Here’s an awesome little piece of history:
Archaeologists in the Burnt City have discovered what appears to be an ancient prosthetic eye. What makes this discovery exceptionally awesome is the striking description of how the owner and her false eye would have appeared while she was still alive and blinking:
[The eye] has a hemispherical form and a diameter of just over 2.5 cm (1 inch). It consists of very light material, probably bitumen paste. The surface of the artificial eye is covered with a thin layer of gold, engraved with a central circle (representing the iris) and gold lines patterned like sun rays. The female remains found with the artificial eye was 1.82 m tall (6 feet), much taller than ordinary women of her time. On both sides of the eye are drilled tiny holes, through which a golden thread could hold the eyeball in place. Since microscopic research has shown that the eye socket showed clear imprints of the golden thread, the eyeball must have been worn during her lifetime. The woman’s skeleton has been dated to between 2900 and 2800 BCE.
So she was an extraordinarily tall woman walking around wearing an engraved golden eye patterned with rays like a tiny sun. What an awesome sight that must have been.
SOMEONE DRAW HER PLEASE
CAN WE TALK ABOUT HOW AN ANCIENT CRAFTSMAN WAS PRESENTED WITH PEOPLE LOOKING FOR HELP TO NORMALIZE THEIR DISABILITY. AND THEN SAID ‘NAH FUCK THIS WE’RE GOING TO MAKE YOU LOOK BADASS.’
Registration number K.8538.
Part of a circular clay tablet with depictions of constellations (planisphere); the reverse is uninscribed; restored from fragments and incomplete; partly accidentally vitrified in antiquity during the destruction of the place where it was found.
Inscription Type: inscription
Inscription Script: cuneiform
Inscription Language: Babylonian
Diameter: 14.1 centimetres (maximum)
Thickness: 3.2 centimetres
Heavily restored with plaster.
For comment on the interpretation of the text and identification of the constellations see Koch 1989. Celestial planisphere; in this stylised map the sky has been divided into eight sections. It represents the night sky of 3-4 January 650 BC over Nineveh. The rectangular shape at the top has been identified as the constellation known today as Gemini and the stars contained with an oval shape are the Pleiades. The two triangles in the lower right mark the bright stars of Pegasus.
As you can see, this is a circle divided by radial lines into 8 equal sectors. A “planisphere” is the reproduction of a spherical surface as a flat map
The eight lines radiating from the center create eight sectors of 45 degrees each. Unfortunately, the piece is badly damaged and 40% of the planisphere is missing. Two large areas were lost, and they account for most of the damage. The breaking of the tablet dates to the sack of Nineveh, which was destroyed by a joint force of Babylonian and Medean armies in 612 BCE. But the same destruction that broke the tablet also accounts for its preservation; the clay disk was partly fired when the library that held it was burned.
It is now heavily restored, using plaster. The reverse has no inscription.
Questions: what is this object? What data does it record? Who made it, and for what purpose?
The planisphere has been studied in the past. Various Assyriologists have stepped forward over the course of many decades to put forward their personal theories. It is almost universally agreed to be a star map of some sort, recording the positions of important stars and constellations.
Archibald Sayce and Robert Bosanquet in the 1880’s posited that the planisphere had some calendrical purpose. The tablet was catalogued and briefly described by the assyriologist Carl Bezold in his Catalogue of the Cuneiform Tablets in the Kouyunjik Collection of the British Museum (5 Volumes, 1889-1899; See: Volume 3, 1893, Page 937).
The drawing above was published in 1912, when the obverse of K 8538 was drawn by the British Assyriologist Leonard King (See CT 33, (1912), Plate 10). In 1915, Ernst Weidner concluded that it had both astronomical and astrological significance and was probably a magical tablet used in exorcisms.
The most detailed study of the tablet was the 1989 study by Johannes Koch in his book Neue Untersuchungen zur Topographie des babylonischen Fixsternhimmels (Chapters 7-16). Koch concluded that the tablet represents the night sky over Nineveh in 650 BCE. Koch argued strongly that the planisphere was an instrument, intended to be rotated to predict or record the position of the stars on the horizon line above the city of Nineveh in a certain calendar year.
Imad Ahmad in 2003 simply describes the object as a clay astrolabe, handy to help the astronomer record information and keep time.
These are not the only voices in the discussion about what this object is and what it means, however.
Enter the Weird Zone
In 2008, Alan Bond, the managing director of a space propulsion company, Reaction Engines, and Mark Hempsell, a senior lecturer in astronautics at Bristol University, published a book on this object and their attempt to decode and explain its cuneiform inscriptions.
To summarize the many articles which summarize the many arguments within their book is perhaps unfair. By the time scientific (or pseudo-scientific) arguments are this far removed from their source, it is difficult to say whether they really represent the real views of the original author.
Briefly, however, the authors argue that the planisphere is a “page from the notebook” of a Sumerian astronomer, who was recording events in the sky on June 29, 3123 BCE. The authors claim that the tablets record the trajectory of a large object traveling across the constellation of Pisces. They further argue that this object may have been a meteorite, and that the trajectory of the object recorded might be consistent with an old theory to explain a famous feature of the Austrian Alps—a huge rock-slide in Köfels.
The Famed “Circassian” Beauty - The Pageantry of Race in the 19th Century
One of the most curious episodes of the unfolding drama of “race” since the 1400’s has been the emergence of the legendary “Circassian Woman” trope, which reached its peak in the 19th century. In North America, circus and sideshow performers would become iconic figures of fantasy, emblems of a terrifyingly Freudian obsession with the possession and penetration of “white” women by “non-white” men.
Like many urban legends and “factoids” in the modern age, the Circassian phenomenon represents a large accretion of hokum which formed around tiny grains of reality. The legend begins with European Orientalism, the curiously corrupt fascination with Ottoman culture and sexuality in the 16th -19th centuries. “Circassian Women” were white women held in sexual slavery by wealthy Turks, subject to all the indignities and enjoying all the pleasures of harem life.
Question: was there ever really such a thing as a “Circassian woman” in a real Turkish seraglio? Answer…yes, probably so.
It is not disputed that the Ottoman Turks were a slave-owning society and a harem culture. And there is such a thing, even today, as a “Circassian” woman. The word “Circassian” refers to a real ethnic group from the North Caucasus, the Adyghe. The Adyghe are called “Cherkess” (“Road Cutters”) by the Russians and Turks, and were named “Circassian” by the Genoese, the first Europeans to have contact with them. And they do appear to have black hair and pale skin as a rule, the features attributed to them in early “Circassian” iconography.
The majority of the Adyghe today are Sunni Muslims, and this has been the case since the 16th century. If you put all the basic facts together with their close proximity to the Ottoman empire, it is at least vaguely plausible that some Adyghe women may have been sold or abducted and enslaved by Ottomans over many centuries of cultural contact.
Nonetheless, the image of the “pale-skinned girl” in “Oriental bondage” clearly had a curious effect on the European psyche which went far beyond the bounds of reality. The rumors of Circassian women in the seraglio became a large element of the Orientalist fantasy throughout the 18th century. Voltaire, Fielding and Byron all alluded to this erotic/romantic image, and by 1782 it was such a common trope that the word “Circassian” could be attached to advertisements for beauty products to darken the hair or improve the complexion.
The strange American twist on this trope was born on August 6, 1856, when the New York Daily Times picked up a story which had been printed in the London Daily Post. Again, the grain of truth is present: the recent Russian conquest of the Caucasus had indeed caused a mass migration of refugees from the region into Turkey. The Ottoman Empire, still a slave-holding society at the time, may have witnessed a sudden surge in the availability of slaves from the refugee population.
The wording of the original report is available on websites which document the Circassian phenomenon as a circus/sideshow element in late 19th century America. Needless to say, the language of the report is immediately problematic and the cultural biases of the author are immediately apparent. Nonetheless, the basic premise was electrifying to Victorian populations the world over. It had all the elements of the worst penny dreadful: war, tragedy, slavery, race, and rape…but to an American population about to explode into Civil War, the added elements of miscegeny, “mulattos” and infanticide were a potent catalyst.
P.T. Barnum, the consummate American showman, seized upon the idea of displaying an authentic Circassian Beauty, rescued from the dreaded “white slavery”, as part of his show. He did his best to obtain a woman from Eastern Europe, and the text of his letter to John Greenwood in 1864 is still available. A monument to the great American art of bullshit, the text is as repugnant as it is hilarious.
The first “Circassian Queen” was Barnum’s Zalumma Agra, “the Star of the East”, who became one of the displays at his American Museum in New York in 1864/1865. Barnum would eventually publish a pamphlet to accompany another of his “Circassian Beauties”, Zoe Meleke, which portrayed her as an ideally beautiful and refined woman who had escaped a life of sexual slavery.
The gigantic teased hairstyle of the P.T. Barnum “Circassian Queens” became a part of their visual iconography in the USA, but obviously has absolutely nothing to do with any cultural practices of the Adyghe, nor of the pre-existing traditions of Orientalist art in Europe. It is arguably the case that this bouffant was actually meant to invoke Afro-American slavery, and poke a stick into the still-open wounds of America’s racial ideology.
Regardless of how P.T. Barnum arrived at the idea of the weird teased hairstyle, it is endlessly repeated in the “CDV” images of the Circassian women. These photographs, the “Cartes des Visites”, were sold to museum-goers; in the case of some sideshow performers, autographing the card was often part of the act.
All in all, the rhetoric surrounding the "Circassian" women in both Europe and the USA is very revealing. Described as the "purest" type of white person, Circassian women were said to be "the most beautiful on earth", prized by Turkish sultans for their harems.
Of course, most of the women in the dime museums and sideshows of the USA were surprisingly proficient in English, and mysteriously deficient in their knowledge of “Circassia”…but perhaps this in itself reveals a greater truth within the lie, as the racial anxieties of American whites were more likely to be triggered by mixed-race relationships at home than abroad.
The “Circassian Beauties” remained a mainstay of American pop culture until the end of the 19th century, and it is arguably the case that the image of the virtuous white woman in bondage still has its teeth firmly planted in the popular imagination. Princess Leia in her “slave girl” outfit is one of the most recognizable icons of modern science fiction…and she does have very nice skin.
Ancient Art, in Living Color?
One of the greatest (and least graciously received) advances in the study of ancient art in recent decades: the ability to study and partially restore the polychromy of ancient sculpture. Many art historians and afficianadoes have said that seeing ancient works restored to their original colors has “destroyed Classical art for them forever”, particularly when restorative efforts have been applied to sculptures carved from poros and marble in Classical Antiquity.
For centuries these works of art have been worshipped as abstract, monochrome studies in form. Countless artists have been inspired by the study of Greco-Roman art to produce “pure art” sculptures in marble which were never painted or intended to have a color layer. Many beautiful marble works have been carved from the Renaissance to the present which celebrated these sculptures…in a decayed and weathered state. A state, one must add, which the original creators did not intend, and which the original audience did not enjoy.
In reality, ancient Greeks and Romans painted their sculptures in vivid colors—the colors of life, and better-than-life. Statues and friezes were carved from white stone, both marble and poros, specifically because such stone made an excellent ground for paint. Even bronzes were often enhanced by added color, with stone inlays for the eyes and paint added to draperies and hair.
The methodology by which ancient art can be examined for surviving trace pigments and then restored is fascinating. Efforts to track ancient polychromy have met with extraordinary success at the NY Carlsberg Glyptoteket in Copenhagen, Denmark, which has an excellent display on the project and its results. Both in the displays at the museum and the website dedicated to the team’s research, they explain their goals and methods quite clearly.
The short version: traces of ancient pigments are often visible even with the naked eye on many ancient objects, and many more can be detected with minimal microscopy, especially if you look at crevices and surfaces protected from weathering. This is particularly true of reds and blacks. It is amazing how much more ancient sculptures can light up under ultraviolet light examination, however—especially if there are remaining traces of Egyptian Blue!
A short list of pigments generally found on Greek and Roman sculptures is available to us from Pliny the Elder. Researchers in Copenhagen think these colors are particularly important:
Cinnabar - mercuric sulphide, a very popular, naturally occurring red mineral pigment.
Ochre - a range of earthen colors derived from iron oxide, from deep brown and terra cotta red to rich yellow. Naturally occuring mineral color.
Orpiment and Realgar - both made from arsenic sulphide, and used to mix a yellow color
Azurite - a copper-based mineral which has a deep blue color. It can turn to malachite through weathering.
Malachite - green copper carbonate, another mineral pigment
Bone Black and Vine Black - made by reducing bones or vines respectively to charcoal
Madder Lake or Alizarin Crimson - a reddish-pink hue made from the root of the madder plant
Egyptian Blue - the earliest known synthetic pigment, made from calcium, silicium and copper
Lead White - a lead carbonate. A synthetically produced white pigment.
Although some restorations must remain speculative—the toros above, for example, has been restored with both a yellow and a gilt variant on its armor—this method shows amazing promise and will be incredibly useful to people who are genuinely interested in reconstructing the past. Its potential for understanding and reproducing ancient textiles alone is staggering.
It’s for this reason that I have so little sympathy with those who call the restoration of color to ancient sculptures “an ugly truth”. Restoration is a constant in the study of Greek art and architecture, and restoring the color is no different than piecing a vase back together, or joining the disparate chunks of a battered sculpture into a whole.
The goal of archaeology is to reconstruct the past in various ways, including its sense of aesthetics. The fact that we have grown to appreciate an object in a significantly decayed form does not mean that its original state was “ugly”.
The team working on this project has assembled a Bibliography which is quite long and detailed. They have also released three preliminary reports in .pdf format; the latest of these is dated March 3, 2011 and can be downloaded freely here. The report is 68 pages long and has its own extensive bibliography for those who wish to do more research with up-to-date sources.
Smithsonian Magazine: True Colours
Harvard Magazine: Dazzlers: Ancients Reborn in Bright Array
The Hunter of Bäckaskog
Now known as “the Bäckaskog Woman”, this Stone Age hunter/fisher lived and died around 9,000 years ago. She lived at a time when the climate was warm and humid in Sweden, amid dense forests of oak, elm and ash. Fishing became more important to her people as the sea level rose and new lagoons were created near her living territory.
She was buried in Kiaby, Skåne, at the age of 45. Judging by the pollen evidence recovered from the burial, the funeral took place in springtime, when birch and hazel were in bloom.
The Bäckaskog woman is the oldest and most famous skeleton found in Sweden. In her grave, a spear head was found, suitable for hunting and fishing, made of bone and sharp flint blades.
Because of the grave goods interred with her, in particular the spear and a chisel, archaeologists initially assumed that she must be a man—despite her gracile skeleton. She was first excavated in 1939, and was known as “the Fisherman” until her bones were finally subjected to a rigorous osteological study in 1970.
This was when it was discovered that “the Fisherman” was not only a female, but had given birth to several children in her lifetime—possibly as many as ten!
She was found alone with no other graves discovered nearby. In general, she remains a popular exhibit in the prehistoric section of the National Historical Museum of Sweden…but she also stands as a lasting reminder of the Victorian gender stereotypes which have always been imposed thoughtlessly and needlessly on the evidence of the human past.
Whether you have just excavated new material, or are simply re-publishing old material, do your osteology—always! Just because a grave’s artifact assemblage is gendered male or female according to your own cultural biases does not mean that the actual occupant will match up to your expectations.
Geyvall, Nils-Gustaf. 1970. “The Fisherman from Barum—mother of several children! Paleo-atomic finds in the skeleton from Bäckaskog” Fornvännen, the Journal of Swedish Antiquarian Reserach, H. 4, 1970. pp 281-289.
This female Bronze Age mummy from Cladh Hallan is a composite of different skeletons.
July 6, 2012
In a “eureka” moment worthy of Dr. Frankenstein, scientists have discovered that two 3,000-year-old Scottish "bog bodies" are actually made from the remains of six people.
According to new isotopic dating and DNA experiments, the mummies—a male and a female—were assembled from various body parts, although the purpose of the gruesome composites is likely lost to history.
The mummies were discovered more than a decade ago below the remnants of 11th-century houses at Cladh Hallan, a prehistoric village on the island of South Uist (map), off the coast of Scotland.
The bodies had been buried in the fetal position 300 to 600 years after death.
Terry Brown, a professor of biomedical archaeology at the University of Manchester, said there were clues that these bog bodies were more than they seemed.
On the female skeleton, “the jaw didn’t fit into the rest of the skull,” he said. “So Mike [Parker Pearson, of Sheffield University] came and said, Could we try to work it out through DNA testing?”
Brown sampled DNA from the female skeleton’s jawbone, skull, arm, and leg. The results show that bones came from different people, none of whom even shared the same mother, he said.
The female is made from body parts that date to around the same time period. But isotopic dating showed that the male mummy is made from people who died a few hundred years apart.
Quick Dip in the Bog
Another clue to the odd nature of the Cladh Hallan mummies is their unusually well-preserved bones.
A peat bog is a high-acid, low-oxygen environment, which inhibits the bacteria that break down organics, said Gill Plunkett, a lecturer in paleoecology at Queen’s University Belfast who was not involved in the current study.
"The combined conditions are particularly good for the preservation of most organic materials," she said. (Also see “Medieval Christian Book Discovered in Ireland Bog.”)
"But on the other hand, the acidic conditions will attack calcium-based materials," so most known bog bodies have better preserved skin and soft tissue than bones.
In the Cladh Hallan bodies, the bones are still articulated—attached to each other as they would be in life. This suggests that the buriers removed the bodies from the peat bog after preservation but before acid destroyed the bones.
When the mummies were later reburied in soil, the soft tissue again began to break down.
The researchers aren’t sure why the villagers went through this unusual process, or why they built composite mummies in the first place.
A cynical theory, study author Brown said, assumes that the Bronze Age people of Cladh Hallan were just eminently practical: “Maybe the head dropped off and they got another head to stick on.”
Another possibility is that the merging was deliberate, to create a symbolic ancestor that literally embodied traits from multiple lineages.
Brown cites the example of the Chinchorro mummies discovered in the Chilean Andes, where embalmers reinforced or reconstructed bodies with sticks, grass, animal hair, or even sea lion skin. (Also see "Prehistoric Mummies Poisoned.")
"It seems the person is not so important, but the image is. So it’s not a single identity, but it’s representing something."
More Combo Mummies Out There?
According to Brown, there may be other composite bodies waiting to be discovered.
Often when scientists study the DNA of very ancient remains, they sample only one part of a body to prevent needless damage to the skeleton.
Additional composite bodies, if they exist, are likely to come from such long-ago time periods.
"I think you’d have to go back to a time when the rituals were more bizarre," Brown said. "You’d have to go back to the mists of unrecorded time."
The new paper about the composite female mummy appears in the August issue of the Journal of Archaeological Science.
Cormorant fishing is a traditional method of resource gathering in many cultures. Trained birds are unleashed on the water, and scoop fish into their neck pouches. The fishermen, who tie a loop or a cord around the bird’s throat to keep it from swallowing the largest fish, then bring the bird back into the boat to collect its catch.
Cormorant fishing is most frequently practiced today in China and Japan, where the traditional cormorant fishermen often attract tourists who find their way of life interesting and picturesque. The method is first historically recorded in 900 CE, although it may have been practiced earlier. In Asia, fishermen typically attract fish to their boats by use of firelight, which brings the fish to the surface and dazes them somewhat, allowing the cormorants to scoop them up more easily.
In China, cormorant fishermen can be found on many lakes and rivers, but the best photographs of the industry seem to come from Guilin, where men in traditional bamboo boats take out 1-3 cormorants per evening. The photographs of fishermen on the Lijiang River are particularly spectacular, not only for the rustic beauty of their clothes and equipment, but for the surrounding scenery.
In Japan, the method is more industrial and regimented. Cormorant fishing is practiced in thirteen cities, the most famous being Gifu, where the tradition of cormorant fishing on the Nagara River has been continuous for centuries.
The art of cormorant fishing is called ukai in Japan. The cormorant boats are larger and accomodate a three-man team, each of which has a specific role, as in this child’s “naming worksheet” on cormorant fishing. Many more cormorants at a time are used, and the goal is generally to catch a specific fish, the ayu (sweetfish).
According to the Wikipedia article on the phenomenon, “The birds have become such a part of Japanese lore, that they have given rise to the expression unomi, which means to ‘swallow whole like a cormorant’ or ‘accept without questions,’ because they can swallow fish whole without choking on the scales.”
Variations on the same traditional fishing method have also been seen in Renaissance Europe, in Macedonia on Lake Dojran, in Micronesia, and in ancient Peru, where Moche art depicting fishermen sometimes includes their cormorants.
Persistence of Vision
One of the most interesting announcements in anthropology this year came with the release of a book called La Prehistoire du Cinema, by Marc Azéma. The book suggests that the famous prehistoric cave paintings of Lascaux and Chauvet were meant to appear animated, when viewed by the light of flickering torches and lamps.
Azéma is an archaeologist and a film maker who specializes in cave paintings, specifically on the representation of motion in paleolithic art. In an article in Antiquity (Vol 86:332, 2012: 316-324) , Marc Azéma and co-author Florent Rivère summarized many years of work and presented a bold theory to account for the repetition and overlapping of images in some prehistoric cave paintings.
Their thesis can be summarized in terms of the “Persistence of Vision” class of optical illusions, which are caused by an artifact of data image storage in the human brain. When human beings view two separate images in rapid succession, they can appear to blend together. Sometimes they form a seamless whole; at other times there is an illusion of movement.
Azéma’s argument is that many of the images in prehistoric caves would have appeared to move when they were viewed by their creators, and may still appear to move if they are viewed in the appropriate light of a flickering, leaping flame. Moreover, this effect is not accidental; these images were deliberately rendered with the intent to animate them by the artists.
The fact that paleolithic peoples understood the “Persistence of Vision” effect is demonstrated by the discovery of the world’s earliest “thaumatrope” artifacts, which belong to the same period. Florent Rivère has been studying a series of Paleolithic bone disks, which he believes are very ancient thaumotropes—literally “wonder-turners”, objects which produce a surprising illusion when they spin.
Thaumatropes are very simple optical toys which create a Persistence of Vision illusion when they are spun back and forth. The principle by which they operate was re-discovered in the early 19th century, and was quickly exploited to make a variety of amusing playthings for adults and children.
One prehistoric disk which is particularly persuasive in this argument is carved on either side with two images of the same doe. One side depicts a doe lying upon the ground, while on the other side she is standing up. If the disk is spun properly, the doe appears to spring to her feet—proof that ancient peoples knew how to use the POV effect to create an illusion of animal motion.
A video clip depicting the prehistoric animations from the ancient caves has been made by Azéma and is available on the Antiquity website here. For readers of French, Florent Rivère has posted a blog which includes some of the thaumatrope pictures above, with more description of his findings.
For those who would like more information on the re-discovery of the thaumatrope principle in the 18th century, there is a Wikipedia article on thaumatropes with good information, and the Richard Balzer collection has a gallery of flash animations to show what these 19th century optical toys typically looked like.
The Timbuktu Manuscripts are a city-wide collection of 700,000 medieval African documents, ranging from scholarly works to short letters, that have been preserved by private households in Timbuktu, Mali. Held in the private homes of local families, the majority of the manuscripts are in poor condition today. Some of them date back to the 13th century.
When Mali was under French control the earlier system of Arabic education suffered, and the value of the medieval manuscripts was no longer widely understood. Many were sold, some for as little as $50 each; in 2008 one of the houses was flooded and 700 were destroyed.
The majority of the Timbuktu Manuscripts are written in Arabic, but many are in African languages written in Arabic script, or in Africanized versions of the Arabic alphabets. Collectively these Creolized writings are called “Ajami script”.
The written local languages in the manuscripts include Tamasheq, the dialect of the northern Berber peoples, and Songhay, the dialect of Timbuktu and its sister city Gao, a fascinating language which has been a lingua franca in the region since the 16th century Songhay Empire.
The manuscripts deal with a wide variety of topics, including Islam, astronomy, law, mathematics, and legal contracts, as well as personal letters and other documents. A UNESCO effort to preserve this medieval treasure trove was begun as early as 1970, but received no funding and support until 1977. In 1998, the city of Timbuktu was featured on the PBS program “Wonders of the World”, which served to raise awareness of the documents and helped to raise more funds.
From 2000-2007, Oslo University sponsored a Timbuktu Manuscripts project to help preserve and digitize the manuscripts. The project website is still archived here. A second project, sponsored by the University of Capetown, keeps a website here. There is also a Wikipedia article on the manuscripts, which offers an abundance of links, books and media sources for further research.