Monthly Archives: January 2010

Grave Doubts on the Shroud of Turin

What exactly is the famous Shroud of Turin? Archaeologist Shimon Gibson,  a senior research fellow at the  W.P. Albright Institute of Archaeological Research in Jerusalem, recently conducted a major study on a radiocarbon-dated 1st century B.C. burial shroud he and his colleagues excavated in a Jerusalem tomb.  This funerary cloth was  made very differently  from the  Shroud of Turin,  casting yet more cold water on the authenticity of the famous relic.  For more on this,  see my blog post today at Archaeology magazine.

The Sweet Side of Mummification

I started this week railing against a British television producer who is hunting for a terminally ill person to mummify in a new uber-sensational reality-based television show. All week this story has left a really bad taste in my mouth.  To wash it away,  I found a superb short video on mummification that was shot by the J. Paul Getty Museum. The curators based on the video on the techniques used by an Egyptian mortician some 2000 years ago to mummify a young man named Heracletes.   Short, sweet and to the point. And no cashing in on the misery of a terminally ill patient. Bingo.

The Bog Bodies’ Very Sad Fate

In late June 1904,  a Dutch farmer named Hilbrand Gringhuis was out cutting peat on the Netherlands side of  Bourtangermoor  when he uncovered something very unsettling:  a withered, nearly headless body resting,  it seemed, upon the arm of a second corpse.   Gringhuis immediately notified the local police,  who came out to investigate.  And,  in a time long before modern forensic science, the local constabulary decided to transfer the soggy cadavers to the nearest morgue in a very peculiar  fashion.

They rolled up the bodies of the two men like human scrolls, wrung them out, and stuffed them into what Wijnand van der Sanden,  the provincial archaeologist in Drenthe and the author of  Through Nature to Eternity: The Bog Bodies of Northwest Europe,   describes as a “starch box.”

The Weerdinge men,  shown drying out on a piece of cloth in today’s photo,  were of course bog bodies.  Radiocarbon-dated to some 1980 years ago,  they are two of the nearly 1900 such bodies either reported or recovered from bogs stretching from Ireland to Norway.  Like many of these bodies,  one of the Weerdinge men was the victim of extreme violence.   Modern forensic study shows that someone almost certainly stabbed him to death:  the victim’s withered brown intestines now tumble from the wound.

But the violence that these two bodies suffered after death disturbs me almost as much as the m.o. of their demise.  And I’m sorry to say that this unthinking destruction is part of a much larger pattern.  All across Europe,  companies are excavating,  mining and draining bogs.  Land developers, for example, are keen to reclaim wetlands for new housing developments.  And gardeners love to spread peat on their flower beds.   All those big plastic bags of peat you see in European plant nurseries come from once great bogs and wetlands.

Eerily preserved by the peculiar chemistry of bog water,  the bog bodies can tell us enormous amounts about subjects as diverse as ancient clothing,  diet,  and sacrificial practices.  But ironically,  as our interest in these curious-looking mummies grows and our ability to draw knowledge from their witheed flesh increases,  we are less and less likely to find them.  The large excavators that companies use to mine peat from bogs tend to chew up bodies before their drivers even realize what is happening.

And there is one other sad note to all this.  Swedish archaeologist Martin Rundqvist has posted a very thoughtful entry on his blog this morning about the Swedish Bog Cultivation Society, which destroyed precious bogland in Sweden for what Rundqvist calls “no practical gain.”  In other words,  the money-making schemes behind all this environmental destruction never panned out.  And who knows how many bog bodies were obliterated in the process?

Photo courtesy of the Drents Museum, Assen.

Leonardo da Vinci: Taking His Last Secrets to the Grave

Did you catch the news headlines yesterday about the Italian researchers who hope to open the tomb of Leonardo da Vinci in France in order to reconstruct his face?  They are keen to see whether the Renaissance artist was indulging in his well-known love of riddles when he painted the Mona Lisa.  For years,  some some scholars have hypothesized that the mysterious beauty in the painting was a self-portrait in drag.

My first reaction to this proposed project was to shake my head in disbelief.  Is this really a valid reason to disturb the sleep of the dead, particularly someone so deserving of our respect? Are we so driven by curiosity that we need to rummage through chill church tombs and peer at the bones of the dead in order to answer a question that is on the level of a barroom bet?

And  I was not  reassured when I Googled the team’s spokesperson, Giorgio Gruppioni, a bioanthropologist at the University of Bologna.  In 2009, Gruppioni and several colleagues  reconstructed the face of one of Italy’s greatest poets, Dante Alighieri, using the cranial data that researchers recorded in 1921 when officially identifying Dante’s remains.  And just a few weeks ago,  Gruppioni and colleagues recovered what they hope will be the remains of  the great 17th century Italian painter, Caravaggio.   Once again, the team announced plans to reconstruct Caravaggio’s face.  Gruppioni and his colleagues seem awfully interested in surface appearances.

But the more I thought about it,  the more I began to see a legitimate context for  these projects.  For the past two decades,  several Italian research teams led by pathologists and anthropologists have been prying open Renaissance tombs and reliquaries to gather vital scientific data.  One of the leading researchers in this field, University of Pisa pathologist Gino Fornaciari has spearheaded several of these projects,  exhuming such Renaissance luminaries as Cosimo I de’ Medici,  Ferdinand II of Aragon, and Maria D’Aragona,  one of the greatest beauties of her day.

I have met and talked at length with Fornaciari,  and can attest to his interest in serious science.  And I was really intrigued today when I checked out his recent publications to see what science had learned from all these rude awakenings of the dead.   His papers covered a wide range of subjects–the methods that Renaissance embalmers employed to artificially mummify royalty  in 16th century Europe;  the species of lice that clung to the mummified remains of Ferdinand II (revealing that these parasites plagued even the wealthiest  during the Renaissance); and the human papillomavirus  (HPV) that infected Maria D’Aragona.  The latter study will permit medical researchers to study the evolution of this important virus, a major cause of cervical cancer, perhaps giving them clues to new treatments.

If the team that wants to open Leonardo da Vinci’s grave obtains permission to do so, I strongly suspect that they will make the most of this rare opportunity,   gathering all the relevant samples and data to do key pathological and bioarchaeological studies.  I personally don’t care whether the great artist painted the Mona Lisa in his own image. But I’d love to know more about the health and life of this great Renaissance artist.

The Burner of Books

The China Daily News carried a very cool story this week on a major new archaeological discovery in Hubei province. According to Shen Haining,  the director of Hubei’s cultural heritage bureau,  excavators working in a tomb that dates back to the  Warring States period of China’s history  (475-221 B.C. ) recovered a trove of water-saturated bamboo strips covered in inked Chinese characters.  Resembling a snarl of soggy noodles,  the strips are remains of ancient and exceedingly rare Chinese books–a find that is sure to generate huge interest in China and abroad.

Perhaps a little Chinese history is in order here  to help make sense of this find.  The Warring States period,  as its name clearly suggests,  was a time of massive violent military clashes.  Lords of seven major states all vied for supreme power in tianxia (which means “all under heaven”),  and they threw huge infantry armies bristling with mass-produced iron weapons at one another.   These  armies also boasted for the first time in Chinese history archers with crossbows and soldiers fighting on horseback,   both of which completely transformed military engagements in the Far East, rendering them far more horrifying.

The period came to an end finally when one of the combatant lords,  Qin Shi Huang, subjugated all his rivals.  But while the new emperor brought peace to China, he committed a grave sin against history and literature.  Fearing that all earlier books would cast doubt on the legitimacy of his rule,  Qin Shi Huang  ordered most Chinese books of the day to be burned and he had scholars who possessed such forbidden writings buried alive–making bamboo-strip books dating from the Warring States period rare indeed today.

You might ask yourself why we should care today about the fate of these lost Chinese documents,  many of which were recorded on bamboo strips.   Well,  it turns out that amid all the bloodshed and chaos of the time,   many of China’s greatest thinkers were discussing warfare and dreaming of peace.   Many of their works were undoubtedly lost in the destruction ordered by  Qin Shi Huang,  though a few,  including the very famous meditation The Art of War, survived to the present thanks to later copyists.

I am dying to find out what the soggy bamboo strips in the newly discovered Hubei tomb will hold.  “It’s still to early to tell,”  Shen told the China Daily reporter.  “Let’s wait and see.  Archaeology is all about surprise.”  Hear, hear.

Egyptian Mummification–On a Reality Show Coming Your Way

What sensational balderdash is this? A British production company is currently looking for a terminally ill person willing to undergo ancient Egyptian mummification. While some people might welcome immortality Tutankhamen-style,  there’s a huge catch.   The whole stomach-churning procedure will be caught on camera and shown later on high-def television across Britain.  Can you imagine watching anything worse on a 54- inch screen?

Steve Connor, a wonderful journalist at the Independent, broke this story a few weeks ago, and ever since fellow science writer Josie Glausiusz emailed me about it, I’ve been fuming.  In the late 1990s,  I flew down to Chile to attend a major conference of the world’s leading experts on mummies,  and later wrote a book about my experiences.   Two of the experts I met there,  Bob Brier, a senior research fellow at Long Island University, and Ron Wade,  director of the State Anatomy Board in Maryland,  had just completed an important project in experimental archaeology.  The two men had managed to mummify a modern human corpse in the lab by using ancient Egyptian methods recorded in early texts.

In other words,  we know exactly how the Egyptians did it.  Science will not  be gaining anything from this program.   And I have to ask myself how many viewers  in their right minds will want to sit down with their kids and watch a real mummification.   The procedure begins,  for example,  by piercing the subject’s cranial vault.  To do this,  the mortician has to thread a metal tool through one of the nostrils and puncture the ethnoid bone that sits between the eye sockets.  Then the mortician has to either draw or pour out the grey viscous brain matter.  And that’s only for starters.   The embalmers–who will not be skilled at this–will also have to haul out fistfuls of intestines and other internal organs by reaching blindly into  a small incision.  Good luck.

I find it hard enough to write about this.  Imagine watching it, particularly after you have gotten to know the terminally ill person in the opening episode.  That’s the particularly twisted part of the producer’s  plan.  He wants viewers to meet the subject as a living person,  so that they will have an “emotional response” during the mummification process.

The ancient Egyptians had far more sense.   Their morticians set up their workshops on the outskirts of towns,   away from prying eyes,  and they tended to guard their trade secrets very carefully.   I think it’s enough to know these secrets today.  I don’t see any reason at all to parade them ghoulishly in front of a sensation-hungry public.

Frank Lloyd Wright and His Desert Camp

A few weeks back,  I had the great pleasure of touring Taliesin West, Frank Lloyd Wright’s school and winter camp in Scottsdale, Arizona. It was a surprisingly raw, blustery day, and I joined one of the tours that wend frequently through the sprawling desert complex.  As I am sure you know, Frank Lloyd Wright, was one of America’s greatest architects in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century,  a genius of concrete and glass and light,  and his winter camp, though roughhewn and experimental looking,  did not disappoint.

Wright died in 1959,  but his spirit was  still very much alive at Taliesin West.  At one point in the tour,  for example,  I briefly spied,  through the glass windows of a room off-limits to the public, a stooped, elderly figure swiftly fleeing like a startled bird into some hidden room.   I later learned that he was a member of The Fellowship,  one of Wright’s aged former students who resides at Taliesin West.   Like the British aristocrats who open their castles and estates to the public in order to pay the upkeep,   the Fellowship does not care much for tourists.  But the steep entrance fees provide Wright’s fellows with one of the most beautiful and elite retirement homes in North America.

I found many things about Taliesin West fascinating.  Wright’s students, for example, had to be a hardy,  self-sufficient lot.   When the newest students arrived at the camp, their first assignment was to design and build a shelter in the nearby desert,  where they would live while attending Wright’s school.   Some of these shelters grew quite elaborate over time,  as their builders added more space,  but none possessed much in the way of creature comforts.  I can imagine that some future archaeologists will have a great deal of fun digging what remains of these imaginative shelters.

When Wright purchased the land for Taliesin West in the 1930s,  it possessed an unparalleled view of a desert wilderness,  precisely what he was looking for.  So he designed the complex so that it would face out into the sweeping desert below. Civilization soon caught up with Taliesin West,  however:   someone built a home in its sightlines,  and the residential lights at night apparently threw Wright into a state of despair.

But he was not easily defeated. He did not want to pick up and start afresh somewhere else, so he reoriented the entire complex so that it would look out upon a mountain that rose in the opposite direction.

I’m posting below a wonderful little YouTube video taken in 1933 of the Taliesin Fellowship. It was filmed by a former student in Spring Green, Wisconsin, where Wright and his proteges spent their summer.

What Will Happen to the Staffordshire Hoard?

Ben East wrote a short but incisive article yesterday in a United Arab Emirates newspaper on the irony of British efforts to keep the Staffordshire Hoard in Britain.  The British have long been oblivious to those same sentiments on the part of others,  such as the Greeks who want the Elgin marbles back.

Guns, Spears, Inscriptions, and Magical Thinking

I wasn’t terribly surprised to read the Associated Press story this week about the biblical inscriptions that appear on certain American military weapons issued to soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan. Dismayed, yes. (Wasn’t the American government trying to distance itself from the notion that it was engaged in a modern Christian Crusade against the Infidels? ) But shocked, certainly not. As archaeologists and historians can attest,  such inscriptions are part of a very old tradition, one that goes back many hundreds of years in cultures across Eurasia.

For those of you who missed it, here’s the much boiled down version of the AP story.   For the past 30 years, a Michigan-based  military contractor known as Trijicon Inc.  has put scriptural citations in raised letters on the sides of its products,  which include combat rifle-sights. According to the AP article,  U.S special operations forces in the Middle East currently carry Trijicon’s Advanced Combat Optical Gunsight into battle:   it bears the inscription JN8:12,  a clear reference to the Gospel of  St. John,  Chapter 8, verse 12, which reads: “When Jesus spoke to the people, he said, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” The folks at Trijicon clearly think that this verse will go a long way in assisting American soldiers in their hour of need.

But the idea of inscribing a weapon with a sacred text to protect  its owner is a very ancient one.   Indeed it dates back at least  2000 years,  to a time when metalsmiths closely guarded the secrets of forging iron weapons, creating an air of mystery and magic around them.  The inscriptions these ancient smiths forged on sword blades or along spear tips seemed to further enhance this power.

History is replete with wonderful examples.  Early Islamic warriors, for example, carried Damascus-steel swords inscribed with verses from the Qur’an.   Lord Egerton’s classic book, Indian and Oriental Arms and Armour,  describes one sword that possessed  several inscriptions from the Qur’an–some for good times (“In everything there is speedy victory from God”), others for more perilous encounters ( “God is the best of Protectors.”).   But the Moslem warriors were not alone.  Japanese samurai also brandished swords inscribed with inspiring phrases–in their cases,  from Buddhist or Shinto texts.

My favorite example of  inscribed weaponry, however,  is the Spear of Kowel,  shown in the photo above.   It was discovered one spring day in 1858 in Poland by a ploughman preparing his field for planting.  Made of iron and thought to date to the 3rd century A.D.,  the Spear of Kowel bears a simple but slightly ambiguous message.   Depending on who you read,  the inscription reads “brave, bold rider,” “going to the target,”  “goal runner,” or simply “attacker.”

If Trijicon had to inscribe some kind of message on its rifle sights,  why couldn’t it have chosen something simple and to the point  like that,  instead of dragging biblical texts into Middle Eastern wars that are already plagued by fundamentalism.