Arts and Sciences
The peace treaty that has gone down in history as Magna Carta was negotiated over 10 days at Runnymede in June of 1215. The rebel barons and King John came to an agreement on terms on June 15th, 1215, which is why yesterday we celebrated the 800th anniversary of the Great Charter even though the formal copies were issued on June 19th. Only four of those original 1215 copies, called exemplifications, are known to have survived. Two of them are in the collection of the British Library; one belongs to Salisbury Cathedral and the last to Lincoln Cathedral.
As part of a project of extensive study of Magna Carta in anticipation of the 800th anniversary, scholars from the University of East Anglia and King’s College London compared the handwriting of the original copies. They have identified the scribe who wrote the Lincoln charter and probably the one who wrote the Salisbury charter as well. They were not scribes of the royal chancery, as long thought.
The Lincoln charter was written by a scribe who produced several other documents for the Bishop of Lincoln. The Salisbury charter was probably produced by a scribe working for the Dean and Chapter of Salisbury.
It makes sense that Magna Carta would be copied by cathedral scribes rather than the royal ones because the bishops, led by Archbishop of Canterbury Stephen Langton, were in favor of the charter which guaranteed their rights as well as the barons’, while John had to be forced into it and had no real intention of living up to the agreement. If it had been up to John, Magna Carta would never have gotten nation-wide distribution.
A recent study of one of the British Library’s two copies, Cotton Charter XIII 31A, which was damaged in a 1731 fire and then damaged even harder by a botched restoration attempt a century later, has found that it too had an ecclesiastical origin. Multispectral imaging has made it possible to view text invisible to the naked eye and comparison of the charter text with transcriptions in a cartulary (a manuscript of transcribed documents relating to the foundation and rights of the church) from Canterbury Cathedral found that this exemplification was the one sent to the cathedral for its records in 1215. Since Archbishop of Canterbury Stephen Langton played a pivotal role in the Runnymede negotiations, the discovery of a Canterbury Magna Carta that may well have passed through his hands is of major historical import.
King’s College London professor of medieval history David Carpenter:
“We now know, therefore, that three of the four surviving originals of the charter went to cathedrals: Lincoln, Salisbury and Canterbury. Probably cathedrals were the destination for the great majority of the other original charters issued in 1215.
“This overturns the old view that the charters were sent to the sheriffs in charge of the counties. That would have been fatal since the sheriffs were the very people under attack in the charter. They would have quickly consigned Magna Carta to their castle furnaces.
“The church, therefore, was central to the production, preservation and proclamation of Magna Carta. The cathedrals were like a beacon from which the light of the charter shone round the country, thus beginning the process by which it became central to national life.”
We know later reissues of Magna Carta were sent to cities and counties as well as churches, even more extensively than first realized, as the recent discovery of the Kent copy indicates, but by then the reissuing of Magna Carta was almost a given. Every king for 75 years did it whenever he got into disputes over taxes and forests and whatnot. It’s those original 1215 iterations that appear to have been primarily supported and preserved by church authorities. Church officials wrote them, distributed them, kept them safe in their archives.
Because nothing is ever simple, the Church in the person of the Pope was no fan of Magna Carta. After clashes over the appointment of the Archbishop of Canterbury led to his excommunication, King John had submitted to Pope Innocent III in 1213 and become his vassal. This secured him the pope’s consistent political support against enemies foreign (France) and domestic (the barons, the bishops) and, just 10 weeks after Runnymede, garnered him a Papal Bull annulling Magna Carta as “illegal, unjust, harmful to royal rights and shameful to the English people.” The result was the First Baron’s War.
There are piles of events and resources out there right now because of the anniversary. The British Library has put together an excellent website dedicated to Magna Carta. There are articles, a zoomable image and translation of one of the original 1215 exemplifications and more than 150 other artifacts related to Magna Carta and King John in the library’s collection. If you can get to the library in person, they have a rich exhibition on the history of the charter and its evolution in meaning from a treaty between warring factions whose terms were regularly ignored by all parties to the foundations of democratic principles like trial by jury and due process.
One of the more unusual objects on display is entirely modern, an artwork by Cornelia Parker called Magna Carta (An Embroidery). It is a 13 meter-long embroidery of the Magna Carta Wikipedia page as it was last year on June 15th. More than 200 people were involved in this project, from lawyers to barons to 40 prisoners who embroidered the word “freedom.” Every color, image, table, bullet point, reference and footnote is duplicated in embroidery.
For a cool look at the history of Magna Carta scholarship, check out the English Historical Review‘s special online Magna Carta issue which is available for free on its website. It’s a selection of articles about the charter published in the EHR over its 130 history, which makes it as interesting from a historiographical perspective as it is a study of Magna Carta.
This video is a nice overview of the history and significance of Magna Carta featuring experts from King’s College London.
Construction workers building a new apartment complex in Tallinn, the capital of Estonia, have discovered the remains of two medieval ships. Workers were digging the foundations on May 22nd when the bucket of the excavator encountered large pieces of very old wood. The construction company stopped work and alerted the National Heritage Board (NHB) who sent experts to examine the find. On May 26th the crew unearthed another shipwreck at the other end of the construction site. The area was then scanned with ground-penetrating radar and a third likely shipwreck was located.
Construction has been suspended and this week NHB archaeologists began excavating the first shipwreck. The bones of the ship are now clearly visible and can be seen by members of the public who care to glance down. It’s 15 meters (50 feet) long, four meters (13 feet) wide and 1.5 meters (five feet) deep at the deepest point. Archaeologists tentatively date it to between the 14th to 17th century.
It was found close to four meters below modern ground level, in the sediments of what was once the seabed. Although the site is 200 meters (ca. 220 yards) from the water today, for centuries it was a port. In the late 1930s the area was infilled with ash and household refuse. It’s not clear if the ships sank there are were gradually buried over time by siltification, or if they were deliberately sunk after reaching the end of their natural lives. They were certainly stripped of all usable parts — metal fittings, rigging and masts — before being abandoned.
Estonian Maritime Museum archeologist Vello Mässi believes it was a short-haul transport vessel, used to move cargo from the shore to the large ships in the deeper waters of the bay. Archaeologists are excited to have the opportunity to study such old ships in detail. This is the first time multiple historic wrecks have been found so close together. The last time the remains of a wreck were found in Tallinn was 2009 when road construction unearthed a 13th century ship. They are keen to examine these finds to learn about how they were built and when and what wood was used.
Archaeologist Priit Lahi admits the find was an important discovery to shed light on possible shipbuilding methods from centuries before.
“At the time, shipbuilders used their own methods — it wasn’t very scientific. There weren’t project drawings like we have today,” he told the Associated Press.
Excavations are scheduled to continue at least through July 8th. While the developers building the apartment complex have expressed interest in display the find in some way, construction won’t be delayed much longer or halted. It would be too expensive and time-consuming to keep the wrecks in situ, so they will be raised, documented and studied before their ultimate disposition is decided. They may be reburied in sand at another location for their own preservation, which would allow future examination of the wrecks by scholars and make them easy to retrieve for future conservation and display.
Archaeologists excavating the oldest cemetery in Ribe, southwestern Denmark, have discovered an intact Merovingian-era pitcher. It is the only vessel of its type ever found in Denmark and because Ribe, founded in the early 8th century, is not only the oldest extant city in Denmark, but the oldest in Scandinavia, this teapot-sized jug is of disproportionately large historical significance.
The pitcher was found underneath a large upside-down vessel which was cracked and broken. It may have been deliberately placed over the little treasure to protect it, but if it wasn’t, it performed that function anyway, keeping the jug from being damaged or broken over the centuries. When the archaeologists removed the pieces on top of it, they immediately saw they had something special. Danish pottery from the early Middle Ages is black, brown or red. The bright color of this ceramic marked it as imported. When they excavated it fully they were amazed to find a complete piece of such high quality and great age.
Unsure of what exactly they had unearthed, the team consulted with experts who identified it from its features — the clover leaf spout, the shape of the handle — as a trefoil pitcher made during the Merovingian dynasty (circa 450-750 A.D.) in France or Belgium. Unlike domestic ceramics, this pitcher was made on a turntable and fired in a kiln.
Merovingian vessels have also been found in the late 8th century trading settlement of Hedeby, also on the Jutland peninsula but today just across the border in Germany about 80 miles south of Ribe. They are very rare. Out of 2,000 graves excavated in Hedeby, only three of them included Frankish pitchers, none of them of the trefoil type.
“It is a unique find,” said Morten Søvsø, the head of archaeology at Sydvestjyske Museum.
“The pitcher is an example of the finest pottery produced in northern Europe at the time, and it has never been seen before in Denmark. The vessel reveals information about the vast trading network that put Ribe on the map during the Viking era.” [...]
“The jug is a masterpiece from the French or Belgian workshops, and its elegant form is a direct legacy from ancient Roman potters. No pottery at home could technically produce such a thing at the time,” said Søvsø.
Archaeologists couldn’t narrow down the precise date it was made or when it was buried. It was certainly interred more than 1,000 years ago and most likely when Ribe was still new. Archaeologists have long thought that Ribe grew gradually into a city of import, but the discovery of the pitcher suggests there were early connections with the Franks. It could have been traded or the person with whom it was buried was of Frankish origin. According to lead archaeologist Søren Sindbæk, the grave goods found in its cemetery are useful objects that had meaning to the people buried with them, not exotic objects like this pitcher would have been to someone native to the area. If he was a Frank, he must have been well-enough known in Ribe society to garner a formal burial in the cemetery.
The archaeological team is hoping to be able to answer some of the questions about the origin of the pitcher and the person whose grave it adorned by studying the bones found in the grave. Stable isotope analysis of the teeth and bones can narrow down where someone lived in early childhood.
The burial ground has a wide variety of graves from different periods: pre-Christian cremation burials, urn burials, boat burials, Christian inhumations, animal burials. Last year the team unearthed the unique grave of a fully outfitted warhorse and rider from the earliest days of the city. Elite mounted warrior burials have been found before, but they date to the 10th century, the end of the Viking period, while this grave is from the early 8th century almost a hundred years before the first Viking raid on Lindisfarne (793 A.D.).
The most famous and best-preserved portrait of composer Johann Sebastian Bach has returned home to Leipzig after an absence of at least more than a century, possibly two. It was painted in Leipzig by Elias Gottlob Haussmann in 1748, the second of two virtually identical portraits he made of the Baroque composer. The first iteration, painted in 1746 and now in the Stadtgeschichtlichen Museum Leipzig, was damaged by excessive cleaning and overpainting particularly on the face. With the exception of a small overpainted area of the background, the 1748 Haussmann portrait is entirely original. The colors are vibrant and rich. The difference is so pronounced that the 1748 portrait is considered to be the sole authentic depiction of Bach’s facial features.
The Haussmann portraits are the only surviving images of Bach painted during his lifetime. They are also the only portraits commissioned by Bach. They depict him in a serious, formal pose wearing his Sunday coat and peruke and holding a sheet of music entitled “Canon triplex à 6 Voc[ibus]” (triple canon for six voices) signed “by J. S. Bach.” Bach chose not to be painted with a keyboard instrument or with a conductor’s baton, but with one of his counterpoint canons. He wanted to be immortalized as a composer, even though during his lifetime he was better known for his playing.
Before he died in 1750, Johann Sebastian gave the 1748 portrait to his son Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach. Carl died in 1788. We know the painting was still in the possession of his widow two years later because it is described in detail in a 1790 inventory of Carl’s estate. After that it’s unclear where the painting went until the 19th century when it was in the possession of the Jenke family of Breslau (present-day Wrocław, western Poland), Silesia. The family was Jewish, so in 1936 descendant Walter Jenke hastened out of Germany to Dorset where Rolf Gardiner, an old friend from their days together at a German youth camp, had a country estate. When war broke out Jenke was interned as an enemy alien on the Isle of Man; the painting stayed in Dorset out of harm’s way.
After the war, the Walter reclaimed the painting but soon had to sell it to support his family. In 1952 it was put up for auction. The buyer was oil baron, collector, philanthropist and accomplished Bach Scholar William H. Scheide who kept it in his Princeton, New Jersey, home for more than 60 years. When Scheide died at a venerable 100 years of age on November 14th, 2014, he bequeathed the painting to the Leipzig Bach Archive.
As coincidence, fate or inspiration would have it, Rolf Gardiner’s son John Eliot, who grew up under the gaze of the Haussmann portrait, would become one of the preeminent musicians and conductors of our time, renown for his performances of Baroque music on original instruments. He has published a biography of Johann Sebastian Bach and is today the president of the Leipzig Bach Archive.
On June 12th, the opening of Leipzig’s Bach Festival, the portrait was unveiled in St. Nicholas Church by Leipzig’s mayor Burkhard Jung, Sir John Eliot Gardiner, Mr. Scheide’s widow Judith and daughter Barbara. Hundreds of dignitaries attended the event which was broadcast live on a huge screen in the city’s market square. The choir of St. Thomas Church, where Bach served as cantor for 27 years, sang to mark the joyous homecoming.
As of today, the portrait is in the Bach Archive Museum’s Treasure Room along with the only known surviving painting of Johann Sebastian’s father Johann Ambrosius Bach. In the archive’s historic 16th century building across from St. Thomas Church, the 1748 Haussmann portrait is now on permanent public display for the first time in 267 years.
Pharmaceutical magnate Henry Wellcome was a passionate collector of medicalia, amassing more than one million books, artworks and artifacts by the time of his death in 1936. He dispatched purchasing agents to acquire objects of interest for his collection. One of them, Captain Peter Johnson-Saint, bought 300 tattooed human skins from a certain Dr. La Valette at the Rue de l’Ecole de Medecine in Paris in June 1929.
La Valette claimed to have collected and cured all of the skins himself, using a dry preparation method of his own invention which modern testing indicates may have involved dangerous chemicals mercuric chloride and/or arsenic trioxide. That was almost certainly an exaggeration, since Johnson-Saint noted that the skins dated from the first quarter of the 19th century through the 1920s, so at least some of them must have been preserved before La Valette was born. Also, there are several specimens that were roughly cut off the body so that parts of the tattoos are missing. This may have been by necessity — because of an injury or decomposition, for example, that broke up the tattoo — or they may have been harvested hastily by people hoping to be able to sell them to, say, a Parisian doctor.
The ones that he did harvest and prepare himself were probably taken from the corpses of French sailors and soldiers. La Valette worked in several military hospitals over the course of his career, which gave him access to a concentration of tattooed bodies that a doctor in general practice would not have.
It was sailors, the crew of James Cook’s ship Endeavour, who brought the new fashion for tattoos back to Europe from Australia and New Zealand in 1771. By the 19th century Western iconography — religious figures, female nudes, florals — and military symbols — anchors, weapons, men in uniform — were well established in European tattoo culture, but tattooing’s roots among the so-called “savages” of the Pacific islands suggested to some scholars that people who chose to adorn their bodies with tattoos were themselves primitives, throwbacks with criminal and degenerate tendencies.
Criminologists and forensic scientists in the late 19th century studied tattoos extensively, looking for some pattern that would explain the criminal psyche that drove men to ink. French criminologist Alexandre Lacassagne recorded thousands of tattoos, tracing precise copies of them from the bodies of prison inmates. By 1881 he had 1,600 drawings of tattoos in his collection, accompanied by detailed notes about where the tattoos were located on the body. He created a taxonomy of tattoos, arranging them by design and location, in the hope of cracking the code of criminal character. He called them “speaking scars,” which is both poetic and literal, especially since many of the tattoos included text.
Lacassagne’s contemporary, Italian criminologist Cesar Lombroso, believed that tattoos were as much indicators of born criminals as congenital physiological characteristics like a sloping forehead, long arms and big ears. While tattoos are obviously consciously acquired rather than innate, Lombroso believed they were symptoms of another feature inherent to the criminal body: insensibility to pain.
English doctor Havelock Ellis in his 1890 book The Criminal dedicates a chapter to tattooing. He cites Lombroso’s studies of juvenile criminals, Lacassagne’s studies of convict soldiers and other sources for statistical evidence of the high percentage of tattoos in criminal populations, far higher than the general public and even higher than the non-convicted military population.
The greater number of tattooed criminals are naturally found among recidivists and instinctive criminals, especially those who have committed crimes against the person. The fewest are found among swindlers and forgers, the most intelligent class of criminals.
With so much attention in the medical literature paid to tattooed bodies, it’s little wonder that Henry Wellcome approved heartily of Johnson-Saint’s acquisition of Dr. La Valette’s specimens. Wellcome noted in the margin one of Johnson-Saint’s reports that the skins were “of great interest to us for certain section” of the medical museum he was planning to house his vast collection. His plans for a “Museum of Man” did not come to fruition before his death, and the 300 pieces of tattooed human skin were stored out of view. Some of his collection went on display at London’s Science Museum starting in 1976, and that’s where the tattoo collection has been stored.
A few individual pieces have gone on display since then. Two are on display in the permanent exhibition Medicine Man at the Wellcome Collection museum in London, and seven were part of its 2010 Skin exhibtion, but the collection as a whole has yet to see the light of day. It hasn’t even seen the light of the scanner. Only a small selection of tattooed skins are in the huge Wellcome Images database.
They are haunting, macabre and fascinating, from rudimentary pinups to beautifully drawn elegant ladies, from melancholy inscriptions to travel souvenirs. Some of them have the scalloped edges and puncture marks that are the result of the drying process. Others are neatly trimmed to look more like illustrations on parchment, possibly done to make them look less like skin stripped off of human beings in preparation for display.
That’s what they are, though, and here are three pictures that bring that reality very much home. The first is a photograph taken of prisoner Fromain on July 24th, 1901, at an unknown prison, next to two pictures of what’s left of his chest in the Wellcome Collection.
An archaeological excavation on the site of future construction in St. Augustine, Florida, has unearthed the intact and articulated skeleton of a small horse. The remains have not been radiocarbon dated yet, but fragments of ceramic pieces in the layer alongside the horse are from the late 18th century. It’s the only horse burial ever found in the colonial downtown district of the city.
The site once housed the Spanish Dragoon barracks in a pre-existing two-story early Spanish structure. The dragoons and their stables were there from 1792 until the waning days of Spanish control. The deteriorating buildings were razed in 1822 but the dragoons were long gone by then as Spain formally ceded Florida to the United States in 1819. The horse was therefore probably a mount belonging to a dragoon officer, which explains its careful burial.
“I think there’s reverence here,” [St. Augustine archaeologist Carl] Halbirt said. “They actually laid it out on its side with the legs folded in the chest area. That’s a sign of reverence.”
It was once a companion that meant a lot to a St. Augustine man – a dragoon – who relied on it.
“It was a cavalry man’s life,” [colonial cavalry researcher Amanda] LaPorta said. “They were a special kind of soldier. The horse was their best friend. It was all important to them.”
LaPorta thinks the small size of the horse indicates it was a Marsh Tacky, one of several horse breeds descended from the Iberian horse stock the Spanish brought to the Americas. At less than 15 hands (about five feet) at the withers, the petite horse was agile on Florida’s swampy terrain, easy to house and feed. There are other Colonial Spanish Horse breeds, however, that are just as small as the Marsh Tacky — for example the Banker horse and the Florida Cracker Horse — so only DNA testing can determine its breed with certainty.
The horse skeleton has been removed from the site and will be kept at St. Augustine’s archaeology lab.
St. Augustine is the oldest permanent European settlement in the United States, but its history long predates Columbus. Archaeological investigations in the area have discovered 3,000-year-old shell middens. In the city itself, Native American artifacts and human remains have been found dating to between 1100 and 1300 A.D., and when the Spanish arrived in the 16th century, they found well-established Timucua towns. St. Augustine was founded in 1565 by Spanish governor Don Pedro Menéndez de Avilés in a section of the Timucua town of Seloy. According to Spanish accounts, at first relations between the Spanish and Timucua were friendly — the locals allowed the Spanish use of their homes and territory on the site of what is now the Fountain of Youth Archaeological Park — but soon the Spanish outstayed their welcome and relations grew strained. After less than a year, the Spanish moved across the bay to Anastasia Island. In 1572 they moved back to the mainland to what is now the downtown St. Augustine area.
St. Augustine was the capital of Florida for 259 years, through the entire duration of Spanish rule, the period of British control from 1763 until 1783, and the early American era until it was moved to Tallahassee in 1824. Because of its unique and long history, the city of St. Augustine has extensive heritage protection regulations. Its Archaeology Preservation Ordinance requires that all “subsurface disturbances” (ie, ground-penetrating construction), whether on private or public land, are subject to archaeological review for their potential effect on buried history. It has a city archaeologist, currently Carl D. Halbirt, who performs reviews, archaeological surveys before construction and test excavations and monitors all ongoing construction in case it turns up anything that needs further investigation or salvage. This archaeology-focused approach is relatively common in European countries, but it’s a regulatory unicorn in the US where generally people can do whatever they want on private property even in places that are famously packed with ancient remains.
In the early days of the American Revolution, the northern border with Quebec was of great strategic importance as a potential entry point for British troops. After some initial successes like Benedict Arnold and Ethan Allen’s capture of Fort Ticonderoga on May 10, 1775, the Continental Army launched a pre-emptive invasion of Quebec. They captured Montreal on November 13th, 1775, and moved on to attack Quebec City where they were soundly defeated on December 31, 1775. By spring of 1776, the Continental Army had retreated out of Canada back to Fort Ticonderoga.
Licking their wounds and anxious to prevent the British from traveling south via the Hudson into New York, Continental Congress ordered the construction of a fleet of 15 ships to replace the ones Arnold had destroyed to keep them out of British hands. At Skenesborough (present-day Whitehall) in upstate New York at the head of Lake Champlain, Hermanus Schuyler, the assistant deputy commissary general of the Northern Department, oversaw the construction of four galleys and eight gundalows, larger and armed versions of the flat-bottomed cargo boats used for transportation across the lake. It was the summer of 1776 and this was the first American Navy.
Commanded by Benedict Arnold, who as a civilian had captained his own ships as a successful merchant in the West Indies trade, the small fleet patrolled Lake Champlain getting in the way of the British invasion. On October 11th, 1776, most of the fleet met its end at the Battle of Valcour Island, but not before fighting the larger and much fancier British fleet to a standstill. One of the fatalities was the Philadelphia, a 54 foot, 29-ton gundalow armed with one 12-pounder cannon, two 9-pounders and mounts for up to eight more swivel guns. It was struck by a British cannonball and sank to the floor of Lake Champlain.
For 160 years the Philadelphia rested in the frigid embrace of the northern waters. In 1935 civil engineer and World War I veteran Lorenzo F. Haggulund, who had discovered Arnold’s flagship the Royal Savage in 1932, found the Philadelphia sitting straight up on the bottom of the lake. It was in excellent condition, considering the beating it had taken a century and a half earlier. The mast was missing its top but was otherwise still in place, as were the timbers of the hull. So much of it remained that there were three clear holes shot into the hull, one of them with the 24-pound cannon ball still lodged inside it. That was the proverbial smoking gun, the actual hit that took down the ship still in place after all those years. Hundreds of artifacts from tools to clothes to cooking gear and human remains were also found.
Using a system of slings and spreaders, Haggulund raised the wreck on August 2, 1935. Here is footage of the raising of the Philadelphia, its incredible white pine mast standing proud:
Haggulund put the Philadelphia on a barge and exhibited her at various places on Lake Champlain and the Hudson River. He continued to search for other wrecks from the fleet but only made one more find: a gunboat he raised in 1952. He was unable to secure funding to maintain and display the gunboat and it soon decayed and was picked away at by looters until there was nothing left to display.
In the wake of that sad loss, Hagglund approached the Smithsonian Institution to see to the long-term safety of the Philadelphia, and in 1961, bequeathed her and associated artifacts to the SI where they were thoroughly studied. When the National Museum of American History opened in 1965, the Philadelphia was on display.
Conservation of the wreck is an ongoing problem, and since visitors to the museum can only observe it from the front and over its decks, in 2013 the Smithsonian made a digital 3D model of the Philadelphia. For curators, it gives them the tools to ensure the ship’s stability and preservation. For the rest of us, the model gives us the opportunity to virtually explore the floating gun platform that was deployed against the might of Britain’s navy.
You can click and drag to change the angle of the model. Scroll to zoom in and out. Be sure to click the dropdown menu on the top left to view the model fullscreen. Once you’ve done that, click the globe icon of the expanded left menu and select “#1 Gunboat Philadelphia Overview” to kick off the guided tour. It takes you through the different parts of the ship, its design, its weapons, the cannonball that took it down and more.
Edit: I’ve removed the embedded 3D model because it may cause mobile devices to crash. Here again is the link to it.
In late Ottoman-era Damascus, the wealthy had homes built in the Old City that looked plain on the outside but only because they were saving all the good stuff for the interiors. Richly decorated rooms with elaborately carved and painted wood panels and colorful stone inlays faced onto courtyards kept cool and fragrant by fountains and fruit trees. The rooms were designed to welcome and impress important visitors with luxurious comfort. They would enter the home through a modest door and walk down an unassuming hallway before turning the corner onto a courtyard surrounded by living spaces often on two stories. The more expensive the home, the more courtyards it had.
There were 17,000 of these 18th and 19th century courtyard homes still standing in Damascus in 1900, but the clock was ticking. The great beauty of the rooms made them worth more than the homes when they were stripped and sold to museums and collectors overseas. Doris Duke bought two of them and installed them in her Honolulu home Shangri La, now the Shangri La Center for Islamic Arts and Cultures. The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City scored their Damascus Room in 1970.
Most of the late Ottoman homes were demolished in the late 1970s when a building boom laid waste to the Old City. One of the casualties of the boom was a courtyard house built around 1766 that was demolished during the construction of a road in the al-Bahsa quarter. Before it was destroyed in 1978, a Lebanese art dealer bought the home’s 15 by 20-foot reception room, known as the qa’a. The decorated wood panels on the walls, the inlaid stone floor, an inlaid limestone and marble wall fountain, everything that was nailed down was unnailed and moved to Beirut where it was stored in a warehouse for thirty years.
After somehow surviving more than three decades in a war zone, the dismantled room caught the eye of Linda Komaroff, head of the Middle Eastern art department at the L.A. County Museum of Art (LACMA). In 2011 she saw pictures of it and by the end of the year she was actively lobbying the museum to acquire the room. As the conflict in Syria took an increasingly monstrous toll on the country’s cultural heritage, Komaroff’s advocacy took on additional urgency. Finally in spring of 2014, the purchase was finalized and LACMA became the proud owner of an 18th century Damascus Room of its own.
The room is in excellent condition. Only one important part of it — the ceiling — is missing, likely due to water intrusion since the wall panels have visible water damage up top where they would have once joined the ceiling. Unlike most of its compatriots, this room was never renovated, altered or painted over so the original surfaces are still brilliant and saturated underneath a few layers of grime.
As is typical, it has multicolored inlaid stone floors, painted wood walls, elaborate cupboard doors and storage niches, a spectacular arch with plaster voussoirs decorated with colored inlays that served to divide the room into upper and lower sections separated by a single tall step; and an intricately inlaid stone wall fountain with a carved and painted hood. Perhaps because the room remained in storage for so many years and had never been reinstalled or restored, it is largely in its original, though aged, state, with one of the best-preserved painted surfaces—including bright pinks, oranges, blues, and greens—of any similar room of the period. The decoration, mainly floral, incorporates on the cornices detailed depictions of platters of fruit, nuts, and even baklava, which must have served to whet the appetites of visitors to the room as they awaited the same types of refreshment.
The poplar wood panels were decorated using a technique called ‘ajami in which a thick layer of gypsum and glue was applied to the wood and carved in relief before being painted and accented with tin leaf which itself would be painted with colored glazes. Gold leaf accents added shine while egg tempera paints produced contrasting matte surfaces. Because LACMA’s room has managed to avoid the fate of so many others of its kind and has such a well preserved original surface, researchers expert to learn more about the ‘ajami technique and materials used by examining it.
Cleaning and conservation on the room has begun, funded in large part by the King Abdulaziz Center for World Culture in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia. The stone only needs cleaning; it’s the wood panels that need to be cleaned, repaired and stabilized for permanent display. The LACMA team is also taking an innovative approach by building an armature for the room so that it can be moved whole to different exhibition spaces.
This will be immediately relevant because the renovated room will first go on display in Dhahran at the inaugural exhibition of the King Abdulaziz Center for World Culture in March of next year. Accompanied by 130 of the best pieces from LACMA’s extensive Islamic Art collection, the room will be in Saudi Arabia for two years before returning to Los Angeles. That gives LACMA a breather because they have no idea where to put this room. The problem is they need ceilings 20 feet high and LACMA’s current building doesn’t have any of those. There’s a new building in the works, but construction isn’t even scheduled to begin until 2018.
Workers dismantling old blackboards at Emerson High School in Oklahoma City to make way for new whiteboards and Smart Boards discovered blackboards with lessons and drawings intact from November of 1917. Instead of being removed, they had been covered up with new “Slate Black Boards” installed by D. J. Gers & Co. We know this because janitor R. J. Scott signed and dated three of the old ones (November 30th, December 1st and December 4th, 1917) before the new ones were put in place. The new ones were larger than the ones they were covering so there are only a few holes and some adhesive marring the old blackboards. The writing, arithmetic and art are all in exceptional, like-new condition.
The 1917 blackboards were found in four classrooms. They wrap around the rooms, a blackboard perimeter surrounding students with learning. Lessons include addition, subtraction, simple multiplication on one board, a multiplication wheel on another, musical notation, in-class homework titled “Busy Work” with assignments like “draw a 5 in. square,” “Name 8 kinds of trees” and “How many pints in a half gallon?” A student has left us important hygiene tips in a list entitled “My Rules to Keep Clean” — “1. Wash my hands / 2. Wash my teeth / 3. Comb my hair” etc. — and there’s a list of names, probably students, next to some subtraction problems (Robert, Agnes, May, Sophia, Homer, Franco, Ray, Gladys, Mabel and Newton).
The glory of the collection is the drawings, though. In bright colors, there’s a little girl in a blue dress blowing a soap bubble and another girl in a bright pink dress who I suspect is sprinkling salt on a turkey’s tail feathers. That’s the largest turkey, but there are at least two others. This being November, the first Thanksgiving was a recurring theme in all three class rooms. There are plain white chalk outline drawings of pilgrims and two mutli-color scenes of the Mayflower arriving at Plymouth, complete with Plymouth Rock marked 1620.
The girl in pink with the salted turkey has her back to a calendar. It’s titled December but it’s actually a November calendar. That’s why Thursday the 29th is in red, because that’s Thanksgiving which was obviously a seasonal theme of the lessons. The class had just begun to change the dates to December — the title, the 1st-3rd of November erased and replaced with Saturday, the 1st of December — but stopped before they got to the second row.
The origins of the classroom blackboard are shrouded in mystery. Individual erasable slates were used by students for centuries and larger boards used in the front of the class to teach music as early as the 16th century. There are documentary references to writing with chalk on a blackboard in mid-18th century England, but the first blackboard known to have been used in the United States was at West Point in 1801. President Thomas Jefferson signed the act officially establishing the United States Military Academy on March 16th, 1802, so they were still just getting their act together as a school for anything besides artillery training when the blackboard made its first appearance in the first class at West Point on September 21st, 1801. The teacher was mathematician George Baron who was English. He brought with him a standing slate board he wrote on in white chalk to illustrate his lesson for the 12 cadets that made up the entirety of the West Point student body at the time.
Colored chalk may have first been used in class by James Pillans, Scottish classicist, educator, reformer and an early adopter of blackboard technology. He apparently had his own recipe for making colored chalk out of ground gypsum, porridge and dyes. Some sources also grant him the honor of having been the first to strap together individual slates to make one large enough for front-of-the-room usage, but that’s almost certainly apocryphal. Pillans was an undergraduate at Edinburgh University when Baron used his slate board and in fact actively resisted becoming a teacher until 1810 when he was elected Rector of Edinburgh High School and began to teach Greek, Latin and classical geography.
In an 1814 letter to his colleague Mr. Fox, Pillans expounds at some length on the value of blackboard drawings with colored chalk for his classical geography class at Edinburgh High School.
A sketch or outline of each country is drawn by the Master on a black board with white chalk; the mountains are represented in green, and the rivers in blue. In this state the board is first presented to the pupils and the Master, with a rod, explains the physical features of the country, points out and names the leading ranges of mountains, and the rivers that fall from them. The board as yet presenting so little detail, the eye, and the mind through the eye, readily takes in and retains the information. At this stage also the length, breadth, longitude, latitude, and boundaries are fixed. The next lesson presents the towns, (drawn thus # in pink chalk,) which are to be found on the rivers already learned, descending from the source to the mouth. These towns are demonstrated by the Master in the same way, care being taken to mention at the time some striking facts respecting the situation, inhabitants, history, or neighbourhood of each, which may be associated with its name and position on the board. Having thus made out a sort of skeleton or frame-work of the country, by presenting, in striking relief, without those details which confound the eye in maps, the great physical features, the next object is to mark out in dotted lines the artificial divisions : and when these are well fixed, the remaining towns of importance, whose position is not indicated by rivers, are referred to the province or shire, and associated again with those already known. The situations of great battles are pointed out by a cross in red chalk. The object being to make a strong impression on the eye, and to set the imagination and conception to work, the chalks being of different colours is a circumstance not to be despised.
A century later, blackboard drawings as a pedagogical tool had moved far beyond colored maps for geography lessons. Blackboard Sketching by Frederick Whitney, Director of Art, State Normal School, Salem, Massachusetts, was published in 1908 to teach teachers how to make chalkboard masterpieces that would catch the eye of students bored with lectures. It’s brilliant and very short (a pamphlet, really), so be sure leaf through the whole thing.
Quick correction: Whitney wrote in the instructions to Plate 14 that the log cabin in Plate 16 is Lincoln’s birthplace. It’s not. Abraham Lincoln was born in a one-room log cabin in Kentucky and spent much of his boyhood in another one-room log cabin in Indiana. The two-room cabin so adroitly drawn in chalk was his father and stepmother’s place near Lerna, Illinois. Lincoln was already a member of the Illinois House of Representatives when his father built that cabin in the early 1840s and visited it seldom. It was dismantled for display in the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair and was either lost or destroyed in a fire before it could be reconstructed. The current Lincoln Log Cabin State Historic Site is a replica built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in 1935 from photographs.
As for the Emerson High School 1917 blackboards, administrators are working with the school district on a preservation program that will keep these rare artifacts of the 1917 classroom frozen in time, if not in place. Here’s an extensive photo gallery and below is a news story with some great views of the blackboards and classrooms.
Researchers have identified the oldest known tea in Britain in the stores of the Natural History Museum (NHM) in London. The small box of loose-leaf green tea is part of a collection of “Vegetables and Vegetable Substances” that was bequeathed to the nation by Hans Sloane, physician to three monarchs in a row, president of the Royal Society and avid collector of curiosities. Sloane’s natural history specimens became the nucleus of the NHM when in 1881 it became a museum in its own right instead of the neglected and abused natural history department of the British Museum, so this box of tea has been there since the very beginning.
It wasn’t until a recent study of the Vegetable Substances collection that the specimen was properly documented and made easily accessible to scholars. PhD candidate Victoria Pickering, who is doing her doctoral studies on Sloane’s Vegetable Substances, created a searchable digital transcript of the catalogue. That’s why historians from Queen Mary University of London (QMUL) were able to find the sample while researching an upcoming book on the history of tea, and they’re the ones who pinned down its age and historical significance.
The tea is labeled “A sort of tea from China” and note marks it as a gift “from Mr Cuninghame.” That is the clue that helped establish the age of the tea. James Cuninghame was a Scottish surgeon, explorer and dedicated specimen hunter who had gotten in touch with Hans Sloane, then Secretary to the Royal Society, after returning from a voyage to the East Indies in 1696. The next year Cuninghame boarded the private trading ship Tuscan on its illicit (because it violated the East India Company and New Company’s monopoly on Asian trade) voyage to the Chinese city of Amoy, today’s Xiamen. There he collected a large number of plant and animal specimens for Sloane. Upon Cuninghame’s return in 1699, Sloane was so delighted with the haul he nominated his friend for election as a fellow of the Royal Society. Cuninghame’s Amoy specimens were the first collected by a European in China to arrive safe and intact back home.
Cuninghame went back to China just six months later, this time on an authorized East India Company (EIC) ship the Eaton. That authorization didn’t make things easier the second time around. Cuninghame’s was ship’s surgeon so he was inextricably connected to the trade mission. The mission failed in China so in 1702 they moved on to the island of Pulo Condore in what is today Vietnam. The settlement and garrison were obliterated in 1705 when the locals massacred almost everyone for reasons that are unclear today. Cuninghame was one of few survivors. He was wounded, though, and taken prisoner for two years. After his release in 1707, Cuninghame was sent by the EIC to its trading post in Banjarmassin, southeastern Borneo. That settlement was also attacked by locals three weeks after Cuninghame’s arrival. That’s when the good doctor decided it was time to head home. He wrote to Sloane in January of 1709 telling him he was on his way back. That was the last anybody heard from him. The ship that was bringing him home, the Anna, disappeared without a trace.
Because Cuninghame regularly sent specimens to his correspondents back home while he was still abroad, the tea could have been collected when he was in Amoy (1698-99) or when he was in Chusan (present-day Zhoushan) between 1700 and 1702. The Amoy collection was larger with many dried plant specimens and Amoy was an early center for the tea trade, but tea was also grown and processed in Chusan and we know he found wild tea plants there and witnessed its manufacture.
Ubiquitous today, the common cup of tea was once considered an exotic and fashionable pleasure. [QMUL researcher and co-author of the book Dr. Richard] Coulton says the consumption of tea in Britain did not become widespread until decades later.
“In the seventeenth century, the simple act of blending hot water with infused leaves was considered pretty extraordinary. It was priced as a luxury item and the best tea was ten times more expensive than the best coffee. In 1663, tea was priced at up to 60 shillings per pound for the finest quality, whereas the best coffee was only six shillings per pound. What makes this discovery so fascinating is that it captures the very moment at which tea was about to lay claim to a mass market in Britain.” [...]
“The tea is loose-leaf green tea, manufactured by peasant labourers on small-holdings in China. The basic process for manual tea production hasn’t really changed, so we might assume that this tea would have tasted much like an artisanal green tea today, albeit one of the rough-and-ready rather than boutique variety. The ‘green’-ness of the tea is interesting: for its first half century, so 1650-1700, Britain’s tea-habit was almost entirely green. It wasn’t until the second quarter of the eighteenth century that darker teas started to take over.”
For more about the early history of tea in England, see this excellent blog by the Queen Mary University of London research team. Their book, Empire of Tea: The Asian Leaf that Conquered the World, is available for pre-order on Amazon, but can be purchased directly from the publisher now.
The hoard of 159 Roman gold coins discovered near St. Albans, Hertfordshire, in the fall of 2012 has been acquired by St. Albans’ Verulamium Museum. The first 55 coins were unearthed on September 23rd by first-time metal detectorist Wesley Carrington who found the first coin seven inches under the surface just 15 minutes after beginning his search. After consulting with the owner of the shop where he had bought his metal detector, Carrington reported the discovery to his local Finds Liaison Officer. On October 1st, Carrington returned to the site with a team of archaeologists from St. Albans City and District Museums Service and they found another 104 coins.
The coins are all 22-carat gold solidi from the late 4th and early 5th century struck in Milan, Ravenna, Rome, Trier during the reigns of Emperors Gratian, Valentinian II, Theodosius I, Arcadius and Honorius. Although they were found all over the field, archaeologists believe that’s the result of a couple of centuries of farming scattering the cache, that the solidi were originally buried together in a now-lost container. Their rough treatment by one or more ploughs has left surprisingly few marks on the coins. They are in pristine condition.
This is the second largest group of Roman gold solidi found in Britain. The largest was the 565 solidi found in the massive Hoxne Hoard that also contained 14,272 silver coins as well as jewelry and silver dinnerware. The St. Albans Hoard is the largest in Britain composed entirely of gold solidi.
Gold solidi were enormously valuable coins. By law they could not be spent on retail market goods, but only for large purchases and deals like property sales and entire ship’s of goods. Whoever owned these coins was very wealthy, a merchant or a banker. The last coins to arrive in Roman Britain from the continent came in 408 A.D., two years before the army withdrew leaving the province to deal with the descending chaos on its own. One of the ways they coped was to bury their valuables to keep them safe from pillagers until they could reclaim them, which is likely what happened here. It could also have been buried as a sacrifice to the gods, but it’s on the generous side for a votive, to put it mildly.
After the discovery of the hoard, the coins were examined by an independent panel of experts at the British Museum. Based on the panel’s report, a coroner’s inquest in July of 2013 determined that the hoard was treasure according to the UK’s Treasure Act. The British Museum panel then assessed fair market value of the coins at £98,500 ($150,000) and the relevant museum closest to the discovery spot, in this case the Verulamium Museum, was given the opportunity to acquire it for that amount.
They raised it and then some. Thanks to a sizeable Heritage Lottery Fund grant of £105,000, £24,000 from an overseas benefactor who prefers to remain anonymous, £11,000 from the St. Albans Museums and Galleries Trust and £6,000 from the Council, the museum was able to secure the hoard and some funding to create a display worthy of their rarity and beauty. The coins will go on display at the museum in September.
In 2009, the Rijksmuseum acquired two vast collections of fashion plates: the Raymond Gaudriault Collection and the MA Ghering-van Ierlant Collection. The two collections brought more than 8,000 prints, many of the hand-colored engravings, from the year 1600 through the first half of the 20th century to the museum. It took years for curators to catalogue and document this exceptional record of historical clothing and costume. This month, more than 300 prints will go on display for the first time at the New for Now: The Origin of Fashion Magazines exhibition which runs from June 12th to September 27th, 2015.
The first fashion plates — mechanically reproduced portraits depicting the contemporary clothes worn in given place and time rather than a specific individual — appeared in the 16th century. Books like Omnium fere gentium nostrae aetatis habitus (1563) by Ferdinando Bertelli and Trachtenbuch (1577) by Hans Weigel showed what people wore in different countries in significant detail. Books on what different classes wore within one country, on hairstyles and accessories followed. Bohemian printmaker Wenceslaus Hollar, a highly prolific and varied artist who made etchings of the rich and famous, landscapes, anatomical studies, maps, ruins, animals, architecture, religious subjects, heraldry and much more, published two series of costume prints of women wearing fashionable outfits, Theatrum Mulierum in 1643 and Aula Veneris in 1644.
Thirty years later, the Mercure Galant, a periodical by Jean Donneau de Visé, published fashion plates and articles on the styles of the season in supplementary issues. France under King Louis XIV set fashion trends all over Europe. People wanted to see what courtiers were wearing and de Visé obliged. The plates were also sold separately as prints of elegantly attired men and women were increasingly popular. In the 18th century series of fashion plates were published for retail and subscription. They weren’t magazines — they were captioned but that was it as far as words were concerned — but they were periodically published glossy prints designed to make contemporary fashion look damn good.
The publishers of fashion prints did everything to make their product as attractive as possible. They attracted skilled illustrators for this purpose, some of whom went on to become specialists in this area: true ‘fashion illustrators’. The trick was to portray the models on the prints as skillfully as possible and with a great sense of elegance. The printmaker was responsible for transferring the design sketches onto an engraving that could reproduce the design. A so-called ‘colourist’ subsequently added colours to each individual image by hand.
This painstaking process continued well into the age of multi-colored lithography because brilliant, varied colors and crisp details were of paramount importance in making the clothes look their best.
In the second half of the 18th century, the periodicals like the Galerie des Modes et Costumes Francais and the Collection de la Parure des Dames captured the last hurrah of Ancien Régime style. They were printed in sets called cahiers (notebooks) in the decade before the French Revolution and they celebrated the indulgence and extravagance of aristocratic fashion in clothing, hairstyles and accessories. The French fashion spigot was nearly cut off during the Revolution when anything that suggested appreciation for nobility could land a person in front of a tribunal or in the cold embrace of Madame Guillotine.
With the advent of the Directory and the revival of imperial grandeur, fashion magazines like the Journal des Dames et des Modes picked up where their predecessors had left off. The epicenter of style had shifted. No longer were the prints focused on the latest elaborate coiffure and gown worn by the First Estate at court. Muses like Josephine de Beauharnais inspired imitation, but editors like Journal des Dames et des Modes‘ Jean Baptiste Sellèque sought out the latest trends worn by fashionable people frequenting the theater, public promenades, balls the Parisian hotspots.
The fashion glossies spread across the continent, the English Channel and the Atlantic Ocean. People wanted to see the latest in Parisian and French fashion and replicate them as closely as possible. Fashion plates were widely copied and reprinted. By the 1830s the fashion plates were accompanied by patterns giving readers a template to bring to their seamstresses or to make on their own. In the 19th century we also see the rapid development of what we now recognize as fashion magazines with more and increasingly diverse content. Issues of the Magasin des Demoiselles included editorials, plays, articles on history and nature, how-to guides, detailed explanations of the outfits in the plates and closed with a rebus.
Even the advent of photography couldn’t stop the fashion plate. The color and detail that could be produced with illustrations remained the option of choice for fashion magazines until indoor color photography became widespread in the 1950s.
What makes the Rijksmuseum’s collection so signficant is that it covers almost the entire history of fashion glossies from their antecedents in the costume books well into their modern magazine setting, 400 years of what-are-they-wearing. And the best part, which I have deliberately saved for last, is that you will soon be able to browse the whole thing. The fashion plates are being digitized and integrated in the museum’s exceptional online database of high resolution photographs of the art and objects in its permanent collection. While they’re not quite done with the digitization project, there are already thousands of images you can peruse. I count 5,915 plates uploaded as of this moment although some of them — almost all of them from the 20th century — have no photographs attached yet.
Have I scrolled through all 5,915 search results, you ask? Yes. Yes I have. It’s historical fashion porn of the highest quality. You can refine the search to narrow them down by date, place, maker, etc. if you’re looking for something in particular, or you can just spend the forseeable future bingeing on the whole beautiful buffet of style.
In 2011, archaeologists from the University of Wollongong (UOW) and the University of New England (UNE) excavating the Brremangurey Rockshelter on the north Kimberley coast of Western Australia discovered a pearl in the site’s shell midden. The rockshelter was used by Indigenous peoples for more than 12,000 years, as attested by rock art and shell middens. The pearl was found in a layer of marine shell that radiocarbon dating found was 1800-1906 years old. It is the only pearl known to have been recovered from a prehistoric archaeological site in Australia.
The unique find caused much excitement in the community because of the area’s rich pearling history. The harvest of natural South Sea pearls from the large oyster species Pinctada maxima was a major industry along the Kimberley Coast in the 19th century, and while those beds collapsed more than a century ago, since the introduction of the Japanese techniques of pearl culturing in the 1950s, the coastline has been a center of pearl production.
The marine pearl is small but comely at 5.9mm in maximum diameter and weighing a quarter of a gram. Its petite size, warm golden-rose color and almost spherical shape are characteristic features of a cultured Akoya pearl rather than a natural South Sea pearl. Local pearl experts thought it more likely to be an intrusive cultured pearl that somehow made its way into an ancient midden pile instead of the one and only prehistoric pearl ever found in Australia. Indeed, tests on the midden pile found that some of the deposits had experienced significant time-averaging and downward movement of shell layers.
In order to determine the pearl’s true nature, the archaeological team had to eschew the usual analytic methodologies like radiocarbon dating and stable isotope analysis because they result in the destruction of samples. Instead they teamed up with Cygnet Bay Pearl Farm to do a comparative analysis of a cultured Akoya pearls with the Brremangurey pearl using non-invasive X-ray computed microtomography to capture the pearls’ inner architecture. They scanned three Cygnet Bay pearls — two seeded in 2010 and harvested in 2012, one keshi pearl that grew without a bead — and the Brremangurey pearl.
The scans left no doubt whatsoever that the Brremangurey pearl is natural. The CT scans of the seeded pearls showed a very clear homogeneous spherical nucleus (the bead made of crushed and compacted Mississippi mussel shells) wrapped in two relatively thick layers of nacre, one per year of growth. The Brremangurey pearl has a much smaller nucleus and 14 thin layers of nacre. There is no pearl farmer in his right mind willing to wait 14 years for a six millimeter pearl to grow, nor has this ever been a practice in the history of pearl culturing.
The nucleus is also very different. Like the cultured bead, it is almost spherical, but that’s just a fluke. A separate scan of the nucleus itself underscored how different its structure is to the beads of the cultured pearls. Instead of being a solid homogeneous material, it has a tiny hollow center — a cyst formed as a result of damage to the edge of the mantle — surrounded by rays of calcium carbonate terminating in an exterior surface the published paper describes evocatively as “pustolose.” That surface was then wrapped in layer of nacre. That’s how natural pearls form.
“This analysis confirmed that it was a natural pearl that had grown inside a small pearl oyster for over a decade before the animal was harvested for eating,” [PhD student and co-author of the study Brent Koppel] said.
Although there are no records to suggest that pearls are of cultural significance to Indigenous peoples of the Kimberley, the pearl oyster shells which produce them are very important. The shells formed the basis of a historically-recorded trade which stretched from the Kimberley to the Central Desert. It is likely that the pearl at Brremangurey is a by-product of pearl shell collection. The great numbers of pearl shells within certain layers of the shell midden at Brremangurey suggests that the shells’ cultural value extends well back into prehistory.
You can read the paper about the pearl study here (pdf). The Brremangurey pearl will go on public display along with some of those highly significant prehistoric pearl shells in the Lustre: Pearling & Australia exhibition which opens on June 20th at the Western Australian Maritime Museum.
The remains of a noblewoman buried at the Convent of the Jacobins in the northwestern French city of Rennes in 1656 have been found in exceptional condition. Discovered in March of 2014, the remains have been quietly studied by a multidisciplinary team who are now revealing the results of their investigations.
The 14th century Convent of the Jacobins site was thoroughly excavated by archaeologists from France’s National Institute for Preventive Archaeological Research (INRAP) before construction of a convention center would damage the archaeological record. The location was known to have been inhabited from the 1st century when it was the intersection of four major roads just outside the Gallo-Roman city of Condate. It was left to its own devices in the 4th century when the city contracted to the 3rd century walls for protection against marauders. It wasn’t until the 14th century that the area came back to prominence with the construction of a Dominican convent on the site.
The convent was built in 1369, funded by a local burger but officially founded by John IV of Montfort, Duke of Brittany, after his final defeat of Charles of Blois at the Battle of Auray (September 29th, 1364) in the War of the Breton Succession. In the 15th century a painting on wood of the Madonna and Child known as Our Lady of Good News became a popular object of veneration and as a result, the convent grew into a major draw for pilgrims and preachers. Because of the painting, the convent became known as the Convent of the Good News. It also played a significant political role. It was at the Convent of the Jacobins that the 14-year-old Anne of Brittany was engaged, under extreme duress, to King Charles VIII of France two days after Rennes fell to his besieging army in November of 1491.
For the next 300 years, the convent served as an important burial ground not just for the religious who called it home, but for the devout who wished to be buried in the shadow of Our Lady of Good News. It all came to an end in 1793 when the Convent of the Jacobins was claimed by the French Revolutionary Army which had expanded geometrically early in the year with the introduction of recruitment quotas and then mass conscription by the summer. They used it as barracks and sports club off an on for more than two centuries, finally selling it to the city of Rennes in 2002. It has been unoccupied and unused since then.
After the city decided to restore the convent’s historical buildings and integrate them into a contemporary space that will include two auditoriums and underground convention rooms beneath the medieval foundations, INRAP was called in to excavate the site starting in 2011. They found evidence of its Roman life (road remains and artifacts dating to the 1st century A.D. when there was a small shrine which by the 3rd century was a full-on temple surrounded by large townhouses), medieval masonry and more than 800 burials, mainly in the chapter room.
Out of those 800 burials, five were in lead coffins, an indication of the wealth and prestige of the deceased. Four of them were found in the church choir, and their remains, while skeletonized, were in good enough condition to show the tell-tale marks of embalming, a funerary practice reserved for the elite in the 17th century. The fifth lead coffin was unearthed at the base of a wall of the Chapel of St. Joseph. As soon as the archaeologists opened it, they saw it was completely different from the other four.
“We saw right away that there was a lot of volume, fabric, shoes,” said Rozenn Colleter, an archaeologist at the French national institute for preventive archaeological research.
Colleter also said that beneath the cape, archaeologists could distinguish “hands that were holding a crucifix”.
To discover what they could about the deceased, archaeologists enlisted the aid of experts at the University Hospital of Toulouse. They had to act quickly, like within 72 hours after opening, because after 350 years protected in a lead coffin, the remains were in grave danger from environmental conditions and insects. The body was scanned and X-rayed and a virtually autopsy was performed. She was a woman of about 60 years old at the time of her death. Lesions in the lungs indicate she died from a respiratory infection like pneumonia or most likely tuberculosis. She also had kidney stones. The mummification was natural.
She was buried wearing a multi-layer religious habit: a cape, chasuble, a brown gown of coarse wool twill, a linen shirt, wool leggings or stockings, a devotional scapular wrapped around her right arm and leather mules with cork soles on her feet. Her face was covered by a shroud and her head was covered by two bonnets and a cap held in place by a headband. This is an exceptional find. Complete habits from the 17th century, the fabric still supple, don’t crop up very often.
The woman was not, however, a nun, not for most of her life, anyway. We know this because her husband’s heart told us so. All five of the lead coffins were found with lead heart-shaped containers next to their heads. Each of them held a heart, some wrapped in fabric and plant matter, probably embalming plants. Four of the hearts were engraved, including the one next to our well-preserved lady. It was inscribed “This is the heart of Toussaint de Perrien, knight of Brefeillac, whose body lies at the Savior near Carhay in the convent of the Discalced Carmelites that he founded and died at Rennes the 30th of August, 1649.” Documentary research found a reference to one Louise de Quengo, Lady of Brefeillac, who died in 1656 and was buried in St. Joseph Chapel next to the heart of her husband.
The removal of hearts and burials in multiple locations were a common practice among the elite of medieval, Renaissance and early modern France. Indeed, Louise herself is missing her heart. It was removed before burial — the ligatures in her chest testify to this posthumous operation having been performed by a highly skilled surgeon — and was likely buried next to her husband’s body just like his heart was buried next to hers.
It was also fairly common for noble widows to retire to a convent. That would explain why Louise was buried in a habit. Even if she never took the vows, she may have given the convent a large donation and been buried in religious garb as an honorific.
The garments are being cleaned and conserved. They were acquired by the Museum of Brittany and will go on public display. When the investigation is complete, Louise de Quengo’s remains, currently in a freezer in Toulouse, will be reinterred in the North Cemetery in Rennes.
The French language video on this page has excellent footage of the convent excavation and of Louise’s remains.
A dredging project in the port of Genoa has recovered a record haul of English cannons, other artillery and anchors dating from the 16th century through the 19th. The project has been ongoing since 2009 to make the port accessible to high tonnage commercial container and cruise ships. So far they’ve moved three and a half million cubic meters of port sludge which, after being sifted through for artifacts and unexploded ordnance from World War II (20 of them have been found and disarmed so far), is being used to expand the container dock of Calata Bettolo.
The artillery recovered includes five 17th century front-loading cast iron cannons almost three meters (10 feet) long each weighing around one ton. These are all of English manufacture. Earlier weapons found include two breechloading light cannons small enough to be fired by one person that are 1.5 meters (five feet) long and weigh a quintal (100 kilograms, or about 220 pounds). They are of unknown manufacture and date from the late 16th to the middle of 17th century.
The rarest piece discovered is a bronze falconetto cannon. About two meters (6’6″) long and weighing two quintals, the small caliber cannon bears the mark of the Alberghetti family, a Venetian foundry active in the second half of the 16th century. The German Landsknecht mercenary troops famously used a falconetto in the Battle of Governolo on November 25, 1526, to take down Giovanni dalle Bande Nere, scion of the Medici family and leader of the papal troops. The falconetto shot hit his right leg leaving a wound so severe the surgeon had to amputate. The operation was too late and possibly too circumspect; a recent exhumation of his remains found that only his foot was amputated when witnesses like poet Pietro Aretino reported his wound was at the knee. (Aretino wrote that the surgeon ordered 10 men to hold Giovanni down, but the warrior insisted not even 20 men could hold him down, so he just picked up the candle to illuminate his own surgery and told the doctor to get to it. The scene was too much for Aretino who fled the room to return only after it was all over. “I’m cured,” Giovanni told him.) Four days later, Giovanni dalle Bande Nere died from gangrene. The Landsknechts would take their falconetti and go on to sack Rome.
The anchor haul is impressive as well. Most of them are from the 19th century — a Rodger’s Small Palms anchor from 1832, several British Admiralty examples from the 1840s — but one is a British example from the 18th century and it’s massive. The anchor is five meters (16 feet) long and weighs four tons. It is the largest anchor and the only one of its kind ever recovered from Italian waters.
You can get a better look at how huge the anchor is in this Italian language video.
If you’re worrying about those cannons and anchors being left out in the sun, fear not. Artifacts retrieved after centuries in the ocean (eg, the Erebus‘ bell and the H. L. Hunley submarine) need to take very long baths to ensure their stability, and the artifacts are currently beginning their conservation with a leisurely desalinization treatment. Once they’ve been stabilized and cleaned of their copious incrustations, the cannons and anchors will go on display, likely at Genoa’s Galata Museo del Mare, the largest maritime museum in the Mediterranean, and at the Palace of St. George right across the street from the city’s Ancient Port.
The rare Roman tombstone found earlier this year at the site of the former Bridges Garage in Cirencester does not mark the grave of the woman mentioned in its inscription. The headstone is engraved “DM BODICACIA CONIUNX VIXIT ANNO S XXVII,” meaning “To the spirits of the dead, Bodicacia, wife, lived 27 years,” and since it was discovered on top of the remains of an adult human and next to the remains of three very young children, there was much excitement at the prospect of this being the only known inscribed tombstone ever found in Britain to identify the person buried beneath it. Those hopes are now officially dashed because the skeleton belongs to an adult male, not a 27-year-old woman.
In fact, not only does the skeleton not match the gender of the person memorialized on the tombstone, it’s not even from the same period. The tombstone was carved in the 2nd century A.D.; the burial is much later, from the 4th century A.D. That means the archaeologists’ first idea that the gravestone had fallen on top of the grave soon after its installation and was soon covered in soil protecting it from masonry looters is also wrong. The tombstone was looted. It’s just that instead of being broken up and built into a wall, it was reused whole to mark a different person’s grave.
In March University of Oxford Roman sculpture experts Dr. Martin Henig and Dr. Roger Tomlin examined the stone. They noted that the pediment has features that mark it as top of the line: the cresting topped with a finial is a very rare feature and finely carved in the Cotswold style sculpture. The mask of Oceanus centered inside the pediment has no parallels among the 300 or so Roman tombstones that have been found in the UK. As a marine deity, Oceanus didn’t figure much (or at all, really, with this one salient exception) on funerary monuments anywhere in the Roman world.
Someone must have taken a dislike to the unusual iconography, because Oceanus’ face was chiselled off in antiquity. This may have been done when the stone was reused, a refurbishment perhaps inspired by religious fervor. Christianity was well-established in late Roman Britain — five signers of the canons adopted at the Council of Arles in 314 A.D. were British, including Eborius, Bishop of York, Restitutus, Bishop of London and Adelfius, Bishop of Caerleon — so perhaps Oceanus was defaced to cleanse the stone of its association with pagan beliefs and rituals so it could be reused in a proper Christian burial.
In contrast to the sculpture on the front that was the height of refinement and skill in its time and place, the back of the tombstone is very roughly hewn. It doesn’t even look finished. Henig and Tomlin believe this stark contrast indicates the stone wasn’t meant to be a freestanding headstone in a cemetery, but rather set in a wall in a temple or mausoleum. It’s in keeping with the expense and quality of the piece that it would originally have been part of a grand funerary enclosure.
Its fancy original home had to have been relatively nearby its more modest final location because it’s so heavy and unwieldy it can’t have been carried far. The cemetery with the high proportion of inhumations that was excavated from the former Bridges Garage site in 2011 was a walled enclosure. It’s a possible candidate for the source of the stone.
St James’s Place Wealth Management, the owners of the property where the tombstone was found, have donated it to Cirencester’s Corinium Museum who are delighted to have such a rare piece in their permanent collection. It will be a couple of months before it’s on public display. Once Cotswold Archaeology have finished cleaning and documenting it, the museum staff and consultants have to determine how best to exhibit a heavy slab of limestone five feet long. The charming little bronze cockerel, found at an earlier excavation of the same site, was much easier to place.
The Arch of Titus which still stands today at the end of the Via Sacra next to the Roman Forum, famous for its period depiction of spoils from the capture of Jerusalem in 70 A.D., is an honorific arch commemorating the emperor’s greatest deeds and apotheosis, not a triumphal arch. Built by his brother Domitian in 82 A.D., the year after Titus’ death and deification, it’s often called a triumphal arch because of the high relief depictions of Roman soldiers carrying the treasures of the Second Temple — the seven-branched Menorah, the silver trumpets, the Table of the Shew Bread — in Titus’ triumphal procession of 71 A.D.
That’s just one motif, however. The central panel in the single arch’s soffit relief depicts Titus being carried to the heavens by an eagle. The inscription also emphasizes the recently deceased emperor’s divinity: “SENATUS/ POPULUSQUE ROMANUS/ DIVO TITO DIVI VESPASIANI F(ilio)/ VESPASIANO AUGUSTO” (The Senate and People of Rome [dedicate this arch] to the divine Titus Vespasian Augustus, son of the divine Vespasian).
Titus’ real triumphal arch was erected in 81 A.D., the year he died, at the curved east end of the Circus Maximus. The triple arch was explicitly dedicated to Titus’ conquest of Judea and Jerusalem. It’s not very well known today because in the Middle Ages it fell victim to the Roman thirst for building materials, leaving only old epigraphic records, coins and drawings testifying to its existence. It was still standing with a relatively intact capital when one of the anonymous authors of the Codex Einsidlensis (Einsiedeln manuscript no. 326) recorded the inscription in Inscriptiones Urbis Romae, an invaluable record of pagan and Christian epigraphy on monuments in the city of Rome that was written in the late 8th, early 9th century.
A marked contrast with the inscription on the extant arch, the wording on the Circus Maximus arch’s inscription leaves no doubt that it was a genuine triumphal arch:
Senatus populusque Romanus imp(eratori) Tito Ceasari divi Vespasiani f(ilio) Vespasiani Augusto pontif(ici) max(imo), trib(unicia) pot(estate) x, imp(eratori) XVII, [c]o(n)s(uli) VIII, p(atri) p(atriae), principi suo, quod praeceptis patri(is) consiliisq(ue) et auspiciis gentem Iudaeorum domuit et urbem Hierusolymam, omnibus ante se ducibus regibus gentibus aut frustra petitam aut omnino intem(p)tatam, delevit.
The Senate and People of Rome [dedicate this arch] to the Emperor Titus [snip many titles], because by his father’s counsel and good auspices, he conquered the people of Judaea and destroyed the city of Jerusalem, which all of the generals, kings, and peoples before him had either failed to do or even to attempt.
In the 12th century the central arch was used as part of the Mariana aqueduct that Pope Calixtus II built to convey fresh water to the city in 1122. A few years later the powerful Frangipani family had control of the Circus Maximus. They built a mill powered by the Mariana and a tower, the Torre della Moletta, was integrated into the Frangipani’s defensive fortifications extending up the Palatine. Modest homes and squatters’ huts grew up all over what had once been a triumphal arch. The grounds of the Circus Maximus were converted to agricultural use, irrigated by the Mariana.
After the Unification of Italy in 1870, construction of the huge retaining walls along the banks of the Tiber and the Lungotevere boulevards cut off the Mariana or drove it underground into culverts. Most of the medieval construction around the Arch of Titus was demolished in the 1930s and 1940s, leaving only the tower, where Saint Francis of Assisi reputedly stayed on his last trip to Rome in 1223 as guest of the Graziano Frangipani’s widow and Franciscan lay sister Jacopa, still standing. Excavations at the time revealed medieval canals and walls made of ancient marbles pilfered from the arch.
Now archaeologists excavating the eastern hemicycle of the Circus Maximus have found large blocks of Carrara marble (marmor lunensis) that were part of the attic, entablature and columns of the Arch.
Archaeologists found more than 300 marble fragments of the monument, some of them the size of a small car.
They discovered the bases of the four giant columns that formed the front of the arch, as well as the plinths on which they rested and traces of the original travertine pavement.
From the remains experts were able to calculate the arch’s original dimensions. It was 17 meters (56 feet) wide, 15 meters (49 feet) deep with columns 10 meters (33 feet) high. The full height including the attic has yet to be determined. In antiquity there was the monumental bronze sculpture of a quadriga on top of the arch which would have added significant vertical heft.
Excavation is difficult because the remains were found about 10 feet below ground level, which is on the wrong side of the water table. Further digging is going to require blocking off the water in the area, a particular challenge considering a river literally ran through the arch and its ruins for hundreds of years.
Archaeologists want to reconstruct as much of the arch as possible using the technique of anastylosis which attempts to put the ancient pieces back together as accurately as possible with only the modern materials necessary for structural stability. In order to do that, they’ll have to find a solution to the water seepage problem and a million euros, two daunting prospects. Since that’s sure to take time, the foundations will be reburied shortly for their own protection. Meanwhile, archaeologists are working on a virtual model of the triumphal Arch of Titus.
The recent ice dive to the wreck of the HMS Erebus recovered 15 artifacts, including brass buttons from a tunic, ceramic plates and one six-pounder cannon. Pairs of divers — one Parks Canada underwater archaeologist paired with one Royal Canadian Navy ice diving expert — explored the wreck in shifts for 12 hours a day for a week in the middle of April. The original schedule was for two weeks of diving, but weather delays reduced diving time by half.
The first plan was the remove the tall kelp that had grown around the wreck reducing visibility. With the initial weather delays making a time a factor, the team cut off the kelp only on the port side of the ship.
“It’s tedious, but all of a sudden you have a shipwreck that looks like a wreck site,” says Harris, noting that it was “extremely gratifying to see the shape of the hull as it turns up. You really get a better sense of how big the site is” and how it towers five metres over the sea floor.
“It is so well preserved of course that it does sort of look like a storybook shipwreck.”
They also identified Franklin’s cabin, although they weren’t able to actually enter it.
“We see that that cabin is still there,” says Harris. “It’s just largely crushed between the collapsed upper deck and the lower deck, but you can peer in through… these little spaces where we’re inserting a point-of-view inspection camera.”
Archaeologists saw where artifacts from his cabin fell onto the sea bed. Before they retrieved anything, they made sure to draw a virtual grid of the wreck site so the discovery spots can be documented. The 15 artifacts recovered include a copper alloy (probably brass) 6 1/4″ hook block which may have been part of the ship’s standing rigging or part of the mechanism that lowered the boats, and two illuminators — one brass and glass circular piece, one rectangular glass prism — that were miniature skylights of sorts, installed flush with the upper deck so sailors could walk over them without tripping while they allowed a little light to penetrate the darkness of the lower decks.
The three ceramic plates, which are in excellent condition, are fine earthenware pieces with Chinese motifs. One is the “Whampoa” pattern depicting China’s Whampoa Island; the other two are blue willow pattern marked “Royal Patent Staffordshire China.” Ceramic dishware was a common feature in the officers’ quarters of 18th century Royal Navy ships. This discovery fits with the testimony of an Inuk man named Puhtoorak who in 1879 told members of the search expedition funded by the American Geographical Society and led by explorer Frederick Schwatka that he had seen a ship trapped in the ice off the Adelaide Peninsula and found its contents, including china plates, in perfect order.
The largest object was a brass six-pounder, three of which were known to have been on the Erebus, recovered from the deck of the ship. Its foundry marks are well preserved. They identify it as having been cast by John and Henry King at the Royal Brass Foundry at Woolwich in 1812. A numerical mark “6-0-8″ indicates the gun’s weight was 680 pounds.
The smallest artifacts may reveal the most personal history: two brass buttons from a navy tunic. They are decorated with a crowned anchor encircled by rope, a laurel wreath and the inscription “ROYAL MARINES.” The last two elements are only present on Royal Marines uniforms, and there were only seven Royal Marines aboard HMS Erebus.
The artifacts were on display over the Victoria Day long weekend, May 14th through the 18th at the Canadian Museum of History in Gatineau, Quebec. They are now undergoing conservation at the Park Canada lab where they will be stabilized for eventual long-term display.
Many unanswered questions remain, most significantly what caused the ship to sink. Archaeologists are hoping that they’ll find pertinent evidence when they clear the starboard side during the summer dives. The summer expedition doesn’t just have the Erebus to contend with; they’ll also be searching for its companion ship, the HMS Terror. That’s a lot of ground to cover in the short window before the ice returns in September.
The Fleming family played an important role in medieval Scottish history. Flemish knights and merchants came to Britain from Flanders as early in the 11th century. The Flemings of Biggar are thought to have descended from a knight who was given lands in Devonshire by William the Conqueror. Some Flemish knights fought for King Stephen during the upheavals of the Anarchy. When Henry II came to the throne, the Flemings who had been on Stephen’s side were banished and found refuge in Scotland under King David I (reigned 1124 – 1153). The first Fleming of this family recorded in Scotland was Baldwin Le Fleming who settled in Biggar and was appointed Sheriff of Lanarkshire by David I. As sheriff he controlled the Upper Clyde Valley which was of great strategic importance as the gateway to Scotland for any number of hostile invaders. Baldwin served under two more kings after David — his grandsons Malcolm IV and King William the Lion.
The Fleming holdings expanded significantly in the 14th century when Robert Fleming was granted the fiefdom of Cumbernauld in Dunbartonshire by Robert the Bruce. It was a reward for Fleming’s involvement in one of the era’s most notorious incidents: when Robert the Bruce stabbed John “Red” Comyn, his main competition for the throne of Scotland, to death in the church of the Greyfriars in Dumfries on February 10th, 1306. Fleming reputedly decapitated Red Comyn and presented the head to the Bruce telling him “Let the deid shaw,” meaning “Let the deed show.” That phrase became the Fleming family motto thereafter.
Robert Fleming died shortly thereafter, but his son Malcolm would benefit even more directly from Red Comyn’s death. Robert the Bruce granted him the barony of Kirkintilloch which had belonged to Comyn. The Flemings held Cumbernauld Castle until Cromwell destroyed it in 1650, and along the way gained and lost or sold a number of properties and associated titles. Flemings continued to be closely linked to generations of Scottish monarchs. Much of this history survives in the form of charters, most of them land grants, and the Fleming family collection includes many kings and queens — David II, Robert III, James III, James IV, Charles II, Mary, Queen of Scots — as parties to the charters.
The charters, written in Latin and many still bearing the wax seals of their signers, had not been studied, translated or published before Robertson donated them. The Fisher Library is making up for lost time by digitizing and researching the charters. Once the documents are scanned, the library is sending high resolution images to the University of St Andrews Institute of Scottish Historical Research where researchers can translate and study them.
The first two charters sent to the University of St Andrews have already proved intriguing. The earliest of them dates to 1395 and grants to Patrick Fleming, younger son of Sir Malcolm Fleming of Biggar, the lands of Glenrusto and Over Menyean in the Tweed valley. The second is dated November 3rd, 1421, and transfers property from Malcolm Fleming, grandson of the Malcolm party to the 1395 grant, to his cousin James, son of the Patrick who was the other party to the 1395 grant. Gelnrusto and Over Menyean are two of the properties transferred to James.
This may seem like the dry business of a large family with a vast feudal estate, but the 1421 charter is unusual in that it is part of an indenture. The cutouts along the top of the document are the equivalent of an anti-forging watermark today. Both parties to the indenture would have copies with uneven edges, preventing one of the parties from forging a document that gave them some advantage. What makes the mark of indenture noteworthy in this case is that this type of contract was employed when there were disputes, not in simple transfers of property between family members.
Comparing this document to an inventory of charters in the National Library of Scotland reveals the hidden machinations and violence behind this intrafamily land transfer.
At the same time as receiving this grant, James Fleming made a separate formal resignation of the lands referred to in the charter to his cousin. This included a penalty clause: should James, at a later date, quarrel with Malcolm over the latter’s rights to these lands, James was bound to surrender another estate, Monicabo in Aberdeenshire. This clause is a strong pointer to the fact that what was going on in November 1421 was no simple property deal but involved a degree of coercion of the lesser man, James Fleming, by his more powerful cousin.
Direct evidence of the extent of this coercion is provided by a final document. This is a copy of what is described in the inventory as a ‘writ’, a suitably vague term. In this, James Fleming clears Malcolm Fleming of Biggar and his accomplices of any part in the death of his father, Patrick Fleming, and agrees to end any hostility towards Malcolm. This document would obviously repay further examination but even this record makes clear that the land transactions were associated with the killing of their previous holder. It is surely not a huge stretch to suggest that Patrick Fleming had been killed in a dispute over his estates and that, after his death, his son was being forced to surrender the lands in question to a man implicated in the killing.
Malcolm had all the cards in this relationship. He was the head of the family and had supporters in the highest echelons of power. James had to take this land settlement and its confidentiality clause forcing him to keep his mouth shut about the shady circumstances surrounding his father’s demise or he’d wind up empty-handed and very probably as dead as his father.
Researchers hope that as the digitization of the Robertson Collection continues, more of this story and other unexplored facets of Scottish history will be revealed.
Gold vessels found in a Scythian burial mound in the Caucasus Mountains near Strovopol, southwestern Russia, have traces of cannabis and opium inside them. The artifacts were discovered in the summer of 2013 when kurgan Sengileevskoe-2 was being excavated in advance of power-line construction. Archaeologist Andrei Belinski didn’t expect to find anything of note — the kurgan had already been looted — but after a few weeks of digging, the team encountered a thick layer of clay. Underneath the clay was a rectangular chamber lined with flat stones that held a treasure trove of 2,400-year-old solid gold artifacts.
The trove consists of two gold bucket-shaped vessels turned upside down on top of three gold cups with holes in their bases, a heavy gold ring, two neck rings and a bracelet. Their total weight is 3.2 kilos (seven pounds). Seeing a black residue at the bottom of the vessels, Belinksi had forensic criminologists in Strovopol analyze the substance. It tested positive for opium and cannabis, providing archaeological evidence for a practice mentioned by ancient Greek historian of dubious accuracy Herodotus.
Herodotus gives an account in Book IV of his History of Scythians using hemp in a purification ritual after the funeral of a king.
After the burial, those engaged in it have to purify themselves, which they do in the following way. First they well soap and wash their heads; then, in order to cleanse their bodies, they act as follows: they make a booth by fixing in the ground three sticks inclined towards one another, and stretching around them woollen felts, which they arrange so as to fit as close as possible: inside the booth a dish is placed upon the ground, into which they put a number of red-hot stones, and then add some hemp-seed. [...]
The Scythians, as I said, take some of this hemp-seed, and, creeping under the felt coverings, throw it upon the red-hot stones; immediately it smokes, and gives out such a vapour as no Grecian vapour-bath can exceed; the Scyths, delighted, shout for joy, and this vapour serves them instead of a water-bath; for they never by any chance wash their bodies with water.
The elaborate decoration on one of the upside down gold vessels may also tie into one of Herodotus’ anecdotes. At the beginning of Book IV, he describes the Schythian warriors returning home after 28 years of war in Persia to find that their wives gave up on them years ago and had children with their slaves instead. The sons, knowing they would not be accepted by the cuckolded husbands, attempted to block their return. They were successful at first, winning battle after battle, but soon they were overcome by the mere symbols of their slave heritage.
“What are we doing, Scythians? We are fighting our slaves, diminishing our own number when we fall, and the number of those that belong to us when they fall by our hands. Take my advice — lay spear and bow aside, and let each man fetch his horsewhip, and go boldly up to them. So long as they see us with arms in our hands, they imagine themselves our equals in birth and bravery; but let them behold us with no other weapon but the whip, and they will feel that they are our slaves, and flee before us.”
The Scythians followed this counsel, and the slaves were so astounded, that they forgot to fight, and immediately ran away.
This conflict became known as the Bastard Wars. One of the vessels has a scene of an older bearded man slaying a young warrior, a possible reference to the Bastard Wars. Andrei Belinski thinks the imagery isn’t referring to a specific battle, but is more likely to be a metaphoric representation of chaos in the wake of a king’s death, an appropriate subject for royal grave goods. It would be more in keeping with the decoration of another vessel: a mythological scene of griffons tearing apart a horse and stag in what may be the Scythian underworld.
The high quality of the decoration on the solid gold pieces suggests they were made for royalty. The designs are exquisitely detailed.
To archaeologists, the information contained in the images on the gold is exciting. From the warriors’ shoes to their haircuts, the depictions are amazingly lifelike. “I’ve never seen such a detailed representation of the clothing and weaponry of the Scythians,” says Belinski. “It’s so detailed you can see how the clothing was sewn.”
The excavation of the kurgan was completed last fall, but archaeologists are hoping to return to excavate the network of trenches and earthen rings circling the mound which may indicate a ceremonial complex built around the central mound.