Bronze Age Scandinavia's trading networks for copper settled

Bronze Age Scandinavia's trading networks for copper settled

Crossing the North Sea before crossing the Alps!

trading bronze age Scandinavia's
Shafthole axe type Fårdrup. This axe is of Nordic craftsmanship and hides information on the first attempt to establish trading networks with societies across the Alps. A small group of these Nordic crafted axes is made of northern Italian copper, so called AATV-copper (from the Alto Adige, Trentino and Veneto mining region in the Italian Alps) while the majority of these axes is made of British and Welsh or eastern Alpine metal. Photo credits: Heide W. Nørgaard, by permission of the National Museum, Copenhagen

New research presents over 300 new analyses of bronze objects, raising the total number to 550 in 'the archaeological fingerprint project'. This is roughly two thirds of the entire metal inventory of the early Bronze Age in southern Scandinavia. For the first time, it was possible to map the trade networks for metals and to identify changes in the supply routes, coinciding with other socio-economic changes detectable in the rich metal-dependent societies of Bronze Age southern Scandinavia.

The magnificent Bronze Age in southern Scandinavia rose from copper traded from the British Isles and Slovakia 4000 years ago. 500 years later these established trade networks collapsed and fresh copper was then traded from the southern Alps, the so-called Italian Alps. This large-scale study could show that during the first 700 years of the Nordic Bronze Age the metal supplying networks and trade routes changed several times. These 700 years of establishment and change led to a highly specialised metalwork culture boasting beautiful artwork such as the Trundholm Sun wagon and spiral decorated belt plates branding high-ranking women; even depicted on today's Danish banknotes.

The lead isotope plot of the over 65 shafthole axes analyzed in this study dating to the end of the first Bronze Age period 1600 BC. This amount of data exceeds the previous analyses by ten times and for the first time allows to compare both axe types and understand their development

The study by H. Nørgaard, Moesgaard Museum and her colleagues H. Vandkilde from Aarhus University and E. Pernicka from the Curt-Engelhorn Centre in Mannheim built on the so far largest dataset of chemical and isotope data of ancient bronze artefacts. In total 550 objects were used to model the changes that took place: These changes correlate with major shifts in social organisation, settlements, housing, burial rites and long distance mobility.

trading bronze age Scandinavia's
Shafthole axe of Valsømagle type. Only a few axes of this type are known, and they are only distributed in northern Europe. These axes seem to be contemporary with the Fårdrup type axes as they are made of the same metal and not, if they would be slightly later, of the new Italian metal that is the main metal used in the period from 1500 BC. Photo credits: Heide W. Nørgaard, by permission of the National Museum, Copenhagen

"Now, this multi-disciplinary approach - based jointly on conventional archaeological methods and novel scientific methodologies processing large data quantities - allows us to detect these correlating changes and identify contemporaneity with societal changes recognised by colleague researchers", says Heide Nørgaard the project´s PI.

"It is highly likely that both people and technologies arrived to Scandinavia and that Scandinavians travelled abroad to acquire copper by means of the Nordic amber, highly valued by European trading partners".

###

Citation: Nørgaard HW, Pernicka E, Vandkilde H (2021) Shifting networks and mixing metals: changing metal trade routes to Scandinavia correlate with Neolithic and Bronze Age transformations. PLOS ONEhttps://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0252376

 

Bronze Age Scandinavia's trading networks for copper settled: press release from Aarhus University.


Homo sapiens "Linya" lived in the northeast of the Iberian Peninsula 14,000 years ago

Homo sapiens "Linya" lived in the northeast of the Iberian Peninsula 14,000 years ago

Researchers from the Centre for the Study of Archaeological Heritage (CEPARQ-UAB) working at the Cova Gran de Santa Linya have discovered the remains of a Homo sapiens female living in the eastern Pre-Pyrennees during the Upper Palaeolithic period, around 14,000 years ago. There is a scarcity of prehistoric remains of modern humans in the Iberian Peninsula. The study of Linya, as she has been named, will allow delving deeper into what is known about them and how hunter-gatherers lived in the northeastern part of the peninsula.

Homo sapiens Linya
Homo sapiens "Linya" lived in the northeast of the Iberian Peninsula 14,000 years ago. Photo Credits: CEPARQ-UAB

16/06/2021 The cave known as Cova Gran (Avellanes-Santa Linya, Noguera) preserves countless vestiges within its sediments, which allows researchers to reconstruct over 50,000 years of history of those living in the Pre-Pyrennean region (Lleida province), from the Neanderthals to the the first Homo sapiens as well as the hunther-gatherer-lifestyle to the first farmers and herders.

The research team at the Centre for the Study of Archaeological Heritage of the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona (CEPARQ-UAB) studying the Cova Gran since 2002 has found remains dating back from 45,000 to 4,000 years ago. But no bones of those living there had ever been discovered. Until last year’s dig campaign, in which the skeletal remains of a human, in partial anatomic connection, were found two meters below ground in a lateral excavation area. A location in which researchers would not have imagined finding these types of remains.

The set ofrecovered remains, which has been made public today, corresponds to a woman who has been given the name of “Linya, the woman from Noguera”. The bones include two femurs, one of them connected to the pelvis, as well as the long bones of the upper extremities (hummerus, radius/cubitus) and lower extremities (tibia and fibula), the metapodia and several phalanges. The skull and axial skeleton (vertebrates and ribs), although present, had little representation.

The dating of the stratum in which the remains were found and the dating of one of the bones have narrowed down the period in which she lived to around 14,350 and 14,100 years ago, which corresponds to the end of the Upper Paleolithic period, which also corresponds to the end of the Pleistocene.

“The remains of Linya open a new door that brings us closer to discovering the circumstances in which she died, but also details about her life and that of those she lived with in the region. And at the same time, she is a key figure in learning about the anatomy and genetic heritage of hunter-gatherer societies at the end of the Pleistocene in the northeastern part of the Iberian Peninsula”, highlights Rafael Mora, Chair Professor at the UAB Department of Prehistory and researcher at the CEPARQ. “The combination of different paleoanthropological, forensic, genomic and archaeological analyses currently underway will provide indicators which will enrich and rectify the current perspective of a discovery we only have preliminary information on thanks to the digs we are conducting”.

The state of conservation of the bones has made it necessary to apply stabilizing and preservation processes in views of future studies. These processes are being conducted now at the Catalan Institute of Human Paleoecology and Social Evolution (IPHES).

Placed in a natural receptacle

The remains were found within what is considered to be a natural receptacle, delimited by various blocks of large dimensions fallen from the rockshelter. Researchers are currently investigating whether the extremities were moved towards the cubicle, while the axial skeleton and skull were protected under these large rocks. What researchers have been able to determine is that the location is where the person was lain once she was dead. According to the position of the femurs, she was lain directly on the ground in a supine position. The first paleoanthropological characterization conducted indicates that the pelvic girdle corresponds to an adult female, possibly of small stature.

The skeleton appeared at the base of an archaeological sequencing of 7 consecutive archaeological levels containing an abundance of lithic tools, faunal and carbon remains, all of which point to the use of the site as a living space. But the bed on which the body was lain did not contain any of those elements. Currently, the research team is looking for possible funerary offerings, which were very common in the burials of Homo sapiens. The sediment of the space marked out by the large blocks is now being sampled to recover micro residue that could indicate that the body was covered with animal skins or plant fibers. This would justify the way the body was lain on the ground, without the need of digging a burial space.

“We are aware of the need to be cautious when affirming that this is an intended burial site”, researcher at the CEPARQ Jorge Martinez-Moreno points out. He goes on to say that, “mortuary practices among hunter-gatherers point to different possibilities, ranging from an intentional burial to a secondary burial, the burial of part of the body, cannibalism, or an accidental death. We will need to evaluate these scenarios depending on the results of what we dig up in the area in which these remains appeared”.

Carbon-14 dating using fragments of the carbon found in the archaeological levels in which the remains appeared indicate that the sediment was formed in less than a millennium, from around 14,400 to 13,500 years ago. The explanation for why this sediment grew so much, and which was accompanied by the detachment of several massive blocks from the cave’s cornice, is being analyzed through the geomorphology and material that make up this part of the mountain’s slope.

A moment of ecological change

The time period in which Linya and her people lived was critical in climatic terms. Some 14,700 years ago, the world’s extremely cold and harsh climate conditions characteristic of the Last Glacial Maximum (approximately 30,000 to 15,000 years ago) suddenly changed and in a period of less than 100 years, transformed into a new climate regime similar to the one existing now. This event, known as the Bölling/Allerød warming, occurring some 14,700 to 12,900 years before the present, and was characterized by a rise in temperatures and rainfall, which produced relevant ecological changes.

Despite the fact that the impact of this event on the Pre-Pyrennees is not greatly known, some indicators recovered at the Cova Gran have allowed researchers to analyze this incident. Carbon dating analysis indicates that the human species living there during the Last Glacial Maximum only used European red pine (Pynus sylvestris) timber for fuel. In the sequence now being dug, in which the remains of Linya were discovered, other new taxon’s in addition to red pine carbon were identified, such the common juniper (Juniperus), cherry trees (Prunus) and buckthorn (Rhamus catharticus/saxatilis), a set of trees and shrubs belonging to milder climates, different to the harshness of the forests of the Last Glacial Maximum.

Very few remains of Homo sapiens in the Iberian Peninsula

The amount of human remains discovered in the Iberian Peninsula and corresponding to the Upper Paleolithic period (20,000 to 12,000 years ago) is scarce. In this sense, the Cova Gran will be key to learning more about their anatomy and where the Hunter-gatherer societies came from at the end of the Pleistocene.

A recent paleogenetic study conducted by the Max Planck Institute on remains recovered from the El Mirón Cave in Santander and the Balma Guilanyà rock shelter in Lleida indicates that the genome sequencing of the “Red Lady of El Mirón”, dating back 20,000 years, reveals close ties to human populations of Western Europe. A situation which changes in the remains found at the Balma Guilanyà rock shelter, dating 1,000 years later than the remains found at the Cova Gran, in which there is a continuation of genetic markers common to European populations, but also new markers which are present in the populations of the Italian Peninsula.

Therefore, in the interval of 20,000 to 13,000 years, the genome of Pyrenean populations registers contacts with populations from the Mediterranean. “Maybe the new climate conditions of the Bölling/Allerød warming facilitated regular contacts between these geographic areas?” researchers wonder. “The human remains at the Cova Gran will be key to evaluating the solidity of this interesting intuition”, they point out.

The CEPARQ team is convinced that the unexpected discovery of Linya will help to modulate the notions now sustained of the anatomy of those Homo sapiens, “of whom we have less precise knowledge than we do of Neanderthals”, researchers state. They also mention the fact that “the causes leading to the appearance of a space created by large blocks will aid us in learning about the behavior and decisions taken by those people regarding a transcendental and common event such as death: what ritual was followed by these people who are part of our collective, but are no longer present? The remains of Linya now pose several challenges, and we hope to solve them in the coming years”, they conclude.

The archaeological importance of the Cova Gran de Santa Linya

The Cova Gran de Santa Linya, discovered in 2002, is a site measuring over 2,500 square meters, considered key to the study of the presence of humans in the northeastern Iberian Peninsula.

It is one of the few sites of the Mediterranean region in which vestiges of a moment of “transition” have been found, such as those of the last Neanderthals (approximately 45,000 years ago) and the appearance of modern humans (some 37,000 to 30,000 years), their survival during the Last Glacial Maximum (20,000 to 15,000 years), and the appearance of the first farmers and herders (7,000 to 4,000 years ago).

The research conducted by the CEPARQ-UAB team at the Cova Gran de Santa Linya includes the financial support of the Spanish Ministry for Science and Innovation, the Archaeology and Palaecology Service of the Ministry for Culture of the Government of Catalonia, the Institute for Lleida Studies (IEI) of the Lleida Provincial Council, the Palarq Foundation, the Leakey Foundation and the City Council of Les Avellanes i Santa Linya.

Press release from Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona


The shoulders of 'Homo antecessor' and modern humans are similar

The shoulders of 'Homo antecessor' and modern humans are similar

The CENIEH has published a paper in the journal Scientific Reports which concludes that Homo antecessor had a shoulder development analogous to that in H. sapiens, although its growth was faster
Homo antecessor shoulders
Homo antecessor scapulae. Credits: D. Garcia Martínez et al

The shape of our shoulders was already present in the Lower Pleistocene, according to a pioneering study published today in the journal Scientific Reports, carried out by Daniel García Martínez and José María Bermúdez de Castro, paleoanthropologists at the Centro Nacional de Investigación sobre la Evolución Humana (CENIEH), in collaboration with David Green of Campbell University (USA).

Studying the shoulder (technically known as the "shoulder girdle") furnishes information on points significant for human evolution such as locomotion, body shape, the possibility of climbing with ease or the ability to launch objects like stones or spears with high accuracy.

The authors of this work were able to study for the first time shoulder growth and development in the species Homo antecessor, dated to 850,000 years old, using tools from virtual anthropology and 3D geometric morphometry. The results show that the course of development of the shoulder in this species was very similar to that in H. sapiens, although the growth might have been faster.

Almost one million years ago, our evolution had already attained almost all the biomechanical capacities characterizing the shoulder in modern humans, and it had definitively parted ways from the abilities still then retained by the more archaic species of the human phylogeny, including climbing with great agility.

 To verify the changes undergone by this part of our anatomy, we need a flat bone: the shoulder blade or scapula. But, as the authors of this study state, “The fossil record of our phylogeny contains barely a handful of these highly delicate bones, which has posed enormous difficulties to studying the growth and development of the shoulders during human evolution”.

Two key fossils

By good luck, at level TD6 of the Gran Dolina site, situated in the Sierra de Atapuerca (Burgos), two scapulae have been conserved: one from a child and the other from an individual of age equivalent to a modern adolescent. These fossils were recovered during the excavation in the first decade of the twenty-first century and belonged to the species H. antecessor.

“In an earlier study of these two fossils, it had been noticed that the morphology of the scapulae was similar to our own. But until now, the growth and development model for the shoulders had remained unknown, and this work has now allowed us to check that our shoulder girdle bones have undergone modifications in accordance with different capacities”, says Bermúdez de Castro.

Comparative study

With the scant information available, it was known that the scapulae of Australopithecus species were similar in some ways to those of chimpanzees or gorillas but were different from our own. “We know that the development of our most archaic ancestors was very similar to that of the anthropoid apes, and the morphology of their shoulders shows that they still retained the capacity to climb with ease. We, on the contrary, have lost this ability”, explains García Martínez.

Comparative of scapulae. Credits: D.García Martínez et al

To determine when our anatomical peculiarities arose, in addition to virtual anthropology and 3D geometric morphometry, the researchers used complex statistical methods to study the development of the shoulder girdle in the species H. antecessor, comparing it with other species from the Pliocene and Lower Pleistocene, such as Australopithecus sediba and A. afarensis. A very broad sample from H. sapiens and chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes) was also used.

“This study shows that although there exist slight morphological differences between the scapulae of H. antecessor and H. sapiens, the former were much more similar to modern humans, to H. erectus and even to Australopithecus than to chimpanzees”, comments García Martínez.

With regard to how the scapulae grew, it was also seen that this was very different from what happens in chimpanzees, and comparable with H. sapiens. “However, it is true that the data seem to point to growth being more rapid in H. antecessor, as highlighted by the CENIEH research team on the basis of dental evidence”, emphasizes Bermúdez de Castro.

This paper lays the foundations for how the shoulder girdle developed in Lower Pleistocene species, and opens the door to new research studying shoulder development in fossil species, as it may become possible to expand the timeframe and study this development even in Pliocene species like the genus Australopithecus.

Full bibliographic information

García-Martínez, D., Green, D., Bermúdez de Castro, J.M. 2021. Evolutionary development of the Homo antecessor scapulae (Gran Dolina site, Atapuerca) suggests a modern-like development for Lower Pleistocene Homo. Scientific Reports. DOI: 10.1038/s41598-021-83039

 

Press release from CENIEH


Writers and Lovers Lily King

The hatchet falls on... Writers & Lovers

The news of an upcoming Italian translation of "Writers & Lovers" by Lily King, brought back the memories of the terrible day and a half I spent reading this novel (and also a few reflections on the criteria on which Italian publishers chose what to translate and not to translate, but let's not well on that... for now).

My quite strongly negative opinion on this novel seems to clash with the many 5 star comments on web platforms (e.g.: Goodreads), therefore, for a while I thought I just hadn't understood the deep meaning that Lily King wanted to convey with her writing. Then, fortunately, in July, the Times Literary Supplement published a review that shared most of my negative thoughts (by Evelyn Toynton), and I finally felt understood.

Now, the following review will contain a number of spoilers: therefore, if you really really want to read "Writers & Lovers" you might want to stop here. If you want to save yourselves a rather pathetic experience, please feel free to carry on.

When I bought this book in early 2020 I should have known that a fancy title and a nice cover were going to be misleading...

Writers and Lovers Lily King
The book cover of Writers & Lovers, by Lily King. Photo credit: Winky Lewis

Read more


DNA antico Caraibi

Ancient DNA retells story of Caribbean’s first people

Ancient DNA retells story of Caribbean’s first people

DNA antico Caraibi
Long Journey's End, (c) Merald Clark, for SIBA: Stone Interchanges in the Bahama Archipelago

The history of the Caribbean’s original islanders comes into sharper focus in a new Nature study that combines decades of archaeological work with advancements in genetic technology.

An international team led by Harvard Medical School’s David Reich analyzed the genomes of 263 individuals in the largest study of ancient human DNA in the Americas to date. The genetics trace two major migratory waves in the Caribbean by two distinct groups, thousands of years apart, revealing an archipelago settled by highly mobile people, with distant relatives often living on different islands.

Reich’s lab also developed a new genetic technique for estimating past population size, showing the number of people living in the Caribbean when Europeans arrived was far smaller than previously thought – likely in the tens of thousands, rather than the million or more reported by Columbus and his successors.

For archaeologist William Keegan, whose work in the Caribbean spans more than 40 years, ancient DNA offers a powerful new tool to help resolve longstanding debates, confirm hypotheses and spotlight remaining mysteries.

This “moves our understanding of the Caribbean forward dramatically in one fell swoop,” said Keegan, curator at the Florida Museum of Natural History and co-senior author of the study. “The methods David’s team developed helped address questions I didn’t even know we could address.”

Archaeologists often rely on the remnants of domestic life – pottery, tools, bone and shell discards – to piece together the past. Now, technological breakthroughs in the study of ancient DNA are shedding new light on the movement of animals and humans, particularly in the Caribbean where each island can be a unique microcosm of life.

While the heat and humidity of the tropics can quickly break down organic matter, the human body contains a lockbox of genetic material: a small, unusually dense part of the bone protecting the inner ear. Primarily using this structure, researchers extracted and analyzed DNA from 174 people who lived in the Caribbean and Venezuela between 400 and 3,100 years ago, combining the data with 89 previously sequenced individuals.

The team, which includes Caribbean-based scholars, received permission to carry out the genetic analysis from local governments and cultural institutions that acted as caretakers for the human remains. The authors also engaged representatives of Caribbean Indigenous communities in a discussion of their findings.

Two waves of people, thousands of years apart

The genetic evidence offers new insights into the peopling of the Caribbean. The islands’ first inhabitants, a group of stone tool-users, boated to Cuba about 6,000 years ago, gradually expanding eastward to other islands during the region’s Archaic Age. Where they came from remains unclear – while they are more closely related to Central and South Americans than to North Americans, their genetics do not match any particular Indigenous group. However, similar artifacts found in Belize and Cuba may suggest a Central American origin, Keegan said.

About 2,500-3,000 years ago, farmers and potters related to the Arawak-speakers of northeast South America established a second pathway into the Caribbean. Using the fingers of South America’s Orinoco River Basin like highways, they travelled from the interior to coastal Venezuela and pushed north into the Caribbean Sea, settling Puerto Rico and eventually moving westward. Their arrival ushered in the region’s Ceramic Age, marked by agriculture and the widespread production and use of pottery.

Over time, nearly all genetic traces of Archaic Age people vanished, except for a holdout community in western Cuba that persisted as late as European arrival. Intermarriage between the two groups was rare, with only three individuals in the study showing mixed ancestry.

Many present-day Cubans, Dominicans and Puerto Ricans are the descendants of Ceramic Age people, as well as European immigrants and enslaved Africans. But researchers noted only marginal evidence of Archaic Age ancestry in modern individuals.

“That’s a big mystery,” Keegan said. “For Cuba, it’s especially curious that we don’t see more Archaic ancestry.”

Changes in pottery styles not linked to new migrations

Some archaeologists pointed to dramatic shifts in Caribbean pottery styles as evidence of new migrations. But genetics show all of the styles were created by one group of people over time. These effigy vessels belong to the Saladoid pottery type, ornate and difficult to shape. Credits: Corinne Hofman and Menno Hoogland

During the Ceramic Age, Caribbean pottery underwent at least five marked shifts in style over 2,000 years. Ornate red pottery decorated with white painted designs gave way to simple, buff-colored vessels, while other pots were punctuated with tiny dots and incisions or bore sculpted animal faces that likely doubled as handles.

Some archaeologists pointed to these transitions as evidence for new migrations to the islands. But DNA tells a different story, suggesting all of the styles were developed by descendants of the people who arrived in the Caribbean 2,500-3,000 years ago, though they may have interacted with and taken inspiration from outsiders.

“That was a question we might not have known to ask had we not had an archaeological expert on our team,” said co-first author Kendra Sirak, a postdoctoral fellow in the Reich Lab. “We document this remarkable genetic continuity across changes in ceramic style. We talk about ‘pots vs. people,’ and to our knowledge, it’s just pots.”

Ancient DNA Caribbean Caribbeans
Archaeological research and ancient DNA technology can work hand in hand to illuminate past history in the Caribbean. This vessel, made between AD 1200-1500 in present-day Dominican Republic, shows a frog figure, associated with the goddess of fertility in Taino culture. Credits: Kristen Grace/Florida Museum

Genetics reveal family connections across islands

Highlighting the region’s interconnectivity, a study of male X chromosomes uncovered 19 pairs of “genetic cousins” living on different islands – people who share the same amount of DNA as biological cousins but may be separated by generations. In the most striking example, one man was buried in the Bahamas while his relative was laid to rest about 600 miles away in the Dominican Republic.

“Showing relationships across different islands is really an amazing step forward,” said Keegan, who added that shifting winds and currents can make passage between islands difficult. “I was really surprised to see these cousin pairings between islands.”

Uncovering such a high proportion of genetic cousins in a sample of fewer than 100 men is another indicator that the region’s total population size was small, said Reich, professor of genetics in the Blavatnik Institute at HMS and professor of human evolutionary biology at Harvard.

“When you sample two modern individuals, you don’t often find that they’re close relatives,” he said. “Here, we’re finding relatives all over the place.”

Revising estimates of Caribbean population size

A technique developed by study co-author Harald Ringbauer, a postdoctoral fellow in the Reich Lab, used shared segments of DNA to estimate past population size, a method that could also be applied to future studies of ancient people. Ringbauer’s technique showed about 10,000 to 50,000 people were living on two of the Caribbean’s largest islands, Hispaniola and Puerto Rico, shortly before European arrival. This falls far short of the million inhabitants Columbus described to his patrons, likely to impress them, Keegan said.

 

Later, 16th-century historian Bartolomé de las Casas claimed the region had been home to 3 million people before being decimated by European enslavement and disease. While this, too, was an exaggeration, the number of people who died as a result of colonization remains an atrocity, Reich said.

“This was a systematic program of cultural erasure. The fact that the number was not 1 million or millions of people, but rather tens of thousands, does not make that erasure any less significant,” he said.

For Keegan, collaborating with geneticists gave him the ability to prove some hypotheses he has argued for years – while upending others.

“At this point, I don’t care if I’m wrong or right,” he said. “It’s just exciting to have a firmer basis for reevaluating how we look at the past in the Caribbean. One of the most significant outcomes of this study is that it demonstrates just how important culture is in understanding human societies. Genes may be discrete, measurable units, but the human genome is culturally created.”


Daniel Fernandes of the University of Vienna and the University of Coimbra in Portugal was also co-first author of the study. Other co-senior authors are Alfredo Coppa of the Sapienza University of Rome, Mark Lipson of HMS and Harvard and Ron Pinhasi of the University of Vienna.

This work was funded by the National Geographic Society, National Science Foundation, National Institutes of Health/National Institute of General Medical Sciences, Paul Allen Foundation, John Templeton Foundation and Howard Hughes Medical Institute.

 

Press release by Natalie van Hoose, from the Florida Museum of Natural History on ancient DNA shedding light on the first people in the Caribbean.


Augsburg Art Cabinet games

Parlour games 400 years ago – almost like today

In a new thesis from Uppsala University, art historian Greger Sundin studied 16th and 17th century games that have been preserved in princely collections for example. Right at the end of his work on the thesis, he and a colleague were able to solve an over 300 year old riddle about a game in the Augsburg Art Cabinet.

Augsburg Art Cabinet games
Carved chess pieces on a board of ebony, mother-of-pearl and inlaid silver in Philipp Hainhofer’s Pomeranian Art Cabinet (Berlin). Photo: Greger Sundin

In these times of self-isolation, as people spend a lot of time indoors with only a few others, many Monopoly games and Ludo sets have probably seen the light after many years lying forgotten in a drawer. There is nothing modern about playing board games and parlour games for entertainment and to pass the time. Many of the games we play today go back to at least the latter part of the 16th century. Chess is an example of a game that has been around for a very long time. The same is true of draughts and backgammon. Various forms of the Game of the Goose, in which players move their pieces along a track according to the total number shown on dice, also have a long history.

Everyone played these games, in every social class. Often the same types of game too, although chess was fairly expensive given all the pieces that needed to be carved. Card games, on the other hand, were easy to come by after the introduction of the printing press, and their use exploded in the 16th century (at the expense of games of dice).

“Studying games is a way of really getting close to the people who came before us. The frustration of unco-operative dice would have been as strong in 1620 as in 2020,” says Dr Greger Sundin, curator at Gustavianum, Uppsala University Museum.

Augsburg Art Cabinet games
The Augsburg Art Cabinet at Gustavianum, Uppsala University Museum. Credit: Mikael Wallerstedt

The collections of the University Museum include the Augsburg Art Cabinet, which was finished in 1631. It is the best preserved, most famous art cabinet commissioned by the Augsburg merchant and art dealer Philipp Hainhofer (1578–1647). He filled his art cabinets with objects from around the world – everything from shells, minerals and animal parts to scientific instruments, relics and art objects. And games.

The Augsburg Art Cabinet was a gift to King Gustavus Adolphus from the City of Augsburg in 1632 and it contains a large number of games and pastimes. In his thesis, Greger Sundin used these games as a springboard for exploring what various board and card games looked like and how they were used in princely collecting in the early 17th century. Were they used as games in the same way as today? Were games in art cabinets intended to be used or were they intended to represent games instead, in a context in which so much was just for show?

After having closely studied the games preserved from Hainhofer’s cabinets around Europe, Greger Sundin drew the conclusion that the games were not only viewed. They were also used, presumably by the owners of the cabinets and their guests. He also noted that all the games were very accessible in the cabinets so that they could easily be taken out and played.

Gilded balls to roll through the arcades in a Tafelspiel. The points you score are shown in Roman numerals above each arcade. Games from the Augsburg Art Cabinet in Uppsala. Photo: Mikael Wallerstedt

After having studied hundreds of games, Greger Sundin was able to reconstruct both how they were used and how contemporary attitudes affected their design, materials and rules. He was also able to deduce from the games included in the art cabinets that Hainhofer not only listened to his clients but also chose them based on his own great interest in games.

In the very last weeks before the thesis was to go to print, Greger Sundin and a colleague in Germany were able to solve a riddle about a mysterious game in the Augsburg Art Cabinet, the name and rules of which had already been forgotten when it was first described in Sweden in 1694.

Augsburg Art Cabinet games
‘Unfaithful neighbours’ or perhaps ‘Go to Hell’ (Höllfahren in German). The board was used for moving pieces while the players played cards. Photo: Mikael Wallerstedt

They established that the imaginatively decorated game was ‘Unfaithful neighbours’ or perhaps ‘Go to Hell’ (Höllfahren in German). The board was used for moving pieces while the players played cards. Depending on where you landed, different rules applied. For example, you had to be quiet or address someone in a specific way. If you failed to follow the rules, you moved a step closer to the centre, where people were being cooked in a pot. If you ended up there, you lost. The last player left was the winner and took all the money. Hainhofer, the creator of the art cabinets, used to play this type of game on his travels.

Dr Greger Sundin, curator at Gustavianum, Uppsala University Museum. Credit: Frida Klang

Full bibliographic information

Greger Sundin (2020) A Matter of Amusement: The Material Culture of Philipp Hainhofer’s Games in Early Modern Princely Collections, Acta Universitatis Upsaliensis, 2020.

Press release from the Uppsala University on games in princely collections and the Augsburg Art Cabinet.


Stephen Fry, the 100th Lego Classicist

Stephen Fry, the 100th Lego Classicist

Yet another great announcement for the classicists who love LEGO. The well-known Australian historical archivist Liam D. Jensen, AKA The Lego Classicist, is informing us about the revealing of the 100th entry in this rich and precious collection of classicists.

This time, the coveted acknowledgment will go to the world-famous British star Stephen Fry.

Fry has starred in theatre plays, full length pictures and TV series; besides, all throughout his career he's been a film director and scriptwriter, a TV host, a journalist and a book author.

An important part of his writing activities is indeed focused on the subject of mythology; we had the honour of interviewing Stephen Fry on this occasion.

Stephen Fry LEGO Classicist
Stephen Fry, the 100th LEGO Classicist

You wrote many books on the subject of myth. Where does this interest start, and what inspires you?

Mythology, but specifically Greek myth, gripped me from the first. I had liked fairy stories well enough when young, as most children do, but I sensed straight away that myths were somehow different, they came from a different place, they could be “taken to be true” in a certain kind of way that was stronger than fantasy. I think it was the personalities in Greek myth that so beguiled me. Without being conscious in any way of what myth is – where it comes from, who thought the stories up – I think it was clear to me that they had a truth and a depth too them that was more imperishable and somehow more important than, for example, Snow White and Rapunzel on the one hand, or the Hobbit and Narnia on the other. I have no wild objection to author-created fantasy worlds, but they could never reach me the way stories of myth could and still do.

What does it mean for Stephen Fry to popularize and/or retell a subject?

Goodness, I am not sure. I suppose in my wildest moments of self-belief and optimism I might hope that I combined enough of an ability to animate and entertain with enough authority and knowledge too - such a combination allowing people simultaneously to enjoy what I write but also to feel in some sense enriched by the confidence that they were (perhaps for the first time, or at least for a long time) drawing from the same narrative waters that so many generations of our ancestors had drawn. I get such pleasure when people tell me that they finally felt able to connect dots between — for example — Apollo and Hermes or the Titans and the Olympians, or that they feel familiar with characters whose names had often seemed remote and forbidding, Clytemnestra, say or Antigone. What once had been rather academic sounding names were at last knowable. Most of all, I hope to have taken away the scent of chalk dust and the stuffy school room...

 

The cover of the book Troy: Our Greatest Story Retold - Stephen Fry's Greek Myth, Penguin Books (2020)

How have your studies on English literature influenced your choices and your activities?

It’s impossible to say: I suspect that the traces of a lifetime’s love of reading will have left their mark in all kinds of ways that I cannot necessarily know or define. I think that a sense of irony (by which I mean something more than mocking irony, sarcasm or a sense of cosmic irony) is crucial to full human social development. An ironic mind is one that understand how to adopt another point of view, how to substitute (like a kind of social algebra) different ways of thinking, how to lay the patterns from one form of discourse on another (I know that doesn’t sound very clear, but I hope you get what I mean). The opposite of a ironising mind is a literalist mind, a dangerous and all too common presence in our world as larger and larger proportions of society rise in the world in new generations, sadly it seems unequipped with the ability to think ironically (such an ability presupposes the gift to think logically and imaginatively for you cannot be an ironist without a rigid sense of logic coupled with the ability to penetrate the knowledge and experience of others). My friend Matt D’Ancona put it very well when writing about another friend, the late Christopher Hitchens: “The struggle for a free intelligence has always been a struggle between the ironic and the literal mind … unlike rigid ideology and fundamentalism, irony – saying one thing while meaning another – helps us to recognise complexity, paradox, nuance and absurdity.” And nothing, I would suggest, allows for this facility more than an exposure to literature and drama.

Stephen Fry LEGO Classicist
Stephen Fry, the 100th LEGO Classicist

In your book Heroes: Mortal and Monsters, Quests and Adventures, you wrote again about classical mythology, and of vices and virtues of the Gods. How do you imagine a fictitious Olympus?

Well, I am sorry to have to break it to you, but an Olympus peopled by quarrelling and fractious gods is a fiction. When you climb Mount Olympus in Greece you will find nothing but a very cold, damp, cloudy and rocky empty space. No gods there at all. The idea that there ever were gods there is … well, if not fictitious then mythical. We can think about what we mean by the difference. A fiction is fabricated by an individual mind, or occasionally a group of collaborating minds. A myth is fabricated by a whole society. Myths can be called, as Joseph Campbell did, “public dreams” or, if you prefer Carl Jung’s phrase, they are expressions of a “collective unconscious”. The collective unconscious of the Greeks, in my view, is so appealing because it understands that if the world is majestic, beautiful, awe-inspiring, noble and beautiful (as it clearly is) then the gods must be all those things …. BUT, the Greeks also knew that if the world is brutal, cruel, capricious, unjust, ugly and savage then the gods must be all those things too. Therefore, for the first time in human story-telling, the Greek pantheon is presented as one of personalities who are several things at once: mean but beautiful, cruel but fair, noble but capricious, etc etc etc. In other words, unlike so many other mythic cycles, the Greek one is filled with the ambiguities, inconsistencies and multiplicities of character that we find in our real lives. The very complexity, paradox, nuance and absurdity that I mentioned earlier. They are the first mythic cycle in our human history to have been shaped and reshaped by poets and dramatists to become a perfect blend of the religious, the literary, the dramatic, the visionary, the comic and the symbolic. They are, I think one can say therefore, a work of art.

The cover of the book Heroes. The myths of the Ancient Greek heroes retold, by Stephen Fry, Penguin Books (2019)

Stephen Fry will be the 100th Lego Classicist, did you know the project already?

I had heard of it, but never in my wildest dreams did I imagine I might be the Lego Centenarian.

Stephen Fry LEGO Classicist
Liam D. Jensen and Alessandra Randazzo talking about the 100th LEGO Classicist

All Lego Classicist pictures courtesy Liam D. Jensen, The Lego Classicist.


Actress Anne Enright

Actress by Anne Enright: between biography, autobiography, fiction and autofiction.

The exquisite pen of Anne Enright, one of the most talented Irish writers, strikes again thanks to her latest literary enterprise, the novel Actress.

Actress is not simply an objectively “good novel”, in a canonic way – because of the undeniable elegance of the writing and because of the story which, though flowing nicely, requires an attentive reading – but is also and most importantly an interesting novel in the light of the dense and sophisticated experimentation the author did on the literary genre. Anne Enright has indeed wisely merged fiction, autofiction, biography, autobiography, memoir, and essay writing in one engaging and well-balanced literary pastiche.

The actress in the title is the protagonist of the novel and mother of the co-protagonist, who is the narrator of this story. Therefore, a first intersection appears to happen between the voice who tells the story and the person who acts in those stories. Katherine O’Dell, a star of Irish theatre (and not only) in the post-war Ireland, lives a life of torments that inevitably end up mirroring themselves in the life of her daughter Norah – just a mistake, but very much loved. Norah is also a writer, who chooses only late in her life to dedicate her energies to the narration of her mother’s life, as a consequence of some appalling attempts from other journalists and writers, morbidly interested in the indecent details of Katherine’s love life. This story is fiction, but it is rather easy for a reader to forget, after a few pages, that Katherine O’Dell never existed and never was a great actress, and that Norah non is not Anne Enright. The novel is written in a style which is more similar to autofiction than it it is to a biographical account. What makes it even more outstanding is that Norah, in unraveling the events of her mother’s biography, ends up digging deeply into her own personal one, making it the core of her narration, at least as much as Katherine’s life. All this is then made even more unique by the unusual choice of narrating the whole story in the second person: Norah is writing to her husband, one of the characters in this double (auto)biography.

Anne Enright
Anne Enright (2008). Picture by Hpschaefer, CC BY 3.0

At times, the writing style appears almost journalistic, if not academic: some of the events of which Katherine is the protagonist are news stories and are told accordingly (in particular, her aggression to a colleague, which was all over many newspapers); others appear told through an academic filter, a scholarly filter, the filter of a historian, interested in what the great actress represented for Irish theatre in a specific historical moment. At other times, instead, Norah’s humanity outclasses the somewhat aseptic necessity of providing an objective and impartial account that biographies often require. Norah cannot resist her need for analysis and auto-analysis. Therefore, she builds a reflection on herself, on the events of her life, the life of a child cast away, of a teenager surrounded by her mother’s friends and lovers, of a young college student discovering and practicing sex in a Catholic and bigot Ireland but also in a family without taboos (Katherine never represses and never hides), of a woman tormented by her love for her mother and future husband, and from the difficulty of not having a father and nor the chance to discover who he was. At the same time, through the pages, another reflection takes place: one on her mother’s choices, on her morals, on the reasons for her eccentric behaviour, on her role and on her skills as a parent. Crucial are finally Norah’s accounts of the History in which she’s involved, the “civil war” in the ’70s, which she narrates through her personal experience of the conflicts.

Actress is a dense and compact book, well-orchestrated and full of reflections. Reflections on parenthood, childhood, adolescence, adult age; reflections on love, sexuality, morals, habits, costumes; reflections on solitude, on recklessness and responsibility; on jealousy, envy, admiration; reflections on theatre, on playing a role on a stage and in life. But above all, Actress is a book that is not afraid to reinvent a genre or more genres, of experimenting with narrative voices, with the concept of protagonists, with styles.

Actress Anne Enright
The cover of the book by Anne Enright, Actress. A Novel, published by W. W. Norton

premi letterari inclusività diversità literary prizes inclusivity diversity fiction

From Booker to Strega: diversity and inclusivity in literary prizes

As I was reading, a few weeks ago, the names in the Booker Prize 2020 shortlist, I was caught by a fleeting yet well-defined thought: how depressing can it be to make a comparison between this shortlist and those of the most prestigious Italian prizes for fiction?

premi letterari inclusività diversità
Literary prizes, inclusivity, diversity. Picture by Roberta Berardi


The answer is quite simple: very depressing. Not because the literary quality of those English novels which ended up being finalists for the Booker Prize is necessarily higher than the quality those written in Italian and selected by the committees of the Strega and Campiello prizes– I haven’t read them all, I wouldn’t know how to judge – but for the disturbing dominance, in Italian prizes, of the writing phenotype of the “white male”.
Italy saw some mild turbulence in the debate on this topic, when Valeria Parrella, the only woman in the Strega shortlist, reacted in an understandably resented way, when, during her interview on the award ceremony, had to sadly realise that a debate on the relationship between the #MeToo movement and literature would happen between two men: “e lei ne vuole parlare con Augias? Auguri!” (“and you want to discuss that with Augias [editor's note: a man]? Good luck!”, said Parrella to the journalist, manifesting a resentment which would be easily shared by many female writers, or simply many women.

Valeria Parrella’s resentment deserves to be charged with further significance if we look at the names of the finalists in the three abovementioned prizes.

For the Strega, all six writer were white and five out of six were men. The longlist was not more encouraging, if we think that besides Valeria Parrella, there were only two more women, Marta Barone e Silvia Ballestra. For the Campiello, the situation was quite similar: once again, all writers were white, and only one was a woman. Moreover, she was not even a novelist. We are talking about Patrizia Cavalli, an undoubtedly illustrious author, but in truth a poet attempting to turn to prose only now, at a later stage of her career, almost as a form of self-celebration. The Booker Prize, instead, among its six finalists, presents four people of colour of which only one is a man. The longlist was equally widely populated with talented women.

If about racial issues, someone might be naive and object that in Italy most writers are in fact white, on gender issues Italy seems to have no excuses. Contemporary Italian fiction has a panorama abounding in women, with a long- or short-lived career. Female writers with talent and original ideas.
The problem seems to occur with similar practices also in other realities of continental Europe: in France, the Goncourt prize has currently only four women out of fifteen in the longlist.

It appears that anglophone prizes, on the contrary, have decided to invest on the principles of diversity and inclusivity, making sure that their selection mirrors the actuality of the society literature represents. The choices of the Booker committee are well matched with those of the American National Book Award, whose longlist is extremely variegated both in terms of genders and of writers’ cultural backgrounds. Needless to remind that the Pulitzer prize for fiction this year was assigned for the second time to Colson Whitehead, a black writer.

It’s easy to brand these choices as banal and comfortable publicity moves. It is undeniable that they are political choices, but their necessity in undeniable in this historical moment. They act as signals, as messages aimed at a mentality change, which is not only desirable but also compelling. They are signals that must arrive from those who hold the power in publishing and media in general. Signals that other countries, like Italy, persists to give only in a fictitious form, relegating them to a surface level, when to a the duty and the honour to debate female literature is given to a man, in the reassuring certainty that the problem of being politically correct can now be filed, and that we can finally go back - without too many subtleties – to awarding the prize to a male writer.


details courtyard Alhambra

Unknown details identified in the Lions' Courtyard at the Alhambra

Through drawings, researchers from the University of Seville, the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (Switzerland) and the University of Granada have identified details hitherto unknown in the muqarnas of the temples of the Lions' Courtyard at the Alhambra in Granada, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
templetes Patio de los Leones Alhambra Granada, España
Lions' Courtyard at the Alhambra, Granada (Spain)

In order to better understand and facilitate the conservation of these fourteenth-century architectural elements, following a review of numerous repairs performed over the intervening centuries, a novel methodology was followed based on three complementary graphic analyses: first, outstanding images from the seventeenth to the twentieth centuries were reviewed; then new computer drawings were made of their muqarnas, following the theoretical principles of their geometrical grouping; and finally, a three-dimensional scan was made to ascertain their precise current state from the point cloud obtained.

The comparison of drawings has allowed us to verify for the first time that the muqarnas of the two temples have a different configuration and different number of pieces. In addition, geometric deformations have been detected in the original Nasrid design, identifying hitherto unknown pieces, plus other deformations due to the various repairs from major threats that the temples and their muqarnas have survived for centuries, despite their fragile construction.

"For the first time, this article documents and analyses details that were hitherto practically absent from the scientific literature", says Antonio Gámiz, professor at the University of Seville and co-author of this work.

The muqarnas are one of the most unique architectural episodes of the Nasrid Alhambra and of medieval Islamic art because of their sophisticated three-dimensional geometrical construction. They are small prisms that are grouped together and create a great diversity of spatial configurations, adapting their composition to very diverse architectural situations in cornices, arches, capitals and vaults. They reached a virtuous zenith during the reign of Muhammad V (1354-1359 and 1362-1391) when crucial works were undertaken in the palaces of the Alhambra.

This research was supported by the Patronato de la Alhambra and Generalife.

Full bibliographic information

Antonio Gámiz Gordo; Ignacio Ferrer Pérez-Blanco; Juan Francisco Reinoso Gordo (2020): The Pavilions at the Alhambra's Court of the Lions: Graphic Analysis of Muqarnas. Sustainability, 12 (16), 6556 (Special Issue Cultural Heritage and Natural Disasters) MDPI, Switzerland. ISSN 2071-1050. DOI: 10.3390/su12166556

Press release from the Universidad de Sevilla and the Universidad de Granada on the study that has identified details hitherto unknown in the muqarnas of the temples of the Lions' Courtyard at the Alhambra in Granada.