Ancient Samaritan 10 Commandments for sale

October 22nd, 2016

A marble tablet inscribed with the Ten Commandments in Samaritan will be sold at auction next month at at Heritage Auctions in Dallas. The Yavneh 10 Commandments Stone is roughly two-by-two feet, weighs 115 pounds and was carved probably between 4th and 8th centuries A.D. in the Samaritan variant of Paleo-Hebrew script. It is one of only five inscriptions of the Samaritan Decalogue from before the Muslim invasion known to survive.

A close derivative of ancient Phoenician, Paleo-Hebrew script was in use from at least as early as the 10th century B.C. — the Zayit Stone, the oldest inscription in the Paleo-Hebrew alphabet, dates to then — until the 5th century B.C. when Aramaic began to take its place. The Samaritans, however, continued to use their version of Paleo-Hebrew and still do so today.

Translated from the Samaritan dialect of Hebrew, the line-by-line inscription runs as follows:

1. Dedicated in the name of Korach
2. I will call you to remember for goodness forever
3. God spoke
4. all these words
5. saying I am the Lord
6. your God you shall not have
7. for yourself other Gods
8. besides me; you shall not make
9. for yourself a sculptured image or any likeness;
10. for I the Lord
11. your God am an impassioned God;
12. Remember the Sabbath day
13. keep it holy; honor
14. your father and your mother;
15. you shall not murder; you shall not commit adultery;
16. you shall not steal; you shall not bear [false witness] against your neighbor
17. you shall not covet; you shall erect
18. these stones that
19. I am commanding you today
20. on Mount Gerizim rise up to God

You might notice they’re not quite the standard set of 10. The one about not taking the name of God in vain is missing, and there’s a new one at the end about building the temple on Mount Gerizim to house the tablets.

The tablet’s origins are nebulous, but according to research done in the 1940s, it was discovered in 1913 by construction workers building a railroad near Yavneh on the southern coast of what was then Palestine. They either gave it or sold it to a wealthy local man who installed it on the floor of a doorway into his courtyard. Over time, the middle of the inscription was worn down be people walking on it, but it can still be read under oblique lighting.

The son of the owner sold it in 1943 to Mr. Y. Kaplan who knew right away it was a rare Samaritan Decalogue tablet. Kaplan engaged scholar and expert in Samaritan history (and the future second President of Israel) Yitzhak Ben-Zvi to study the stone. It was he who determined its likely age range based on the writing style of the Samaritan. Later scholarship has expanded the possible date range to the early Islamic occupation period (ca. 640-830 A.D.), but the Byzantine date range is still prevalent.

The stone was sold to an antiquities dealer in the 1990s and in 2005 was bought by Rabbi Saul Deutsch of the Living Torah Museum in Brooklyn, New York. As an object of Israeli cultural patrimony, the tablet’s export required a special permit from the Israel Antiquities Authority who allowed it on the condition that it was to be put on public display.

The museum has a collection of ancient artifacts that illustrate people, places and things mentioned in the Torah, like 3,500-year-old Hittite toy chariots as examples of what the Egyptian chariots that chased the fleeing Jews during the Exodus may have looked like. Judging from what’s available online at least, some of the connections are tenuous at best. Fragments of Coptic-era Egyptian garments, for instance, are hardly indicative of what the Jews who left Egypt might have worn. While the tablet has been on display since the sale, as per the terms of the agreement with the IAA, it is not one of the artifacts included in the website’s slideshows.

The museum, which contains a large collection of artifacts of Jewish life and history dating back to antiquity, is shifting toward a more hands-on focus to attract younger visitors and decided it was time to sell the artifact.

“The sale will provide us with the money to do what we need to do. It’s all for the best,” Deutsch said in a statement.

The opening bid will be $250,000, a fortune for a small Brooklyn museum. One caveat, though, the condition requiring public display of the artifact still holds, so the buyer can’t just stash it in his cave of wonders. The auction is on November 16th, but you can bid online starting Friday, October 28th.

Villa of one of the last pagan Roman senators found

October 21st, 2016

Archaeologists have discovered the ruins of a grand Roman villa outside of Florence. The luxury home was unearthed on private property in what is now the village of Capraia by archaeologists and students from the University of Pisa. So far the team has found a hexagonal structure with six rooms which they believe to include a dining room suite with multiple triclinia. It is of monumental scale, 100 feet in diameter with ceilings estimated to be 50 feet high. Multiple polychrome mosaic floors survive, including a scene of a wild boar hunt in the main reception area. They have also found the remains of the hypocaust system that heated the villa’s baths, namely the hollow space under the floor with pillars of tile (pilae stacks) that supported the floor of the hot room.

The villa dates to the 4th century A.D. and is an exceptional example of a late antiquity country estate. The size and complexity of the villa is so impressive that dig leader Professor Federico Cantini believes the only comparable aristocratic villas from that period are found in Constantinople, then still just a few decades into its tenure as the new capital of the Roman Empire. The mansion was enlarged in the 5th century only to be plundered and abandoned in the 6th. There is also some evidence of occupation in the late Middle Ages, probably by people who were stripping what was left of it for building materials.

An inscription on a stone slab found at the villa identifies the owner as Vettius Agorius Praetextatus, a well-known and highly esteemed 4th century senator who had a distinguished political career and who was at the epicenter of the last significant attempt by the few remaining non-Christian members of the aristocratic ruling class to preserve traditional Roman religions in the face of the onslaught of legislation and Christianization practices that would destroy them. Praetextatus held high political and religious office. He was governor of Tuscany and Umbria, consular of Lusitania, proconsul of Achaia, urban praetor, praetorian prefect to Emperor Valentinian II and consul-elect (he died before he could take office). His many religious titles and priesthoods included augur, quindecimvir (guardian of the Sibylline Books), pontifex Vestae, pontifex Solis, sacratus Libero et Eleusinis and curialis Herculis.

He and his close friend and senatorial colleague Quintus Aurelius Symmachus, who was a very wealthy scion of the patrician Aurelian family and who was known to have at least a dozen country villas of his own, worked together to restore the traditional Roman religions. When he was urban praetor, Praetextatus petitioned the emperor for the restoration of sacred objects looted from temples. When he got the go-ahead, he assigned the job of collecting whatever was left to Symmachus. In 384 A.D., Symmachus wrote an open letter to Valentinian II asking for the return of the Altar of Victory to the Curia, a letter which is still famous today, mainly in conjunction with the equally famous rebuttal written by Ambrose of Milan.

Later that year, Praetextatus died. The city plunged into public mourning and there was an outpouring of grief from Romans of all religions. His wife of 40 years, Aconia Fabia Paulina, had her eulogy for him, apparently a version of her funeral oration, inscribed on his funerary monument. She shared his religious convictions and held many religious honors herself, and in the oration she said he was now in the heavens where, gods willing, she would soon join him. And she did.

Saint Jerome used Praetextatus, whose death had so roiled the city, as an example of how the most exalted, respected pagan will spend eternity in sulfurous agony while the most miserable, derided, self-abnegating Christian will be raised to glory in the hereafter. From his Letter XXIII to Marcella written in 384 A.D., the year of Praetextatus’ death:

Now, therefore, in return for her short toil, Lea enjoys everlasting felicity; she is welcomed into the choirs of the angels; she is comforted in Abraham’s bosom. And, as once the beggar Lazarus saw the rich man, for all his purple, lying in torment, so does Lea see the consul, not now in his triumphal robe but clothed in mourning, and asking for a drop of water from her little finger. How great a change have we here! A few days ago the highest dignitaries of the city walked before him as he ascended the ramparts of the capitol like a general celebrating a triumph; the Roman people leapt up to welcome and applaud him, and at the news of his death the whole city was moved. Now he is desolate and naked, a prisoner in the foulest darkness, and not, as his unhappy wife falsely asserts, set in the royal abode of the Milky Way. On the other hand Lea, who was always shut up in her one closet, who seemed poor and of little worth, and whose life was accounted madness, now follows Christ and sings, “Like as we have heard, so have we seen in the city of our God.”

We know that Praetextatus and Paulina had two houses in Rome, one on the Esquiline whose vast gardens reached what is now Termini railway station and one on the Aventine. Now we know they had a huge country palace in Tuscany. The excavation will be open to the public this weekend, on Saturday afternoon from 3:30 to 6:30 PM, and Sunday from 9:30 AM to 6:30 PM. Professor Cantini and the University of Pisa team will be present to explain the site to visitors.

Huge mosaic floor in Jericho unveiled for one day

October 20th, 2016

For one time only, the glorious 8th century mosaic floor of Khirbat al-Mafjar, colloquially known as Hisham’s Palace, was on view in all its colorful majesty on Thursday, October 20th. The floor features 38 different scenes in 21 colors, and at 825 square meters (8,900 square feet), it is one of the largest mosaic floors in the world.

Discovered in 1873 three miles north of the West Bank city of Jericho, the first excavations of the site took place between 1934 and 1948 under the direction of Palestinian archaeologist Dimitri Baramki. The palace got its name from a marble ostracon that was discovered during the Baramki excavations that had “Hisham” scratched on it. The name on the marble fragment suggested that the lavish mansion may have been built during the reign of the 10th Umayyad caliph Hisham ibn Abd al-Malik (r. 724-743). The name stuck even though the palace may not have been built for the caliph himself. Robert Hamilton, the British colonial administrator and a colleague of Baramki’s, proposed the compound was constructed for the Hisham’s nephew and successor Walid ibn Yazid (r. 743-744) whose notorious love of the high life irritated the hell out his more temperate uncle.

Whoever it was built for, it had to have been someone in the royal family. The architecture, decorations and artifacts mark it as having been built under the Umayyad dynasty in first half of the 8th century. It’s in a category of structures known as the Umayyad desert castles, fortified palaces built near water sources in the arid regions of Jordan, Syria, Israel and the West Bank between 661 (when Damascus was made the Umayyad capital) and 750 A.D. (when the capital was moved to Baghdad).

Like the other desert castles, Hisham’s Palace includes an agricultural enclosure and a bath complex supplied with water from a nearby oasis. The spectacular mosaics covered the floor of the main bath hall, and one of the most famous stand-out pieces, a Tree of Life mosaic, decorated the floor of the bath’s bahw, or special reception room. It depicts a fruit tree with two gazelles peacefully hanging out on the left, while a gazelle on the right side is attacked by a lion. The contrasting scenes of peace vs. combat are believed to represent the power of the caliph to either bring prosperity to his people or to ruthlessly repress them.

Elaborately carved stucco panels, mainly florals and geometrics with some animal and human figures, including semi-nude men and women, were also found in the bath complex. The stuccos are now at the Rockefeller Museum in East Jerusalem. The decorative elements in the desert castles are among the earliest Islamic art, and the mosaics, sculptures, frescoes and carved stucco features at Hisham’s Palace are of particularly high quality. The dizzying array of colors and patterns in the mosaics prefigure later Islamic design, while the figural art is unique to the Umayyad period.

The palace is the biggest tourist draw in the West Bank which has a major downside from a conservation standpoint. In addition to the tens of thousands of visitors stomping the site every year, Jericho’s urban sprawl, conflict and scant funds for preservation and personnel have placed Hisham’s Palace is in dire straights. In 2010, the non-profit Global Heritage Fund put it on a list of 12 sites on the verge of irreparable damage. The only mosaic on display in the Tree of Life in the reception room. The rest have been covered by soil and canvas almost since they were first unearthed.

In September 2015, the Japan International Cooperation Agency signed a grant agreement with the Palestinian Authority to give up to 1.235 billion yen ($11,860,000) to construct a protective roof and exhibition facilities for the bath mosaics. The Palestinian Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities spent a year carefully removing the sand, soil and assorted debris covering the floor. Now that the construction phase is about to begin, the complete mosaic floor of the bath complex of Hisham’s Palace was uncovered for a day. The floors go back undercover until the project is complete. If all goes well, the newly protected and restored mosaics will be open to visitors by 2018.

Tiny 8th c. “horned” Odin found in Denmark

October 19th, 2016

Søren Andersen was scanning a field near Mesinge on the Danish island of Funen this summer when he discovered a figurine of bearded man with a tidily combed pageboy haircut wearing a helmet adorned with what looked like two oversized curved horns. Less than two inches high, the figurine was originally part of a ringed pin, a long pin with a ring at the head used to fasten clothes. Its style dates it to the 8th century.

The “horns” on the helmet are probably not actual horns. Viking helmets were not horned, despite their frequent appearances in literature, comics, film and Wagnerian extravaganzas. (In fact, it was a production of Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen at the first Bayreuth Festival in 1876 that launched the image of the Viking in a horned helmet. Read Roberta Frank’s fantastic paper on the subject here.) A number of similar figurines have been found in Scandinavia and Russia, and archaeologists have interpreted the horns as stylized representations of Odin’s ravens Huginn and Muninn.

I know what you’re thinking. Those don’t look anything like ravens, and you’re right. They don’t. But they’re also not complete. You can see the “horns” are different sizes and have rough edges. If you look at these two comparable figurines in the National Museum of Denmark, when intact, what look like horns now could have been a circular headdress terminating in two bird heads. The idea is to represent his information-gathering ravens as flying above the Odin’s head.

It’s also possible that the figurine doesn’t represent Odin himself, but a follower wearing an outfit associated with the deity. A cast-bronze die from the Vendel Period (550-790 A.D.) found on the Swedish island of Öland depicts a man in a bear suit next to a dancing warrior carrying a spear and wearing a helmet with circular “horns” that end in bird heads. The man dressed like a bear has been interpreted as a berserker devotee of Odin who had many shape-shifting adventures, the dancing warrior as Odin. The helmeted warrior was also thought to be a berserker at one time, his outfit an homage to Odin, but recent scans of the die found that the warrior has only one eye, an iconic attribute of the deity. The Mesinge figure appears to have two eyes.

It is currently on display at the Viking Museum at Ladby with other exceptional metal detector finds, like the gold crucifix that is believed to be the oldest figure of Christ ever discovered in Denmark. After a brief stay, it will move on to the National Museum of Denmark for further study.

First possible victim of killer boomerang found

October 18th, 2016

A man found buried in Toorale National Park in New South Wales, southeastern Australia, may be the first known boomerang victim. The skeletal remains were discovered on the bank of the Darling River during a 2014 archaeological survey. Erosion had exposed the cranium but the subsequent excavation found an almost complete skeleton in an excellent state of preservation. He was buried on his right side in a tightly flexed position facing upstream to the northwest, a careful, deliberate positioning that indicates he was respectfully buried by his people. Members of the Kurnu Baakantji Aboriginal group who inhabit the area dubbed him Kaakutja, meaning “Older Brother.”

Osteological analysis found that the deceased was an adult male between 25 and 25 years old at time of death. He was about 5’5″-5’7″ tall. There is evidence of sharp-force trauma in several places on his skeleton: two ante-mortem wounds on the cranium and peri-mortem trauma on the right side of the frontal bone, the cheekbone, maxilla, mandible, upper right humerus and five left ribs. He was hacked up, basically. Nothing like this pattern of trauma has been found on archaeological skeletal remains in Australia. Usually the injuries found are depression and parrying fractures. Only one other skeleton has been found with wounds inflicted by a sharp object and they were spear wounds. These are cutting

Given the sharp-force trauma found on Kaakutja’s skeleton, archaeologists expected to find the remains dated to after the arrival of the English in the 18th century, but radiocarbon dating of the bone and one of the teeth, confirmed with optical dating of sediment inside the cranium, found that Kaakutja lived between 1220 and 1280, 500 years before James Cook set foot on the continent, and 600 years before English colonists settled New South Wales.

Since the wounds could not have been caused by a metal blade, archaeologists turned to traditional Aboriginal weapons to explain Kaakutja’s injuries. One possibility is the lil-lil, a club-like weapon with a flattened, finely edged head. Another is the wonna, or fighting boomerang. This weapon is not the hunting boomerang, a curved throwing stick hurled at high speeds to take down prey, nor the returning boomerang which is what most people think of when they hear the word but is only a few hundred years old. The fighting boomerang was described by ethnographer R.H. Mathews in 1907 as “considerably bigger and heavier” than the returning boomerang with “a more open curve. It reminds one of the blade of a sabre and its inner edge is sharp and dangerous.”

The wound going down Kaakutja’s face is probably too large to have been inflicted by a lil-lil. Boomerangs, on the other hand, could be as long as 18 inches and could certainly have caused his head wound. Archaeologists believe that was the first blow struck in the attack. Kaakutja’s was slashed with the fighting boomerang, likely taking out his eye. Then he was struck in the ribs, breaking five of them and probably bringing him to his knees. Then he was slashed across the top of the arm, carving off a circle of bone from the top of the humerus.

Kaakutja’s wounds suggest “close-range injuries—possibly hand-to-hand combat,” agrees Jo McDonald of the University of Western Australia, who was not involved with the study. Kaakutja’s forearms show no injuries from warding off blows. So Westaway and his colleagues speculate he was attacked with a boomerang designed to whip around the edge of a shield. Both shields and boomerangs were common items across the continent.

Rock art at Gundabooka National Park, 15 miles east of the burial site, records ancient intertribal wars. The two sides are depicted in two different colors — orange and white ochre — and the fighters carry shields, clubs and very recognizable boomerangs. Perhaps Kaakutja met his end in just such a conflict.

The significance of the find is hard to overstate. Kaakutja’s wounds are unique in the pre-European Australian archaeological record. They suggest that traditional Aboriginal sharpened hardwood weapons of could cut bone much like metal blades can. It will also help archaeologists going forward in identifying the kind of wounds caused by Aboriginal weaponry.

Kaakutja’s remains have been reburied in a traditional Kurnu Baakantji ceremony, but the study of this unique individual and his violent end will continue. Next on the agenda is attempting to duplicate the wounds using replica weapons. The study of Kaakutja and his injuries has been published in this month’s issue of the journal Antiquity

Unique London museum restored to its former chaotic splendour

October 17th, 2016

After a comprehensive restoration lasting seven years and costing £7million ($8,536,000), Sir John Soane’s Museum in London has returned to its founder’s original design. The Soane is a uniquely idiosyncratic museum founded by preeminent neoclassical architect Sir John Soane (1753-1837) in his home and office at No. 13 Lincoln’s Inn Fields. A self-made man, he first bought No. 12 Lincoln’s Inn Fields in 1792 after he was invited to become a member of the Architects’ Club, an important milestone marking his success and the approval of his peers. He completely remodeled the building and facade. In 1806, after his appointment as Professor of Architecture at the Royal Academy, he bought the house next door at No. 13 and completely rebuilt it too.

By then his library and collection of antiquities, plaster casts and architectural models was too large to fit in one property and he conceived the idea to dedicate both No. 12 and No. 13 to a museum that would allow architecture students and interested amateurs to study his models, paintings, drawings and sculptures. While at first he planned to organize his collection in categories, he abandoned that idea in favor of an eclectic, chaotic arrangement of interesting juxtapositions that would inspire creativity in visitors.

In 1812, he opened No. 13 to his students in the hope it would enhance their education. Magazine reviews were rapturous, referring to the Lincoln’s Inn Fields museum as “an Academy of Architecture.” Soane wanted to ensure that his homemade “Academy” would remain open to the public entirely unchanged even after his death. That took an extraordinary effort because his son George as the direct male heir by law would inherit his property and Soane had a terrible relationship with his son. The only way to disinherit him was by a literal Act of Parliament, so Soane campaigned assiduously to get a Private Act to preserve his beloved collection in the buildings on which he had put so decidedly personal a stamp.

In April of 1833, the Soane Museum Act was passed requiring that after Sir John’s death, the house and collection be managed by a Board of Trustees on behalf of the nation and that they be kept “as nearly as possible” just as they were. Soane died in 1837 and the terms of the Act went into effect. Over the years, changes were made both to the structures — additions, walls knocked down, doors and rooms closed off, the Model Room on the second floor converted into a curator’s apartment and later offices — and, as exhibition space retreated to the needs of administration, to the objects on display.

A solution presented itself in the form of No. 14 Lincoln’s Inn Fields. Soane had bought that building too in 1823, rebuilding it as he had its brethren and using the stables as a picture gallery connected to No. 13. The home itself he rented. This building was not included in the Act of Parliament. Soane left it to his family. In 2009, the museum had the chance to buy No. 14. They snapped it up and finally had much-needed office space. This gave them the freedom to embark on an extensive renovation of museum to restore it to Sir John’s original vision.

After a fundraising campaign that saw donations from many private donors and the Heritage Lottery Fund, the Opening up the Soane (OUTS) project began in 2011. The last phase of the project was completed last month, and now not only are the rooms restored to their former design with the artifacts, models and art works in the spaces where Soane wanted them to be — 365 objects that have been in storage since 1837 are now back on display — but new spaces have been opened as well. The kitchens, for example, once the exclusive domain of Soane’s servants, now give visitors a rare glimpse into a Regency era kitchen. The original 1812 range in the back kitchen is believed to be the oldest surviving patented kitchen range in the world. There’s also a custom dresser designed by Soane in the front kitchen.

Bruce Boucher, Director of Sir John Soane’s Museum says; “This is a momentous day in the history of the Soane Museum. Our extensive restoration work over the past seven years has reinstated all of Soane’s spaces which were lost over the decades following his death – many of them thought to be lost forever. Now, following the completion of this third and final phase of Opening Up the Soane, visitors can experience the Museum as fully as Sir John Soane intended”.

700 7th c. drug bottles found in Turkey

October 16th, 2016

Archaeologists have discovered a unique trove of ancient medicine bottles in the ancient Greek town of Bathonea, 10 miles west of Istanbul. Usually made of ceramic or glass, although there are a few high-end examples made of alabaster and silver, the small bottles known as unguentaria were used in antiquity to hold everything from perfume and cosmetics to olive oil and powdered incense. They are often found in Greek burials as grave goods, but only a few in each grave. Larger numbers of unguentaria have been unearthed in ancient household rubbish dumps, discarded over a period of time after being broken.

The ones found at Bathonea, on the other hand, were all made at the same time out of clay in the shape of miniature amphorae, and 700 unguentaria in one site is an unprecedented find. Many of them were also in fragments — archaeologists pieced hundreds of them back together in the laboratory — but they weren’t discarded or funerary/religious offerings. This was an industrial facility for the manufacture of unguentaria and likely for their contents.

Samples of material found inside the vessels were sent for analysis to the Scientific and Technological Research Council (TÜBİTAK) in Gebze district. Tests found the residues contained Methanone and Phenanthrene, plant-derived substances used in herbal medicine as anti-depressants and heart medications, among other uses.

“Some of them are still being repaired, but meanwhile we have also found pestles of various sizes, mortars, and a stove, indicating that there was a pharmaceutical production center here” [associate professor from Kocaeli University Dr. Şengül] Aydıngün said, and added that there are specific plants on the site, which make up the essence of many medicines.

They also found bone tools, spatulas and medical instruments, so this appears to have been a full-service drug and medical supply store.

This roof of this facility collapsed in a fire, keeping its production line in place even if heavily damaged. Practically all of the structures so far excavated at Bathonea have the same fire layer. Samples from it were analyzed by the Wroclaw Archeology and Ethnography Institute in Poland which found that the carbon samples date to between 620 and 640. That date range is meaningful because the nomadic Avars joined forces with the Sassanid Persians and assorted Slavs to besiege Constantinople in 626. After two months of attacks from land and sea, the Avars and Persians retreated before the victorious Byzantines, but they did a lot of damage while they were there. Archaeologists think the fire that felled the Bathonea pharmacy may be evidence of the Avar attack. No other archaeological evidence of this clash has been found before.

The site of Bathonea was first confirmed in 2009, after documentary research and geophysical surveys pointed to its location being in the basin of what is now Lake Küçükçekmece, a lake created when a sandbar cut it off the Sea of Marmara. Bathonea was a bustling port city, and in five years of excavations archaeologists have unearthed the remains of a large port, docks, a lighthouse, long, broad avenues to the sea, a palace complex, planned city squares and streets, two major waterways and a cistern built with bricks bearing the mark of the Emperor Constantine. Other artifacts discovered indicate the site has been occupied long before the construction of the Hellenistic city in the 4th century B.C., objects going back as far as the Neolithic (8,000 B.C.) have been found at Bathonea. The city was abandoned in the 11th century after a massive earthquake and never rebuilt.

Bathonea’s extensive archaeological record is or particular significance because it’s on the outskirts of Istanbul and can therefore fill the gaps in the capital city’s own chronology. For example, Istanbul’s Neolithic era is relatively well documented archaeologically, but there is nothing from the Hittite era (ca. 2,000 B.C.). The discovery of Hittite ceramics in Bathonea, therefore, was confirmation of their active presence in the area. The burn layer in the pharmaceutical facility and its neighboring structures has now added to that chronology by providing the first archaeological evidence of the major upheaval in the 7th century.

Has the victim of 322-year-old royal intrigue been found?

October 15th, 2016

A scandalous and deadly mystery may soon be solved thanks to the sciency magic of DNA. The setting: Leine Castle in Niedersachsen, Germany, the residence of the Electors of Hanover and future Hanoverian kings. The players: Sophia Dorothea, the wife of the future King George I of Great Britain, her churlish husband, then Prince George Ludwig of Hanover, Sophia Dorothea’s lover, Count Philip Christoph von Königsmarck, her father-in-law Ernest Augustus, the Elector of Hanover, and the Countess von Platen, the Elector’s mistress and a schemer of Evil Queen in Snow White dimensions.

Sophia Dorothea had been forced to marry George Ludwig through the machinations of Sophia of Hanover, George’s mother and granddaughter of King James I of England, who sabotaged her other engagements and persuaded her mother, Countess Eleanor of Wilhelmsburg, of the advantage of the match. Her future mother-in-law’s motivation was purely pecuniary. Sophia Dorothea came with a rich income of 100,000 thaler a year (one thaler was worth 25 grams of silver, 10 times more than the English pound), and while George had zero personal charms (in Hanover he was known as “pignose” and his own mother considered him stupid and brutish) he had the powerful Electorate of Hanover coming his way and was also in line for the British crown.

So in 1682, the 16-year-old Sophia Dorothea married her first cousin Prince George Ludwig of Hanover, the future King George I of Great Britain. From day one the marriage was turbulent. They fought all the time, in private and public, and George slighted her at ceremonial occasions. Despite their active contempt for each other, they managed to reproduce twice: the future George II was born in 1683, Sophia Dorothea, the future Queen of Prussia, was born in 1687.

By then relations between the two were irretrievably broken, if they had ever been whole. George took a mistress whom he flaunted so shamelessly that his own father begged him to be more discreet for appearance’s sake, if nothing else. George ignored him, and instead took more mistresses whom he impregnated regularly. When he wasn’t violent and abusive to his wife, he acted as if she didn’t exist, humiliating her by raising his mistresses above her at court. Into this maelström walked Swedish count Philip Christoph von Königsmarck. He and Sophia Dorothea had met just before her marriage and had had an innocent flirtation. When the dashing count came back into her life, their relationship blossomed into a romance which we know quite a bit about because hundreds of their love letters have survived and are now in the collection of the Lund University library. Many of them are written in code, a necessity as the gossip around them intensified.

Some of those letters were intercepted and shown to George Ludwig’s father Ernest Augustus, Elector of Hanover, who exiled Königsmarck from Hanover. George and Sophia Dorothea fought angrily over her affair and his many affairs (complete with illegitimate children). This argument turned violent, with George pulling out his wife’s hair and throttling her until she lost consciousness. Only the intervention of her attendants in the antechamber stopped the Prince from strangling his wife.

It all came to a head in 1694. Königsmarck returned from banishment and was appointed Colonel of the Guards. Sophia Dorotea, desperate after repeated entreaties to her own family had failed, hoped to flee Hanover with the count. He received a note written in pencil asking him to visit her rooms one night. When he appeared, she was surprised. The note was a forgery. Notwithstanding the glaringly obvious setup, he stayed for a while as she told him how untenable her position had become and asked him to arrange for their flight to Wolfenbüttel, about 40 miles away, where a devoted friend of her mother lived. This was a fatal error.

The forged letter was part of a plot hatched by Clara Elisabeth, Countess von Platen, Ernest Augustus’ long-time mistress and mother of two of his children. She and her coterie had spread nasty rumors about Sophia Dorothea since the marriage, poisoning the court against her and contributing significantly to George’s hatred and public slights of his wife. As soon as she found out that Königsmarck had fallen for the forged note gambit, she told the Elector that Königsmarck was scandalously visiting Sophia Dorothea at night, and persuaded him to order his arrest.

He allowed countess to command the operation. She got three trabants (yeomen of the guard) and their commanding officer to wait for him behind a chimney that was his sole escape route out of the palace (she had locked all the other exits), and promptly got them drunk so they might be less likely to recognize the colonel and more likely to do him harm which was her aim all along although Ernest Augustus was clueless about her real intentions. When Königsmarck approached the chimney, he was set upon by the guards. A sword fight ensued, and though he was an outstanding soldier who might have actually pulled off a one-against-four-drunks victory in the dark, Königsmarck’s sword snapped and he was mortally wounded.

The guards were horrified when realized who they had stuck, but the Countess von Platen deftly turned it around on them. She said they’d be in huge trouble for killing him, so it was best if they told the Elector Königsmarck had rushed them in some berserker frenzy, forcing them to kill in self-defense. Ernest Augustus was shocked and appalled. He’d given the countess an inch and she’d taken a life. He knew the news of the death of so famously brave, handsome and popular a noble adventurer would surely spread like wildfire throughout Germany, and the Elector would be cast as the villain of the piece.

The Countess had a solution to that problem too. She got Ernest Augustus to agree to dispose of the body in such a way that the crime would never be publically known. The 1845 Memoirs of Sophia Dorothea, a pro-Sophia biography compiled from archives, letters and diaries, describes the aftermath thus:

The Countess had little trouble in persuading the trabants to save their necks by doing as she desired them. All traces of the murder were soon obliterated. The dead body was unceremoniously cast into the most filthy receptacle that could be found for it, covered with quick lime, and the place walled up. So secretly and so skilfully were these measures taken, that no one in the palace was aware anything extraordinary had occurred during the night, although some persons had heard a slight disturbance of which they had taken little notice, and from that time to this, notwithstanding suspicions had been created by the mysterious disappearance of Count Königsmarck, nothing of a positive nature has been brought forward respecting his fate on which any reliance could be placed.

This account is derived from the Countess von Platen’s deathbed confession and to that of one of the trabants. Other stories circulated. Author, member of Parliament and son of the frst Prime Minister of Great Britain Horace Walpole was told by his father who was told by Queen Caroline who was told by King George II that the Königsmarck was strangled upon leaving Sophia Dorotea’s room and his body had been found under the floor of her dressing room when George II was visiting Hanover after his ascension to the British throne.

That’s a bit too much of a game of telephone to be reliable data, but the discovery of a skeleton during construction work at Leine Castle this summer might just be the hard evidence this intrigue has long lacked. Unfortunately the cause of death could not be determined by osteological analysis, but researchers were able to extract DNA from the bones. The DNA will now be compared to living relatives of Count Philip Christoph von Königsmarck.

As for poor Sophia Dorothea, with her lover dead in such a messy way, George Ludwig felt empowered to divorce her and imprison her in the Castle of Ahlden in Lüneburg for the rest of her life, that’s 33 years out of 60. It wasn’t a brutal imprisonment; more of a house arrest life sentence. She had plenty of money to live in accordance with her status, was allowed her retinue and had the run of the castle, but her children were kept from her and every reference to her was erased from George’s future courts. Oh, and he kept that 100,000 thaler annuity even after her divorced her, of course. He really was a right bastard.

On her deathbed, she wrote one last letter to her husband, who had been King of Great Britain and Ireland for 12 years by then, cursing him. He refused to allow his courts in Hanover or England to officially mourn her, and even inveighed against their daughter when he heard the Prussian court in Berlin was wearing black for their queen’s mother. No wonder George II hated his father bitterly.

Study ancient Egypt online with the University of Pennsylania

October 14th, 2016

The Penn Museum, the University of Pennsylvania’s archaeology museum, has one of the largest collection of ancient Egyptian artifacts in the United States. There are more than 42,000 objects, including the largest sphinx in the Western Hemisphere and the third largest in the world. The head curator of the collection is University of Pennsylvania’s Eckley Brinton Coxe, Jr Professor of Egyptology Dr. David Silverman, one of the world’s leading experts on Egyptian history. He was a curator of the blockbuster Treasures of Tutankhamun exhibit which brought 53 artifacts from the famous tomb to the United States for the first time in the late 1970s, and was the national curator of the even grander blockbuster, Tutankhamun and the Golden Age of the Pharaohs, thirty years later. He has led multiple archaeological excavations in Egypt and is widely published on Egyptian history, epigraphy, language, art, and religion.

There was a time when being taught by an Ivy League professor preeminent in his field was a privilege reserved for very few, but it’s a brave new world out there now, and the University of Pennsylvania is offering a Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) through Coursera entitled Introduction to Ancient Egypt and Its Civilization. It will be taught by Dr. Silverman who developed the course using references to the Egyptian artifacts in the Penn Museum. MOOCs on ancient Egypt have been offered before by many institutions of higher learning, but none of them had access to a collection like the Penn Museum’s to illustrate the coursework. Silver spent two years developing this course and its sequels, researching the material, writing scripts for the lectures and choosing hundreds of photographs as visual aids. A crew for the university’s School of Arts and Sciences Online Learning filmed the galleries of the Penn Museum for days, working around the museum’s hours so that students will get the kind of unobstructed view of the objects on display that is virtually impossible in crowded real life.

The class begins on October 31st with a showing of the original The Mummy with Boris Karloff. Okay no. I made that up because of the coincidental Halloween opening date, but it would be a pretty entertaining overture, especially since the faux “archaeology” in that movie is so egregiously wrong on every possible level that it even eclipses Karloff’s outstanding makeup in horror quotient. In reality, the course consists of five filmed lectures about an hour long. The lectures will be supplemented with quizzes and project assignments, and students will be able to engage in online discussions of the material.

A prolific author, speaker, and exhibition curator, Dr. Silverman developed the course with an eye to answering the many questions he has encountered over the years. “I wanted to offer a course that tapped into the deep fascination that so many people—myself included—bring with them as they explore the art and culture of the ancient Egyptians,” he noted. “My hope is that through this course many questions will be answered—and new questions will arise. Ancient Egypt’s culture and achievements are worthy of a lifetime of study and exploration.”

As the course description notes, each hour-long videotaped lecture focuses on a different subject: History and Chronology; The Pharaoh and Kingship; Gods and Goddesses; The Pyramids and the Sphinx; Mummies and Mummification. Part two of the course explores Principles of Egyptian Art; The Basics of the Language of Ancient Egypt – Hieroglyphs; Magic; Akhenaten, Tutankhamun, and the Religion of the Aten; and The Burial of Tutankhamun and the Search for his Tomb.

If you are fortunate enough to be in Philadelphia or environs on Saturday, December 10th, there will be an end of course Open House with Dr. Silverman at the Penn Museum from 11:00 AM to 3:00 PM. Students will enjoy talks by museum Egyptologists, tours of the gallery, a mummification workshop, book signings and an Egyptian-inspired lunch at the museum café.

Already 20,000 people have signed up for the course. The MOOC is free of charge — there’s a fee of $49 if you want to get a certificate — and once it’s complete, all students will receive email notification of the second course in the series: Wonders of the Ancient World, which is schedule to launch in early 2017.

Happy 950th anniversary, Battle of Hastings!

October 13th, 2016

On October 14th, 1066, a date that will live forever on 6th grade pop quizzes, the army of William the Bastard, Duke of Normandy, defeated the Anglo-Saxon army of King Harold Godwinson at the Battle of Hastings ushering in the Norman conquest of England which ultimately claimed 100,000 lives. The Norman conquest irrevocably altered the evolution of the English language and landscape. It was William who made it a point of policy to build large stone castles to consolidate his power, replacing the more earthworks and wood motte-and-bailey castles favored by the Anglo-Saxon with the intimidating fortresses preferred by powerful lords in Normandy. Stone churches and cathedrals were also a Norman contribution.

To celebrate the anniversary in grand style, this weekend English Heritage will be hosting a program of events at Battle Abbey, built on the site of Harold’s death by William by order of Pope Alexander II as penance for having killed so many, and the battlefield. There will be music, readings, lectures, a display of falconry, panel discussions, faux battles on the hour for children, something called “Have-a-go Archery” which sounds as fun as it is potentially dangerous, cavalry, Norman and Saxon encampments with living history for visitors to interact with, and in the afternoon a full-on reenactment of the Battle of Hastings with more than 1,066 volunteers participating.

Tickets for the weekend sold out quickly, so alas, unless you managed to score your own already or knows somebody who know somebody who knows an extremely nerdy scalper, I’m afraid you won’t be able to attend the festivities. You can still visit the abbey and battlefield on Friday, though, which is the actual anniversary.

Meanwhile, The Royal Mint, which was already in operation under King Harold, has issued a 50p coin commemorating the anniversary. With all due respect to the dignified profile of Queen Elizabeth II, because my love for the Bayeux Tapestry is stronger than the foundations of the earth, it’s the reverse of this coin that absolutely slays me (pun intended). It’s a coin version of the man believed to be Harold shown with an arrow in his eye and several in his shield in scene 57 of the Bayeux Tapestry. The embroidered Latin above the scene reads “Hic Harold rex interfectus est,” or “Here King Harold is killed.”

There’s also another fellow next to him being felled by a sword, though, so it’s not entirely clear which of the two is meant to be Harold. The earliest known account of the conquest, the Song of the Battle of Hastings, written in 1067 by Bishop Guy of Amiens, says that Harold was hacked to death and his dismembered body buried under a stone pile on a cliff “that you may still be guardian of the shore and sea.” Fifty years later, William of Malmesbury’s Chronicle of the Kings of England (1118) said Harold’s “brain [was] pierced with an arrow” shot “from a distance,” and that is the account that has taken root, bolstered by the epic drama of the Bayeux Tapestry. (There is, incidentally, significant debate as to whether the arrow in the eye detail is original to the tapestry or the product of a later restoration to bring the work closer in concert to what was by then the accepted story.)

Five million of these 50p pieces will be going into circulation. Collectors can purchase fancier limited edition gold proofs (£785, or $960), silver proofs (£50, or $60) and double-thick “piedfort” silver proofs (£95, or $116), plus mint condition uncirculated versions of the regular coin (£10, or $12). Only the last one comes with a booklet. I love it when things come with a booklet.




October 2016
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