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Why an early Italian drawing of a cockatoo rewrites what we know about trade routes

Drawings of an Australasian cockatoo discovered on the pages of a 13th-century Italian manuscript suggest trade Down Under was flourishing as far back as medieval times, researchers said on Tuesday.

Why an early Italian drawing of a cockatoo rewrites what we know about trade routes
A rare manuscript suggests cockatoos have been in Europe longer than we thought. Photo: Guillaume Souvant/AFP

Four images of the white cockatoo feature in the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II of Sicily's De Arte Venandi cum Avibus (The Art of Hunting with Birds), which dates from between 1241 and 1248 and is held in the Vatican Library.

The coloured drawings pre-date by 250 years what was previously believed to be the oldest European depiction of the bird, in Andrea Mantegna's 1496 altarpiece Madonna della Vittoria.

Heather Dalton, an honorary research fellow at Melbourne University, published an article about the cockatoo in Mantegna's painting in 2014, which was seen by three scholars at the Finnish Institute in Rome. They were working on De Arte Venandi cum Avibus and realized they had found much older depictions.


An image from The Art of Hunting with Birds.

A resulting collaboration between Dalton and trio revealed that Frederick's bird was likely to have been either a female Triton or one of three sub-species of Yellow-Crested Cockatoo. This means it originated from Australia's northern tip, New Guinea or the islands off New Guinea or Indonesia.

Essentially, it indicates that trade off Australia's north was taking place much earlier than previously thought, and linked into sea and overland routes to Indonesia, China, Egypt and beyond into Europe, Dalton said.

“Although our part of the world is still considered the very last to have been discovered, this Eurocentric view is increasingly being challenged by finds such as this,” she said.

“Small craft sailed between islands buying and selling fabrics, animal skins and live animals before making for ports in places such as Java, where they sold their wares to Chinese, Arab and Persian merchants.

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“The fact that a cockatoo reached Sicily during the 13th century shows that merchants plying their trade to the north of Australia were part of a flourishing network that reached west to the Middle East and beyond.”

According to the National Library of Australia, the first documented landing by a European in the country was in 1606. There are claims of earlier landings by the Portuguese, Spanish, Chinese, Arabs and Romans, but there is little credible evidence.

Dalton said the Latin text next to one of the images revealed that the cockatoo was a gift from the fourth Ayyubid Sultan of Egypt to Frederick II, who referred to him as the 'Sultan of Babylon'.

She pieced together the journey a cockatoo would have taken from Australasia to Cairo and then on to Sicily –which would have been primarily overland and taken several years.

The findings are published in the current edition the Parergon Journal. 

READ ALSO: US returns stolen 'Columbus Letter' to Vatican Library


Photo: Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana/AFP
 

HISTORY

Italian archaeologists uncover slave room at Pompeii in ‘rare’ find

Pompeii archaeologists said Saturday they have unearthed the remains of a "slave room" in an exceptionally rare find at a Roman villa destroyed by Mount Vesuvius' eruption nearly 2,000 years ago.

Archaeologists in Pompeii who discovered a room which likely housed slaves. 
Archaeologists said the newly-discovered room in Pompeii likely housed slaves charged with maintaining chariots.  Photo: Archaeological Park of Pompeii press office.

The little room with three beds, a ceramic pot and a wooden chest was discovered during a dig at the Villa of Civita Giuliana, a suburban villa just a few hundred metres from the rest of the ancient city.

An almost intact ornate Roman chariot was discovered here at the start of this year, and archaeologists said Saturday that the room likely housed slaves charged with maintaining and prepping the chariot.

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“This is a window into the precarious reality of people who rarely appear in historical sources, written almost exclusively by men belonging to the elite,” said Pompeii’s director general Gabriel Zuchtriegel.

Photo: Archaeological Park of Pompeii press office.

The “unique testimony” into how “the weakest in the ancient society lived… is certainly one of the most exciting discoveries in my life as an archaeologist,” he said in a press release.

Pompeii was buried in ash when Mount Vesuvius erupted in 79 AD, killing those who hadn’t managed to leave the city in time. They were either crushed by collapsing buildings or killed by thermal shock.

The 16-square metre (170-square feet) room was a cross between a bedroom and a storeroom: as well as three beds – one of which was child sized – there were eight amphorae, stashed in a corner.

Photo: Archaeological Park of Pompeii press office.

The wooden chest held metal and fabric objects that seem to be part of the harnesses of the chariot horses, and a chariot shaft was found resting on one of the beds.

The remains of three horses were found in a stable in a dig earlier this year.

“The room grants us a rare insight into the daily reality of slaves, thanks to the exceptional state of preservation of the room,” the Pompeii archaeological park said.

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Image: Archaeological Park of Pompeii press office.

Experts had been able to make plaster casts of the beds and other objects in perishable materials which left their imprint in the cinerite — the rock made of volcanic ash — that covered them, it said.

The beds were made of several roughly worked wooden planks, which could be adjusted according to the height of the person who used them.

The webbed bases of the beds were made of ropes, covered by blankets.

While two were around 1.7 metres long, one measured just 1.4 metres, and may therefore have belonged to a child.

The archaeological park said the three slaves may have been a family.

Archaeologists found several personal objects under the beds, including amphorae for private things, ceramic jugs and what might be a chamber pot.

The room was lit by a small upper window, and there are no traces or wall decorations, just a mark believed to have been left by a lantern hung on a wall.

“This incredible new discovery at Pompeii demonstrates that today the archaeological site has become not only one of the most desirable visitor destinations in the world, but also a place where research is carried out and new and experimental technologies are employed,” said Italian Culture Minister Dario Franceschini.

“Thanks to this important new discovery, our knowledge of the daily life of ancient Pompeians has been enriched, particularly of that element of society about which little is known even today. Pompeii is a model of study that is unique in the world.”

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The excavation is part of a programme launched in 2017 aimed at fighting illegal activity in the area, including tunnel digging to reach artefacts that can be sold on illicit markets.

The Villa of Civita Giuliana had been the target of systematic looting for years. There was evidence some of the “archaeological heritage” in this so-called Slave Room had also been lost to looters, the park said.

Damage by grave robbers in the villa had been estimated so far at almost two million euros ($2.3 million), it added.

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