    The Little Street can be regarded as “the earliest ‘portrait’ of the exterior of an ordinary house in northern European art”, according to Grijzenhout. It represents yet another indication of Johannes Vermeer’s innovation.

    For nearly a century, scholars have debated whether The Little Street depicts a real pair of buildings or if it was conjured up in Vermeer’s imagination. The most widely accepted theory was that it represented a view from the inn owned by Vermeer, the Mechelen. His back windows overlooked almshouses in Voldersgracht, although the scene would not have been quite as in the painting so the artist must have produced his own interpretation. The almshouses were demolished in 1661 and a 20th century building now houses the Vermeer Centrum, which presents reproductions of the artist’s work.

    University of Amsterdam professor of Art History Frans Grijzenhout tossed out the theory and found the site by consulting what some might consider a painfully mundane city record from 1667: the ledger of the dredging of the canals in the town of Delft, also known as the quay dues register. The register records the taxes paid by everyone with a canal-front home for the dredging of the canal and maintenance of the quay. Because homeowners only paid taxes for the canal works in front of their property, the ledger is meticulously precise about the width every house and alley between them, accurate to around 15 centimeters (6 inches).

    Grijzenhout found a property on the Vlamingstraat, a lower-end neighborhood in eastern Delft, which had two houses 6.3 metres (about 21 feet) wide separated by two alleys about 1.2 meters (four feet) wide. Additional historical research, Google Maps data and analysis of the modern-day location confirmed that Vlamingstraat 40-42 fits. No other property in Delft matches the unique configuration in The Little Street.

    The houses that stand on the site now were built in the late 1800s. The reason the painting and street today look alike even though the buildings are so different is that bricked entryway into the alley next to the house on the right. It’s a skinnier opening than it used to be thanks to the larger house on the left, but it is still recognizable.

    Grijzenhout also discovered during his research that the house on the right of the painting was owned by Ariaentgen Claes van der Minne, Vermeer’s widowed aunt. She sold tripe and that alley next to her house was nicknamed the Penspoort or Trip Gate after her business. Vermeer’s mother and sister lived across the canal from the aunt, so this was a view he must have seen very many times. It’s even possible that the figures in the painting are family members; maybe that’s his aunt working in the doorway of her house. The personal connection explains why he selected this scene to paint. Out of the 35 known surviving works by Vermeer, just two of them are townscapes, both of them in Delft. The second is View of Delft (1660-1) and it’s more of a skyline scene. It is now part of the permanent collection of the Mauritshuis museum in The Hague.

    The Little Street and the discovery of its location are the focus of an exhibition running through March 13th, 2016, at the Rijksmuseum. After that, the exhibition will move to the Museum Prinsenhof Delft from March 25th through July 17th, 2016. The Museum Prinsenhof Delft is thrilled to host the first Vermeer painting to visit the city in 60 years, and for it to be a painting so important to the history of the city makes it all the more special. Visitors to the museum will be able to see the painting and then walk in Vermeer’s footsteps to the street itself. The museum is going all out to give tourists the full Vermeer experience, creating walking routes and a virtual reality app that will put people in the middle of Vermeer’s Delft.

    Google Art Project has put together a neat virtual exhibition that combines high resolution views of the painting with Google Street View tours of the Vlamingstraat location.


    Roman coin hoard found in Swiss cherry orchard

    November 19th, 2015

    Farmer Alfred Loosli was walking through in his cherry orchard in Ueken in the northern Swiss canton of Aargau last year when he saw a green coin contrasted against the rich brown of the soil. At first the he assumed someone had lost it, but then he found another five. This July, Loosli poked a molehill under one of his cherry trees and found another 19 bronze coins. He asked his son to research the coins to see if they might be ancient, remembering that in 2013 a Roman settlement was discovered in the nearby city of Frick.

    They called the authorities and in September canton archaeologists began to excavate the site. The excavation was kept secret to keep looters from interfering with the site when the archaeologists weren’t around, and it was productive beyond all expectations. By the end of the dig earlier this month, archaeologists had recovered 4155 Roman coins for a total weight of 33 pounds in just a few square meters. At least some of the coins were buried in cloth and leather bags and probably they all were only the bags have disintegrated.

    The hoard in now at the Vindonissa Museum in Brugg where conservators are painstakingly cleaning the coins. Swiss numismatist Hugo Doppler has examined the 200 coins cleaned thus far and has identified them as Antoniniani minted by emperors Aurelian (270-275), Tacitus (275-276), Probus (276-282), Carinus (283-285) Diocletian (284-305) Maximianus (286-305). The most recent were minted in 294 A.D. They are in exceptional condition. Hopper believes they were taken out of circulation almost immediately after minting.

    The Antoninianius coin is named after the emperor Caracalla (Marcus Aurelius Severus Antoninus Augustus) who first introduced the denomination in 215 A.D. as a silver piece worth two denarii, but because it only contained 1.5 denarii worth of silver, people raised prices and hoarded the coins causing rampant inflation. The Antoninianius became increasingly debased until by the reign of Emperor Gallienus in 268, the silver content was a meager 4%. Aurelian bumped it back up to 5%, but even that small boost was short-lived. At the end of the 3rd century, the Antoninianius was almost entirely bronze and considered worthless. People just threw them away.

    The 200 coins from the cherry orchard hoard, however, are all of particularly high silver content, about 5% silver. Hugo Doppler believes the owner of the hoard deliberately chose the coins with the highest silver content because they “would have guaranteed a certain value conservation in a time of economic uncertainty.” In a rural area like Ueken, there would have been no banks to put valuables in, and the area was subject to several Germanic incursions. Burying bags of relatively high silver content coins underground was a reliable method of keeping the treasure safe.

    Significant hoards like these have been unearthed many times in Britain, but are much rarer in Switzerland. Only four Roman coin hoards of more than 4,000 pieces have been found in Switzerland. Two were discovered a century ago; the third was found last year in Orselina, 150 miles south of Ueken near the Italian border.

    The hoard will continue to be cleaned and examined. Doppler suspects there may be more exciting discoveries among the coins, like previously unknown mints and denominations. The hoard will eventually be put on public display at the Vindonissa Museum alongside other Roman artifacts discovered at the Frick excavation and elsewhere in the area.


    The Great Thanksgiving Listen

    November 18th, 2015

    If like me you’ve wept openly at StoryCorpsFriday broadcasts on NPR’s Morning Edition for the past decade, or at their beautiful animated shorts on PBS, you may have wondered how to go about recording the oral histories of your own loved ones. StoryCorps uses professional radio equipment to record and has a platoon of trained volunteers to facilitate the interviews. Interviews are recorded one at a time in the StoryCorps MobileBooth that travels the United States or in one of the permanent StoryBooths in New York, Chicago, San Francisco or Atlanta.

    Despite its limited geographical reach, StoryCorps has been able to record thousands of stories a year and now have more than 65,000 recordings from 100,000 participants. This Thanksgiving, they hope to at least double that figure in just one long weekend. Obviously they don’t have 65,000 sets of radio equipment and facilitators. This goal can only be achieved with new technology, and that’s what StoryCorps has created.

    Every year the TED conference awards a $1 million prize to someone with “a creative, bold vision to spark global change.” StoryCorps’ founder Dave Isay was the winner of the 2015 Ted prize and his bold vision was the StoryCorps.me app, a smartphone app that anyone anywhere in the world with an Android and iOS device could download and use to record high-quality audio.

    That vision has now become a reality. More than $400,000 of the prize money went to the development of the app; the rest was spent creating a dedicated website and adding server capacity so that interviews can be uploaded directly to the site. The free app extends StoryCorps’ range to the entire world.

    Armed with a working beta of the StoryCorps.me app, anyone can participate in the Great Thanksgiving Listen. The project seeks to take advantage of a holiday where multiple generations of family and friends are locked together in a house with no way easy way out. The focus of the initiative is on working with high school teachers to encourage their students to record a grandparent or other senior family member during Thanksgiving weekend as part of their social studies, history, civics, journalism and political science classes. There’s a teacher toolkit (pdf) with instructions for students on how to plan and conduct the interview as well as the mechanics of recording and uploading the result. All interviews recorded this weekend will be uploaded not just to the StoryCorps website, but also the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress.

    It’s not just for students, however. Anybody with a compatible device can take their shot at capturing the invaluable oral histories of a whole generation of elders. The app helps users prepare questions, find the best location for the interview, record the conversation on a mobile device, take a photograph to accompany the interview, share the completed recording with friends and family celebrating the holiday and finally upload the interview. It also provides editing tools. All recordings uploaded in the first year will be archived at the Library of Congress as well as on the StoryCorps.me website.

    “In this time of great disconnect and division, we hope the Great Thanksgiving Listen will prove a unifying moment for the nation,” said Dave Isay, StoryCorps’ Founder and President​. “We are excited to use the new StoryCorps app to bring the country together in a project of listening, connection and generosity. Together we will collect the wisdom of a generation and archive it for the future, while at the same time reminding our grandparents how much their lives and stories matter.”

    Download the StoryCorps.me app here and start planning your interview now. If you haven’t watched or heard any of StoryCorps’ interviews, please check them out on StoryCorps’ website. The animations are here, the audio interviews here.

    Here’s one example of the kind of profoundly meaningful oral history these conversations record:


    Rich Western Han Dynasty cemetery unearthed

    November 17th, 2015

    Chinese archaeologists have unearthed the largest, most complete and best preserved Western Han Dynasty (206 B.C.-25 A.D.) cemetery near Nanchang, the capital of eastern China’s Jiangxi Province. The cemetery has only eight tombs, but they’re huge, covering 40,000 square meters (430,556 square feet or about 10 acres). The largest tomb has a chariot burial with walls almost 900 meters (2,953 feet) long. Excavations of the site began five years ago but the discoveries were only announced earlier this month, with new finds still coming in.

    The site is a city of the dead, with memorial temples, roads and drainage systems structured around the tombs. The tombs are the most intact Western Han yet found, their layout exceptionally clear. The chariot burial is exceptional. There are five chariots, each with four horses sacrificed in a funerary ritual, and more than 3,000 artifacts and fittings decorated with gold and silver. It is the only tomb found south of Yangtze River to have real chariots, or real vehicles of any kind, for that matter.

    And that’s just the beginning of the wealth discovered in these tombs. The main tomb was found to hold more than 10 tons of Wuzhu bronze coins, more than two million individual pieces. The coins date to the reigns of three Western Han emperors: Emperor Wu (141-87 B.C.), Emperor Zhao (87-74 B.C.) and Emperor Xuan (74-49 B.C.). Most of the coins were in a pile, but archaeologists found six strands of 1,000 coins each. Ancient sources reference 1,000 low-value Wuzhu coins being strung together via the square hole in the center to create a larger denomination. Based on the documentary evidence, this monetary adaptation was thought to have started in the Tang Dynasty (618-907 A.D.), but no archaeological evidence of it has been found before. The discovery of six intact groups of 1,000 coins strung together on hemp ropes confirms the historical sources and pushes back the date of the practice at least 600 years. To give an idea of the value, the ancient documents say that ten of the strings could be exchanged for one Jin (250 grams) of gold. Ten Jin was the total net worth of a middle-class family in the Western Han Dynasty.

    So far, the excavation of the cemetery has unearthed more than 10,000 artifacts, including bronze mirrors, bells, cooking pots, wine vessels and two exceptional lamps shaped like geese with fish in their beaks which in addition to being beautiful are also practical. The candle was held in the mouth of the goose so that smoke would enter the goose’s body through the fish. The goose lamp’s belly would be filled with water and the trapped smoke would dissolve into it like a one-way bong. (The geese don’t exhale.) They’ve also found jade objects, wood tablets, bamboo slips and musical instruments, among them a se (a plucked zither with 25 strings), pan flutes and sheng (a mouth-blown reed pipe instrument). There are also terracotta figurines known as Kuregaku figurines depicting how the instruments were played.

    Then there’s the lacquer screen. It was broken into vertical painted panels. One of the panels has a portrait of a man who archaeologists believe may be Confucius. If they’re right, it will be the earliest known portrait of Confucius found in China. There are pictures of the screen in situ here and video of it here. Fair warning: you can’t see the portrait at all. You can’t even tell it’s a screen, frankly.

    But wait! There’s more! On Tuesday archaeologists struck gold, specifically, 25 gold ingots shaped like hooves and 50 large and heavy gold coins. This is the greatest amount of gold ever discovered in a Han Dynasty tomb.

    While the identity of the dignitary buried in the largest tomb has yet to be conclusively established, archaeologists believe it was Liu He, the grandson Emperor Wu, the Han dynasty greatest’s emperor who reigned for 54 years (141-87 B.C.). Liu He did not take after his venerable and supremely competent grandfather. He reigned for a mere 27 days, from July 18th to August 14th 74 B.C., before being deposed by the Dowager Empress Shangguan and court officials on 1127 charges of misconduct, most of them revolving around his sexing, feasting, hunting and all-around partying when he was supposed to be in mourning for his uncle, the deceased emperor. He was replaced by Emperor Xuan, the great-grandson of Emperor Wu, who had been raised a commoner after his father and grandfather died when the latter was falsely accused of practicing witchcraft against Emperor Wu.

    Liu He was stripped of his titles after he was impeached, but in 63 B.C. Emperor Xuan was persuaded to make him the Marquess of Haihun which had the added advantage of shipping a potential rival away from the capital of his former principality (modern-day Jining) 900 miles south to the modern-day Jiangxi province. He died four years later in 59 B.C. The Haihunhou cemetery is named after the title, which in turn was a feudal descendant of a small kingdom that had once ruled the north of Jiangxi.

    Lead archaeologist Li Xiaobin of the China National Museum, who has studied an impressive 4,000 Han Dynasty tombs, hopes the question of who the main tomb was built for will be answered when the sealed coffin in the central mausoleum is opened. If there’s a royal seal or jade accoutrements, that would identify the occupant as an emperor and may even identify him by name. If it is Liu He, it’s probable his wife occupies one of the other tombs and other family members or high-ranking nobles the remaining six.

    The regional culture ministry has set up a number of laboratories so that researchers can examine the enormous quantity of artifacts recovered according to their relevant fields — archaeobotany, zooarchaeology, metallurgy, textile studies. Vice Minister of Culture Li Xiaojie wants the site to be excavated with an eye to a future application for the cemetery to be added to the UNESCO World Heritage List.





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