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From The Trenches

Nazi Iron Man Buddha?

By SAMIR S. PATEL

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

nazi-iron-man-buddha2.jpgThe world is full of strange, unmoored historical artifacts. Some come with puzzling, mysterious origins and interesting, if unconfirmed, auras of intrigue. Take the Nazi Buddhist iron man from outer space. This 10-inch-tall, 24-pound sculpture apparently depicting a Buddha figure with scale armor bearing a swastika has some pretty dubious provenance: It’s rumored to have been found during Nazi expeditions to Tibet, perhaps part of an effort to establish Germany’s Aryan roots. (Prior to its life as the calling card of National Socialism, the swastika enjoyed thousands of years as a positive symbol in South Asian religions.) Recent mineralogical analysis by German, Australian, and Austrian researchers now shows that the statue may have been sculpted from a meteorite that fell somewhere along the Siberian-Mongolian border. The paper, in Meteoritics and Planetary Science, also sparked heated debate about the statue’s origins. Buddhist scholar Achim Bayer at Dongguk University in Seoul, Korea, says that the statue is most likely just decades (rather than centuries) old, perhaps made after WWII for the lucrative market in Nazi memorabilia. 

The Emperor’s Orchids

By JARRETT A. LOBELL

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

emperor-orchids.jpgThe first fragments of the remarkable ancient Roman monument called the Ara Pacis (“Altar of Peace”) were found in the early sixteenth century. For the next four hundred years, the large marble altar, built to commemorate the emperor Augustus’ victories in Gaul and expansion into Spain in the first century b.c., was reassembled as pieces resurfaced until it was nearly completed in 1938. Since then, scholars have examined the altar’s heavily decorated exterior, attempting to identify the mythological and historical figures represented. However, until several years ago when archaeologist Giulia Caneva of the University of Rome was asked whether the plants and flowers represented on the Ara Pacis were faithful representations or purely fantastical—and if she could identify them—no one had carefully studied the monument’s vegetation in such detail.

 

Soon Caneva discovered that the flowers were both fantasies and what she calls “extremely realistic” representations. The most surprising faithfully depicted species were two types of orchids, both of which are native to the Mediterranean. Until Caneva’s research, orchids were unknown in ancient art and had only been identified on works dating from the Renaissance and later. Caneva is continuing to decode the altar’s highly symbolic language of flowers and vegetation, which is part of the political message of this enduring monument to Augustus’ lineage and power. 

Ancient Alchemy?

By JARRETT A. LOBELL

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

ancient-alchemy2To the naked eye, the pendant once looked like solid gold, but anthropologist David Peterson of Idaho State University knows its secret. Using a powerful scanning electron microscope at the Center for Archaeology, Materials and Applied Spectroscopy, Peterson discovered that more than 3,500 years ago, a craftsman in the Russian steppes made the ornament appear to be solid gold by using a miniscule amount of the precious metal and a great deal of chemical knowledge. Peterson believes that the Late Bronze Age metalworker, a member of the Srubnaya people, employed a technique known as depletion gilding. The pendant was made with a core of (now corroded) copper, which was covered with a very thin foil of electrum (a mixture of gold and silver). Before or after wrapping the pendant, the surface of the foil may have been covered for several days in a solution of salt and/or other minerals that are corrosive to silver. The silver would have become a black scale that was then washed away—leaving a micrometers-thick layer of gold on the surface, burnished to look even richer.

 

Depletion gilding has been found in artifacts from the third-millennium b.c. royal cemetery of Ur in Mesopotamia and the pre-Columbian Andes. However, the pendant, which was excavated in the 1990s in a young girl’s grave at the site of Spiridonovka II, would be the earliest known example from the Eurasian steppes. Peterson’s research on ancient Eurasian steppe metallurgy began while he was a member of the Samara Valley Project, sponsored by Hartwick College and the Institute for the History and Archaeology of the Volga. “Evidence of depletion gilding at this time in this area is a big surprise and stands to greatly impact our understanding of the technical sophistication of Srubnaya pastoralists,” says Peterson. “A kind of technological sleight of hand or dissembling was used in covering the copper ornaments with a very thin gold and silver foil, and then altering the surface to make it look more like pure gold, a strong indication of the high valuation of gold.”

 

Depletion gilding has been difficult to identify because the principle used—the removal of material rather than its addition—differs from modern gold plating, which uses chemicals or electrolysis to deposit gold on an object’s surface. The technique also differs from other ancient gilding practices, such as hammering gold foil onto an object without additional preparation, or diffusion bonding (used by the Greeks and Romans), which involves attaching gold through the application of heat and pressure. 

Kidnapped in Copenhagen

By SAMIR S. PATEL

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

thule-bird-spear2.jpg

 

kingens-nytorv-copenhagenKongens Nytorv, a major square in Copenhagen, has offered evidence of a dark chapter in the exploration of the northern latitudes, according to Jens Winter Johannsen, an archaeologist at the Museum of Copenhagen. Excavations in the square uncovered a piece of a Thule bird spear from Greenland in what was once a moat around the city. There is one obvious way the seventeenth-century spear prong could have made it across the North Atlantic: kidnapping. It wasn’t uncommon for European explorers to bring home natives, often against their will, as novelties or to prove tales of discovery. The fragment, made of bone, could have been a mariner’s souvenir, but also could have belonged to one of the 19 Greenlanders known to have been forcibly kidnapped by Danes that century. According to Johannsen, “The small implement found at Kongens Nytorv thus illustrates a cruel story of some of the consequences of Danish ambitions as a great power.” 

Obsidian and Empire

By ZACH ZORICH

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

obsidian-urkesh2.jpgThree small and apparently unremarkable pieces of obsidian, found in the palace courtyard of the ancient city of Urkesh in modern-day Syria, are changing ideas about trade networks at the height of the Akkadian Empire’s power. Urkesh sits near a mountain pass by the border between the Bronze Age Hurrian and Akkadian empires—putting it in a natural position to be a trading center. According to Ellery Frahm of the University of Sheffield and Joshua Feinberg of the University of Minnesota, decades of studies had shown that nearly all of the obsidian used in Urkesh and sites throughout Mesopotamia came from volcanoes in what is now eastern Turkey. Frahm, however, tested this by analyzing the magnetic properties of 97 pieces of obsidian found throughout the city and learned that three of the pieces came from a volcano located much farther away, in central Turkey. These pieces were dated to around 2440 b.c., about the time that Emperor Naram-Sin expanded the Akkadian Empire to its peak influence. Frahm believes that the Akkadians were expanding their trade networks into new territory. The three pieces of obsidian may have been from items traded along with more valuable goods, such as metals. According to Frahm, “It shows that they were tapping into a trade network at that time that they weren’t using before or after.”

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