Arts and Sciences
A unique gold mourning ring commemorating Hugh Audley, 17th century lawyer, sheriff, property magnate and rapacious moneylender, has been found in Carleton Rode, Norfolk, eastern England. Metal detectorist John Reed discovered the ring last December and, after expert examination, it was just declared treasure at a coroner’s inquest in Norwich.
The ring is made out of 24-carat gold and is engraved on the outside with an elongated skull and crosshatching with a dash at each intersecting point. Black enamel fills in the engraving, emphasizing the skull’s features and the crosshatch pattern. It’s in excellent condition, with almost all the enamel still in place. There is no enamel in the inscription engraved on the inside of the ring, but it’s very readable nonetheless. The inscription is what identifies who the ring is mourning. It reads: “H. Awdeley. ob. 15. nou. 1662.” Next to the inscription is a maker’s mark, a barely identifiable W inside a shield, which may be the mark of Plymouth jeweler Richard Willcockes.
Because the inscription is so clear, John Reed was able to research it as soon as he found the ring. He found a Hugh Audley who died on November 15th, 1662, at the venerable age of 86. Before his death, he had 11 mourning rings made for his heirs to remember him by. Ten of them were sized for women’s fingers, one for a man. If any of the other 10 have survived, we don’t know about it.
This was a common practice in the 17th century, not only wearing mourning rings in memory of a dead loved one, but for people to make provisions in their wills to have rings made for specific recipients. The Audley ring design is a classic of the genre, engraved with the deceased name and dates on the inside, a decorative death-themed pattern with black enamel details on the outside. A few years after this ring was made, the mourning ring industry would see an unfortunate boom as a consequence of the Great Plague of London of 1665-6.
Hugh Audley was very rich and famous in his day. He was known as The Great Audley because of his wealth. His death even merited a note in Samuel Pepys’ diary:
I hear to-day how old rich Audley is lately dead, and left a very great estate, and made a great many poor familys rich, not all to one. Among others, one Davis, my old schoolfellow at Paul’s, and since a bookseller in Paul’s Church Yard: and it seems do forgive one man 60,000l. which he had wronged him of, but names not his name; but it is well known to be the scrivener in Fleet Street, at whose house he lodged.
Pepys is referring to the terms of Audley’s will, which spread around the wealth (not all to one). One of his primary beneficiaries was Pepys’ friend Thomas Davies, Audley’s grand-nephew, a bookseller who would become Sheriff of London in 1667, Master of the Stationers’ Company (the publishers’ guild of London) in 1668, Master of the Drapers’ Company (the cloth merchants’ guild) in 1677, and Lord Mayor of London in 1676. I’m sure his inheritance helped make that marked increase in fortune possible. The very large debt of £60,000, worth millions in today’s money, which Audley forgave in his will was owed by Fleet Street writer John Rae. Audley lodged at Rae’s house starting in 1654 and wound up taking him to court in 1661.
Audley was something of a Horatio Alger character. A pamphlet published shortly after his death says it all in the title: The way to be rich according to the practice of the Great Audley, who began life with £200 in the year 1605, and dyed worth £400,000, this instant November, 1662. That final sum is the equivalent of $50 million in today’s money. He made this fortune by hustling constantly, basically. Audley began his legal training in 1603 when he was admitted to the Inner Temple, one of London’s four professional associations for lawyers. While he learned the law during the day, at night in the early hours of the morning he taught the same law he had just learned. He published a few tracts while he was at it, and used the profits to build the personal law library he couldn’t afford to buy outright.
In 1604, he was appointed a clerk of the Court of Wards and Liveries, the court that oversaw all the wards in what would later become Chancery Court (see Dickens’ Bleak House for more on that) where the disposition of wills was settled. There was a lot of money in this job, because fees would be paid from the wards’ fortunes and unscrupulous clerks could nickel and dime them at every turn. Audley was reported to have paid £3000 for this plum position. According to a biography of Hugh Audley written by Isaac D’Israeli, father of future prime minister Benjamin Disraeli, when someone asked Audley what the value was of his clerkship, he replied “it might be worth some thousands of pounds to him who after his death would instantly go to heaven twice as much to him who would go to purgatory and nobody knows what to him who would adventure to go to hell.”
At least a few hundred thousand, as it happened. Audley parlayed his Court of Wards windfall into a financial empire. He bailed out the wastrel sons of nobility, bought their debts, extended loans with the estates of their fathers as backing. Charging compound interest (hence the title of usurer which he bore unconcernedly) he quickly wound up the owner of a great deal of prime real estate. His first major real estate acquisition was the Ebury Estate in Westminster, then on the outskirts of London, now covering much of London’s most expensive neighborhoods: Mayfair, Belgravia and Pimlico. He bought it from Lionel Cranfield, Earl of Middlesex, who was deeply in debt and had to sell the property for far less than it was worth. The land where Buckingham Palace would eventually be built belonged to Audley and there’s a tony Mayfair street named after him.
The Audley estate would become the core of yet another great landowning family, the Grosvenors, now Dukes of Westminster. Audley’s grand-nephew Alexander Davies, Thomas’ brother, bought out his brother’s share of the inheritance. Alexander bequeathed the former Ebury property to his daughter Mary, and she sadly inherited it when she was just six months old. In 1677, she married Sir Thomas Grosvenor, Baronet, when he was 21 and she was 12. That transactional marriage proved to be a wise one from the Grosvenors’ perspective. To this day the family remains one of the biggest landowners in London.
As for the mourning ring, it is currently at the British Museum where it will be valued by experts. A local Norfolk museum will then be given the opportunity to pay the assessed value to the finder and landowner to secure the ring. If they don’t want it, other museums will be given a bite at the apple.
The vast collection of papyrus fragments unearthed at the ancient site of Oxyrhynchus, Egypt, the late 19th, early 20th century continues to bear sweet fruit. King’s College London Classics professor Dominic Rathbone has translated one of the Oxyrhynchus texts and found it’s the only ancient match-fixing contract ever discovered. Written in 267 A.D. in the ancient city of Antinopolis, about 55 miles south of Oxyrhynchus following the west bank of the Nile, the contract stipulates the outcome of the final match of the boys’ wrestling division of the 138th Great Antinoeia games.
The boys’ division was for teenagers, so the contract is between the father of finalist Nicantinous and the trainers of the other finalist, Demetrius.
The contract stipulates that Demetrius “when competing in the competition for the boy [wrestlers], to fall three times and yield,” and in return would receive “three thousand eight hundred drachmas of silver of old coinage” [....]
The contract includes a clause that Demetrius is still to be paid if the judges realize the match is fixed and refuse to reward Nicantinous the win. If “the crown is reserved as sacred, (we) are not to institute proceedings against him about these things,” the contract reads. It also says that if Demetrius reneges on the deal, and wins the match anyway, then “you are of necessity to pay as penalty to my [same] son on account of wrongdoing three talents of silver of old coinage without any delay or inventive argument.”
It’s not clear what proceedings they could actually initiate given that match-fixing wasn’t exactly legal, so if they were busted and Nicantinous’ father refused to pay Demetrius’ people the agreed-upon sum, they would hardly be in a position to challenge the reneging through any kind of official channels. Nor does the penalty against Demetrius have much in the way of teeth. Even if Demetrius didn’t take the dive he had agreed to take, it’s not like Nicantinous’ father could take him to court to enforce the three-talent penalty. In fact, given that it’s in an extra-legal penumbra, why bother to have a written contract to fix a fight at all?
It’s no mystery why fixing the match was advantageous to both sides. Only the winners of ancient game events would win a purse. There was no prize for second place. If the parties are evenly matched and neither of them confident of a positive outcome, why not ensure you at least get something out of being thrown to the ground three times? In this case, unless Demetrius came from a wealthy family, he was likely in debt to his trainers who had housed, fed and coached him in the lead-up to the games. By taking a bribe from Nicantinous’ father, they ensured they wouldn’t be out of pocket no matter what the outcome.
Dad struck a hard bargain, though. The 3,800 drachma Demetrius would receive for throwing the match was small potatoes, just about enough to purchase a donkey. On the other hand, the three talents of silver he would owe Nicantinous if he broke the contract and won was a huge sum. It may have been the amount of an expected bonus, or the amount of a bonus plus an additional penalty.
Although this is the only known contract recording a bribe between ancient athletes, there are references in ancient sources indicating that bribery in athletic competitions was not unusual. By the time of the Roman Empire, bribery in athletic competitions was getting more prevalent as the events became more lucrative, Rathbone said.
“There are sources [indicating] that things had got a bit worse in the Roman Empire when there were more games and when there were more financial rewards, particularly these municipal pensions,” Rathbone said. These pensions consisted of payments that an athlete’s hometown awarded to winners and could continue for the rest of their life.
The Great Antinoeia games were part of a religious festival held yearly in Antinopolis dedicated to the deified Antinous. Antinous was the favorite (read: lover) of the Roman emperor Hadrian. He accompanied Hadrian on his many travels all over the empire and they were in Egypt in October of 130 A.D. when Antinous drowned in the Nile. It may have been an accident, but several ancient sources believe it was deliberate, that Antinous was sacrificed or sacrificed himself to gain the favor of the gods for Hadrian.
Hadrian was grief-stricken at the loss. He had his favorite deified, something that had been the exclusive privilege of imperial family members, had medals and coins struck bearing his face (another privilege previously reserved for the imperial family), built temples to the deified Antinous and founded cities named after him. Antinopolis was built on the banks of the Nile at the place where Antinous had drowned. The cult was still going strong nearly 140 years after Antinous death and the games were part of that.
There is no record of who won what events at which games, so there’s no telling what the outcome of this backroom deal was. At some point, the contract was thrown in the garbage where it would be recovered by pioneering papyrologists Bernard Pyne Grenfell and Arthur Surridge Hunt who first started looking through Oxyrhynchus’ trash heaps in 1896. The light covering of sand and complete lack of rainfall created a perfect storm of papyrus preservation. Over the years of excavations at Oxyrhynchus, more than 500,000 papyrus fragments were unearthed, most of which are now at the Sackler Library at Oxford.
Only a small percentage of the fragments have been translated in all this time, simply because there is such a wealth of material to go through. Discoveries range from the most rarified sole surviving copies of ancient literature to the most fascinatingly mundane sales receipts, personal letters, shopping lists and tax returns. And now, a match-fixing contract.
The only known surviving copy of a classic 1927 Chinese silent film has returned home. The restored copy of <em>Pan Si Dong (The Cave of the Silken Web) was handed over to the China Film Archive in Beijing on Tuesday. After the ceremony and a reception attended by invited guests, the film, accompanied live by Chinese pianist Jin Ye, was screened at a sold out show in front of an audience of 600.
The film was thought to be lost until a nitrate print from 1929 was discovered in the National Library of Norway. It was found in 2011 when the library decided to examine all 9,000 cans of film in its collection. At first they didn’t realize what a treasure they had. The film had no opening credits to easily identify it and it was too delicate for careful examination of the whole movie. After an initial cleaning, the nitrate film was sent to a laboratory where it was copied onto stock that does not spontaneously burst into flames. Library researchers then began to investigate the history of the movie. That’s when they discovered that they had the only existing copy in the world.
Pan Si Dong, directed by Dan Duyu for the Shanghai Shadow Play company, tells a story taken from Journey to the West, a 16th century book by Wu Cheng’en that is considered one of China’s four classic novels. The hero is Hiuen Tsiang Tang, a Buddist monk sent to the “Western regions,” ie, India, by Emperor T’ai Tsung to bring back sacred texts. Accompanied by three protectors — Monkey, Pigsy and Sandy — and riding a fourth companion, the Dragon prince, in the guise of white horse, the monk arrives at the spider valley where they find themselves in a cave where seven beautiful women live.
The women are actually spider spirits in disguise who want to devour the monk, believing this will make them immortal. They succeed in capturing the party, but then one of the spider spirits is busted trying to double-cross the rest so she and her demon lover can eat him on their own. In the ensuing battle, Xuanzang and his spirit compadres escape. The spider women and their webs are destroyed by purifying fire.
The movie was hugely popular in China and a sequel was made in 1929. While the sequel was playing in China, the original made its way to Norway. Pan Si Dong was the first Chinese picture to be shown in Norway. It premiered in Oslo’s Chat Noir Cabaret Theater on January 18th, 1929, accompanied by the Colosseum orchestra. The print was customized for Norwegian audiences, with Norwegian translations appearing alongside the original Chinese on the title slides. The translation is not always accurate to the original. The translator interspersed his own comments in brackets next to some titles, and the Chinese is sometimes upside-down or backwards. This was noticed in some of the contemporary reviews which were generally positive, if patronizing. Norwegian reviewers found it “distinctive and interesting,” “quite strange,” and “worthwhile as a curiosity.”
Side note of interest: one of the great things about silent movies is how universal they were. Movie theaters all over the world could easily created title cards in their language. There was no need for post-production translations of complex dialogue and dubbing. That means it really doesn’t matter where a lost silent picture is found, because the movie retains its integrity even when the title card translations are tonally questionable or inaccurate.
Movies from this period are rare survivals in China, thanks to censorship, war and after 1949, the Communist rejection of Western and traditional Chinese arts. Since the revival of Chinese cinema in the 1990s and the loosening up of markets, China is as keen to retrieve its lost cinematic patrimony as it is its dispersed antiquities. Diplomatic relations between China and Norway have been tense since 2010 when the Nobel Committee gave the Peace Prize to democracy activist Liu Xiaobo, currently serving an 11-year prison sentence for his political writings. Last fall Norway agreed to return seven marble columns looted from the Old Summer Palace, and now they’ve restored and returned Pan Si Dong.
Archaeologists excavating a site near Tel Shadud in Israel’s Jezreel Valley before a natural gas pipeline is installed in the area have unearthed a rare anthropoid clay coffin from the reign of Pharaoh Seti I (1290 B.C. to 1279 B.C.). The cylindrical coffin has a serene face sculpted in the lid, with hands crossed on his chest. Only a few similar coffins have been found before in Israel, that last of which was discovered 50 years ago.
The coffin was interred with pottery food storage vessels, a bronze dagger and bowl and animal bones. These could have been offerings to the gods and the means to provide nourishment for the deceased on his voyage to the afterworld. There was a skeleton of an adult male inside the coffin. Because the pottery was locally made, archaeologists think he was probably a local man working for the Egyptians, he could well have been Egyptian. Either way, the fact that he was buried with an Egyptian scarab seal encased in gold and bearing the name of Seti I suggests that he was of very high rank. The coffin itself confirms that, since it would have been an extremely expensive piece affordable only to the elite.
Egyptian control of Canaan had been waning since the 14th century B.C. thanks to the rising Middle Assyrian Empire. The process had accelerated in the declining days of the Eighteenth Dynasty when the social and political chaos brought on by Akhenaten’s attempted religious reformation made maintaining its empire the least of Egypt’s problems. Ramesses I, founder of the Nineteenth Dynasty, and his son Seti I sought to return order to the country and reclaim some of its lost territories.
Seti wasted no time, taking his army into Canaan starting the first year of his reign. He took advantage of nomadic incursions and infighting between the Canaanite city-states and “marched against them like a fierce-eyed lion, making them carcasses in their valleys, overturned in their blood like those that exist not. Everyone that escapes his fingers says: ‘His might toward distant countries is the might of his father Amun, who hath assigned to him a victorious valor in the countries’.” That vivid description is from the North Wall of the Great Hypostyle Hall at Karnak which, along with two stele unearthed at Beth She’an, a city in the Jezreel Valley about 25 miles southeast of Tel Shadud, is the main source of information about Seti I’s military campaigns.
The victorious army established fortifications at watering holes on the way back to Egypt. Beth She’an was rebuilt according to a new city plan and became an important administrative center. Its population was primarily Egyptian government and military officials and a number of artifacts imported from Egypt have been discovered there. The locally produced artifacts, mainly pottery, were made in traditional Canaanite forms or in imitation of Egyptian styles.
Archaeologists may attempt to extract DNA from the skeletal remains to determine whether the man in the expensive coffin was a local or an Egyptian, but that’s a long shot. Four other graves were found in the small 16-foot square trench, two containing the remains of men and two of women. It’s possible they are all family members. It’s also possible the area is the site of a much larger cemetery, like the one at Beth She’an.
This was just a salvage excavation, however, to unearth any archaeological remains in the path of the gas pipeline. There is no current project to expand the dig.
Happy 43rd birthday, Tom Carroll! This one’s for you.
Caesar Augustus, adopted son and heir of Julius Caesar and first emperor of Rome, died on August 19th, 14 A.D., 57 years to the day after he was first “elected” consul of Rome. (He showed up at the city gates with eight legions, so it wasn’t much of an election.) According to Cassius Dio (Roman History, Book LVI, Chapter 30), on his deathbed Augustus declared: “I found Rome of clay; I leave it to you of marble.” Suetonius agrees, noting in The Lives of the Twelve Caesars that “since the city was not adorned as the dignity of the empire demanded, and was exposed to flood and fire, he so beautified it that he could justly boast that he had found it built of brick and left it in marble.”
The first of Augustus’ many marble-clad improvements to the city of Rome was a monumental tomb for himself and his family. Construction began upon his return from Egypt in 31 B.C. after the final defeat of Antony and Cleopatra at the Battle of Actium. With Antony dead by his own hand and Lepidus exiled, Augustus was the last triumvir standing and the sole ruler of Rome. While in Egypt, Augustus had visited the tomb of Alexander the Great in Alexandria, leaving flowers and placing a golden diadem on Alexander’s head. The grand Hellenistic mausoleum inspired the Augustus’ version built on the Campus Martius in Rome.
The tomb was completed in 28 B.C. Here’s Strabo’s description of it in Geography, Book V, Chapter 3:
The most noteworthy [among the great tombs on the Campus Martius] is what is called the Mausoleum, a great mound near the river on a lofty foundation of white marble, thickly covered with ever-green trees to the very summit. Now on top is a bronze image of Augustus Caesar; beneath the mound are the tombs of himself and his kinsmen and intimates; behind the mound is a large sacred precinct with wonderful promenades; and in the centre of the Campus is the wall (this too of white marble) round his crematorium; the wall is surrounded by a circular iron fence and the space within the wall is planted with black poplars.
The circular walls of the tomb were made of brick and clad in white marble or travertine. The roof was supported by vaults which left the inside sectioned for family burials. The entry arch was framed on either side with red granite obelisks pillaged from Egypt. The finished Mausoleum was 295 feet in diameter and an estimated 137 feet high (not counting the height of the cypress trees).
The first to be buried in the Mausoleum was Marcellus, Augustus’ nephew, who died in 23 B.C. The ashes of Augustus’ mother Atia Balba, who had died in 43 B.C., were moved to the family tomb at the same time. Next was Augustus’ greatest general and son-in-law Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa in 12 B.C. Three years later was the turn of Nero Claudius Drusus, Augustus’ stepson. His sister Octavia also died and was buried around that time (her exact year of death is unknown, either 11 or 9 B.C.). The sons of Agrippa and Augustus’ daughter Julia were next, Lucius in 2 A.D., Gaius in 4 A.D. Augustus himself followed Gaius 10 years later.
After Augustus’ death, his wife Livia followed, then Germanicus, Agrippina the Elder, Agrippina’s daughter Livilla, Germanicus’ sons Nero and Drusus Caesar, Caligula, Tiberius, Tiberius’ son Drusus Julius Caesar, Claudius’ parents Nero Claudius Drusus and Antonia, then Claudius, his son Britannicus and Nero’s wife Poppaea Sabina (whose body was embalmed rather than cremated). The last emperor to join the illustrious crowd in the Mausoleum was Nerva, who died in 98 A.D.
Basically, the entire cast of I, Claudius wound up in the Mausoleum. The only exceptions were the exiled and disgraced Julio-Claudians, like Augustus’ only daughter Julia who died shortly after her father and was explicitly prohibited from being buried with her dad by the terms of his will. Her daughter Julia suffered the same fate. The Emperor Nero, last of the Julio-Claudian line, was buried with his paternal family in the Mausoleum of the Domitii Ahenobarbi.
The monument remained one of the most important ones in Rome until it was pillaged by the Visigoths in the 5th century. After that, like so many of its brethren it was used as a source of construction materials by Romans. The pink granite obelisks were toppled and buried. The first was rediscovered in the 16th century by Pope Sixtus V who moved it to the Piazza dell’Esquilino where it flanks the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore. The other was rediscovered in the 18th century and moved to the fountain between the equestrian statues of the Dioscuri on the Quirinal hill.
And so Augustus’ legacy reverted from marble back to brick. As would later happen to the tomb of Hadrian, now the Castel Sant’Angelo, the Mausoleum of Augustus was converted into a fortress in the 12th century by the Colonna family. When they were defeated by the Counts of Tusculum in the Battle of Monte Porzio in 1167, the Mausoleum was stripped of its fortifications leaving it in ruin.
It still maintained its cachet to Romans, however. Cola di Rienzo, Tribune of the People, Senator of Rome, who briefly ruled the city over the howls of the Pope and endlessly bickering Roman nobility, was brutally killed in 1354 on my birthday, no less (well, 618 years before my birthday, but on the same day, is my point), and after his corpse was outraged for two days and a night, it was taken to the Mausoleum of Augustus and burned.
In 1519, Pope Leo X, son of Lorenzo the Magnificent, had what was left of the travertine cladding removed to use as paving stones for the Via Ripetta, the street that leads to the Mausoleum. Pope Paul III sold the Mausoleum in 1546 to Monsignor Francesco Soderini who excavated the site looking for ancient sculptures and then converted the Mausoleum into a sculpture garden with a hedge labyrinth that was popular with artists, classicists and antiquarians. The Soderini’s financial difficulties gradually saw the sculptures dispersed, although the Mausoleum remained a garden until 1780 when it was acquired by the Marquess Francesco Saverio Vivaldi-Armentieri. He turned it into an amphitheater with elegant boxes and seating for 1,000. There he staged bullfights and buffalo fights (of the water buffalo variety, not the American bison variety), operas, theatricals and on summer nights, fireworks displays at which all the noblewomen of Rome wore white dresses so the colors bursting in air would be reflected in their garments.
The amphitheater wasn’t very profitable and in 1802 the Pope Pius VII bought the Mausoleum back. It was still used for spectacles of various sorts — animal fights, balls, carnivals, circuses, lottery drawings, plays, equestrian displays, even a test of fire-retardant materials like that asbestos suit I mentioned in a recent entry. After the Unification of Italy, the Vatican sold the Mausoleum to the Count Telfener who put a roof on it and renamed it the Amphitheater Umberto I after the new King of Italy. It was used for plays, concerts and operas, no more buffalo fights.
In 1909 it was refurbished yet again in Art Nouveau style and named the Augusteo in recognition of its original builder. Expanded to seat 3,500 people, the Augusteo was the seat of Rome’s main orchestra conducted by the great Arturo Toscanini, among others. Mussolini put an end to all that in 1936. He kicked out all the musicians, tore down the Renaissance buildings around it and ripped out all the theatrical modifications to return the Mausoleum to its original Roman masonry. This was a key part of his program of associating himself with the glory of ancient Rome and depicting himself as a second Augustus. Unfortunately, he did a piss-poor job of it. He had cypresses planted on top of the walls, in the mistaken belief that that’s where they had been placed originally instead of on the earthen tumulus. Inside the Mausoleum he had a squat two-storey tower built to mark the spot where Augustus’ ashes were once enshrined.
The end result of this brutal hack job was a Mausoleum in tatters, a derelict island in the middle of a traffic-engorged piazza. Homeless people found refuge under its walls and fences went up in a futile attempt to keep them out. Colonnaded Fascist buildings line the square while the real thing continues to decay. You can see its unfortunate current situation on Google Street View. Hadrian’s mausoleum, still clad in its medieval fortress trappings, is one of the icons of Rome, but Augustus’ tomb, which held the ashes of the first emperor and so many other august (*cough*) personages, doesn’t even make it onto postcards.
There was a plan to restore it in 2006 when the new glass enclosure of the Ara Pacis was built, but the funding never materialized, and the recession has starved Rome of the budget to maintain its ancient treasures.
Now Rome is reaching out to private donors to make up for its slashed budgets and it seems someone has stepped up to the plate for the Mausoleum of Augustus, one of the most expensive and difficult restorations in Rome. Mayor Ignazio Marino says a Saudi prince has approached him, expressing interest in funding the work. Who knows if that will come through, but meanwhile two million euros of public moneys have been allocated to get the process started. The mayor claims work will begin before the end of the year so that it will be in concert with the 2,000th anniversary of Augustus’ death.
Researchers from the University of Southampton have been excavating the ancient man-made harbour of Portus in modern day Fiumicino, 20 miles southwest of Rome, since 1998. In collaboration with experts from the British School at Rome, the University of Cambridge, and the Soprintendenza Speciale per i Beni Archeologici di Roma, they have explored the warehouses of Septimius Severus, the imperial palace, cisterns, an amphitheater, a massive shipyard, a bath complex and more.
The Portus Project website describes the immense historical significance of this site.
Portus (Fiumicino) was the maritime port of ancient Rome and, together with the neighbouring river port at Ostia, was the focus of a network of ports serving Imperial Rome between the mid-1st century AD and the 6th century AD. It was established by Claudius in the mid-1st century AD, enlarged by Trajan, and subsequently modified during the 3rd and 4th centuries AD. The port began to enter a period of slow decline from the late 5th century AD onwards, although it was the scene of a major struggle between Byzantine and Ostrogothic troops during the Gothic wars (AD 535-553).
Portus was critically important for supplying the city of Imperial Rome with foodstuffs and materials from across the Mediterranean from the 1st century AD onwards. It also acted as both a point of export for supplies and products from the Tiber Valley to the north of Rome, and a major hub for the redistribution of goods from ports across the Mediterranean. It must also have acted as a major conduit for people visiting Rome from around the Mediterranean.
Now the University of Southampton is giving all us little nerd urchins (nurchins?) a chance to do more than press our faces against the glass. It’s offering a Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) on the archaeology of Portus. The course is open to everyone free of charge and will include access to all the Portus Project’s research data so that students can explore the nuts and bolts of Portus and the archaeological process.
On this course you will chart a journey from the Imperial harbour to its connections across the Mediterranean, learning about what the archaeological discoveries uncovered by the Portus Project tell us about the history, landscape, buildings, and the people of this unique place. Although the site lies in ruins, it has some of the best-preserved Roman port buildings in the Mediterranean, and in this course you will learn to interpret these and the finds discovered within them, using primary research data and the virtual tools of the archaeologist.
Largely filmed on location at Portus, the course will provide you with an insight into the wide range of digital technologies employed to record, analyse and present the site. In addition to the lead educators, our enthusiastic team of student archaeologists will support your learning.
So how about it? Shall we take a Roman archaeology class together?
New radiocarbon dating results have found that a Native American dugout canoe discovered in Lake Minnetonka southwest of Minneapolis-Saint Paul, Minnesota, in 1934 is nearly 1,000 years old, making it the oldest dugout canoe ever found in Minnesota. It was thought to date to around 1750 and even though it was in excellent condition it wasn’t considered an archaeological superstar. That’s all changed now.
The canoe was discovered by Helmer Gunnarson and his brother Arthur when they were building an extension to their dock on the North Arm of Lake Minnetonka in August of 1934. It was a record dry year — the water level was seven feet below normal — and the shoreline had receded significantly. While sinking a dock piling 90 feet from the shore, Helmer and Arthur encountered an obstacle about a foot under the lake floor. At first they thought it was a log, but when they dug it out and dragged it to shore, they saw it was a dugout canoe. They noted it was in excellent condition, preserved by years under the silt and several feet of lake water.
The Gunnarsons reached out to the University of Minnesota and the Minnesota Historical Society to examine the canoe, but wound up donating it to the Minnesota Archaeological Society, who generously gifted their father Gustave with an honorary membership in response. The MAS loaned the canoe for display at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts and the Minneapolis Public Library and exhibited it at the Walker Art Gallery along with some of their other artifacts. In 1961, they sold it to the Western Hennepin County Pioneer Association museum in Long Lake, Minnesota, who added it to the museum’s eclectic collection of artifacts including a moose once shot by Theodore Roosevelt.
It was in its display in a hallway of the WHCPA museum that Maritime Heritage Minnesota archaeologists Ann Merriman and Chris Olson first encountered the canoe. They secured a $9,000 grant from the state to radiocarbon date and study the Lake Minnetonka canoe and seven other canoes discovered in Minnesota. The study did turn up some bad news. The canoe has deteriorated over time. The ends are frayed and the sides lower than they used to be. There is a long crack that splits the craft’s entire 11-foot length, a crack that was not there in 1934 as historical pictures confirm. Fragments of wood have come off and litter the hull.
The good news is those fragments made sampling the wood for typing and dating a simple matter of picking up a few of them. The radiocarbon dating found the wood sample dates to 1025-1165 A.D., the Final Late Woodland Period of the Woodlands Culture. The report of the Maritime Heritage Minnesota study has now been published and can be read in its entirety here).
Now that the canoe’s true historical value has been identified, it must be properly conserved to prevent further deterioration.
In Long Lake, the canoe that once was relegated to a corner is now the museum’s centerpiece — fitting, since it’s about 6 miles from where it was discovered. The museum will rope it off and enclose it in a glass case with updated details about how rare and old it is.
It’s not just newfound fame for an ancient artifact but also for the small museum. Founded by pioneers 107 years ago, the nonprofit is housed in an old school building. It’s run by Ferrin and other volunteers, and admission is free when it’s open for four hours on Saturdays.
“It is [the main attraction] now,” Ferrin said of the canoe. “We hope it will draw visitors.”
I’ll add that I hope it draws lots of donations too, to ensure it can be kept in a humidity controlled environment and properly conserved for future generations.
An archaeological survey on the site of future construction in Leicester, central England, has unearthed evidence of an Iron Age mint. More than 20 Iron Age coin molds have been discovered at the Blackfriars site since excavations began in January, so large a number that it strongly suggests the site was a mint used by the local British tribe, the Corieltavi, who had their capital at Leicester.
What makes this find particularly exciting is that Leicester is just 15 miles west of Hallaton, the village where a massive treasure including 5,296 British silver and gold coins, 4,835 of them from the Corieltavi tribe, was discovered in 2000. It’s the largest group of Iron Age British coins ever found in Britain. Roman coins and coins from other British tribes were also found at Hallaton, along with a Roman cavalry parade helmet, silver bowls, jewelry, the remains of 400 pigs and several dogs. The site was an open-air shrine in use between 50 B.C. and 60 A.D., with the valuables interred as offerings to the gods.
Given that the British coins found at Hallaton make up 10% of the total number of British Iron Age coins ever discovered, it makes sense that there would be a nearby source, like, say, a Corieltavi mint in Leicester. The molds don’t have reverse images to identify the kinds of coins struck. They were dated to the early 1st century A.D. thanks to fragments of high status pottery recovered from the ditch where the first coin mold was found.
The site appears to have been an enclosure in the British Iron Age. There were at least two distinct phases of Iron Age activity, followed by at least three phases of Roman activity. Most of the structural remains come Roman phases of occupation, starting with a residential townhouse. There are foundations and partial walls, no floors, but the remains of mosaic tesserae and painted plaster that indicate the house was highly decorated and therefore expensive. There was also a colonnade, as evidenced by surviving column bases. The walls were thick and supported by buttresses so it must have been a building of considerably size.
Inside the building evidence of burning and of a kiln over multiple floor layers suggest at some point this building was dedicated to industrial use, perhaps the production of roof and floor tiles. Several tiles have been found bearing the adorable signs of why they were discarded.
Nick said: “When tiles were made in Roman times, they used to get local clay and leave it out in the sun to dry and pets and animals used to escape across them leaving these kinds of imprints – it was quite a common thing to find.
“We’ve also found some floor or roof tiles with sheep or goat prints here as well.”
Much of the masonry and columns were lost over time, probably repurposed in the Middle Ages for construction of the Blackfriars Priory. There are several instances of medieval construction features cut into the Roman archaeology, plus the remains of medieval pottery and cesspits.
The National Museum of Ireland has put together a wonderful video series based on their Viking Ireland exhibit. It’s a tour of Viking history in Ireland as seen through some of the artifacts on display. Each of the eight videos is short and eminently digestible, a sort of capsule history on topics like Viking swords and trade. It also makes you want to go to the museum something fierce, which is obviously the entire point, so job well done, National Museum of Ireland!
The first video is about the Viking battle axe. The stars are three axe heads found together in 2013 in a boat in Lough Corrib, Galway, that date to the 11th or early 12th century. They are three different sizes and, thanks to the survival of small parts of the cherry wood handles still attached to the axe heads and other wood fragments from the rest of the handles, researchers are able to hypothesize that the two smaller ones were probably wielded by one hand, while the largest was probably a two-handed weapon. They’re late enough in date that they almost certainly belonged to Irish warriors, not Vikings. It was the Vikings who brought the battle axe to Ireland. Before that they had axes tools, built heavy to help split wood, but the Viking weapons were designed to be light and sharp, with the maximum amount of cutting edge for minimum amount of weight.
Next is the Viking sword, a more expensive weapon than the axe and every warrior’s most prized possession. The video focuses on a sword discovered in the River Shannon near Banagher in 2012. It dates to between 925 and 975 A.D. The blade may be of German manufacture while the hilt was made in Scandinavia. The coolest part of the video is the X-rays of the sword which gave conservators information about which areas needed work and provided more details about manufacture like the use of silver wire in the hilt.
The Viking Wealth & Trade video has some neat shiny stuff like some pretty huge penannular brooches that were both status symbols for the men who wore them and a means of portable wealth. I loved the set of woven silver cones found in a cave in Kilkenny. They aren’t very heavy in silver so they were purely decorative rather than a potential source of bullion. They were probably attached and hung as tassel from the edges of cloth and worn by a woman.
It was Vikings who introduced coin to Ireland. Before they came Ireland was a barter economy, with cattle as the primary currency. The Vikings were introduced to coin by trade with the Byzantine Empire and Arabic merchants and by plundering the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms which minted coins starting in the 7th century. The video shows one of the first coins struck in Ireland, a silver penny from 995-997, struck in Dublin by King Sitric Silkenbeard.
The Viking Women in Ireland video is a little thin on details. You see some beautiful ornaments found in graves from pre-Christian burials — large oval brooches used to fasten straps of traditional Scandinavian pinafore with glass bead chains strung between them. The highlight for me is a whalebone plaque similar to the one unearthed in Lilleberge (see this post) which the British Museum speculated might be used for food service, but the National Museum of Ireland thinks were used in textile production, maybe to stretch linen or other fabrics, in conjunction with a glass smoother.
Arrival of Vikings & Beliefs is centered on remains and artifacts found in burials in Islandbridge, Dublin, the largest Viking burial site outside of Scandinavia. Featured is a skeleton buried with a sword and spearhead, one of the earliest preserved Viking burials in Ireland. There’s also a splendid collection of swords, axes, spearheads and bosses from shields excavated from the 19th century on. Islandbridge excavations are still making new discoveries, including early single-edged sword from the 9th c., a spearhead, ringpin and the human remains of male 18-20 who grew up outside of Ireland and came to the island a couple of years before his death.
The Irish & the Vikings video is about how the two cultures came together. The Vikings created an urban commercial culture with Dublin as the center of trade and manufacture, while the Irish remained rural and agricultural, living in small groups on crannogs and in ringforts. The presence of urban Viking settlements provided new markets for Irish agriculture, cattle, leather, wool. There are some fabulous surviving textiles in the video.
Despite their disparate living arrangements and cultures — the Irish spoke a different language, had different legal and political systems — there was significant overlap in the material culture as the Irish quickly adopted Viking weapons, tools, jewelry. Not to be missed at the 2:51 mark is the Hnefatafl gaming board, a Chinese checkers or draughts sort of game with pegholes in the board decorated in Viking style.
Also striking is the late 10th c./early 11th c. slave chain found near Ardakillen crannog in County Roscommon. There was slavery in Ireland before the Vikings, mainly prisoners of war, but the Vikings made it into a thriving industry. They set up slave emporiums in Dublin, tapping into a vast trade network that meant an Irish war captive could end up anywhere from Scandinavia to north Africa.
Daily Life in Viking Ireland looks at the two best preserved Viking settlements: Dublin and Waterford. Because the environment is water-logged, the most exceptional organic remains have been found, like bedding that is still green after 1,000 years. Through a scale model drawn from a Dublin excavation, you see the dawn of the European town design, the six different types of houses, the layout of streets and defenses. Artifacts show the daily life in these towns. Pieces of of walrus bone and tusks were worked there, and there was a huge amber trade. More than 3,000 pieces of Baltic amber from the Viking era have been found in Dublin, the second greatest amount of amber found in Europe.
It’s not just about Vikings and the Irish. There’s an amazing leather scabbard at the 4:13 mark that was made by an English man. We know this because he so generously engraved his name on it: Edric me fecit (Edric made me). Around 4:50 you get an awesome tour of tools — his own and ones for other trades — made by a Dublin blacksmith, including the earliest datable spurs and stirrups in Ireland.
Last but not least is the Legacy of the Vikings in Ireland. By the 10th century, the Viking settlers had intermarried with the Irish and the hybrid Hiberno-Norse brought together Viking and Christian design elements. The Crozier of Clonmacnoise looks like a stylized Viking horse head. The Shrine of the Cathach, a decorated gold box meant to hold a 6th century Irish psalter thought to have been written by Saint Columba himself, is inscribed with the name of its maker: Sitric Mac Maghe (no idea if I’m spelling that correctly), a Scandinavian first name and an Irish family name.
Then there’s the jaw-dropping beauty of the Cross of Cong, a processional cross from the 12th century that was created to hold a fragment of the True Cross. It’s an outstanding example of the late Viking Urnes art style which features stylized animals in combat with snakes symbolizing the battle of good against evil.
When Konrad Fischer, skipper of the Maria I, found a brown bottle in his net while fishing in the Baltic off the city of Kiel in the northern German state of Schleswig-Holstein, he figured it was just a common beer bottle and went to throw it back into the sea. One of his crew members stopped him, noticing that there seemed to be something inside. They opened up the bottle — the porcelain cap was crumbling anyway — and found a Danish postcard rolled up inside. There was writing on the postcard but much of it was too faded to read. The only clearly identifiable elements were a message written in German asking that the card be sent to an address in Berlin and two five-Pfenning stamps to pay for postage.
The postcard was dated May 17th, 1913, just two months short of 101 years before it was fished out of the sea, which makes it the oldest message in a bottle ever found. The previous record holder was found in 2012, almost 98 years after it was sent. Excited by its advanced age, Fischer brought the bottle and its message to the International Maritime Museum in Hamburg where researchers set about finding out more about the sender.
The address in Berlin led them to identify him as Richard Platz, the son of a baker who was 20 years old in 1913. He was hiking on the Baltic coast with a nature appreciation group when he threw the bottle in the sea. Platz was just 54 when he died in 1946. He was survived by two daughters, Gudrun and Sieglinde, neither of them still living. Berlin genealogist Veit Godoj was able to locate Sieglinde’s daughter, one Angela Erdmann, now 62, who was born six years after her grandfather’s death.
On March 13th, Godoj contacted Erdmann and told her they’d found a message from the grandfather she never knew. Deeply moved by the discovery, she immediately called her cousin Dagmar Born who has been researching the family history for some years. Born sent her cousin a number of Platz’s documents, letters and photographs. The handwriting on the letters confirmed that he was indeed the author of the message in the bottle. It’s possible the bottle has a family connection as well, since his wife, Ella’s father owned a brewery.
The whole family is excited by the find. Erdmann says it has brought them closer together as they look into the family history. They plan to go visit the bottle and message currently on display at the International Maritime Museum until May 1st. After that, researchers will take it out of public view to work on deciphering the faded text.
Its ultimate fate is unknown at this time. The finder Konrad Fischer owns it now, and he has only loaned it to the museum. He could sell it or keep it once he gets it back.
After 233 years, eight moves including one transatlantic and one transcontinental, and a meticulous 18-month conservation, the Salon Doré reopened Saturday at the Legion of Honor museum in San Francisco. The long strange journey of this gilded room began in 1781 when it was created as the formal receiving room for the Hôtel de La Trémoille, the palace of Jean-Bretagne-Godfroy, duc de la Trémoille and his wife Marie-Maximilienne, Princesse de Salm-Kirbourg, on rue Saint-Dominique in Paris’ fashionable Saint-Germain-des-Prés neighborhood where many of the old aristocracy had town homes.
The paneling (boiserie in French) was neoclassical in design, with 15-foot gilded Corinthian pilasters framing four arched mirrors and four large doors. It was similar in style to the 18th century neoclassical decoration of the Hôtel de Salm, which was built on the Rue de Lille for Marie-Maximilienne’s relative Prince Frederick III, Fürst of Salm-Kyrburg, between 1782 and 1787. The Hôtel de Salm is now the Palais de la Légion d’Honneur. The Legion of Honor building in San Francisco which now houses the Salon Doré was designed to be a 2/3 scale replica of the Palais de la Légion d’Honneur.
The de la Trémoilles suffered greatly during the French Revolution. They were dedicated royalists, very close to Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette. In 1789, Jean-Bretagne-Godfroy, Marie-Maximilienne and their eldest son Charles Bretagne Marie fled France, with father and son joining the émigré army assembled by Louis Joseph de Bourbon, Prince of Condé, in Coblenz, Germany. Charles Bretagne’s wife Louise-Emmanuelle de Châtillon, whom he had wed the same year the Salon Doré was built, would not leave Marie Antoinette’s side. She was arrested after the fall of the Tuileries palace on August 10, 1792, because she refused to testify against the queen. In September she managed to make a break for it, leaving the country in disguise and joining her husband in England. Two of Jean-Bretagne-Godfroy and Marie-Maximilienne’s sons were guillotined at the peak of the Terror in 1794.
By the mid-19th century, the Hôtel de La Trémoille belonged to the Marquise de Croix but he didn’t get to enjoy it for long. In 1877, the house was demolished during the third phase of Georges-Eugène Haussmann’s renovation of Paris. Haussmann himself was no longer in charge by then, having been fired by Emperor Napoleon III in 1870 under pressure from Republican opponents in Parliament. The emperor died in 1873 and despite the intense opposition to Haussmann’s renovations when the Napoleon III wanted them, four years later the Third Republic picked up where he left off and finished remodeling of Paris into a city of wide boulevards and elegant squares. The rue Saint-Dominique where the Hôtel de La Trémoille stood became part of today’s Boulevard Saint-Germain.
The Marquise de Croix stripped the paneling off the walls before the demolition and had it installed in a first floor room in her new home, the Hôtel d’Humières on the rue de Lille. In 1905, this historic mansion also met a painfully premature demise and apartment buildings were constructed in its place. Again the Salon Doré’s boiserie was saved and in 1918, it was installed as the “French salon” in the Italianate mansion of financier Otto Kahn on East 91st Street in New York City.
The mansion was sold shortly after Kahn’s death in 1934 to the Convent of the Sacred Heart and is now schoolhouse to some very lucky middle and high school students. The Salon Doré was not part of the deal. It was stripped yet again and sold to the Duveen Brothers art dealership where it was installed a showroom in the firm’s Fifth Avenue gallery. In 1952, Duveen sold the room to steel magnate Richard Rheem who hired the French decorating firm Decour to install the salon in La Dolphine, his mansion in Burlingame, California.
In 1959, Rheem donated the Salon Doré to the Legion of Honor in San Francisco. At the time, the museum had a policy against period rooms, but they changed it solely to accommodate the beautiful and historic Salon Doré. It was installed in 1962 and the Legion of Honor became the proud owner of one of the finest examples of French neoclassical interior design in the world. The path wasn’t smooth yet, however. In 1990 the boiserie was stripped once more as part of a major seismic retrofit of the building. When it was reinstalled, it was in a different room minus the parquet floor, ceiling, windows and two of the four doors.
All the moves and reinstallations had left the room far from its original configuration. The museum didn’t even know the proper history of the salon because the Duveens had lied about its provenance to connect it to a more famous palace and architect and presumably charge a higher price for it. Martin Chapman, the museum’s curator of European decorative arts and sculpture, recognized the importance of the room and decided to thoroughly research it so it could be restored to a more period accurate condition.
In 2013, the room was closed for a full refurbishment. The paneling was removed for restoration of its carved elements and gilding. Watch it come down in this time lapse video:
“The aim of this project has been to reinstate this paneling as an architectural entity as well as recreating its program for furnishing based on the 1790 inventory of the room. It was also to provide a full picture of how these salons functioned in the years before the Revolution swept away the culture of the ancien régime and to understand the essential relationship between the furniture and the interior architecture,” said Martin Chapman.
In order to achieve this extensive restoration project, a laboratory was set up in an adjacent gallery that could be viewed by visitors to the museum. In this space, up to 16 specialists worked on the carving and gilding under the direction of Fine Arts Museums’ head objects conservator, Lesley Bone, and the Museums’ conservator of frames and gilded surfaces, Natasa Morovic. The furniture’s upholstery was researched and executed by Xavier Bonnet of Atelier Saint-Louis, Paris. The silk incorporated in the room was woven by Tassinari and Chatel in Lyon, France to a design matched to an 18th century document in that city’s Musée de Tissus et des Arts décoratifs. The trimming by Declercq was laboriously made using traditional techniques and designs derived from 18th century models.
You can see the gilding restoration in this video:
And the master carver doing his magic in this one:
Cutting edge technology worked side-by-side with traditional crafts. Conservators used 3D printer to recreate the missing cradle of an 18th French century clock for the Salon Doré.
The restored panels were installed according to the original floor plan in a new room with period appropriate parquet flooring donated by French antiques dealer Benjamin Steinitz, a coved ceiling, windows and new lighting. Some of the furniture and accessories (a chandelier, three Sèvres vase) came from the Legion of Honor’s collection. Other pieces — a large mirror, a console, chairs — were purchased from various antiques dealers in Paris.
The end result is nothing short of exquisite.
“The Salon Doré will be the only pre-Revolutionary Parisian salon in the United States displayed with its full complement of furnishings. Returning the room to its original glory and revealing its initial purpose, the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco present the Salon Doré as an example of how a period room can engage a 21st century audience,” said Colin B. Bailey, director of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.
I first encountered Hasan Niyazi’s blog Three Pipe Problem in May of 2010 after he emailed me through the contact form. He said lovely things about my blog, a kindness that I would come to learn was entirely characteristic of this generous, open-minded, curious and warm man, and asked me for feedback on his own even though after less than six months of posting he already had far more traffic than I did.
My review was basically a drawn out version of “wow, what a great blog.” I loved how he viewed contemporary pop culture through an art historical lens, like in his incomparable videogame review A Medici Assassin in a Digital Renaissance: Assassin’s Creed II, his post on Donatello’s David which points out the influence of the piece on manga and game design, and in his riveting recaps and analyses of the first two seasons of the Showtime series The Borgias.
I was also impressed by how in depth his posts were while never feeling dense or requiring any effort to finish. Although my average post length had increased significantly from my early days of two sentences, a link and a blockquote, at the time I still kept things short unless I had a specific assignment like a contest entry or if I’d been drawn down a historical rabbit hole. Hasan’s fearless if-you-build-it-they-will-come willingness to pursue his interests as far as they took him inspired me to take a plunge into longer, more research-intensive pieces a little more often.
It was his passion for art history, especially that of Renaissance Italy and Raphael in particular (we had a lovely Raphael geekout in the comments of this post), that shone through in every post. He was a scientist by education which grounded his writing in a rigorous, evidence-based approach, but there was nothing dry or mechanical about it. The title of his blog was a Sherlock Holmes reference from The Red Headed League:
“As a rule,” said Holmes, “the more bizarre a thing is the less mysterious it proves to be. It is your commonplace, featureless crimes which are really puzzling, just as a commonplace face is the most difficult to identify. But I must be prompt over this matter.”
Like Holmes, Hasan took his time to unravel Gordian knots with deliberation and thoughtfulness rather than just cutting through them, bringing together his scientific background and love of art in all forms to illuminate a subject in a way that appealed to professional art historians as much as to teenagers touring the Louvre. From an email he sent me a few years back:
I had a 15 year old Belgian kid write to me the other day – explaining how he’d been in Paris with his family and on a Louvre Tour. When they passed the Pastoral Concert [a painting currently attributed to Titian but previously thought to be by Giorgione and whose authorship is still debated], the tour guide just gave the standard description about it. The kid questioned him about the attribution to Varro and how the figures are not a mystery at all if you’ve read Varro. Rather than get angry, the tour guide bought him one of those expensive catalogue books and encouraged him to pursue his interest in the field. Wow!! All because he read my article [Titian and Giorgione: ethereal picnic with a difference].
Hasan Niyazi died unexpectedly on October 28th, 2013. To celebrate his love of art history and his commitment to open online access to art historical resources, bloggers who knew and loved him have dedicated entries to him today, the 531st anniversary of Raphael’s birth and the 494th anniversary of his death. It’s a wonderful collection of work that you can find listed here.
The Three Pipe Problem blog archives will remain as a testimony to the brilliance of his intellect, the generosity of his spirit and wide-eyed wonder at the beauty in this world.
Ancient sources tell us that asbestos was used in antiquity for its fireproof properties primarily in textiles and candle wicks. The 2nd century Greek geographer Pausanias in Book I, Chapter 26 of his Description of Greece describes a golden lamp in the temple of Athena that burned all year on a single wick made of “Carpasian flax, the only kind of flax which is fire-proof.” Pliny the Elder dedicates a whole chapter of his Natural History (Book XIX, Chapter 4) to incombustible linen napkins woven out of asbestos fibers.
It is generally known as “live” linen, and I have seen, before now, napkins that were made of it thrown into a blazing fire, in the room where the guests were at table, and after the stains were burnt out, come forth from the flames whiter and cleaner than they could possibly have been rendered by the aid of water. It is from this material that the corpse-cloths of monarchs are made, to ensure the separation of the ashes of the body from those of the pile.
Pliny says the Greeks call these fibers asbestinon, meaning “inextinguishable.” He believes they grow in the heat of the Indian desert, not realizing that the fibrous substance is actually a mineral rather than a plant.
Asbestos continued to be used in the Christian era. Marco Polo mentions Tartars using a cloth made from fibers dug out of a mountain that whitens in fire, and the 10th century Persian geographer Ibn al-Faqih al-Hamadani, aka Ibn al-Fatiq, in his Concise Book of Lands records how clever scammers in Jerusalem sold Christian pilgrims little chunks of asbestos as pieces of the True Cross. The fact that they burned without being consumed by fire was seen as proof of authenticity. In the early 1800s, physics professor Jean Albini made a fireproof suit out of asbestos cloth and took it on a tour of Europe.
The use of asbestos in construction, however, has no such pedigree. That has been thought to be a relatively recent development of industrialization, first implemented in the late 19th century. Researchers from UCLA have discovered that Byzantine monks on Cyprus beat them to the punch by 700 years or so. Underneath 12th century wall paintings in the monastery of Enkleistra of St. Neophytos the UCLA team found a layer of chrysotile (white asbestos) in the finish coating of the plaster.
The researchers weren’t looking for asbestos. They were analyzing the paintings using an impressive panoply of technologies, among them infrared, UV and X-ray fluorescence imaging, and microsamples examined by scanning electron microscopy and gas chromatography mass spectrometry, to determine whether the materials changed over time. It was one of those microsamples, taken from an 1196 wall painting of the Enthroned Christ, that revealed the presence of chrysotile.
The sample was taken from the red frame of the book Christ is holding and consists of four layers: a dark brown top layer that was likely a varnish, an intense red cinnabar paint layer, the asbestos-rich orangey layer, and underneath them all, a plaster layer made mostly of plant fibers. Researchers believe the chrysotile was used to enhance the red cinnabar layer.
“[The monks] probably wanted to give more shine and different properties to this layer,” said UCLA archaeological scientist Ioanna Kakoulli, lead author of the new study, published online last month in the Journal of Archaeological Science. “It definitely wasn’t a casual decision — they must have understood the properties of the material.”
The closest asbestos mine was in the mountains about 40 miles inland from the coastal monastery. The monks, like their leader St. Neophytos, sought isolation in their monastery, so they weren’t likely to have traveled inland personally. They likely took advantage of a regional trade network to purchase their materials.
Although asbestos has only been found under that red cinnabar layer thus far, the UCLA team plans to return to the monastery to examine more of the wall paintings, and to look for asbestos that may have been missed in previous studies of other Cyprus wall paintings.
The 1775 Forster Flag, the oldest surviving American flag known, will be going under the hammer at New York City’s Doyle auction house on April 9th. It’s not the Star and Stripes we know as the American flag today, of course. It’s a red silk flag with 13 short white stripes in the canton (upper left quadrant of the hoist). What gives is the “oldest known American flag” title is that it’s the earliest surviving flag that was deliberately designed to represent the nascent United States with 13 white stripes, one for each of the 13 colonies. It’s also the only remaining Revolutionary War flag still in private hands. Since the remaining 29 Revolutionary War colors belong to museums or other institutions, it’s likely that this will be the last chance for one to come up for public sale. It’s not surprising, therefore, that the pre-sale estimate is $1,000,000 – $3,000,000.
The current owner is the Flag Heritage Foundation, a non-profit organization dedicated to the preservation and research of flags. They bought it in January of 1975 from Constance Knight Hodgdon, a descendant of the first owner, Samuel Forster of Manchester, Massachusetts. Forster was a successful merchant who was active in local politics and, as hostilities between the colonists and the British escalated leading to the expansion of the militia units, was elected Lieutenant of the Manchester Company, First Regiment of Militia, Essex County. That was in December of 1774.
On April 19th, 1775, the British Army marched towards Concord to confiscate a cache of weapons. Thanks to a very famous midnight ride by a certain Boston silversmith, the militia of Concord and Lexington had been alerted to the impending arrival of the regulars. The first shots of the American Revolution were fired at Lexington in the early morning. The British troops then advanced on Concord only to be repulsed by the Minutemen. By the time the Manchester Company reached Medford, 12 miles east of Concord, the British had already retreated. The company stayed in the area for five days just in case the redcoats returned.
According to Forster family lore, the red silk flag was captured from the British at the Battle of Lexington on April 19th. The cross of St. George was in the canton (the upper left quarter). That symbol of Britain was cut out and replaced with a square of red silk. Thirteen buff-colored bars representing the original colonies were then stitched onto the canton, six on one side and seven on the other.
Samuel Forster returned to Manchester where the company would remain, guarding the coastal towns from British naval attacks. The Forster Flag, now the company’s colors, benefited greatly from this assignment. Other regimental colors suffered from constant hoisting and lowering and battlefield damage. The few military colors that did survive, by long tradition were carefully preserved and handed down as precious mementos of regimental history.
The Forster Flag descended to Samuel Forster’s son, Israel (1779-1863), a prominent citizen of Manchester and a major in the War of 1812, whose stately home on the town’s main street, built in 1804, still stands today. A canton of white and blue stripes from a second flag found there is now in the collection of the Peabody-Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts. Early newspaper accounts report that the Forster Flag was on loan to the Massachusetts State House in Boston when Samuel’s brother, Israel, died in 1818, and that the younger Israel (Samuel’s son) had a difficult time retrieving it, since “state authorities … were for a time disposed to cling to it.” After this, the Flag descended through further generations of the Forster family, who held it for a total of two hundred years.
And they treated it right. The flag shows some wear along the hoist, but that’s just proof it was actually flown. It comes with a pair of tassels and a dress sash which may or may not be original but have certainly been with the flag for a very long time. Unlike the Star-Spangled Banner, the Forster Flag was saved from souvenir hunters subjecting it to death by a thousand cuts. Nobody recycled it for its lovely crimson silk. Nobody hung it outside in the weather or exposed it to the color-leaching rays of the sun. Nobody tried to restore it in some destructively ham-fisted fashion. The Forster-Knight family preserved it flawlessly for 200 years.
The Flag Heritage Foundation picked up where they left off, preserving it in ideal conditions for the next 39 years. It is the most valuable flag in their collection now and they’ve only decided to part with it to help endow the Whitney Smith Flag Research Center Collection at the University of Texas at Austin’s Dolph Briscoe Center for American History. It’s a noble cause.
This collection is a vast and unique library and archive documenting flags and their history. It includes the holdings of the Flag Research Center, created in 1962 by Dr. Whitney Smith, who is widely recognized as the foremost authority on the subject. The collection contains thousands of books, charts, pamphlets, serials, clippings and flags, as well as many associated objects. Including considerable research materials related to American history and Americana, with detailed information about the development of our national and state flags, as well as those of every foreign country, the collection is widely considered the greatest of its kind in the world.
The Forster Flag will be on display at Doyle New York (175 East 87th Street) this weekend and Monday. After that, it will be available for viewing by appointment only until the auction on Wednesday.
The New York Public Library, in addition to having a glorious Beaux Arts main building, has a vast collection of historic images. More than 800,000 images are available for perusal in its Digital Collections, an invaluable resource on the history of New York. I would have made much use of it in this blog but high resolution images are only available for a fee of at least $50 apiece which is rather pricey for works out of copyright.
This has bummed me out for years, so when I read that the NYPL was releasing more than 20,000 digitized maps, I assumed that we’d only be to view these cartographical works in versions too small to appreciate the details, which is bad enough with pictures of people or buildings but is infinitely worse with maps. Something something ass u me, because the entire collection can be viewed in exquisitely high resolution on the website and can even be downloaded! All you have to do is create an account free of charge on the NYPL’s Map Warper site and once that’s done, you see an Export tab on each map entry from which you can download the high resolution file.
Fair warning: the Map Warper takes ages to load, or at least it has for me at various times over several days. Everything I’ve accessed has eventually loaded without errors, but it took minutes. I suggest opening it in a new tab to wait out the load time. Once you have your account, be prepared to wait again for the maps to load. From the comments on the NYPL’s blog entry announcing the release, it appears to be your basic birthing pains and they have top men on it. Top. Men.
In any case, gems like these are worth the wait.
We’ve been scanning maps for about 15 years, both as part of the NYPL’s general work but mostly through grant funded projects like the 2001 National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) funded American Shores: Maps of the MidAtlantic to 1850, the 2004 Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) funded Building a Globally Distributed Historical Sheet Map Set and the 2010 NEH funded New York City Historical GIS.
Through these projects, we’ve built up a great collection of: 1,100 maps of the Mid-Atlantic United States and cities from the 16th to 19th centuries, mostly drawn from the Lawrence H. Slaughter Collection; a detailed collection of more than 700 topographic maps of the Austro-Hungarian empire created between 1877 and 1914; a collection of 2,800 maps from state, county and city atlases (mostly New York and New Jersey); a huge collection of more than 10,300 maps from property, zoning, topographic, but mostly fire insurance atlases of New York City dating from 1852 to 1922; and an incredibly diverse collection of more than 1,000 maps of New York City, its boroughs and neighborhoods, dating from 1660 to 1922, which detail transportation, vice, real estate development, urban renewal, industrial development and pollution, political geography among many, many other things.
One of the neatest features the Map Warper offers is the ability for members to rectify a map, meaning overlay it as accurately as possible over a modern digital Google Map using control points on both maps. Here’s a handy tutorial on how to rectify:
And here’s a before and after of a particularly warp-heavy map from sea to shining sea:
I love this one of New Orleans because the 1860 map is basically identical to the modern map only of course the city boundaries have sprawled much further afield now:
The ring, dubbed the North-Essex Ring, is the centerpiece of the new display. It’s a gold signet ring with a rectangular bezel and a heavy hoop 26.6mm in diameter at the widest point. It weighs a total of 20.1 grams and its composition is 92-94% gold, 5-6% silver and the rest a copper alloy. The square bezel and broad hoop are a Frankish form — for comparison see this Frankish ring from approximately the same period unearthed in the Mulsanne, France, and now in the British Museum — but the decoration on the North-Essex Ring is distinctly Anglo-Saxon.
On the bezel is engraved a belted male figure, possibly naked despite the presence of the belt. There is no visible clothing like the male and female figures on the Mulsanne ring wear. The man is holding a bird in one hand and a staff topped with a cross in the other. Above his head is another bird, bigger and more detailed. Both of the birds have curved beaks, indicating they’re birds of prey and the detail in the larger one identifies it as a Style II design, a zoomorphic style in which whole animals are depicted in an elongated, stylized fashion. Some of the pieces from the famous Sutton Hoo ship burial are decorated in Style II.
The decoration and ring style date the piece to around 580-650 A.D., a period when the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms of Kent, Essex and East Anglia were first introduced to Christianity. Pope Gregory I sent Augustine, a Benedictine monk who would become the first Archbishop of Canterbury, on a mission to convert King Æthelberht of Kent in 597 A.D. The combination of pre-Christian North European motifs and the Christian crossed staff makes the ring an extremely rare example of religious syncretism from this transitional period.
Another of the five objects secured by the Saffron Walden Museum is also a rare example from a transitional period in British history, albeit a much later one. It’s a gold ring from the 16th or early 17th century. The band is decorated with circular medallions in which are engraved scenes from the passion of the Christ. This imagery is Catholic, but from a time when people had to hide their adherence to Roman Catholicism to save their necks.
They don’t have a religious significance, but there are two historically significant gold coins in the new collection. They’re Gallo-Belgic class four gold staters struck in the Somme area in northwest France in the mid-2nd century B.C. Both of them are quite worn, one of them bent along the edge, indicating they were in circulation for some time before winding up in the ground. Very few class four gold staters have been found in Britain, and these are the earliest ever discovered in the district.
The last two artifacts are a silver hooked tag from the 9th century A.D. decorated with stylized animals that once held niello accents although the black enamel is long gone. (it’s known as Trewhiddle-style decoration) and an identified silver object with engraved niello animal figures from the 8th or 9th century.
All of the artifacts will be on display together starting April 5th. The museum has made a replica of the North-Essex Ring available so visitors can handle it and appreciate its size and decoration in person, which I think is a nifty idea that more museums should incorporate in their exhibitions.
Archaeologists excavating I Vilhelm Werners Square in Hans Christian Andersen’s hometown of Odense, Denmark, are delighted to have found barrels full of medieval excrement. Poop is a boon to modern archaeology because it can tell us more about the daily lives of past people than golden treasures, and this particular poop is very well preserved thanks to having been buried in an oxygen-poor environment.
The content of the barrels was immediately identifiable from the odor which was still pungent after 700 years in barrels under layers of the city. The first round of analysis found that 14th century Odensians were fans of raspberries, as well they should be. Scientists also found fragments of moss, leather and fabric all of which are thought to have been used as toilet paper. (Moss toilet paper? Would it have been, like, a clump attached to soil? How does it stay intact otherwise? Because if the structural integrity issue was dealt with, I imagine moss would make a pretty comfortable tp.)
Markings on the barrels indicate that they were not initially used as latrines. An anchor carved on one suggests it was used to transport or store herring, a major source of trade for medieval Odense. The barrels themselves are generally in good condition, which makes sense because you wouldn’t want to recycle a busted barrel for use as a cesspit. Containment is key to sewage management.
The poop barrels were unearthed last year. Continuing excavations on the site this year discovered even more barrels in an unusual configuration. Three barrels were stacked on top of each other and strapped together with strong wicker. At the base of the pit archaeologists found a mat of reeds and a pipe system made of recycled roof tiles. It seems this was a homemade water well, with the pipes used to draw water into the barrel well and the reed mat as a filter to keep sludge out of the water. On each side of the barrel stack are the remains of pillars, probably used to hold aloft a small roof to project the well water from bird poop or leaves or any other such contaminants.
The well is also from the 1300s and may have originally been in the courtyard of a home. It could also have been part of a beer brewing apparatus. Near the well archaeologists found a store of partially germinated barley, a key supply for beer making.
The Werners Square area is thought to be the oldest area in Odense, settled from at least the 11th century, and possibly as early as 988 when historical sources claim a bishopric was established there. The first recorded bishop, Reginbert, was sent to Odense by King Canute the Great in 1020 or 1022. The excavation, which began in 2013, hopes to reveal the earliest days of Odense going back to King Canute’s day. Preliminary studies found the remains of one of the oldest datable streets from around 1100.
The dig, which is the largest in the city’s history, is open to visitors every Tuesday and Thursday at 1:00 PM. The archaeologists’ workshop is also open to visitors on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays from noon to 3:00 PM. I wonder if there were visitors present when the fragrant poop barrels were discovered.
Sixty-two years after it was stolen from the Baltimore Museum of Art, Renoir’s Paysage Bords de Seine is once again on display in the museum’s galleries. The little 5 1/2″-by-9″ landscape, reputedly painted by the Impressionist master for his mistress on a linen napkin at a cafe on the shores of the Seine in 1879, first made the news in 2012 when it was put up for auction by a woman (later revealed to be one Marcia “Martha” Fuqua) who claimed she bought it at a flea market for $7 in a box lot along with a plastic cow and a Paul Bunyan doll. That story soon turned out to have more than a few gaping holes which were exposed when a Washington Post reporter discovered evidence in the archives of the Baltimore Museum of Art that the painting had been stolen from the museum on November 17th, 1951.
The sale was canceled while a federal court decided who owned legal title to the painting. Possible contenders were the museum, Fuqua and the Fireman’s Fund Insurance Company which had paid the museum $2,500 after the theft. The insurance company declined to pursue their own claim because they believed that the Renoir should return to the Baltimore Museum of Art. In January, the court decided that even if Fuqua was an “innocent owner” who had no idea the painting was stolen when she acquired it, a thief cannot pass title to a new owner, innocent or otherwise. The landscape was going back to the museum.
Since then, BMA conservators have treated the work — it was in excellent condition and only needed a surface cleaning — to prepare it for its triumphant return. On March 30th, The Renoir Returns exhibition opened to the general public. Paysage Bords de Seine is on display with more than 20 other important pieces bequeathed to the museum by collector and benefactor Saidie Adler May. A dedicated collector of Impressionist and early 20th century art, Saidie Adler May left her entire collection to the Baltimore Museum of Art, but this is the first time, believe it or not, that the museum has dedicated an exhibition to Saidie May’s donations. Works from the May collection by Mondrian, Klee and Miró join the Renoir in the two-gallery show. May’s own artwork also gets display space next to the masterworks.
Earlier articles said that according the records of the Bernheim-Jeune gallery in Paris, the painting was purchased by Herbert L. May, Saidie’s estranged husband, in 1926. According to the BMA’s press release about the exhibition, however, Saidie and Herbert bought the painting together in November of 1925. Museum researchers discovered a diary in which she wrote about her acquisition of the Renoir. She bought it from Bernheim-Jeune along with an oil sketch by Georges Seurat, paying $2,000 for both. The diary entry and the original receipt of the purchase are part of the exhibition, as is the Seurat.
Researchers also found evidence supporting the linen napkin story.
New research conducted by the BMA’s conservation and textile departments confirms part of Saidie May’s story about Renoir painting the landscape on a linen napkin at a restaurant on the Seine for his mistress. Since Renoir was not married at the time, there is no conclusive information about the identity of his mistress, but the surface of the painting is in fact a linen damask with an elaborate geometric weave. It was unusual for painters to use this type of fabric as a background, but very common for table linens of that period. It turns out to have been a good choice, as linen increases in strength when wet and is smoother than wool and cotton.
As for what happened to the painting between 1951 and 2012, it doesn’t look like we’ll be getting answers any time soon. The FBI has closed its investigation because they don’t have enough evidence to arrest someone for the theft or even for knowingly possessing stolen goods. There are too many contradictory stories to pin anything on anyone.
One key witness, and possible suspect, was Martha Fuqua’s mother Marcia Fouquet. She was an art student in Baltimore in 1951 and had at least one friend who worked at the museum. Borders and family, including her son Matt, recall seeing the painting in her home in the 80s and 90s. The FBI did interview her before her death in September of 2013, but didn’t actually ask her if she was involved in the theft or even if she had the painting hanging in her home. Special agent in charge of the investigation Gregg Horner says: “I did not ask her about the Renoir. I did not feel that the timing was right. She’s a very interesting lady, very well-educated. We had a nice, pleasant conversation. I talked to her in general terms about her art.” He never followed up with her because of her precipitous decline in health (she was 85 years old and had cancer). “Given her illness,” Horner said, “I didn’t think it was appropriate.”
I am completely perplexed by this. It’s not idle curiosity, after all. He’s an agent investigating a crime. What is the point of interviewing a witness/suspect IF YOU DON’T ASK THEM ABOUT THE CRIME? I mean, a pleasant conversation about her art? Bizarre.
Anyway, there’s a silver lining to the theft, because now there’s this crazy adventure to add to the history of the painting and the museum is poised to take full advantage of the little landscape’s new notoriety (don’t forget to buy the magnet at the gift shop!). It’s also brought Saidie Adler May’s invaluable contributions some well-deserved and belated recognition. The Renoir Returns runs through July 20, 2014.
The Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, Connecticut, the oldest public art museum in the United States, has acquired a rare self-portrait of Baroque master Artemisia Gentileschi. Self-Portrait as a Lute Player was the leading lot in Christie’s Old Master Paintings auction on January 29th. With a pre-sale estimate of $3-5 million, the painting failed to meet the reserve and did not sell at the auction. Christie’s then offered it to the Wadsworth Atheneum which last December received a $9.6 million donation from the Charles H. Schwartz Fund for European Art earmarked for the acquisition of pre-19th century art. The final price the museum paid has not been released, but curator Oliver Tostmann says it was significantly less than the low estimate of $3 million.
Self-Portrait as a Lute Player is the first work by Artemisia Gentileschi in a New England museum. It’s also the first painting in the museum’s Baroque Italian art collection that was done by a woman. It will join works by her father, Orazio Gentileschi, and by Caravaggio, the great innovator of the age who was a strong influence on Artemisia’s mature work. Orazio is represented by a painting of Judith and her Maidservant with the Head of Holofernes (1621-24), a subject that Artemisia returned to repeatedly in what may be her most famous and dramatic works. The Wadsworth Atheneum’s Caravaggio is Saint Francis of Assisi in Ecstasy painted in 1594.
The Morgan Memorial Building, home of the Wadsworth’s European collection, is currently in the last two years of a five-year refurbishment project so Artemisia’s Lute Player won’t be on display right away. When the building reopens in Fall of 2015, she will be the centerpiece of the inaugural exhibition. The premier members of the museum’s Society of Daniel Wadsworth will be given a special preview of the work this spring (you can join, but it’ll cost ya $2,500.)
One of no more than three known self-portraits that are thought to have been painted by Artemisia Gentileschi (the others are Self-portrait as the Allegory of Painting in the Royal Collection in London and the Allegory of Inclination, a fresco on the ceiling of the art gallery in Casa Buonarroti in Florence) is probably the most recognizable), Self-Portrait as a Lute Player was painted around 1616-1617 when Artemisia was 25 years old and had just been inducted into the prestigious Accademia del Disegno in Florence, the first woman ever to be accepted into that august assemblage of artists.
Her patrons included Michelangelo Buonarroti the Younger, a great-nephew of the great Michelangelo, and Cosimo II de’ Medici, Grand Duke of Tuscany. It’s likely that the latter commissioned Lute Player since it appears in the inventory of the Villa Medici at Artimino in 1638, only 20 or so years after it was painted. The inventory describes it as “A picture on canvas 1 1/2 braccia high and 1 1/4 braccia wide in a black frame bordered in gold, the portrait of Artemisia playing a lute painted by her own hand.” (A Florentine braccio is 58.4 centimeters, which would make the portrait 87.6 cm x 73 cm when in fact it’s 77.5 x 71.8 cm, but it was probably trimmed by idiots over the centuries. You can see the bottom edge crops the arm and lute awkwardly.)
Her success at the Florentine court was unprecedented for a woman and was all more astonishing considering the personal horror that brought her to the city. In 1611, when she was 17 years old, Artemisia Gentileschi was raped by Agostino Tassi, a colleague of her father’s and full-on psycho stalker who had already raped at least two women (his sister-in-law and one of his wives, the latter of whom disappeared and was probably murdered by bandits Tassi hired). The rape trial lasted seven months and all except a few final pages of the transcripts have survived. Artemisia, per standard legal practice in the Papal States at that time for all woman who accused someone of rape, was tortured with thumbscrews to prove she wasn’t lying. Tassi was convicted but only served eight months in prison after the judge pardoned him.
Even though Tassi’s testimony — denials coupled with completely fictitious claims about Artemisia’s purported promiscuity which fit handily into the blame-the-victim template that still haunts the halls of justice today — was blatantly false and widely seen as such, the scandal of the trial generated so much malicious gossip against her that a few months after Tassi’s conviction, she was hastily married to Pierantonio Stiattesi, a mediocre Florentine artist, and left Rome with him to start afresh in Florence where she supported them with her commissions. Her husband proved to be a deadbeat who ran up huge debts and forced her to leave Florence with creditors baying for blood. She dumped the bum and moved back to Rome in 1621 without him.
Her immense gifts have been recognized by art critics from the beginning, but for many centuries the rape trial overshadowed her talent. It was 20th century feminist analysis that brought Artemisia Gentileschi back into the spotlight to take her rightful place among the greatest artists of her era.
An imperial white jade object from the 18th century that is as mysterious as it is beautiful will be going up for auction at Bonhams next month. Made for the Qianlong Emperor (reigned 1735-1796), sixth emperor of the Qing Dynasty, the piece is made out of two hollowed rectangles that are connected to a central triangle via two hinges. They hinges work, allowing the rectangles to move from laid out straight to fully vertical.
The hinge-fitting embodies much of the artistic and historical pre-occupations of the Qianlong period. Carved from exceptionally fine and lustrous white stone, with even the minor flaws most cleverly incorporated into the scrollwork, the thinly hollowed supremely challenging yet technically flawless piece is representative of the highest skill of the 18th century craftsman. Furthermore it falls into a group of jade pieces carved with the Qianlong fanggu mark, specifically carved with archaistic designs inspired by archaic bronzes to reflect the concerns of the Qianlong Emperor with drawing moral strength and righteousness from the examples of the ancients.
The ancient bronze that inspired this piece was described in the 1751 catalog of the imperial bronzes as a “Han Dynasty ornament,” which means they had little idea what it was for either.
The Qianlong Emperor was a passionate collector of art. His agents would buy up entire private collections from people who had fallen in hard times or whose descendants didn’t want to be associated with them because they had taken the wrong side during the wars of the Qing Conquest. There are thousands of jade pieces in the imperial collection and almost all of them were acquired or commissioned by the Qianlong Emperor.
Although he was an artistic polyglot who welcomed the fusion of Chinese and Western styles (the famous bronze animal heads of the Chinese zodiac were made during his reign), the Qianlong Emperor saw himself first and foremost as the keeper of China’s artistic heritage. His collection of ancient bronzes was unparalleled, as was his collection of antique paintings. An incredibly prolific poet in his own right, he adopted a practice of the Song dynasty emperors and inscribed his poems on paintings in the collection.
That desire to integrate the glorious past of China’s cultural heritage and its glorious present as incarnated by him may be key to identifying the purpose of the hinged jade object. There is another hinged white jade piece similar to this one which is engraved with an imperial poem.
The poem appears to refer to the jade piece as a ‘ruler’ to be used to ‘compare lengths’ with ‘precisely fitting workmanship’. This pre-occupation with the idea of measuring is also connected to the idea of the benevolent ruler who is guided well.
That’s not to say this was its original purpose. The Han bronze may have had a whole other significance to which the Qianlong Emperor ascribed his own meaning.
The piece is estimated to sell for £200,000 to £300,000 ($333,000 – $500,000), but the market for Chinese antiquities is insane right now so those numbers could go increase geometrically. The auction catalog is not available yet. They’re usually released four weeks before the auction, so if you’d like to leaf through it, check this page the last week in April.