Ostrich Egg Globe Has Oldest Depiction Of The Americas

ostrich egg globe
Used with permission of The Portolan, copyright Washington Map Society

A depiction of the world engraved on an ostrich egg in 1504 may be the oldest depiction of the Americas, the Washington Post reports. The globe, which was purchased by an anonymous collector at the 2012 London Map Fair, shows the rough outline of South America, along with bits of the Caribbean and North America as small islands.

Created just twelve years after Columbus’ first voyage and in the early days of Europe’s Age of Discovery, it shows many parts of the world that had only recently been visited by Europeans, such as Japan. These regions are rather vague, while areas closer to home such as Europe and North Africa are fairly accurate.

A detailed study of the globe has been published in The Portolan, the journal of the Washington Map Society. One thing that emerged from the study was that the ostrich egg globe was used as the mold for a copper globe dated to 1510. The Hunt-Lenox globe is kept in the New York Public Library and was the previous record holder for the earliest depiction of the New World.

Actually the globe is made from two ostrich eggs. Discover Magazine notes that the rounded bottom halves of two eggs were used to make a more globular globe, but it’s still a bit too elliptical. The globe’s history is unclear but stylistic clues hint at an Italian origin. It may have been created for an Italian noble family by an artist associated with Leonardo da Vinci.

The Cabinet Of Curiosities: Collecting The Wonders Of The World

Cabinet of CuriositiesBefore there was the museum, there was the cabinet of curiosities. Starting in the 16th century as Europe expanded its horizons during the Age of Exploration, the rich and powerful began to collect curios and display them. Their collections were eclectic – everything from strange weapons from distant islands to beautiful coral formations.

The objects were all put together in no particular order in one room or cabinet, which was sometimes called a Wunderkammer (“Wonder Room”). This blending of natural history and anthropology with no accounting for geography or time period allowed the viewer to see the world as a whole in all its rich diversity. Many of these collections became the nuclei for later museums that are still around today, while others are still preserved in their original state.

Ambras Castle
in Austria has the Chamber of Art and Curiosities, a collection most famous for its many portraits of “miracles of nature”, mostly people suffering from deformities, plus this guy who managed to survive a lance being stuck through his head. There’s also a suit of samurai armor, silk artwork, mechanical toys and plenty more.

The Augsberg Art Cabinet in the Museum Gustavianum in Uppsala is a beautiful little piece with all sorts of panels and drawers devoted to various themes such as life, death and religion. Click on the first link for a cool interactive exhibit.

The tradition of the Wunderkammer is kept alive by some museums. The British Museum in London has the Enlightenment Gallery, which is jam-packed with busts, fossils, Greek vases, rare books, weapons, and Asian religious statues. The Museum der Dinge (“Museum of Things”) in Berlin is a fascinating if somewhat random collection of, well, things.

%Gallery-186870%In Los Angeles there’s the Museum of Jurassic Technology, a bizarre collection of sculptures made from single human hairs and displays of dubious cures from the days before modern medicine. Strecker’s Cabinets of Curiosities in Waco, Texas, proudly displays its prize item, a humpback whale skull measuring 19 feet long and weighing 3,000 pounds. An Iron Age jug sits nearby. Random associations are what Cabinets of Curiosities are all about.

But why not start your own? A bit of travel or rummaging through yard sales can get you a constantly growing collection that will become the envy of your friends. You can even open it up to the public like the owners of Trundle Manor in Pittsburgh.

[Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons]

The ‘Christopher Columbus Of China’ May Have Visited Kenya, A New Find Reveals

Kenya
An explorer from medieval China may have visited an island off the coast of Kenya, archaeologists say.

A joint expedition by The Field Museum and the University of Illinois at Chicago unearthed a 15th-century Chinese coin on the Kenyan island of Manda, according to a Field Museum press release. Starting around 200 A.D., Manda was a trading hub and home to an advanced civilization.

The coin, shown here, is an alloy of copper and silver and was issued by the Ming Emperor Yongle, who reigned from 1403-1425 A.D. The coin bears the emperor’s name.

Emperor Yongle sent Admiral Zheng He, also known as Cheng Ho, on an epic mission of exploration to find new trading partners. He traveled around the coasts of south and southeast Asia, east Africa as far north as Somalia, and the Arabian Peninsula.

“Zheng He was, in many ways, the Christopher Columbus of China,” said Dr. Kusimba, curator of African Anthropology at The Field Museum. “This finding is significant. We know Africa has always been connected to the rest of the world, but this coin opens a discussion about the relationship between China and Indian Ocean nations.”

Sadly, later Chinese rulers took a more insular policy and banned foreign expeditions. If they had continued Yongle’s work, the great Age of Exploration may have been more Chinese than European. Manda was mysteriously abandoned around 1430, shortly after Emperor Yongle’s death.

Chinese contact with east Africa has become a hot topic of research in recent years. Back in 2010, we reported that a DNA study found genetic links between China and Africa.

While the focus has been on Kenya, researchers might want to take a look at the city of Harar in Ethiopia, which has been a trading center for centuries. Some Hararis have vaguely Chinese features, and Harari coins have been found in China. When I was doing research there some Hararis told me that the city used to trade with China many centuries ago.

In the nearby early medieval settlement of Harla, which may have been the predecessor to Harar, farmers have uncovered two Chinese coins dated to 1040 and 1080 A.D.

[Photo courtesy John Weinstein/The Field Museum]

Fabled Sunstone Discovered In English Shipwreck

sunstone
A team of French archaeologists believe they have found a sunstone, a strange crystal that was said to help mariners locate the sun even on overcast days.

Some of the medieval Norse Sagas mention this device. In “Rauðúlfs þáttr,” King Olaf asks the hero Sigurður to point out the sun in the middle of a snowstorm. Sigurður points to where it is behind the gray sky. To test him, the king had a follower “fetch the sunstone and held it up and saw where light radiated from the stone and thus directly verified Sigurður’s prediction.”

One recent study suggests the “sunstone” was a double-refracting crystal, which allows light through when the light is polarized in certain directions. They brighten or darken depending on the polarization of the light behind it. Clouds block the sun’s visible light but let through a concentration of polarized light that can be detected by the crystal as it’s moved around. Double-refracting crystals such as cordierite, tourmaline and calcite are common in Scandinavia.

Some scholars have expressed doubts about the sunstone’s existence because “Rauðúlfs þáttr” is a highly allegorical tale full of magical events.

Now it appears the tale may not be all that fantastic after all. Archaeologists from the University of Rennes have been studying finds from a British ship that sunk in 1592 near the island of Alderney in the English Channel. They found a rectangular block of Iceland spar calcite crystal, a type known for its double-refracting properties. The crystal was found next to a pair of dividers that may have been used for navigation.

The researchers suggest that their discovery shows the use of sunstones lasted well beyond the Viking era.

The team’s results appear in the latest issue of the “Proceedings of the Royal Society.”

[Photo courtesy Alderney Society Museum]

Victoria & Albert Museum Showcases Treasures From Royal Courts

Victoria & Albert Museum
The Victoria & Albert Museum in London has just opened a new exhibition about the development of trade and official relations between Russia and the United Kingdom.

“Treasures of the Royal Courts: Tudors, Stuarts and the Russian Tsars” brings together more than 150 objects for a look at the interaction between both courts from the accession of Henry VIII in 1509. He and later Tudor monarchs were eager to expand contacts with Russia to tap into the lucrative fur trade, selling English wool and luxury items in return. The artifacts show how the courts affected one another through the reigns of two English dynasties.

Timed to coincide with the 400th anniversary of the founding of the dynasty of the Romanovs, the exhibition focuses on gifts and cultural exchanges between the two royal courts instead of the rather humble trade that financed them. Included are Shakespeare’s first folio, a little-seen portrait of Elizabeth I, Henry VIII’s suit of processional armor and royal jewelry.

The exhibition also includes objects loaned from Russian institutions, such as this odd silver basin showing a dolphin from 1635. It’s part of a collection of English and French silver given to the Tsars by the British royal family. Examples of this kind of silver are rare in England because most of it was melted down to finance the English Civil War. What’s interesting about this basin is the way the dolphin is portrayed – more like those seen in Greek and Roman art than what dolphins look like in reality. It appears the silversmith had a Classical education but not much contact with the sea!

%Gallery-180975%There’s also quite a bit about the Muscovy Company, an English firm given a monopoly on trading rights with Russia from 1555 until 1698. The company’s captains made a fortune trading with Russia and even tried to open a route to China by sailing north of Siberia. The so-called Northeast Passage was as bad of an idea as it sounds and many sailors froze to death in the attempt.

The Northeast Passage remained a dream until 1878, when the Finnish explorer Adolf Erik Nordenskiöld sailed the Vega from Europe to Japan via Siberia. Sadly for him, the Suez Canal had opened nine years before and there already was a shorter route to China.

“Treasures of the Royal Courts: Tudors, Stuarts and the Russian Tsars” runs until July 14.

[Photo courtesy Victoria and Albert Museum, London]