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Homepage Archives Open in new window Index (08/2009) Headlines (06/2009) Headlines (10/2009)   Vol. 43 August 2009 
Treasure In The Headlines
As seen in the August 2009 edition of W&ET Magazine


A 40,000-year-old figurine of a voluptuous women carved from ivory and excavated from a cave in Germany is the oldest known example of three-dimensional or figurative representation of humans and sheds new light on the origins of art, researchers say.

The intricately carved, headless figure is at least 5,000 years older than previous examples and dates from shortly after modern humans arrived in Europe. But it already exhibits many of the characteristics of fertility figurines carved millenniums later.

The figurine "radically changes our views of the context and meaning of the earliest Paleolithic art," its discoverer, archaeologist Nicholas Conard of the University of Tubingen in Germany, wrote recently in the journal Nature.

Experts are excited about the find because of what it tells us about early humans- and about ourselves.

"The origin and evolution of figurative art, portable art, appear on most lists of what constitutes modern human behavior," said archaeologist Daniel Adler of the University of Connecticut, who was not involved in the research.

The figurine was excavated at Hohle Fels, a large cave in the Swabian Jura region of Germany near Ulm. The cave shows evidence of a long period of prehistoric occupation and is probably best known for three ivory carvings previously discovered by Conard- a horse's or bear's head, a water bird that may be in flight and a half-human, half-lion figurine, all dating from about 30,000 to 31,000 years ago.

The new figurine was found in September in six pieces in a lower layer of the cave floor about 9 feet below the current floor. Nearby were flint-knapping debris, worked bone and ivory and remains of horses, reindeer, cave bears, mammoths and ibex. Radiocarbon data indicates the layer originated 35,000 to 40,000 years ago.

The Venus figure, about 2.4 inches tall, was carved from a mammoth tusk. It had broad shoulders, prominent breasts and detailed buttocks and genitalia, all exaggerated.

Those features "are clearly more exaggerated than on others that come later," Adler said, "but many of the basic features that are seen later are already there... It's a prototype for what you see later" from the Gravettian culture, which occupied France from 28,000 to 22,000 years ago. "The stylistic attributes are being carried on for many, many generations."

The figurine has two short arms with carefully carved hands resting on the upper part of the stomach.

The legs are short, pointed and asymmetrical, with the left noticeably shorter than the right, typical of later figurines.

The intricate detailing achieved with primitive stone tools indicates "the amount of energy these guys were willing to invest in these little objects- tens if not hundreds of hours," said archaeologist John Shea of Stony Brook University in New York.

From The Charlotte Observer, submitted by David M. Wolan and Bob Bolek.


A professor with his nose deep in a library archive in London has stumbled upon 47 previously unknown letters from, to and about Benjamin Franklin.

The sensational find, announced in the upcoming issue of the William & Mary Quarterly, centers on Franklin's interactions with Gen. Edward Braddock after he and his soldiers arrived on the banks of the Potomac and during their disastrous march to the Forks of the Ohio in 1755. The discovery not only adds texture to a key chapter in early American history, it raises the question of what else about the founding generation might be lurking out there.

The professor is Alan Houston, a political scientist at the University of California at San Diego. In the spring of 2007, while researching a book on Franklin ("Benjamin Franklin and the Politics of Improvement"), he was poring over manuscripts in the British Library. Late in the afternoon of his last day in the country, he requested of the library staff a certain Volume 4478b, a collection of miscellaneous papers, including "Copies of Letters relating to the March of General Braddock."

He was shocked to see that the first such letter was a copy of one written by Benjamin Franklin to the secretary of the governor of Maryland. He had never seen the missive before. Houston believed he'd seen everything Franklin ever wrote, but he quickly checked his own files as well as the authoritative "Papers of Benjamin Franklin" and saw no mention of it.

"I felt kind of a lump in my chest," Houston said. "I started to bounce. I wanted like a rocket to shoot out of my chair."

It being a library, he merely exited the room and called his wife with the news.

What Houston had found was the handiwork of Thomas Birch, secretary of the Royal Society and a famously compulsive copyist of manuscripts. Birch had dined frequently with Franklin in London during the summer of 1757. Franklin by then was famous as a scientist for his experiments with electricity, but he wanted to show his British hosts that he was also politically important in the colonies. Thus he carried with him, as a kind of calling card, a bound book of letters written by him, to him and about him during the Braddock affair.

In his autobiography, Franklin referred to carrying a "Quire Book of Letters during this Transaction." The original book has not been found, but Birch copied it.

"It's an extraordinary find," said Scott Casper, visiting editor of the William & Mary Quarterly. "What this find shows is that caches like this, which are under some title that doesn't include that Framer's name, which are in collections that are not specifically associated with the Framer, might come to light when someone is doing research on something else entirely."

Franklin met Braddock in 1755, ostensibly on post office business. In fact he hoped to ease Braddock's violent dislike of the colonist and of Pennsylvanians in particular. Franklin smoothed things over. He rounded up wagons, horses, volunteers. He cut deals with farmers, using Braddock's money. He rallied public support for Braddock's campaign. The "wagon affair" is a well-known chapter in Franklin's life, but the letters shed light on the tricky nature of the negotiations and the anxious sentiments of the colonists at being asked to supply the imperial army. Houston said the letters give him a better appreciation for Franklin's genius at getting people to cooperate.

From The Chicago Tribune, submitted by Bob Bolek and Daniel Finch.


There's still gold in California's Sierra Nevada foothills and a new rush to find it. Not since the Great Depression have so many hardluck people been lured by prospecting, hoping to find their fortune tumbling down a mountain stream.

The recession and high gold prices are helping to fuel the latest gold craze, especially among workers who have lost jobs.

"I guess there's always hope. At home, I don't have any right now," said Steve Biorck, a concrete finisher who headed west because construction work dried up in Tennessee. Now he spends days standing knee-deep in an icy creek coaxing gold flakes from a swirling pan of gravel.

Miners who locate an unclaimed area can pay a $170 fee to the Bureau of Land Management for access to the land. Most claims are along the 120 miles of steep granite outcrops and rushing riverbeds that are part of California's Mother Lode, a narrow band of gold-rich terrain.

When Don Wetter was in the Army, he guarded Fort Knox in Kentucky, home of the Treasury's Department's gold depository. Now that he's been discharged, Wetter hopes to find some gold of his own using a loan for a "grubstake," an old mining term for money to sustain the search. Wetter, a 22-year-old tree trimmer from Troy, Michigan, said he turned to gold because most of his customers lost their jobs or moved away.

Many would-be gold panners are drawn to the South Fork of the American River, where the 1849 discovery of nuggets at Sutter's Mill launched the largest human migration in the Western Hemisphere. The Depression brought another wave of miners in the 1930s.

"It's hard to keep my equipment in stock," said Albert Fausel, the third-generation owner of the nearby Old Placerville Hardware store, which was founded to sell sluices, picks and pans to the original '49ers.

Back then, the price of gold was $16 an ounce. Today it hovers around $1,000.

The store's wood floors used to creak under the weight of recreational rafters and fisherman. Now prospectors are some of the biggest shoppers.

"A lot of people are out of jobs and know where the gold holes are," Fausel said.

Between October 2007 and September 2008, the Bureau of Land Management in California issued gold miners 3,413 permits, or claims, to search for gold on public land. That figure compared with 1,986 claims in 2006. So far this fiscal year, the agency has issued 1,444 claims.

Many miners believe that only 10 percent of the gold in the Sierra Nevada was discovered in the original gold rush. They are also excited by the prospect of stumbling onto buried treasure.

Spring is the best time to hunt for gold as snow melt churns streams and rivers, potentially uncovering new riches.

"There's got to be a lot of it sitting around somewhere," said Eric Tring of Roseville as he panned with his 13-year-old daughter.

From The News-Press, submitted by Bob Bolek, Hometown, IL.


The note, written in pencil, then rolled up and inserted in a bottle, contains the names of seven young people who probably thought they were going to die in the Auschwitz death camp. A construction crew renovating a cellar near the Auschwitz site discovered the bottle hidden in a concrete wall, officials said recently. Dated Sept. 9, 1944, the note bears the names, camp numbers and hometowns of the seven prisoners- six from Poland and one from France. "All of them are between the ages of 18 and 20," the final sentence reads. "They were young people who were trying to leave some trace of their existence behind them," said Auschwitz museum spokesman Jaroslaw Mensfelt. He said two survived the camp, but he did not have further details. Workers were tearing out a wall in the basement of a college building in Oswiecim- which was called Auschwitz by the Nazis and where at least 1.1 million people died- on April 20 when they discovered the bottle, spokeswoman Monika Bartosz said. She said the note appeared to have been written on a scrap from a bag of cement. The school's three buildings, which are a few hundred yards from the camp, were used as warehouses by Hitler's SS troops. The prisoners were compelled to reinforce the cellar with concrete so it could serve as an air-raid shelter. Museum experts have verified the authenticity of the note, which will be given to the museum.

From the Star Tribune, submitted by Doug Amundson, Cambridge, MN.


His name might not rank with Amelia Earhart and Judge Crater, but the 1934 disappearance of Everett Ruess has been a legend of the Southwest for 75 years.

Only 20 at the time of his disappearance, the writer, artist and environmentalist who has been compared to John Muir was last seen near Utah's Davis Gulch in 1934. Numerous search parties failed to find him.

Modern forensic technology, however, has shown that a weathered skeleton discovered last year by a Navajo investigating an old family secret is indisputably that of Ruess, who was apparently killed by Ute teenagers, Colorado researchers said last week.

Ruess had roamed the Southwest for four years. Despite his young age, he was a confidant to Western artists, including Dorothea Lange to Ansel Adams.

His murder was apparently witnessed by a young Navajo man, Aneth Nez. After a 37-year silence, he told his granddaughter, Daisy Johnson, that he saw three Utes kill a young white man and asked her to take him to the site at Chinle Wash where he had buried the body in a crevice according to Navajo tradition. Memories of the event had been haunting him and he wanted to retrieve a lock of hair for a traditional healing ceremony.

Last year Johnson told her younger brother Denny Bellson about the episode and took him to the area of the grave. In a news conference arranged by National Geographic Adventure magazine, where the findings are reported, Bellson said he found the gravesite in an hour and a half.

The remains were excavated by Ron Maldonado, the Navajo Nation's supervisory archaeologist, and sent to University of Colorado anthropologist Dennis Van Gerven. He and graduate student Paul Sandberg concluded the bones came from a young Anglo, aged 20-22, who stood about 5 foot 8 inches tall. After reconstructing the skull and photographing it, they superimposed the image on pictures of Ruess taken by Lange and found them to be a perfect match, particularly the teeth.

From The Chicago Tribune, submitted by Bob Bolek, Hometown, IL.


More than 20 years ago, Mike Dau inherited a book and a mystery.

The yellowing first volume of "History of the War in the Peninsula and in the South of France" appeared to be a Civil War battlefield trophy- a soldier had written in its pages that it had been taken from the Virginia Military Institute before the Union Army torched the campus in 1864.

However, the book also bore an inscription from Washington College, a neighboring institution of higher education that had been spared during the raid.

Dau, a football and handball coach at Lake Forest College, received the book after close friends passed away. He said he always wanted to return it to its rightful owner, but he didn't trust the mail and wanted to make sure the recipient wouldn't treat it like a castoff. So he waited.

Last year, though, his resurgent interest in the Civil War prompted him to solve the conundrum. He contacted the school named in the inscription- now known as Washington and Lee University- and technical services librarian Laura Turner concluded that the pilfering soldier had been mistaken: Washington and Lee held the second volume of the series, marked in a similar way.

Dau traveled to Lexington, VA, in February and returned the book to Washington and Lee, nearly 145 years after it had been taken. It is now in the school's climate-controlled special collections vault, and Dau, who has been showered with interview requests since the story emerged recently, said he was glad it was finally home.

"There's a place for historic things," Dau said.

"I don't think they belong on people's mantels."

From The Chicago Tribune, submitted by Bob Bolek, Hometown, IL.

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