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The Photo Detective

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We've written about old photos before. Based on my informal surveys, I think most people are at least slightly obsessed with old photos -- there's a tension between the clear documentation of a moment (a photo) and the common lack of any information about the moment -- who's pictured, where was the photo taken, and when? Earlier this month there was an excellent profile in The Wall Street Journal called The Photo Detective, detailing Maureen Taylor's work with old photos, answering just such questions -- Taylor dates photos based on their content and performs quasi-forensic work to identify the people pictured.

Here are some bits from the article:

With millions of Americans obsessively tracing their roots, Ms. Taylor has emerged as the nation's foremost historical photo detective. During a recent meeting of the Maine Genealogical Society, attendees lined up a dozen deep as she handled their images with a cotton glove and peered at the details through a photographer's loupe. One man offered a portrait photo and asked if it could be of his great grandmother, who died in 1890. "It's not," Ms. Taylor said after about 15 seconds; she'd dated the hairstyle and billowy blouse to the early 20th century. When another attendee asked why her great-great-grandfather was wearing small hoops in his ears in a portrait, Ms. Taylor explained, "He was in the maritime trade."

Ms. Taylor, who charges $60 an hour, has learned to spot details that reveal not only a photo's period, but the story behind it. A broom at the feet of a couple in a mid-19th-century portrait, for instance, often marks it as a wedding picture. A photograph of a baby in a carriage from the 1860s might not be a birth announcement, but a death card; in that period of high infant mortality, dead infants were commonly photographed in carriages. A 19th-century woman with unusually short hair may have had scarlet fever, because it was common to shave a victim's head.

It's a great read for anyone with an interest in old photos. You can also find more info on Maureen Taylor's web site, including various books and articles she has written, and even a blog.

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Courtesy of the Tunisian National Heritage Institute and the University of Sassari
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Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
Archaeologists Discover Ancient Sunken City in the Mediterranean
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Courtesy of the Tunisian National Heritage Institute and the University of Sassari

Early on July 21, 365 CE, an 8.5 magnitude earthquake shook the eastern Mediterranean, triggering a powerful tsunami. The Egyptian city of Alexandria was damaged, towns crumbled on the island of Crete, and the Roman port city of Neapolis, located on the coast of North Africa, was largely swallowed by the wave, according to historical records. Now, after being hidden under water for more than 16 centuries, the remains of Neapolis have been discovered by archaeologists off the coast of northeast Tunisia. This, according to the AFP, confirms accounts that the city was a casualty of the ancient natural disaster.

Following several years of exploration, researchers from the Tunisian National Heritage Institute and the University of Sassari in Italy have discovered nearly 50 acres of watery ruins near the modern-day city of Nabeul. They include streets, monuments, homes, mosaics, and around 100 tanks used to make garum, a fish-based sauce that was so popular in ancient Rome and Greece that it's been likened to ketchup. 

These containers suggest that Neapolis was likely a major producer of garum, making the salty condiment an integral part of the city's economy. "Probably the notables of Neapolis owed their fortune to garum," expedition head Mounir Fantar told the AFP.

Neapolis ("new city" in Greek) was originally founded in the 5th century BCE. While it was an important Mediterranean hub, its name doesn't appear too often in ancient writings. According to The Independent, it may because the city sided with the ancient city-state of Carthage—founded in the 9th century BCE by a seafaring people known as the Phoenicians—in the last of a series of three wars, called the Punic Wars, against Rome.

The Third Punic War stretched from 149 to 146 BCE, and led to the burning of Carthage. (It was later rebuilt as a Roman city by Julius Caesar.) Neapolis may have been punished for its wayward allegiance, which may explain why it's rarely mentioned in historical accounts.

You can view a video of the city's ruins below.

[h/t AFP]

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Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
Archaeologists Find Italy's Earliest Wine—And It's Thousands of Years Older Than We Thought
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Uncork a Barolo in honor of ancient traditions: Italians have been making wine for far longer than we thought. A new analysis of storage jars found in a cave in Sicily's Monte Kronio pushes back Italy’s wine-making history by thousands of years, as CNET alerts us.

Archaeologists from the University of South Florida and several Italian institutions report in Microchemical Journal that wine making in the region could date back as far as 3000 BCE. Previously, researchers studying ancient seeds hypothesized that Italy's wine production developed sometime between 1300 BCE and 1100 BCE.

Making grapes into wine has been a part of human history going back to the Stone Age. Georgians have been drinking wine for 8000 years. Grapevines spread through the Caucasus and the Middle East before making their way to Europe.

This new discovery was possible thanks to chemical analysis of unglazed clay pots found in a Monte Kronio cave. The Copper Age pottery still bore residue from the wine. The researchers were able to identify traces of tartaric acid and sodium salt left from the wine-making process. They're still working on figuring out whether it was red or white, though, as University of South Florida researchers explained in a press statement.

In 2013, archaeologists planted a vineyard and began making wine using ancient Roman techniques to see what wine actually tasted like in the Roman Empire. Foul as that wine may have been, it seems that Roman wine was the result of an even longer wine-making tradition than we knew.

[h/t CNET]

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