Cist grave points to Bronze Age burial ground near Loch Ness

December 16th, 2017

Archaeologists surveying a site in Drumnadrochit by Loch Ness in Scotland have discovered a 4,000-year-old cist grave. There were no human remains in the stone-lined pit because it had become filled with soil and any organic materials decayed into nothingness, but there was a single carinated beaker found intact on the cobbled floor. The geometric decoration of the pot identified it as dating to and 2200-1900 B.C.

The find is all the more significant because it’s not the only one. Another cist burial was unearthed on land adjacent to the current site in January 2015 after archaeologists were called in on an urgent salvage mission. Workers building a new health center in Drumnadrochit raised a large stone slab and found a stone-lined burial cist containing human skeletal remains in a crouched position. Preliminary study assessed the bones to date to the Bronze Age and a full archaeological excavation ensued. It revealed a partial skeleton of an adult. The remains weren’t in great condition, but three feet away from the inhumation, archaeologists found an oval pit with sherds from a beaker.

Beaker pot recovered from cist. Photo by AOC Archaeology.These were the first Bronze Age artifacts and human remains found in the location between the Coilte and Enrick rivers. At the time, archaeologists thought that might be significant, that the proximity to an ancient river channel made the site appealing to Bronze Age people as a site for funerary ritual. The area has long since been drained to make way for farming and it’s likely that centuries of agricultural activity damaged any other burials. The discovery of the intact beaker pot in a cist, even without a body, supports the contention that the spot had special meaning 4,000 or so years ago.

Mary Peteranna, Operations Manager for AOC Archaeology’s Inverness office, said: “The discovery of a second Bronze Age cist on the site provides increasing evidence for the special selection of this site in the prehistoric landscape as a location for ceremonial funerary activity.

“This cist, along with the medical centre cist and a second burial pit, is generating much more information about the prehistory of Glen Urquhart.”

Mrs Peteranna added: “Historically, there was a large cairn shown on maps of the area but you can imagine that centuries of ploughing in these fields have removed any upstanding reminders of prehistoric occupation.

“During the work, we actually found a displaced capstone from another grave that either has not survived or has not yet been discovered. So it’s quite likely that these graves were covered by stone cairns or mounds, long-since ploughed out.”

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Rock art may be 1st depiction of leashed dogs

December 15th, 2017

Intricately etched rock panels in the Saudi desert include some of the earliest known depictions of dogs and humans hunting together and of canines being handled by people with leashes. A recent study of some 1,400 rock art panels at the sites of Shuwaymis and Jubbah in northwestern Saudi Arabia found 147 scenes of packs of dogs helping people take down prey like equids (likely African asses), lions, ibex, gazelles and leopards. The canines did front lines duty, assault the prey with overwhelming forces to weaken them before the humans came in with bows and arrows to deliver the killing blows. In one scene in which 21 dogs surround an equid mother and her young, two of the dogs have a thick line carved from their necks to their humans’ hip, the earliest known evidence of this familiar link in prehistory.

The dogs are morphologically similar to modern-day Canaan dogs with pointed ears and curly tails, but there’s no way of knowing if they are an ancestor of the breed, or even if they were imported to the area of descendants of native tamed wolves. The fact that some of the dogs were leashed suggests there were already being utilized and trained for different jobs on the hunt. The exact date of the rock art is also unclear. Archaeologists believe they date to the Holocene, about 8,000-9,000 years ago, but there was no material at the rock art sites that could yield precision dating.

“This is the first imagery of a dog with a leash,” said Michael Petraglia, an archaeologist from the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History, in Germany, and an author of the study, which appeared in the Journal of Anthropological Archaeology and was first reported by Science. He said that because of where the lines were on the dog and human’s anatomy, they most likely represented actual leashes and were not mere symbolic lines.

Dr. Petraglia added that the rock art most likely dated to the early Holocene period, which began around when the Paleolithic ice age closed. But he acknowledged that the team was unable to date it directly because the etchings left little indication for when they were carved. Instead the team correlated the rock art with nearby archaeological sites that they had dated.

The team also found that the dog images were carved beneath images of cattle, which they said indicated that the dog images came earlier. They said earlier evidence had suggested these particular ancient humans had domesticated dogs before they began keeping cattle. They added that the transition from being hunter-gatherers to herding most likely occurred between 6,800 B.C. and 6,200 B.C., which they used to hypothesize that the rock art featuring dogs appeared before humans began herding.

“We can now say about 9,000 years ago people already controlled their dogs and had them on leashes and used them for really complex hunting strategies,” said Maria Guagnin, an archaeologist from the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History and lead author.

The dating is tenuous, however. Until they find direct evidence of the age of the rock art, they can’t confirm with certainty that this is the earliest leashed dog depiction or what it says about the development of human-canine cooperation before the Neolithic. The study has been published in the Journal of Anthropological Archaeology and can be read free of charge online.

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More preserved organic material found at ruins of Lechaion

December 14th, 2017

Lechaion, the main harbour town of the rich and powerful city of Corinth at the north end of the strategic isthmus connecting the Peloponnese peninsula to mainland Greece, was a bustling hub of Mediterranean trade from more than 1,000 years (with a brief interruption courtesy of the Roman conquest of Greece in 146 B.C. Julius Caesar had it rebuilt in 44 B.C., and the shinier, bigger Lechaion, aka Colonia Laus Iulia Corinthiensis, got right back to business until it was destroyed in an earthquake in the late 6th century A.D.

The harbour structures, including massive ones from the Roman era, have been fully submerged, most of them deep under layers of sand and sediment, ever since and were barely explored despite their historical significance until 2014 when the Lechaion Harbour Project (LHP) took on the long-delayed task of surveying the site. The Greek Ephorate of Underwater Antiquities, the University of Copenhagen and the Danish Institute at Athens have been collaborating on this ambitious project, sending teams of marine archaeologists to explore the physical ruins and geologists with the latest scanning technology to detect the buried remains that can’t be seen.

In 2015, LHP researchers discovered extremely rare surviving remains: large sections of six wooden barges, a total of 187 feet of wood, used as caissons to protect the harbour from heavy wind, surf and sedimentation. The warm brine of the Mediterranean is a welcoming environment for woodworm which can reduce timbers to nothingness in weeks. The odds of finding organic remains of any kind from thousands of years ago, never mind on so grand a scale, are vanishingly small. It gave rise to the hope that the team might someday find actual ship remains, maybe even a trireme, much sought but never found.

No trireme has turned up yet, but this season’s archaeological survey has found more organic material, including a worked wood post in jaw-dropping condition, seeds, nuts, twigs, fruit pits and bones. The caissons were part of two Roman-era monumental piers, dubbed Mole L-M1 and Mole L-M2, whose massive stone block are the only remains of the Outer Harbour still visible just above the water line.

“During the 2017 excavations, the first Roman-period harbour structures at Lechaion have come to light. The mysterious island monument in the middle of Harbour Basin 3 – an area of the Inner Harbour measuring 24,500 m2 – was dated to the early 1st century AD. It was likely built as part of a Roman building program designed to help restore Corinth, just as the enormous 45 metres long, 18 metres wide and 4 metres high mole was constructed on exactly the same orientation as the mysterious island monument. Also, we identified a new roughly 40.000 m2 large harbour basin in the Outer Harbour (probably 6th century AD), another 40.000 m2 basin in the Inner Harbour dated to the mid-1st century AD, and the possible foundation for a lighthouse,” reports University of Copenhagen archaeologist Bjørn Lovén who co-directs the Lechaion Harbour Project.

“We have excavated archaeological layers where almost everything is preserved. Consider the pristine preservation of the roughly 2000-year-old wooden post (see video) and imagine how well-preserved wood and other organic materials that still lie at the bottom of this harbour,” says Bjørn Lovén.

The wooden post probably served as either a part of the foundations for the structure itself or perhaps as a bollard for mooring ships. The team also unearthed a variety of seeds, bones with cut marks, a roller from a wooden block, and fragments of worked wood.

“As a part of our research the Centre for GeoGenetics will extract and analyse the ancient environmental DNA from the important archaeological deposits and attempt to reconstruct the past environment genetically. Recently, they have shown that ancient DNA in deposits can identify a wide variety of organisms, everything from bacteria to plants and animals. Hence, they will characterise what lived in the area of Lechaion during the various phases of Antiquity, including the Roman period. We are discovering everything from DNA evidence to monumental moles constructed of five-ton blocks,” concludes Lovén.

This video has some phenomenal footage of the moles from above and under the water, including shots of mud lines and trident marks carved into the massive five-ton blocks, plus the island monument in the Inner Harbour and its glossy golden wooden post.

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How to kill with a Neolithic club

December 13th, 2017

University of Edinburgh researchers have gone full CSI to discover how a Neolithic artifact could have been used to inflict fatal damage on a human skull. We don’t know much about what kind of weapons Neolithic people deployed to kill each other. Skulls have been found bearing the tell-tale signs of blunt force trauma, but objects that are clearly identifiable as weapons are thin on the ground. There are all kinds of weapons in the archaeological record from the Bronze and Iron Age periods — daggers, swords, pointy things made for the express purpose of person-to-person combat — but Stone Age objects like bows and arrows, clubs and axes are more ambiguous. They could be hunting tools, intended to injure or kill animals, or work tools.

There hasn’t been a great deal of research into what implements might have inflicted the cranial blunt force trauma wounds seen in the Neolithic osteological record, so the UoE’s Meaghan Dyer and Linda Fibiger turned to experimental forensic testing not unlike the methods dramatized in more or less ludicrous ways on TV shows like CSI. They chose not to opt for animal carcasses (of questionable accuracy) and human cadavers (of questionable medical ethics). They took a more cutting edge approach, employing a synthetic polyurethane “skin-skull-brain” model which unlike the animal carcasses accurately replicates human cranial morphology and unlike the cadavers does not require the violent treatment of human remains. This is the first use of the synthetic model in an experimental investigation of Neolithic blunt force trauma.

The weapon of choice for this test was a replica of the Thames Beater, an alder club recovered from the River Thames near London’s Chelsea neighborhood that was radiocarbon dated to 4660 ± 50 before the present, towards the end of the Neolithic period (about 7000 to 2000 B.C.). It was a very rare find, one of only a small number of Neolithic clubs to survive in Britain until the present, and is now in the Museum of London. Cracked and chipped from its advanced age, the Thames Beater is reminiscent of a busted cricket bat with an angled wooden blade tapering down to a thinner barrel and capped with a round pommel. It was more than two feet long when it was made.

The research team commissioned master carpenter David Lewis of Pelynt, Cornwall, to recreate the piece as it was 4600 years ago. He used alder wood and reproduced the weight, shape, dimensions and every other known aspect of the object to make the experiment as accurate as possible. Two skin-skull-brain models of different thicknesses to account for human variance (one 5mm thick, one 7mm) were created in Switzerland from polyurethane spheres coated in rubber skin. They left a hole open in the bottom for the researchers to introduce brain-simulating ballistics gelatin.

Then it was show time. One of the research assistants was the lucky wielder of the replica Thames Beater.

Once constructed the skin-skull-brain spheres were placed on an elevated platform 108.0cm high, supported on a cork ring 3.1cm tall and 13.8cm in diameter. The hole in the sphere was placed facing down. A right-handed adult male, 30 years old, 193.0cm tall and 88.5kg carried out the strikes.

Two types of blows were used to investigate any variable fracture patterns produced by different areas of the club. Figure four shows the hand positions for the pommel blow and the double-handed blade strike. For the doubled handed strikes with the blade, the club was swung into the air and down onto the skin-skull-brain model, contacting at the end of the blade. The blows with the pommel end of the club, had the club drawn up and the pommel aimed at the skin-skull-brain model. The strikes with the pommel had a notable decrease in force.

The skin-skull-brain models amply proved their worth, producing depression fractures deep enough to displace bone and radiating fractures that spread around the spheres. These are the wounds you’d expect to see in blunt force trauma. The pommel blows were particularly effective, creating large linear fractures extending outwards from the impact point. When the results were compared with the trauma evident on Neolithic skulls, they matched, in one case all but perfectly.

The depression fractures formed by the double-handed blade strikes to the skin-skull-brain models have significant resemblance to examples of diagnosed intentional blunt force trauma in the Neolithic osteological record. The fracture morphology, shape of displaced fragments and the beveled fracture edges produced in both spheres match very closely with trauma hypothetically linked to wooden club weapons (Teschler-Nicola et al. 1996; Schulting and Wysocki 2005: 125; Teschler-Nicola 2012: 108). This experimental study successfully demonstrates the accuracy of this summation, most notably with the remarkable match found in the 7mm thick sphere.

The fractures present on the 7mm sphere bear remarkable similarity to injuries in Individual 3, a 35-40 year old male from the Neolithic Austrian site of Asparn/Schletz (Teschler-Nicola et al. 1996; Teschler-Nicola 2012: 107). As seen in Figure 8, both skulls have a long thin depression site near the top of the skull, with several radiating fractures. The impact sites on both also have one straight and one slightly curved border. This is a remarkable match between the archaeological record and the experimental results.

The study breaks as much ground as it did polyurethane spheres. It confirms the viability of the models in doing this kind of experimental testing and can be applied to osteological remains from many time periods and contexts.

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First the dinobird, now its ticks found in amber

December 12th, 2017

The rich deposits of amber mined in Myanmar (formerly Burma) have produced another stellar example of Cretaceous creatures frozen in a dramatic and scientifically significant posture. Earlier this year researchers found the remains of a baby avian dinosaur of the enantiornithes species which was uniquely well-preserved having spent 99 million years encased in amber. The discovery shed new light on the animal’s growth and development, and now the same can be said for a long-extinct tick. A nymph tick of the Cornupalpatum burmanicum species has been found in resin caught in the act of grabbing onto the feather of an avian dinosaur.

Modern ticks feast mightily on the blood of mammals, but their ancestors didn’t have the smorgasbord of mammal species to enjoy that exist on the planet today. Mammals only got so numerous, large and varied after the Cretaceous–Paleogene mass extinction event 65 million years ago. What animals were their primary source of food in the Cretaceous? Most scientists thought reptiles, amphibians and the little mammals that were scurrying about at the time were likely sources. For one thing, there were enough of them to support an extensive parasitic population, unlike avian dinosaurs.

Researcher Ricardo Pérez-de la Fuente at the Oxford University Museum of Natural History thought the avialans worth exploring as prospective tick drive-thrus, and spent years studying ticks trapped in amber for evidence of their environment.

The tick-and-feather pair support a theory that Pérez-de la Fuente had already spent years developing, based on other ticks trapped in amber from the same period. Those ticks didn’t have dinosaur feathers encased with them, but there were little hairs. The hairs resemble those left behind by a type of beetle larva that, today, lives in bird nests.

“We had this indirect evidence about the relationship between ticks and feathered dinosaurs,” Pérez-de la Fuente says, but the researchers didn’t have any direct evidence for the relationship until they saw the tick and feather trapped together in amber. […]

Now, just because there’s a feather and a tick holding on to it during the resin flood that would kill it doesn’t make it incontrovertible proof that they fed off the avian dinosaurs. Other animals lived in nests (viz the above-mentioned beetle larva) and the feather could be an accidental floater that seems more suggestive than it is.

Pérez-de la Fuente acknowledges there is more work to be done to clarify the ancient origins of ticks and their blood-sucking behaviors. For example, one amber specimen contains a tick engorged with blood, but Pérez-de la Fuente and his co-authors couldn’t figure out how to analyze that blood because the tick wasn’t entirely encased in amber, so the iron in the blood was contaminated with minerals.

USE FROG DNA!11 What could possibly go wrong? Seriously, being able to purify and analyze prehistoric blood, even blood that has been contaminated environmentally, would open up intriguing new avenues of exploration. Give the leaps in analytic and DNA technology over the past few decades, it’s not inconceivable that someone will figure out how to study the blood of these kinds of specimens.

Interesting side note: we don’t know exactly where in Myanmar the amber ticks used in the study were found. The specimens were sold online to private collectors, but in something of a watershed event, one collector donated his amber to the American Museum of Natural History in New York and the other actually participated in the study. He has an author credit on the newly published study in the journal Nature Communication.

“We actually broke the wall between private collectors and scientists which is very uncommon, especially in paleontology,” Pérez-de la Fuente says. “That by itself is a success.”

May it be the first of many.

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Ice Age fossils found in LA subway construction

December 11th, 2017

The expansion of the subway system in Los Angeles, California, has an unexpected commonality with Rome’s tortured endeavors to build a new line through the historic center: the ground under these cities is crammed full of the remains of the current residents’ predecessors. In Rome’s case it’s ancient archaeological materials, while Los Angeles’ specialty is Ice Age fossils. The company that has LA’ contract for digging the new tunnels keeps a paleontologist on call at all times so that whenever they find something, which is often, it can be properly handled and recovered by a professional. It’s a state regulatory requirement that has ensured the protection of cultural and natural historic patrimony since subway construction first began the 1990s, an attempt to right the many wrongs done to Los Angeles’ history and prehistory during its earlier spurts of rapid growth.

The latest fossil bumper crop has been springing up since 2014 when construction on the extension of the Metro Purple Line started. Paleontologist Ashley Leger of Cogstone Resource Management (CGM) was contracted to examine any finds made by work crews excavating tunnels. Whenever they found something, they’d stop what they were doing, call her and move over to another location to continue work on the project. That gave her the space she needed while still keeping the extension on some semblance of a schedule. The construction crews even pitch in when help is needed.

Most of the finds haven’t required their aid. Leger has unearthed, among other remains, fragments of a rabbit jaw, one mastodon tooth, the foreleg bone of a camel, several bison vertebrae, one tooth and one ankle bone from a horse. But, appropriately for a show business industry town, Los Angeles had something far more spectacular saved up for her. Last year, she got a late night call from one CGM’s site monitors. He said they’d found something and that “it looks big.”

The next morning, Leger knelt at the site and recognized what appeared to be a partial elephant skull.
It turned out to be much more. After 15 hours of painstaking excavation, the team uncovered an intact skull of a juvenile mammoth.

“It’s an absolute dream come true for me,” said Leger, who spent the previous decade at a South Dakota mammoth site with no discoveries even close to the size of the one in Los Angeles. “It’s the one fossil you always want to find in your career.” […]

From there, the skull was hauled a mile or so to Los Angeles’ La Brea Tar Pits and Museum, home to one of America’s most fossil-rich sites.
Assistant curator Dr. Emily Lindsey called it a “pretty remarkable find,” noting that while thousands of dire wolf and saber-toothed cat remains have been uncovered in L.A., there have been only about 30 mammoths.

A few hundred pounds and the size of an easy chair, the skull is especially rare because both tusks were attached. It’s being studied and is available for public viewing inside the museum’s glass-walled Fossil Lab.

The skull with its glamorous attached tusks and those crazy mammoth teeth with the Golgi Apparatus-looking molars was named Hayden after the actress Hayden Panettiere who was apparently on TV when the CGM monitor first spotted the big head.

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Two unopened tombs rediscovered in Luxor

December 10th, 2017

Luxor’s Draa Abul Nagaa necropolis has capped a year of sensational finds with another compelling rarity: two unexplored tombs discovered in the 1990s but never opened or excavated. They were first unearthed by German Egyptologist Friederike Kampp-Seyfried who recorded their existence and named tem Kampp 150 and Kampp 161, but he did not explore them. He excavated Kampp 150 only up to the entrance, and he didn’t get to Kampp 161 at all. They were forgotten and neglected and only rediscovered by Egyptian archaeologists who have been exploring the necropolis

In less than 10 months, archaeologists excavating the necropolis have found more than a thousand ushabti figurines, eight mummies, 10 wooden sarcophagi with still-vibrant polychrome paint, all in the tomb a magistrate named Userhat, the first funerary garden ever discovered and the tomb of a New Kingdom goldsmith named Amenemhat. All of the tombs unearthed this remarkable year date to the 18th Dynasty of the New Kingdom (1550-1292 B.C.) when Luxor, then Thebes, was the capital and the primary religious and administrative center of the kingdom. The people buried at Draa Abul Nagaa originally were likely priests, courtiers and government functionaries.

Neither of the newly-opened tombs include inscriptions specifically identifying the deceased as such, so we can’t be certain who was buried there or what function they may have performed at the pharaonic courts. The earlier tomb, Kampp 150, a mud-brick and masonry structure, is about 3,500 years old. It is larger than Kampp 161, with five entrances that open onto a courtyard that has two shaft burials on the north and south side.

Archaeologists found a significant number of artifacts inside, including painted wood funerary masks, funerary cones, earthenware vessels and around 450 painted wood figurines. They also found human remains: a mummy with intact linen wrappings indicating he was an individual of rank and ministerial importance. On the ceiling is a cartouche of the pharaoh Thutmose I, which dates the tomb and indicates the deceased may have been an official in his government. We do have one potential clue to the occupants of the tomb. Funerary seals in the courtyard bear the names of Maati and Mohi, a scribe and his wife. It’s not as precise as an inscription or dedication, but the presence of multiple seals naming the same couple does suggest they might have been buried there.

Kampp 161 has a single shaft burial but no remains were found there. There is no tell-tale cartouche to date it, but stylistically the tomb is comparable to its neighbors built in the reigns of Amenhotep II or Thutmose IV, around 3,400 years ago. The crown jewel of the tomb’s decoration is a mural on the western wall that has had some paint loss but not much. What’s left is a richly colored banquet or ritual during which people present offerings to the deceased and his wife. Archaeologists unearthed wooden funerary masks, intact and fragmentary, pieces of wooden furniture, and a painted coffin in the tomb.

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Puttin’ on the Rijks

December 9th, 2017

Rembrandt van Rijn (1606–1669), 'Portrait of Marten Soolmans', 1634. Purchased by the Kingdom of the Netherlands for the RijksmuseumWhy yes I am absurdly pleased with that title, thank you for asking. When the Rijksmuseum is putting on a show dedicated to full-length portraiture of moneyed art patrons from the Renaissance to the 20th century, certain puns become irresistible. The new exhibition, High Society will be centered around the museum’s most spectacular new babies, the portraits of wealthy merchant Marten Soolmans and his bride, heiress Oopjen Coppit painted by Rembrandt van Rijn in 1634. He was only 28 years old but already had made a name for himself as the top portraitist Rembrandt van Rijn (1606–1669), 'Portrait of Oopjen Coppit', 1634. Purchased by the Republic of France for the Musée du Louvreon the scene. He had known Soolmans since the latter’s desultory stab at law school in Leiden when he was 15, and as Oopjen Coppit was kind enough to bring an enormous pile of cash into the matrimonial home as a dowry, Marten booked the best to have himself and his wife immortalized top to bottom. These are the only full-length, life-sized portraits Rembrandt ever painted.

The pair is jointly owned by the Louvre and the Rijksmuseum who spent €80 million apiece to buy the portraits from Baron Eric de Rothschild. Because the portraits were already in France with the baron, the Louvre got first crack at displaying them in accordance with the intricacies of the shared acquisition deal. They went on display in Paris in March 2016 for three months, then moved on to Amsterdam where they had another brief three-month display next to the Night Watch before being taken off public view for much-needed conservation. The portraits had only been lightly cleaned and had “fake saliva” daubed on to bring back some of their original sheen before their debut at the Louvre.

That thorough restoration, undertaken by a joint team of experts from both national museums, is just about finished now and the wedding couple will be shown conserved, repaired, their finery back to its finest, for the first time at the new exhibition opening March 8th, 2018. It’s not the happy couple who will be peacocking it in this show. The Rijksmuseum took the opportunity to make Marten and Oopjen the fulcrum of a larger exploration of the evolution of the full-length portrait in art history, borrowing more than 35 masterpieces from private collections and museums in Paris, London, Florence, Vienna and California, among others. This is the first exhibition dedicated to this most magnificent of portrait formats.

Life-sized, standing, full-length portraiture had been the province of kings and powerful aristocrats in earlier times, and barely seen at all up north. The portraits of two proud exponents of the moneyed Dutch bourgeoisie illustrate the upwardly-mobile aspirations of the young Dutch Republic, then just 50 years old and focused on building wealth through trade and industry instead of bloodlines, currying monarchical favor and conquest. Marten and Oopjen were some of the earliest examples of the style being employed in Holland.

The earliest life-sized portraits of worthies standing around looking fabulously wealthy (or telegraphing their politics or promoting their families or celebrating their greatest beauties or their weddings, as in the case of Marten and Oopjen) that we know of were painted by Lucas Cranach the Elder in 1514. The subjects were Henry Paolo Veronese, Count Iseppo da Porto, c. 1552. Baltimore, Walters Art Museum and Florence, Galleria degli Uffizi, Contini Bonacossi Collectionthe Pious, Duke of Saxony, and his wife Catharina, Countess of Mecklenburg. Less than a decade later the Italians stepped up to the plate with the unnamed subject in Moretto da Brescia’s Portrait of a Man (1525). The earliest known couple depicted in a full-length portrait by an Italian artist are Count Iseppo da Porto and his wife Countess Livia Thiene by Paolo Veronese (ca. 1552).

From those beginnings, the format spread north and west during the 16th and 17th centuries. Great masters like Velázquez, Anthony van Dyck and Frans Hals went big during this period, as did Rembrandt with Marten and Oopjen. The exhibition keeps going, illustrating the shift in focus from people of noble rank to people with money to socialites and even (gasp!) artists in the early 20th century. One of the last portraits to be painted from the group on display is one of Edvard Munch by Walther Rathenau (1907).

The exhibition is a short one — giant rarities don’t get loaned very often or for long — and closes on June 3rd, 2018.

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Massive Venezuela petroglyphs mapped for the first time

December 8th, 2017

Large rock art panels discovered recently on islands in the Atures Rapids in the Amazonas region of western Venezuela have been thoroughly mapped and studied for the first time by researchers from University College London (UCL). The engraved images of animals, people and symbols were carved by local people up to 2,000 years ago. (Shortly after the Spanish arrived, Jesuit missionaries identified the Adoles as the inhabitants of this area, but we don’t know who was there before.) Thanks to the historically low level of the Orinoco River, more petroglyphs have been exposed. Researchers found eight groups of rock art on five islands. Some of these engravings, individual and as a group, are huge. One panel is festooned with 93 petroglyphs over an area of 3270 square feet. A horned snake from another panel is 100 feet long just on its own. These are some of the largest rock art panels ever found anywhere in the world.

It was a challenging task recording such large and spread-out petroglyphs carved into high rock faces in the middle of the Orinoco River. That’s why this study is unprecedented. Others have studied the artworks, but were not able to get anywhere near as close and as a detailed a view as the University College London archaeologist. The team employed robot aides in the form of drones to take aerial overhead pictures of the engraved surfaces that were out of puny human reach. Every petroglyph was documented in photographs and their dimensions and positioning measured using photogrammetry (a technology that derives precise spatial data from photographs by creating 3D renderings of the pictures). Researchers also studied the relationship between the Atures Rapids petroglyphs, their archaeological and cultural context and the links they suggest between the locals who carved them and other indigenous peoples of pre-Hispanic Latin America.

The paper’s author Dr Philip Riris (UCL Institute of Archaeology) said: “The Rapids are an ethnic, linguistic and cultural convergence zone. The motifs documented here display similarities to several other rock art sites in the locality, as well as in Brazil, Colombia, and much further afield. This is one of the first in-depth studies to show the extent and depth of cultural connections to other areas of northern South America in pre-Columbian and Colonial times.”

“While painted rock art is mainly associated with remote funerary sites, these engravings are embedded in the everyday – how people lived and travelled in the region, the importance of aquatic resources and the seasonal rhythmic rising and falling of the water. The size of some of the individual engravings is quite extraordinary.” […]

In one panel surveyed, a motif of a flautist surrounded by other human figures probably depicts part of an indigenous rite of renewal. Performances conceivably coincided with the seasonal emergence of the engravings from the river just before the onset of the wet season, when the islands are more accessible and the harvest would take place.

The research is part of the Cotúa Island-Orinoco Reflexive Archaeology Project, funded by the Leverhulme Trust.

Principal Investigator, Dr José Oliver (UCL Institute of Archaeology), said: “Our project focuses on the archaeology of Cotúa Island and its immediate vicinity of the Atures Rapids. Available archaeological evidence suggests that traders from diverse and distant regions interacted in this area over the course of two millennia before European colonization. The project’s aim is to better understand these interactions.”

“Mapping the rock engravings represents a major step towards an enhanced understanding of the role of the Orinoco River in mediating the formation of pre-Conquest social networks throughout northern South America.”

The UCL research team’s findings have been published in the journal Antiquity and can be read here. It’s openly available for now (be warned: that could change) and makes a fascinating read.

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Earliest known slave remains found in Delaware

December 7th, 2017

An archaeological excavation at the historic site of Avery’s Rest in Rehoboth Bay, Delaware, has unearthed the skeletal remains of some of Delaware’s earliest colonists. The inhumation burials of 11 individuals interred in the late 1600s include three of African descent, one of them a child. These are the earliest known remains of enslaved people ever discovered in Delaware.

Seven of the eight individuals of European descent were neatly buried in a single row. The three African Americans — two adult men and one child of about five years of age at time of death — were interred near the seven but in a separate section. Black and white were all buried in coffins, although only the nails have survived. The people of African descent were not related to each other and their mitochondrial DNA places their ancestral origins in west, central and east Africa. Most of their lives, if not all of them, were spent in the mid-Atlantic area of what is now the United States. Rehoboth Bay was wilderness then, and officially part of Pennsylvania and therefore a Dutch colony.

The hardship of their lives was writ large on their bones. One of the people of African descent, an adult male about 35 years of age, received a blow to the head so severe it chipped a piece of bone off his right eyebrow and fractured his face. Experts believe it wasn’t likely to be the strike that killed him, but it did happen at the time of his death and likely contributed to it. His spine showed signs of heavy labour and his front teeth have grooves from where he bit down hard on his clay pipe while doing all that heavy labour. All of the remains show signs of copious dental issues: cavities, abscesses, extractions. One petite 4’11” adult woman was missing all but six of her teeth.

Avery’s Rest is listed in the National Register of Historic Places because it was part of the vast 800-acre property of Captain John Avery who moved to Rehoboth Bay from Maryland in 1675 shortly after the colony changed hands from the Dutch to the British. A ship’s captain in Maryland, he grew his plantation into a major agricultural and livestock concern, planing corn, wheat and most of all, tobacco. There is evidence of a peach orchard on the property as well, some of the first peach trees imported to what would become the United States.

John Avery became a very wealthy and prominent community leader in Delaware, attaining the rank of captain in the militia and receiving an appointment as Justice of the Peace of Whorekill Court in 1678. He doesn’t seem to have endeared himself to many in the role; he was frequently reported for going into rages and showering his fellow justices with abusive language. He was said to have beaten one of them with a cane. They didn’t have long to put up with his irascibility. Avery died in 1682, leaving his plantation to his wife and three children. His will and estate inventories list 50 head of cattle, other assorted livestock, tools, furniture and two humans bound in chattel slavery valued at 3,000 pounds of tobacco apiece.

Despite its significant history as a very early plantation owned by a first-generation English colonist and its including on the National Register, in 2005 the site was acquired by real estate developers to build housing. The Archaeological Society of Delaware and the Delaware Division of Historical and Cultural Affairs asked the developers allow them to dig a trench or two on the off-chance there might be some archaeological material from the earliest days of European and African presence in Delaware and the developers magnanimously granted them permission to excavate the site in 2006 and 2007. Construction, and the attendant destruction of anything left unexcavated, went forward after that, but the teams continued to explore neighboring land.

The teams excavating the site were hoping to find the remains of the main house Captain Avery and his family lived in, but they never did. By 2007, they had found wells, one wooden well lining (preserved in the waterlogged environment), fence lines, clay pits, glass beads, numerous pipe bowls, Spanish coins, metal pieces from horse fittings, assorted pottery and a large number of animal bones, likely left behind during the process of butchering all that stock mentioned in the estate documents for trade, not for family consumption.

These were meaningful discoveries from a social historical perspective, providing researchers with a rare opportunity to explore the day-to-day operations of an early colonial plantation that was large and prosperous enough to anchor the trade and supply of the British residents of the New World colony. They weren’t the structures the archaeologists had been hoping for, however, so over the next few years they kept looking for them on adjoining properties.

In 2012, they found something else entirely: the first human remains. That triggered a legal requirement that next-of-kin be sought to grant state permission to excavate and study the remains. Three Avery descendants stepped up and granted said permission. By September of 2014, 11 bodies had been unearthed and the Smithsonian Institution’s experts were on the ground to recover the remains and move them to the Smithsonian laboratory for thorough analysis.

So thorough was it that the analysis has taken three years to complete. The age, gender, ethnic origin of the decedents are now known, with even more detail to come.

“Avery’s Rest provides a rare opportunity to learn about life in the 17th century, not only through the study of buried objects and structures, but also through analyses of well-preserved human skeletal remains,” said Dr. Owsley, who leads the Division of Physical Anthropology at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History. “The bone and burial evidence provides an intriguing, personal look into the life stories of men, women and children on the Delaware frontier, and adds to a growing body of biological data on the varied experiences of colonist and enslaved populations in the Chesapeake region.”

Bone and DNA analysis confirmed that three of the burials were people of African descent and eight were of European descent. Coupled with research from the historical record, Dr. Owsley further determined that the European burials may be the extended family of John Avery and his wife Sarah, including their daughters, sons-in-law and grandchildren. However, genetic markers alone are not sufficient to determine the exact identities of the remains. […]

The remains will stay in the custody of the Smithsonian, where they will assist ongoing work to trace the genetic and anthropological history of the early colonial settlers of the Chesapeake region. Delaware law strictly forbids the public display of human remains.

While the Smithsonian works the science, Delaware, the Archaeological Society and other historical organizations are launching a research project in the hopes of discovering the identities of the 11 people found buried at Avery’s Rest. Any information they uncover would become part of an exhibition, be it names, places, dates or facial reconstructions.

“Delaware’s history is rich, fascinating and deeply personal to many of us who call this state home,” said Secretary of State Jeff Bullock. “Discoveries like this help us add new sharpness to our picture of the past, and I’m deeply grateful to the passionate community of historians, scientists and archeologists who have helped bring these new revelations to light.”

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