Macabre Masks

The Templo Mayor, built between 1337 and 1487, was the political and religious heart of Tenochtitlán, the city-state in Valley of Mexico that became the capital of the Aztec empire starting from the 15th Century.
Since its remains were accidentally discovered in 1978, during the excavations for Mexico City’s subway, archeologists have unearthed close to 80 ceremonial buildings and an extraordinary number of manufacts from the Aztec (Mexica) civilization.

Among the most peculiar findings, there are some masks created from human skulls.
These masks are quite elaborate: the back of the skull was removed, probably in order to wear them or apply them to a headgear; the masks were colored with dye; flint blades and other decorations were inserted into the eye sockets and nostrils.

In 2016 a team of anthropologists from the University of Montana conducted an experimental research on eight of these masks, comparing them with twenty non-modified skulls found on the same site, in order to learn their sex, age at death, possible diseases and life styles. The results showed that the skull masks belonged to male individuals, 30 to 45-years old, with particularly good teeth, indicating above-average health. From the denture’s shape the anthropologists even inferred that these men came from faraway locations: Toluca Valley, Western Mexico, the Gulf coast and other Aztec towns in the Valley of Mexico. Therefore the skulls very likely belonged to prisoners of noble origins, excellently nourished and lacking any pathologies.

Human sacrifices at the Templo Mayor, for which the Aztecs are sadly known, were a spectacle that could entail different procedures: sometimes the victims were executed by beheading, sometimes through the extraction of the heart, or burned, or challenged to deathly combats.
The masks were produced from the bodies of sacrified warriors; wearing them must have had a highly symbolic value.

If these items survived the ravages of time, it’s because they’re made of bones. But there existed other, more unsettling disguises that have been inevitably lost: the masks made from the flayed skin of a sacrified enemy’s face.

The conquistador Bernal Díaz del Castillo described these skin masks as tanned to look “like glove leather” and said that they were worn during celebrations of military victories. Other masks, made of human skin, were displayed as offerings on temple altars, just as a number of the skull masks, reanimated by shell and stone eyeballs, noses, and tongues, were buried in offerings at the Templo Mayor. Because a defeated enemy’s former powers were believed to be embedded in his skin and bones, masks made of his relics not only transferred his powers to the new owner but could serve as worthy offerings to the god as well.

(Cecelia F. Klein, Aztec Masks, in Mexicolore, September 2012)

During a month-long ceremony called Tlacaxiphualiztli, “the Flaying of Men”, the skin of sacrified prisoners was peeled off and worn for twenty days to celebrate the war god Xipe Totec. The iconography portrays this god clothed in human skin.

Such masks, wether made of bone or of skin, have a much deeper meaning than the ritual itself. They play an important role in establishing identity:

In Aztec society a warrior who killed his first captive was said to ‘assume another face.’ Regardless of whether this expression referred literally to a trophy mask or was simply a figure of speech, it implies that the youth’s new “face” represented a new social identity or status. Aztec masks therefore must be understood as revelations, or signs, of a person’s special status rather than as disguises […]. In Nahuatl, the language spoken by the Aztecs, the word for face, xayacatl, is the same word used to refer to something that covers the face.

(Cecelia F. Klein, Ibid.)

Here is the interesting point: there’s not a single culture in the whole world which hasn’t elaborated its own masks, and they very rarely are simple disguises.
Their purpose is “the development of personality […], or more accurately, the development of the person [which] is a question of magical prestige“: the masks “are actually used among primitives in in totem ceremonies, for instance, as a means of enhancing or changing the personality” (Carl Gustav Jung, The Ego and the Uncoscious, 1928, p. 155).

Much in the same way, the decorated skulls of Templo Mayor are not so “exotic” as we might like to imagine. These manufacts are but a different declination of ideas we are quite familiar with — ideas that are at the very core of our own society.

The relationship between the face (our identity and individuality) and the mask we wear, is a very ancient paradox. Just like for the Aztecs the term xayacatl could indicate both the mask and the face, for us too they are often indistinguishable.

The very word person comes from the Latin “per-sonare”, “to resound through”: it’s the voice of the actor behind his mask.
Greek tragedy was born between the 7th and 5th century BCE, a representation that essentialy a substitute for human sacrifices, as Réné Girard affirmed. One of the most recognized etimologies tells us that tragedy is actually the song of the scapgoat: an imitation of the ritual killing of the “internal stranger” on the altar, of the bloody spectacle with which society cleansed itself, and washed away its most impure, primiteve urges. Tragedy plays – which Athenians were obligated to attend by law, during Dionysus celebrations – substituted the ancestral violence of the sacrifice with its representation, and the scapegoat with the tragic hero.

Thus the theater, in the beginning, was conflict and catharsis. A duel between the Barbarian, who knows no language and acts through natural instinct, and the Citizen, the son of order and logos.
Theater, just like human sacrifice, created cultural identity; the Mask creates the person needed for the mise-en-scene of this identity, forming and regulating social interactions.

The human sacrifices of the ancient Greeks and of the Aztec both met the same need: cultural identity is born (or at least reinforced) by contrast with the adversary, offered and killed on the altar.
Reducing the enemy to a skull — as the Aztecs did with the tzompantli, the terrible racks used to exhibit dozens, maybe hundreds of sacrifice victims skulls — is a way of depriving him of his mask/face, of annihilating his identity. Here are the enemies, all alike, just bleached bones under the sun, with no individual quality whatsoever.

But turning these skulls into masks, or wearing the enemy’s skin, implies a tough work, and therefore means performing an even more conscious magical act: it serves the purpose of acquiring his strength and power, but also of reasserting that the person (and, by extension, society) only exists because of the Stranger it was able to defeat.

“A Tiny Red Hole”: Horrible Stories of Needles

Sometimes the smallest objects can turn out to be the most useful. And the most frightening.
Who doesn’t feel at least a vague repulsion, a little shiver upon seeing a needle entering the skin?

You guessed it: this article is devoted to needles in bizarre clinical contexts. If you are among the 10% of the population who suffer from needle phobia, then you should skip this post… or maybe not.

Prehistoric Needles
An invention older than Man himself

Let’s begin with a little curiosity that isn’t really relevant to this article, but I find fascinating: pictured above is the most ancient needle ever recovered by archaeologists… and it’s not a human artifact.

7 centimeters-long, carved from the bone of an unidentified bird, this perfect needle (complete with an eye to insert a thread) was produced more than 50.000 years ago – not by proper Homo sapiens, but by the mysterious Denisova hominin: settled on mount Altaj in Siberia, these human predecessors are partly still an enigma for paleontologists. But this needle, found in 2016 from their cave, is a proof of their technological advancement.

Needles Under The Skin
The inexplicable delay of Western medicine

Going from sewing needles to medical needles was a much later conquest than you might imagine.
It shouldn’t have been that difficult to see how injecting a drug directly under the skin might be an effective kind of treatment. Norman Howard-Jones begins his Critical Study of the Origins and Early Development of Hypodermic Medication (1947) by noting that:

The effects of the bites of venomous snakes and insects pointed clearly to the possibility of the introduction of drugs through punctures in the skin. In primitive societies, the application for therapeutic purposes of plant and animal products through cutaneous incisions is practiced […], and the use of poisoned arrows may be regarded as a crude precursor of hypodermic and intramuscular medication.

We could trace another “crude precursor” of intramuscular injections back to Sir Robert Christison‘s 1831 proposal, suggesting that whalers fix a vial of prussic acid to their harpoons in order to kill whales more quickly.

And yet, despite of all these clues, the first proper hypodermic injection for strict medical purposes did not take place before mid-Nineteenth Century. Until then, syringes (which had been around for centuries) were mainly used for suction, for instance to draw the fluids which accumulated in abscesses. Enemas and nasal irrigation were used since Roman times, but nobody had thought to inject medications under the skin.

Physicians had tried, with varying results, to scar the epydermis with irritants and to deposit the drug directly on the resultin ulcer, or they sliced the skin with a lancet, as in bloodletting, and inserted salts (for example morphine) through the cut. In 1847, G. V. Lafargue was the first to have the intuition of combining inoculation with acupuncture, and to build a long and thick hollow needle filled with morphine paste. But other methods were being tested, such as sawing a silk thread, imbued in drugs, directly into the patient’s skin.

The first true hypodermic syringe was invented in 1853 by Scottish doctor Alexander Wood, as reported in his New Method of Treating Neuralgia by Subcutaneous Injection (1855). Almost at the same time, the French physician Charles Pravaz had devised his own version. By the end of the Nineteenth Century, hypodermic injections had become a widespread procedure in the medical field.

Needles In The Flesh
The bizarre clinical case of the “needle woman”

Published in 1829 by Giuseppe Ferrario, Chief Surgeon at the Ospedale Maggiore in Milan, La donna dagli aghi reports a strange case that began in June 1828.

A young 19-year-old woman, Maria Magni, “peasant, of scrofulous appearance, but with a passionate temper” was admitted to the hospital because of severe pain.
One April morning, the year before, she had found a light blue piece of paper on the ground which contained 70/80 steel sewing needles. In order not to lose them, she had pinned them on her blouse cuff. But Maria suffered from epileptic fits, and a few hours later, as she was working in the vineyard, “she fell victim of the usual spasms, and convulsive bouts. Under these abnormal and violent muscular movements […] she believes that she unwillingly pushed the needles she had pinned to her shirt through her right arm – which was naked, as is the case among our peasants – as well as through her breast”. The needles didn’t cause her any trouble until three months later, when the pain had become unbearable; she then decided to go to the hospital.

The doctor on duty hesitated to admit her, for fear she had syphilis: Magni had tried alternative treatments, and had applied “many varied remedies, catplasms, ointments, blistering drugs and other ulcerating substances, etc, with the intention of exciting the needles out of her skin”, but this only resulted in her body being covered by sores.
Enter Doctor Ferrario, who during the first 35 days of treatment submitted her to bloodletting for 16 times, applied more than 160 leeches to her temples, administered vesicants, frictions, decoctions, salts and various tinctures. But the daily epileptic fits were terrible, and nothing seemed to work: “all the physicians, stunned by the woman’s horrible condition, predicted an approaching and inevitable death”.

Upon hearing the story of the needles, though, Ferrario began to wonder if some of them were still sticking inside the young woman’s body. He examined her wounds and actually started feeling something thin and hard within the flesh; but touching those spots triggered some epileptic fits of unheard violence. Ferrario described these bouts with typical 19th-Century literary flourishes, in the manner of Gothic novels, a language which today sounds oddly inappropriate in a medical context:

the poor wretched girl, pointing her nape and feet, pushed her head between her shoulders while jumping high above the bed, and arched her bust and arms on the account of the spasmodic contraction of dorsal muscles […] she was shaking and screaming, and angrily wrapped her body in her arms at the risk of suffocating […]. There was involuntary loss of urine and feces […]. Her gasping, suffocated breath, her flaccid and wrinkled breast which appeared beneath her hirst, torn to pieces; the violence with which she turned her head on her neck, and with which she banged it against the walls and threw it back, hanging from the side of the bed; her red and bulging eyes, sometimes dazed, sometimes wide open, almost coming out of their socket, glassy and restless; the obscene clenching of her teeth, the foamy, bloody matter that she squirted and vomited from her dirty mouth, her swollen and horribly distorted face, her black hair, soaked in drool, which she flapped around her cranium […] all this inspired the utmost disgust and terror, as it was the sorrowful image of an infernal fury.

Ferrario then began extracting the needles out of the woman’s body, performing small incisions, and his record went on and on much in the same way: “this morning I discovered a needle in the internal superior region of the right breast […] After lunch, having cut the upper part of the arm as usual, I extracted the needle n. 14, very rusty, with its point still intact but missing the eye […] from the top of the mons pubis I extracted the needle n. 24, rusty, without point nor eye, of the length of eight lines.

The pins were hard to track down, they moved across the muscles from one day to the other, so much so that the physician even tried using big horseshoe magnets to locate the needles.
The days went by, and as the number of extracted needles grew, so did the suspect that the woman might be cheating on the doctors; Maria Magni just kept expelling needles over and over again. Ferrario began to wonder whether the woman was secretly inserting the needles in her own body.
But before accusing her, he needed proof. He had them searched, kept under strict surveillance, and he even tried to leave some “bait” needles lying around the patient’s bed, to see if they disappear. Nothing.

In the meantime, starting from extraction number 124, Miss Magni began throwing up needles.
The physician had to ask himself: did these needles arrive into the digestive tract through the diaphragm? Or did Magni swallow them on purpose? One thing is sure: vomiting needles caused the woman such distress that “having being so unwell, I doubt she ever swallowed any more after that, but she might have resorted to another less uncomfortable and less dangerous opening, to continue her malicious introduction of needles in the body”.
The “less uncomfortable opening” was her vagina, from which many a new needle was removed.

As if all this was not enough, rumors had spread that the “needle woman” was actually a witch, and hospital patients began to panic.

An old countrywoman, recovering in the bed next to Magni’s, became convinced that the woman had been victim of a spell, and then turned into a witch on the account of the magic needles. Being on the bed next to her, the old lady believed that she herself might fall under the spell. She didn’t want to be touched by the young woman, nor by me, for she believed I could be a sorcerer too, because I was able to extract the needles so easily. This old lady fell for this nonsense so that she started screaming all day long like a lunatic, and really became frenzied and delirious, and many leeches had to be applied to her head to calm her down.

Eventually one day it was discovered where Magni had been hiding the needles that she stuck in her body:

Two whole needles inside a ball of yarn; four whole needles wrapped in paper between the mattress and the straw, all very shiny; a seventh needle, partly rusted, pinned under a bed plank. Several inmates declared that Maria Magni had borrowed four needles from them, not returning them with the excuse that they had broken. The ill-advised young woman, seeing she was surrounded and exposed […] faked violent convulsions and started acting like a demon, trashing the bed and hurting the assistants. She ended by simulating furious ecstasy, during which she talked about purely fictional beings, called upon the saints and the devils, then began swearing, then horribly blasphemed angels, saints, demons, physicians, surgeons and nurses alike.

After a couple of days of these performance, Magni confessed. She had implanted the needles herself under her skin, placed them inside her vagina and swallowed them, taking care of hiding the pierced areas until the “tiny red hole” had cicatrized and disappeared.
In total, 315 needles were retrieved from Maria Magni’s body.
In the epilogue of his essay, Ferrario points out that this was not even the first recorded case: in 1821, 363 needles were extracted from the body of young Rachel Hertz; another account is about a girl who survived for more than 24 years to the ingestion of 1.500 needles. Another woman, Genueffa Pule, was born in 1763 and died at the age of 37, and an autopsy was carried out on her body: “upon dissecting the cadaver, in the upper, inner part of each thigh, precisely inside the triceps, masses of pins and needles were found under the teguments, and all the muscles teemed with pins and needles”.

Ferrario ascribes the motivations of these actions to pica, or superstition. Maria claimed that she had been encouraged by other women of the village to swallow the needles in order to emulate the martyr saints, as a sort of apotropaic ritual. More plausibly, this was just a lie the woman told when she saw herself being cornered.

In the end, the physician admits his inability to understand:

It is undoubtedly a strange thing for a sane person to imagine how pain – a sensation shunned even by the most ignorant people, and abhorred by human nature – could be sometimes sought out and self-inflicted by a reasonable individual.

I wonder what would Ferrario say today, if he could see some practices such as play piercing or body suspension performances.

Needles In The Brain
A dreadful legacy

As I was going through pathology archives, in search of studies that could have some similarities with the Magni story, I came upon one, then two, then several other reports regarding an even more unbelievable occurrence: sewing needles found in the encephalon of adult patients, often during routine X-rays.

Intracranial foreign bodies are rare, and usually result from trauma and operations; but neither the 37-year-old patient admitted in 2004, nor the 45-year-old man in 2005, nor the 82-year-old Italian woman in 2010, nor the 48-year-old Chinese woman in 2015 had suffered any major cranial trauma or undergone head surgery.
An apparently impossible enigma: how did those needles get there?

The answer is quite awful. These are all cases of failed infanticide.

The possibility of infanticide by inserting pins through the fontanelle is mentioned in the Enciclopedia legale ovvero Lessico ragionato by F. Foramiti (1839), where the author includes a (chilling) list of all the methods with which a mother can kill her own child, among which appears the “puncturing the fontanelle and the brain with a thin sharp dagger or a long and strong needle”.

But the practice, properly documented in medical literature only by 1914, already appeared in Persian novels and texts: perhaps the fact that the method was well-known in the ancient Middle East, is the reason why most of the forty recorded cases were documented in Turkey and Iran, with a minority coming from Southeast Asia, Europe and the United States. In Italy there were two known cases, one in 1987 and the 2010 case mentioned above.

Most of these patients didn’t show any particular neurological symptom: the sewing needles, having been embedded in the brain for so many years, are not even removed; a surgical procedure, at this point, would be more dangerous than leaving them in situ.
This was the case for the only known occurrence reported in Africa, a 4-year-old child carrying a 4,5 cm needle through his brain. At the time the report was filed, in 2014, the needle was still there: “no complications were noted, the child had normal physical and mental development with excellent performance at school”.

Of course, discovering at the age of forty that someone – your parents, or maybe your grandparents – tried to kill you when you were just months old must be a shock.
It happened to Luo Cuifen, a chinese lady who was born in 1976, and who showed up at the hospital because of blood in her urine in 2007, and who discovered she had 26 sewing needles in her body, piercing vital organs such as lungs, liver, kidneys and brain. Her story is related to the discriminations towards female newborn children in rural China, where a son is more welcome than a daughter because he can carry on the family name, perform funeral rituals for ancestors, and so on. In Luo’s case, it was most likely her grandparents who attempted the infanticide when she was but months old (even if this theory cannot be proven, as her grandparents already passed away).

In more recent cases, recorded in Tunisia, China and Brazil, it was discovered that the children had respectively three, twelve and even fifty needles stuck in their bodies.

The cases of people surviving for decades with a needle in their brain are obviously an exception – as one of the studies put it, this is the “tip of the iceberg”.
A needle wound can be almost invisible. What is really disquieting is the thought of all those infanticides who are carried out “successfully”, without being discovered.

Sometimes the smallest objects can turn out to be the most useful. And the most lethal.

My gratitude goes to Mariano Tomatis, who recommended La donna dagli aghi, which he discovered during his studies on 19th-century magnetism, and which started this research.

Children of the Grave

They give birth astride of a grave,
the light gleams an instant,
then it’s night once more.

(S. Beckett, Aspettando Godot)

An Italian Horror Story

Castel del Giudice, Italy.
On the 5th of August 1875, a pregnant woman, indicated in the documents with the initials F. D’A., died during labor, before being able to give birth to her child.
On the following day, without respecting the required minimum waiting time before interment, her body was lowered into the cemetery’s fossa carnaria. This was a kind of collective burial for the poorest classes, still common at the time in hundreds of Italian communes: it consisted in a sealed underground space, a room or a pit, where the corpses were stacked and left to rot (some inside coffins, others wrapped in simple shrouds).

For the body of F. D’A., things began to get ugly right from the start:

She had to be lowered in the pit, so the corpse was secured with a rope, but the rope broke and D’A.’s poor body fell from a certain height, her head bumping into a casket. Some people climbed down, they took D’A. and arranged her on her back upon a nearby coffin, where she laid down with a deathly pale face, her hands tied together and resting on her abdomen, her legs joined by stitched stockings. Thus, and not otherwise, D’A. was left by the participants who buried her.

But when, a couple of days later, the pit was opened again in order to bury another deceased girl, a terrible vision awaited the bystanders:

F. D’A.’s sister hurried to give a last goodbye to her dead relative, but as soon as she looked down to the place where her sister was laid to rest, she had to observe the miserable spectacle of her sister placed in a very different position from the one she had been left in; between her legs was the fetus she had given birth to, inside the grave, and together with whom she had miserably died. […] Officers immediately arrived, and found D’A.’s body lying on her left side, her face intensely strained; her hands, still tied by a white cotton ribbon, formed an arch with her arms and rested on her forehead, while pieces of white ribbon were found between her teeth […]. At the mother’s feet stood a male newborn child with his umbilical cord, showing well-proportioned and developed limbs.

Imagine the horror of the poor woman, waking up in the dark in the grip of labor pains; with her last remaining energy she had succeeded in giving birth to her child, only to die shortly after, “besieged by corpses, lacking air, assistance or food, and exhausted by the blood loss suffered during delivery“.
One could hardly picture a more dreadful fate.

The case had a huge resonance all across Italy; a trial took place at the Court of Isernia, and the town physician, the mayor and the undertaker were found guilty of two involuntary murders “aggravated by gross negligence“, sentenced to six months in jail and fined (51 liras) – but the punishment was later cut by half by the Court of Appeal of Naples in November 1877.
This unprecedented reduction of penalty was harshly criticized by the Times correspondant in Italy, who observed that “the circumstances of the case, if well analyzed, show the slight value which is attached to human life in this country“; the news also appeared in the New York Times as well as in other British and American newspapers.

This story, however scary – because it is so scary – should be taken with a pinch of salt.
There’s more than one reason to be careful.

Buried Alive?

First of all, the theme of a pregnant woman believed dead and giving birth in a grave was already a recurring motif in the Nineteeth Century, as taphophobia (the fear of being buried alive) reached its peak.

Folklorist Paul Barber in his Vampires, Burial, and Death: Folklore and Reality (1988) argues that the number of people actually buried alive was highly exaggerated in the chronicles; a stance also shared by Jan Bondeson, who in one of the most complete books on the subject, Buried Alive, shows how the large majority of nineteenth-century premature burial accounts are not reliable.

For the most part it would seem to be a romantic, decadent literary topos, albeit inspired by a danger that was certainly real in the past centuries: interpreting the signs of death was a complex and often approximate procedure, so much so that by the 1700s some treatises (the most famous one being Winslow‘s) introduced a series of measures to verify with greater accuracy the passing of a patient.

A superficial knowledge of decomposition processes could also lead to misunderstandings.
When bodies were exhumed, it was not uncommon to find their position had changed; this was due to the cadaver’s natural tendency to move during decomposition, and to be sometimes subjected to small “explosions” caused by putrefaction gasses – explosions that are powerful enough to rotate the body’s upper limbs. Likewise, the marks left by rodents or other scavengers (loose dirt, scratches, bite marks, torn clothes, fallen hair) could be mistaken for the deceased person’s desperate attempts at getting out.

Yet, as we’ve said, there was a part of truth, and some unfortunate people surely ended up alive inside a coffin. Even with all our modern diagnostic tools, every now and then someone wakes up in a morgue. But these events are, today like yesterday, extremely rare, and these stories speak more about a cultural fear rather than a concrete risk.

Coffin Birth

If being buried alive was already an exceptional fact, then the chances of a pregnant woman actually giving birth inside a grave look even slimmer. But this idea – so charged with pathos it could only fascinate the Victorian sensibility – might as well have come from real observations. Opening a woman’s grave and finding a stillborn child must have looked like a definitive proof of her premature burial.
What wasn’t known at the time is that the fetus can, in rare circumstances, be expelled postmortem.

Anaerobic microorganisms, which start the cadaver’s putrefactive phase, release several gasses during their metabolic activity. During this emphysematous stage, internal tissues stretch and tighten; the torso, abdomen and legs swell; the internal pressure caused by the accumulation of gas can lead, within the body of a woman in the late stages of pregnancy, to a separation of amniotic membranes, a prolapse of the uterus and a subsequent total or partial extrusion of the fetus.
This event appears to be more likely if the dead woman has been pregnant before, on the account of a more elastic cervix.
This  strange phenomenon is called Sarggeburt (coffin birth) in early German forensic literature.

The first case of postmortem delivery dates back to 1551, when a woman hanged on the gallows released, four hours after her execution, the bodies of two twins, both dead. (A very similar episode happened in 2007 in India, when a woman killed herself during labor; in that instance, the baby was found alive and healthy.)
In Brussels, in 1633, a woman died of convulsions and three days later a fetus was spontaneously expelled. The same thing happened in Weißenfels, Saxony, in 1861. Other cases are mentioned in the first medical book to address this strange event, Anomalies and Curiosities of Medicine, published in 1896, but for the most part these accidents occurred when the body of the mother had yet to be buried.
It was John Whitridge Williams who, in his fortunate Obstetrics: a text-book for the use of students and practitioners (1904), pointed to the possibility of postmortem delivery taking place after burial.

Fetal extrusion after the mother’s death has also been observed in recent times.

A 2005 case involved a woman who died in her apartment from acute heroine intoxication: upon finding her body, it was noted that the fetus head was protruding from the mother’s underwear; but later on, during the autopsy, the upper part of the baby’s torso was also visible – a sign that gasses had continued to build in the abdominal region, increasing interior pressure.
In 2008 a 38 year-old, 7 months pregnant woman was found murdered in a field in advanced state of decomposition, accelerated by tropical climate. During the autopsy a fetus was found inside the woman’s slips, the umbilical cord still attached to the placenta (here is the forensic case study – WARNING: graphic).

Life In Death

So, going back to that unfortunate lady from Castel del Giudice, what really happened to her?
Sure, the autopsy report filed at the time and quoted in the trial papers mentioned the presence of air in the baby’s lungs, a proof that the child was born alive. And it’s possible that this was the case.

But on one hand this story fits all too perfectly within a specific popular narrative of its time, whose actual statistical incidence has been doubted by scholars; on the other, the possibility of postmortem fetal extrusion is well-documented, so much so that even archeologists sometimes struggle to interpret ancient skeletal findings showing fetuses still partially enclosed within the pelvic bone.

The only certain thing is that these stories – whether they’re authentic or made up – have an almost archetypal quality; birth and death entwined in a single place and time.
Maybe they’re so enthralling because, on a symbolic level, they remind us of a peculiar truth, one expressed in a famous verse from
ManiliusAstronomica:

Nascentes morimur, finisque ab origine pendet.

As we are born we die, our end commences with our beginning.”

Links, curiosities & mixed wonders – 8

Here we are for a new edition of LC&MW, the perfect column to dawdle and amaze yourself at the beach!
(It is also perfect for me to relax a bit while writing the new book for the BB Collection.) (Speaking of which, until Septembre 15 you can get 20% discount if you buy all 4 books in one bundle — just insert the coupon BUNDLE4 at check out. Comes with a free Bizzarro Bazar Shopper.) (Oh, I almost forgot, the above chameleon is a hand, painted by great Guido Daniele, whose job is to… well, paint hands.)
Alright, let’s begin!

  • In Mexico City, at the Templo Mayor, archeologists finally found one of the legendary Aztech “towers of skulls” that once terrorized the Spanish conquistadores. These racks (called tzompantli) were used to exhibit the remains of warriors who valliantly died in battle, or enemies and war prisoners: they were descibed in many codices and travel diearies. The newly-discovered “tower” could well be the famed Huey Tzompantli, the biggest of them all, an impressing rack that could hold up to 60.000 heads, according to calculations (just imagine the nightmarish view).
    On this new site 650 skulls have been found, but the number is bound to increase as the excavation proceeds. But there’s a mystery: the experts expected to find the remains, as we’ve said, of oung warriors. Until now, they have encountered an unexplicable high rate of women and children — something that left everyone a bit confused. Maybe we have yet to fully understand the true function of the tzompantli?
  • One more archeological mystery: in Peru, some 200km away from the more famous Nazca lines, there is this sort of candelabra carved into the mountain rock. The geoglyph is 181 meters high, can be seen from the water, and nobody knows exactly what it is.

  • During the night on August 21, 1986, in a valley in the north-west province of Cameroon, more than 1700 people and 3500 cattle animals suddenly died in their sleep. What happened?
    Nearby lake Nyos, which the locals believed was haunted by spirits, was responsible for the disaster.
    On the bottom of lake Nyos, active volcanic magma naturally forms a layer of water with a very high CO2 concentration. Recent rainfalls had facilitated the so-called “lake overturn” (or limnic eruption): the lower layer had abruptly shifted to the surface, freeing an immense, invisible carbon dioxide cloud, as big as 80 million cubic meters, which in a few minutes suffocated almost all living beings in the valley. [Discovered via Oddly Historical]

If you find yourself nearby, don’t be afraid to breathe. Today siphons bring water from the bottom to the surface of the lake, so as to free the CO2 gradually and constantly.

  • Ok — what the heck is a swimsuit ad (by Italian firm Tezenis) doing on Bizzarro Bazar?
    Look again. That neck, folks.
    Photoshopping going wrong? Maybe, but I like to think that this pretty girl is actually the successor of great Martin Joe Laurello, star of the freakshow with Ringlin Bros, Ripley’s Believe It Or Not, Barnum & Bailey and other travelling shows.
    Here you can see him in action, together with fellow performer Bendyman.

  • The latest issue of Godfrey’s Almanack (an installation by the creator of the wonderful Thinker’s Garden) is devoted to the sea, to ancient navigation, to sea monsters. And it is delightful.
  • Say what you wish about Catherine The Great, but she surely had a certain taste for furniture.
  • Meanwhile in Kenya there’s a lawyer who (for the second time!) is trying to sue Israel and us Italians for killing Jesus Christ. That should teach us a lesson. You can murder, plunder and destroy undisturbed for centuries, but never mess with somebody who has connections at the top.
    P.S. An advise for Greek friends: you may be next, start hiding all traces of hemlock.
  • On this website (click on the first picture) you can take a 360° tour through the crytpt of Saint Casimir, Krakow, among open caskets and exposed mummies.

  • The above pic shows one of the casts of Pompeii victims, and it has recently gone viral after a user speculated ironically that the man might have died in the midst of an act of onanism. You can figure out the rest: users making trivial jokes, others deploring the lack of respect for the dead… Now, now, children.
  • If you’re on vacation in Souht East Asia, and you’re thinking about purchasing a bottle of snake wine… well, think again. The practice is quite cruel to begin with, and secondly, there have been reports of snakes waking up after spending months in alcohol, and sending whoever opened the bottle to the hospital or to the grave.

  • From July 21 to 24 I will be at the University of Winchester for the conference organised by Death & The Maiden, a beautiful blog exploring the relationship between women and death, to which I had the pleasure of contributing once or twice. The event looks awesome: panels aside, there will be seminars and workshops (from shroud embroidery to Victorian hairwork techniques), guided tours to local cemeteries, concerts, art performances and film screenings.
    I am bringing my talk Saints, Mothers & Aphrodites, which I hope I will be able to take on tour throughout Italy in autumn.

That’s all for now, see you next time!

The last embrace

They found among all those hideous carcasses two skeletons, one of which held the other in its embrace. One of these skeletons, which was that of a woman, still had a few strips of a garment which had once been white, and around her neck was to be seen a string of adrézarach beads with a little silk bag ornamented with green glass, which was open and empty. These objects were of so little value that the executioner had probably not cared for them. The other, which held this one in a close embrace, was the skeleton of a man. It was noticed that his spinal column was crooked, his head seated on his shoulder blades, and that one leg was shorter than the other. Moreover, there was no fracture of the vertebrae at the nape of the neck, and it was evident that he had not been hanged. Hence, the man to whom it had belonged had come thither and had died there. When they tried to detach the skeleton which he held in his embrace, he fell to dust.

(V. Hugo, Notre-Dame de Paris, 1831)

Thus, with Quasimodo holding his Esmeralda for eternity, ends Notre-Dame de Paris (1831) by Victor Hugo.

There is something awfully sad yet sublime in the image of two skeletons fixed in a last embrace: two lovers giving shelter to each other as the definitive cold makes its way, seemingly embodying the romantic ideal of love conquering death. “When you die, you always die alone“, sang Fabrizio De André; and yet, these remains seem to have experienced an enviable departure, as it grants the privilege of an extreme and intimate moment of inner thoughtfulness.

Earlier this year, in Greece, on the Diros archeological excavation site, two hugging skeletons were found: a man reclined behind a woman. These remains date back to 3.800 B.C., but even if “double” burials are quite rare, the one in Diros is actually not the only nor the most ancient one.

At the Archeological Museum in Mantua you can admire the so-called Lovers of Valdaro. The datation is neolithic, around 6.000 years ago. Their fetal position is typical of his kind of burials, but the two were layed down together.

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And yet Mantua’s record of the “World’s most ancient lovers” is defied by the skeletons found in 2007 in the Turkish region of Diyarbakir, dating back to 8.000 years ago. They too are suspended in this final embrace for which we might never know the actual reason, as their love story flourished and ended before recorded History.

Once again in Greece, in the region of Agios Vasileios, a few kilometers south of Sparta, two skeletons came to light in a similar position, and they date back to 1.600-1.5000 B.C.: these two lovers are laying on their side, and the man’s hand sustains the woman’s head in a delicate gesture, unaltered after more than three millennia.

Among the 600 tombs excavated in the Syberian village of Staryi Tartas and dating back to the Andronovo Culture, some dozens feature double burials, or even family burials. The archeologists can only guess the origin these graves: are these traces of sacrificial rites, or were these collective graves meant for the souls to travel together to the afterlife?

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In the archeological site of Teppe Hasanlu, Iran, two other lovers were found lying face to face inside a brick bin. Researchers believe the two hid inside that bin to escape the ancient citadel’s destruction, occured at the end of IX Century B.C.; as they conforted each other, amidst the cries of massacre, they probably died by asphyxiation.

Lovers clinged to one another even during another kind of destruction: the terrible eruption of Pompeii in 79.B.C. sealed under the ashes some couples in the act of protecting each other.

The “lovers of Modena”, located some years ago while building an apartment block, date back to V-VI Century A.D. The two are holding hands, and the woman looks towards the man; it is believed that he was staring back at her, until the cushion under his head deteriorated, misplacing the skull.

More recent, but certainly not less striking, are the skeletons found in Cluji-Napoca, Romania. The man and woman, who lived between 1.400 and 1.550, were buried fcing each other, holding hands. According to the first reconstructions, it seems the man might have died in an accident or a violent fight (his sternum was fractured by a blunt objet), while the woman might have died of a broken heart.

We would like to end with the most touching, and recent, example. In Roermond, Netherlands, there are two really exceptional graves: those of Infantry Colonel J.W.C. van Gorcum and his wife J.C.P.H van Aefferden. Married in 1842, they stayed together for 38 years, until in 1880 the Colonel died, and was buried in the protestant lot of the town cemetery. His wife, who was catholic, knew she could not be buried beside him; she decreeted that her remains were not to be interred in her family tomb, but as close as possible to her husband’s – just on the other side of the wall dividing the prostestant section from the catholic one.

Since she died, in 1888, the two monuments have been holding hands, over the barrier which tried to keep them separate, in vain.

The witch girl of Albenga

And maybe it is for revenge, maybe out of fear
Or just plain madness, but all along
You are the one who suffers the most
If you want to fly, they drag you down
And if a witch hunt begins,
Then you are the witch.

(Edoardo Bennato, La fata, 1977)

Saint Calocero, Albenga. 15th Century.
A 13-year-old girl was being buried near the church. But the men who were lowering her down decided to arrange her face down, so that her features were sealed by dirt. They did so to prevent her from getting up, and raising back to life. So that her soul could not sneak off her mouth and haunt those places. They did so, ultimately, because that little girl scared them to death.
Not far from there, another woman’s body was lying in a deep pit. Her skeleton was completely burned, and over her grave, the men placed a huge quantity of heavy stones, so she could not climb out of her tomb. Because women like her, everybody knew, were bound to wake up from the dead.

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The “witch girl of Albenga”, and a second female skeleton showing deep signs of burning, are two exceptional findings brought to light last year by a team from the Pontifical Institute of Christian Archeology, directed by Professor Philippe Pergola and coordinated by archeologist Stefano Roascio and Elena Dellù. Scholars were particularly puzzled by the proximity of these two anomalous burials to the ancient church which hosted the relics of martyr Saint Calocero: if these two women were considered “dangerous” or “damned”, why were they inhumed in a privileged burial ground, surely coveted by many?

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One explanation could be that burying them there was a “sign of submission to the Church”. But there is still extensive analysis to be conducted on the remains, and already skeletons are revealing some clues which could shine a light on this completely forgotten story. Why would a child, not even 60 inches tall, instill such a deep fear in her fellow citizens?
Researchers found out small holes in her skull, which could show she suffered from severe anemia and scurvy. These pathologies could involve fainting, sudden bleeding and epileptic fits; all symptoms that, at the time, could have been easily interpreted as demonic possession.
A possible kinship between the two women has still to be confirmed, but both skeletons seem to show signs of metopism, a genetic condition affecting the suture of the frontal bones.
According to radiocarbon dating, the burials date back to a period between 1440 and 1530 AD – when the infamous witch hunts had already begun.

english-witches-making-a-spell-1489-engraving-b-w-photoIn 1326, the papal bull Super illius specula by Pope John XXII set the basis for witch hunts: as incredible as it may sound, until then intellctuals and theologists had dismissed the idea of a “commerce with the Devil” as a mere superstition, that had to be eradicated.

Therefore in those churches they are given custody of priests have to constantly predicate to God’s people that these things are completely false. […] Who has never experienced going out of one’s body during his sleep, or to have night visions and to see, while sleeping, things he had never seen while wide awake? Who could be so dull or foolish as to believe that all these things which happen in the spirit, could also happen in the body?

(Canon episcopi, X Century)

Instead, starting from the XIV Century, even the intelligentsia was convinced that witches were real, and thus began the fight not just against heresy, but also against witchcraft, a persecution the Church entrusted to mendicant orders (Dominicans and Franciscans) and which would last over four centuries. Following the publishing of Malleus Maleficarum (1487), an actual handbook about witchcraft repression, the trials increased, ironically in conjunction with the Renaissance, up until the Age of Enlightenment. The destiny of the “witch girl” of Albenga has to be framed in this complex historical period: it is not a real mystery, as some newspapers have claimed, but rather another tragic human story, its details vanishing in time. Hopefully at least a small part of it will be reconstructed, little by little, by the international team of researchers who are now working on the San Calocero excavations.

(Thanks, Silvano!)

Archeologia misteriosa

OOPArts (Out of place artifacts) è l’acronimo che indica tutti quei manufatti la cui datazione risulta “impossibile” o anacronistica secondo la Storia dell’umanità così come viene accettata dalla comunità scientifica.

Normalmente, come sa bene chi ci segue, rifuggiamo dall’affrontare su queste pagine i “misteri da supermercato” come cerchi nel grano, alieni, fantasmi o profezie millenaristiche. Facciamo un’eccezione in questo caso, perché l’archeologia misteriosa è materia che non si rifà per forza e direttamente al paranormale, e pone invece domande e dubbi interessanti sulla nostra Storia, e su quanto conosciamo veramente di essa.

Secondo i sostenitori dell’esistenza di inspiegabili oggetti anacronistici, vi sarebbero alcuni indizi, ritrovati nei modi e nei posti più vari, che metterebbero in discussione la cronologia dell’evoluzione della specie umana accettata dalla storiografia ufficiale. Alcuni di questi dimostrerebbero ad esempio che gli uomini erano presenti contemporaneamente ai dinosauri: se questo fosse vero, andrebbe riscritta l’idea convenzionale che i primi ominidi siano apparsi sulla Terra 60 milioni di anni dopo l’estinzione dei grandi rettili. Altri proverebbero in maniera sconcertante che le civiltà antiche possedevano tecnologie avanzatissime. Ma quanto c’è di vero in tutto questo?

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Uno degli esempi di OOPArts più interessanti (e che, a rigore, non è nemmeno un OOPArt, come vedremo) è senza dubbio il meccanismo di Antikythera. Nel 1900 un manipolo di pescatori di spugne si era rifugiato su un isolotto roccioso a cavallo fra mare Ionio ed Egeo, a seguito di una tempesta; sul fondale intorno all’isola scoprirono il relitto di una nave, naufragata nel I secolo a.C., e che trasportava oggetti di grande valore. Fra i tesori recuperati dal relitto, anche una scoperta che spiazzò la comunità scientifica: una macchina, corrosa e incrostata dai millenni passati sott’acqua, costituita da ruote ed ingranaggi di notevole complessità. Si tratta del più antico calcolatore meccanico conosciuto al mondo: veniva utilizzato per determinare il calendario solare, le fasi lunari, le eclissi, gli equinozi, e perfino le date dei giochi olimpici. La particolarità davvero unica del meccanismo è che include un tipo di ingranaggio studiato per computare la differenza fra il movimento della ruota che seguiva la posizione del sole e quella relativa alla posizione della Luna nello zodiaco. Questo ingranaggio è quello che in meccanica oggi chiamiamo differenziale, e venne brevettato ufficialmente soltanto nel 1827. Come facevano i Greci del I Secolo a.C. a possedere una scienza ingegneristica così progredita?

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La risposta degli storici è che questo meccanismo, per quanto sorprendentemente raffinato, si iscrive alla perfezione nelle conoscenze del tempo e non ha nulla di anacronistico. Che i popoli dell’area mediterranea fossero tecnologicamente avanzati è ben documentato, e di macchine ed automi abbondano i resoconti sugli inventori del tempo. Il planetario di Archimede è l’esempio che per primo viene in mente, ma anche il geniale Erone aveva progettato meccanismi pneumatici, distributori automatici a moneta relativamente simili a quelli odierni, automi teatrali e via dicendo. Del resto il numero dei corpi celesti del sistema solare rappresentati sul meccanismo di Antikythera riflette le conoscenze del tempo, raffigurando esclusivamente i cinque pianeti visibili ad occhio nudo.

Ciò che questo artefatto antico prova realmente è una verità che spesso sottovalutiamo, e cioè che le tecnologie possono andare perdute. Il progresso non è una linea in continua ascesa, ma può conoscere alti, bassi e addirittura dei momenti di involuzione: se una scienza viene dimenticata, ci possono volere millenni perché qualcun altro inventi o scopra nuovamente ciò che le generazioni più antiche conoscevano già.

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Per quanto intrigante, nella maggior parte dei casi l’anacronismo degli OOPArts sta esclusivamente nella mente di chi vuole vedercelo ad ogni costo. Prendiamo ad esempio il famigerato martello di London, trovato nell’omonima cittadina del Texas nel 1936 all’interno di un blocco di arenaria. Secondo Carl E. Baugh, che acquistò il martello intorno al 1983, la roccia che lo inglobava sarebbe databile fra i 500 e i 300 milioni di anni. Baugh, creazionista convinto, esibisce l’utensile come prova di una tecnologia antecedente al Diluvio Universale. Peccato però che il proprietario non permetta che sul misterioso martello vengano svolte analisi approfondite, fatto quantomeno sospetto. Lo stesso Baugh, poi, è in possesso di un vaso in metallo che sarebbe stato ritrovato all’interno di un blocco di carbone vecchio di 300 milioni di anni. Anche per questo artefatto è stata applicata la stessa politica di riserbo e segretezza nei confronti degli scienziati che richiedono di esaminare il reperto.

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Il problema degli OOPArts ritrovati nella roccia, a cui Baugh non vuole dare credito, è che una spiegazione per questi “misteri” archeologici esiste già.

La coppa è in ghisa, e la tecnologia della ghisa cominciò nel XVIII secolo. Il suo design è molto simile ai vasi usati per contenere metalli fusi e può essere stato usato da un lattoniere, uno stagnino o una persona che forgiava proiettili… la coppa è stata probabilmente gettata da un operaio dentro una miniera di carbone oppure nel cantiere di superficie della miniera. La mineralizzazione è comune nel carbone e nei sedimenti attorno alle miniere di carbone perché l’acqua piovana reagisce con i minerali esposti, e produce soluzioni altamente mineralizzate. Carbone, sedimenti e rocce si cementano assieme nel giro di pochi anni. Può capitare facilmente che il vaso, cementato in una simile concrezione, sembri incastonato nel carbone.

(Mark Isaac, 2005, citato in questo articolo)

Anche il martello di London ha una forma simile a quelli utilizzati nelle miniere americane nel XIX secolo; ed è probabile, se vogliamo credere alle storie sul suo ritrovamento, che una soluzione di limo e sedimenti si siano solidificati attorno all’artefatto – proprio come altrove è successo anche per oggetti risalenti soltanto alla Seconda Guerra Mondiale.

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Ancora Baugh, assieme ad altri creazionisti, continua inoltre ad affermare che a Paluxy, Texas, esisterebbero delle serie di orme umane impresse nella pietra proprio di fianco ad orme di dinosauro. Ecco la prova che Dio ha creato tutto il mondo assieme, in una sola volta, come afferma la Bibbia, e che la teoria dell’evoluzione delle specie è smentita!
I paleontologi hanno però riconosciuto le presunte impronte “umane” come in realtà appartenenti anch’esse a dinosauri; il solco impresso dal metatarso della zampa del rettile sarebbe stato addolcito dall’infiltrazione di fango, alterando la forma dell’impronta e dandole un’apparenza vagamente simile ad un piede.

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C’è da dire che perfino la maggior parte dei creazionisti evita ormai di parlare di OOPArts, rendendosi conto della dubbia provenienza di questi indizi e temendo una “figuraccia” poco dignitosa, in caso di smentita. D’altronde è davvero lunga la lista dei falsi storici, e dei misteri pseudo-fanta-archeologici che la scienza ha archiviato come tranquillamente e convincentemente spiegati: dalle mappe, fra cui la celebre di Piri Reis, che mostrerebbero conoscenze geografiche impossibili per l’epoca, ai teschi di cristallo precolombiani, dal geode di Coso al papiro di Tulli che descrive avvistamenti di UFO nell’antico Egitto, dalle sfere metalliche di Klerksdorp alle pietre di Ica, che si scoprirono essere in realtà prodotte dagli abitanti del luogo per venderle agli archeologi; dall’elicottero e il carro armato incisi in bassorilievo nel tempio egiziano di Abydos, alla straordinaria città sommersa che negli anni ’60 venne scoperta negli abissi di Bimini, rinfocolando il mito di Atlantide… e che probabilmente tutto era fuorché una città.

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Certo, nello studio delle vicende umane rimangono molti enigmi e punti oscuri che gli storici, gli archeologi, i paleontologi e gli etnografi devono ancora dissipare: forse è naturale che il fascino esercitato dalle civiltà più remote e ormai scomparse catturi anche chi non è addetto ai lavori e, talora, spinga qualcuno a improvvisarsi “esperto” e a formulare bislacche teorie. Va riconosciuto che l’idea di un artefatto “fuori posto” o “fuori dal tempo”, che d’un solo colpo smentisca tutto ciò che sappiamo del passato, è un concetto estremamente poetico.
Ma, come dimostra il meccanismo di Antikythera, le sorprese che la Storia ci riserva non hanno forse bisogno d’altro, e sono spesso più che sufficienti a regalarci la più profonda meraviglia.

(Grazie, Sara!)

Gli schiavi dimenticati

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Persa nell’Oceano Indiano, ad est del Madagascar, l’isola di Tromelin è tra gli ultimi posti che vorreste visitare: un basso banco di sabbia e terriccio di appena 1 km², a forma di goccia, dove non cresce altro che una rada sterpaglia e praticamente privo di vita animale, se si esclude qualche tartaruga marina e qualche uccello che vi fa scalo durante la migrazione o per nidificare.

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Nel 1761 una nave della Compagnia francese delle Indie Orientali, chiamata Utile, partì dal Madagascar alla volta delle Mauritius. Nascondeva a bordo un carico “pericoloso”: più di 150 schiavi acquistati illegalmente (all’epoca la tratta dei neri era proibita nell’Oceano indiano), che sarebbero stati venduti una volta arrivati a destinazione.

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Ma l’Utile si incagliò nella barriera corallina che circonda l’isola di Tromelin, e si inabissò velocemente nelle fredde acque dell’oceano. Circa 100 fra prigionieri (chiusi nella stiva) e marinai annegarono nel naufragio, ma qualche componente dell’equipaggio e una sessantina di schiavi riuscirono a raggiungere a nuoto l’inospitale isolotto.

I marinai e gli schiavi, costretti a collaborare alla pari per sopravvivere, cominciarono a darsi da fare per cercare cibo, acqua e un modo per accendere il fuoco; nel giro di un mese, riuscirono a costruire una scialuppa che, con un po’ di fortuna, avrebbe permesso loro di raggiungere nuovamente la costa del Madagascar. L’unico problema era che sulla barca c’era posto soltanto per poche persone. Così furono gli schiavi ad essere abbandonati sull’isola, mentre i marinai prendevano il largo, dopo aver promesso che avrebbero mandato dei soccorsi appena possibile. Promessa che, purtroppo, non fu mai mantenuta.

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I sessanta schiavi inizialmente attesero fiduciosi; ma il tempo passava, e la nave che li avrebbe tratti in salvo non appariva all’orizzonte. Forse qualcuno di loro continuò ad aggrapparsi alla speranza di un salvataggio, altri invece compresero che non sarebbe arrivato mai nessuno. Ormai senza padroni, si trovavano nella beffarda situazione di essere finalmente uomini liberi e allo stesso tempo imprigionati su un lembo di terra perduto in mezzo ai flutti, battuto dai cicloni; inoltre molti di loro avevano sempre vissuto negli altipiani, lontani dal mare, e non avevano alcuna esperienza di pesca o di caccia.

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Passò il tempo, e con esso anche la memoria del naufragio, e dei superstiti abbandonati.

Nel 1775 una piccola nave che si trovava a passare vicino all’isola vi avvistò delle persone. Una scialuppa con due marinai venne calata in mare, ma si infranse sulla barriera corallina prima di raggiungere la riva: uno dei due marinai riuscì a tornare a nuoto alla nave, l’altro si ritrovò sulla spiaggia, assieme ai naufraghi superstiti. La nave fu costretta a fare ritorno al porto. Restato sull’isola, e timoroso di venire anch’egli abbandonato, il marinaio costruì una zattera e convinse tre uomini e tre donne fra gli schiavi ad accompagnarlo nell’impresa. Morirono tutti dispersi nel mare.

Finalmente, nel 1776, ben 15 anni dopo il naufragio dell’Utile, la nave da guerra bretone La Dauphine, guidata dal capitano Bernard Boudin de Tromelin (che avrebbe dato il suo nome al luogo, fino ad allora chiamato semplicemente l’Île des Sables) riuscì a sbarcare sull’isola. Vi trovò, incredibilmente, ancora qualche sopravvissuto: sette donne e un bambino di otto mesi. Durante l’interminabile attesa, gli schiavi avevano costruito dei ripari, aggiustato oggetti in rame recuperati dal naufragio, nutrendosi dei pochi animali che erano riusciti a cacciare e lottando con tutte le loro forze per continuare a vivere.

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L’incredibile storia degli schiavi di Tromelin sarebbe potuta rimanere sepolta per sempre. Ma un ex-ufficiale di Marina francese, Max Guérout, ne resta affascinato ed ossessionato dopo che un amico metereologo gli racconta di aver trovato un’ancora antica sull’isola. Guérout, appassionato di storia di naufragi, setaccia gli archivi della Compagnia delle Indie e riporta alla luce la drammatica vicenda storica: nel 2006 presenta quindi un progetto di campagna archeologica sull’isola Tromelin al comitato scientifico dell’UNESCO (di cui egli stesso fa parte), proprio nell’anno in cui si commemora l’abolizione dello schiavismo. La sua proposta ottiene il suffragio di tutto il comitato, e da quel momento verranno eseguite delle spedizioni scientifiche nel 2006, 2008, 2010 e 2013.

L’obbiettivo è cercare di comprendere come i naufraghi abbiano potuto sopravvivere così a lungo, e che tipo di micro-società si sia venuta a creare fra di loro. Gli alisei e i cicloni hanno sepolto sotto progressivi strati di sabbia i resti degli accampamenti, dei rifugi e degli utensili, preservandoli in maniera eccezionale: il team di ricerca è riuscito a disseppellire una quantità notevole di manufatti, resti di mura e abitazioni, utensili e perfino alcuni scheletri umani.

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Dal 2010 si aggiunge al team anche Bako Rasoarifetra, archeologa malgascia, il cui contributo è fondamentale per comprendere appieno la filosofia di vita e la cultura a cui quegli antichi schiavi appartenevano. Quando ad esempio viene scoperto fra le sabbie un pointe-déméloir, uno spillone per capelli tradizionale, l’archeologa si commuove:

Noi donne malgasce abbiamo l’abitudine di separarci i capelli con questo strumento che ci viene offerto dagli uomini. Le donne schiave avevano il cranio rasato; una volta divenute libere, hanno dunque lasciato ricrescere i capelli e i maschi hanno confezionato loro questo pointe-déméloir. Ai miei occhi, questo è un simbolo definitivo di libertà su questa isola lontano da tutto.

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Proprio grazie a lei, gli studiosi hanno perfino tenuto una piccola cerimonia funebre per gli schiavi morti, i cui scheletri sono tornati alla luce.

Non abbiamo trovato le sepolture vere e proprie, ma è importante procedere alle seconde esequie, perché così si perpetua il ricordo, si risveglia la memoria; coloro che muoiono sono i nostri antenati e continuano a proteggerci, dobbiamo onorarli.

L’isola nasconde ancora molti segreti e interrogativi, a cui Max Guérout e la sua équipe di antropologi, archeologi, genetisti e altri scienziati sperano di dare una risposta: quale fu la principale causa di decesso? Vi furono delle lotte intestine fra i sopravvissuti?

Dopo 250 anni di silenzio, gli scavi potranno finalmente raccontarci i dettagli del tragico destino di questo gruppo di uomini e donne: ridotti in schiavitù, sopravvissuti ad un naufragio, e infine abbandonati a morire su un’isola deserta, tutto questo senza mai darsi per vinti.

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Ecco la pagina (in francese) che contiene i diari giornalieri delle varie spedizioni sull’isola di Tromelin. Sempre se conoscete il francese, non perdetevi questo affascinante e dettagliato documentario, che racconta le scoperte di Max Guérot negli archivi della Marina e durante il suo lavoro sul campo.

(Grazie, Carlo!)

Mummie di palude

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Siamo abituati a pensare alle mummie come a degli scheletri con ancora un po’ di pelle addosso. Eppure esiste un tipo di mummia esattamente opposta – in cui, cioè, lo scheletro è quasi del tutto deteriorato ma tutti i tessuti molli sono perfettamente preservati. Si tratta delle cosiddette mummie di palude.

Se un cadavere finisce infatti nelle fredde acque di un acquitrino, in certe particolari condizioni di acidità e di bassa temperatura, la decomposizione dei tessuti viene completamente inibita, mentre lo stesso acido presente nella torba scioglie il carbonato di calcio delle ossa. Il risultato è una mummificazione della pelle e degli organi interni stupefacente per dettagli e perfezione (se si esclude il colorito nero-bruno che assume l’epidermide), e una ridotta presenza di struttura ossea.

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Nell’Europa settentrionale questo tipo di paludi, chimate torbiere, sono comuni, e vi sono stati rinvenuti eccezionali resti umani (ma anche manufatti e carcasse animali) incredibilmente preservati. Nel caso dei corpi umani, i volti e la pelle di questi cadaveri mostrano ancora preziosi dettagli come ad esempio dei tatuaggi, e addirittura in alcuni casi le impronte digitali. E stiamo parlando di mummie risalenti a 5000 anni fa.

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L’importanza di questi ritrovamenti è ovviamente fondamentale per gli archeologi, anche se a dire il vero rimangono diversi enigmi al riguardo. La maggior parte di queste mummie, infatti, sono senza dubbio relative alla civiltà dei Celti, diffusa un po’ ovunque nel Nord Europa, dalle isole Britanniche al Danubio. Ma perché i Celti avrebbero voluto lasciare soltanto alcuni dei loro morti nelle paludi, spesso aiutandosi con dei pali per far sprofondare il cadavere? Qual è il motivo di queste sepolture fuori dalla norma? L’unico elemento che abbiamo a disposizione sono i corpi stessi, che mostrano inquietanti segni di violenza: ci sono mummie che sono state evidentemente pugnalate, bastonate, impiccate o strangolate. La mummia di Tollund (forse la più bella, risalente al IV secolo a.C) porta ancora al collo la corda usata per strozzarla; il vecchio di Croghan (vissuto fra il 362 e il 175 a.C.) è stato pugnalato, decapitato, i suoi capezzoli amputati e il suo corpo tagliato a metà. Spesso i cadaveri hanno i capelli rasati di fresco, talvolta soltanto da un lato del capo (come la ragazza di Yde).

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Questi segni di tortura e di morte violenta lasciano tre possibili spiegazioni: o si trattava di esecuzioni di criminali messi a morte, oppure i corpi ci parlano di sacrifici rituali che servivano a propiziare il favore di una qualche divinità (del raccolto di grano o latte, della guerra e via dicendo). Una terza alternativa, meno plausibile, riguarda l’utilizzo divinatorio delle viscere umane: un po’ come facevano gli aruspici etruschi e romani con le interiora di volatili, i Celti avrebbero (secondo Strabone) utilizzato le budella umane a fini oracolari. Quest’ultima teoria è la meno accreditata, e sembra che queste mummie siano con tutta probabilità appartenute a condannati a morte, oppure a vittime sacrificali.

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Un’altra interessante applicazione derivante dal perfetto stato di conservazione delle mummie è la possibilità odierna di ricostruire i volti di questi uomini e donne morti migliaia di anni fa. Sembra che si trattasse principalmente di esponenti della nobiltà, dal viso curato e dalle unghie non rovinate da lavori manuali, e le analisi chimiche dei loro capelli ci svelano che non si trattava certo di individui malnutriti.

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Chi erano questi uomini di alta estrazione, destinati a morire e sprofondare nelle nere acque di una palude? Quale scopo aveva la loro cruenta esecuzione? Nessuna risposta ancora è certa. Per adesso i loro resti riposano nei musei, dalle teche pressurizzate sembrano ancora interrogarci… e noi, uomini del futuro, rimarremo forse per sempre ignari del loro segreto.

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