Arts and Sciences
Archaeologists from the Museum Lolland-Falster discovered a flint dagger with a bark-wrapped hilt while surveying a site in southern Zealand that will be a part of the Fehmarn Belt Link, an underwater tunnel connecting Germany and Denmark. The dagger is about 3,000 years old, dating to the Early Bronze Age, a time when bronze was replacing flint as the blade of choice. During this transitional period, bronze was still hard to come by and when it wasn’t available, artisans made daggers with flint blades incorporating the new hilt technology used in bronze pieces.
Examples of this rare combination of Stone and Bronze Age have been discovered before in Germany, but this is the first time one has been found in Denmark. The German ones were found in graves as daggers were valuable and their owners kept them even unto death. The Zealand dagger was found in an ancient seabed. The waterlogged environment preserved the delicate organic material.
“A hilt dagger of this type never before found in Denmark. We know the type, but to find such a magnificent specimen of a hilt is absolutely fantastic. Enthusiasm was enormous, as the dagger suddenly appeared after the excavator had removed the overlying layers. But when we removed it and saw that parts of a bark hilt was preserved almost intact, we thought the excitement never ends,” says a smiling Anders Rosendahl, archaeologist at the Museum Lolland-Falster.
The dagger is about eight inches (20 cm) long and made from a single piece of charcoal grey flint that is in exceptional condition. The hilt is wrapped in layers of birch bark to make it easier (and less dangerous) to hold.
The same day it was found, the dagger was sent to the National Museum in Copenhagen to ensure its conservation. Researchers hope that the conservation and study of the bark will be able to answer some questions about the dagger, like where it was made.
(Yes, that does look way more like obsidian, but every source, including the museum website, calls it flint so I’m going with that.)
It’s a cultural institution throwing a bake sale to secure a national treasure again, this time the Louvre museum in Paris which needs the funding power of the crowd to purchase the Teschen Table, a masterpiece of 18th century goldsmithing, mineralogy and furniture-making that has an illustrious political history to boot. The table is priced at 12.5 million Euros, most of which the Louvre has already raised. The last remaining million ($1.67 million) they hope to raise in donations by January 31st, 2015.
The table was made in 1779 by Johann-Christian Neuber, a goldsmith, jeweler and lapidary at the Dresden court of Frederick Augustus III, Elector of Saxony. Neuber became known for his gold snuff boxes inlaid with hardstones and gemstones. He called them Steinkabinettabatiere (stone cabinet snuffbox) because they were like miniature cabinets of curiosities. Neuber would number every stone and include a booklet with the numbered list identifying each mineral and where it was mined. His work combined the high craftsmanship of the goldsmith with the scientific approach of the geologist, and it was highly sought after by scholars and collectors alike. They weren’t easy to get as Neuber’s pieces weren’t for retail; they were usually given as gifts by the Elector of Saxony.
In 1778, Frederick Augustus became embroiled in the War of the Bavarian Succession. Maximilian III Joseph, Prince-Elector of Bavaria, died childless of smallpox in 1777. A number of high-powered candidates vied to claim his title, among them Charles Theodore of Sulzbach, Prince-Elector and Count Palatine, who was the direct heir, Empress Maria Theresa of Austria, her son and co-ruler Holy Roman Emperor Joseph II, King Frederick II of Prussia and the Elector of Saxony. Negotiations between interested parties proposed various partitions, but nobody could agree on how to slice the Bavarian cake and in July of 1778, Austria and Prussia went to war.
The conflict almost immediately settled into a stalemate. Maria Theresa, who was intimately familiar with how messy wars of succession could be, got Frederick of Prussia and her reluctant son to engage in peace talks brokered by Russia and France. France sent its Ambassador to Vienna, the Baron de Breteuil, to the Austrian Silesian town of Teschen, strategically located between Austria and Prussia, to negotiate a treaty in March of 1779. On May 13th, 1779, the belligerent parties signed the Treaty of Teschen. Charles Theodore would inherit Bavaria, but it and the Palatinate would combine to give him just the one vote in the election of the Holy Roman Emperor, and he would have to cede some territory to Austria. Austria had to recognize Prussia’s claim to the margraviates of Ansbach and Bayreuth. The Elector of Saxony got a sweet payoff of six million guilders.
With six million extra guilders jingling in his pocket, Frederick Augustus was in a generous mood after Teschen. He gave the Russian representative, Prince Nikolai Wasilyevich Repnin, a Meissen porcelain service composed of hundreds of pieces and a large allegorical centerpiece (now lost) with bases made by Neuber. The Baron de Breteuil got Neuber’s masterpiece: a table made in the style of his snuffboxes only far grander, with miles of gilded bronze, stone insets 10 times larger than on the boxes and far more of them. On the tabletop there are 128 stones — including agate, amethyst, onyx, opal, topaz, sardonyx, jasper, petrified wood — all from Saxony. Five Meissen porcelain medallions bearing allegories of peace and art painted in grisaille by Johann Eleazar Zeissig (also known as Schenau), are placed in the center and cardinal points.
As he did with his snuffboxes, Neuber numbered each stone and created a booklet identifying the type and find site of every number. The numbering begins in the center of the table with the small round gemstones then continues clockwise in concentric circles. You can hover over the tabletop insets on this page to see what kind of stones they are and where they came from.
The hovertext can’t possibly do the booklet justice, however. For this very special assignment, Neuber commissioned Dresden artist and engraver Carl Gottfried Nestler to write every entry in the booklet in a hand so beautiful, so clean, so regular that if you didn’t know it was handwritten you wouldn’t believe it. Someone needs to make a Nestler font because that handwriting deserves to be immortalized.
The table became famous in its own time. Historians wrote about it as early as 1782, and it even made a cameo in volume one of Marcel Proust’s Remembrance Of Things Past as a prized piece belonging to the Princesse d’Iéna. In the Swann In Love section, the terribly fashionable Princesse de Laumes laments that her husband wants her to visit the Princesse d’Iéna whom she does not know. She and General de Froberville have this exchange:
“But I must tell you what he’s told me about their house; it’s quite enough. Can you imagine it, all their furniture is ‘Empire’!”
The Breteuil family did not hide it in the attic. It’s been at the Château de Breteuil about 25 miles southwest of Paris since 1821, leaving only on rare occasions on loan to museums for special exhibitions. In 2010, the family decided to sell the table to raise money to maintain the château and deal with some inheritance issues. They had a foreign buyer lined up and applied to the government for an export license. To block its export, the Teschen Table was declared National Treasure, but the block would expire in 30 months (March 31st, 2013) if the state did not acquire the piece.
In July of last year, the Teschen Table was declared “a work of major patrimonial interest” which granted it another reprieve while funds were raised. The Louvre managed to scrape almost the entire value from its acquisition budget and corporate donors, but needs the aid of the public to reach the final goal. You can donate online here.
A team from the Autonomous University of Barcelona (UAB) excavating the Bronze Age archaeological site on the La Almoloya plateau in the southeastern Spanish municipality of Pliego have unearthed residential and government buildings and 50 tombs. The plateau’s steep slopes made it a highly defensible location that was occupied from 2,200 B.C. to 1,550 B.C. by the El Argar culture. The extensive construction and dense population point to La Almoloya having been an important political center 70 miles northeast of the Argaric capital of El Argar (modern-day Antas, Almeria).
Artifacts found inside the buildings were in excellent condition. Metals, ceramics, stone and bone survived alongside exceptionally rare textiles. The structures and their contents paint a picture of a rich urban environment that is unique in Bronze Age continental Europe.
The excavations indicate that the La Almoloya plateau, of 3,800 metres square, was densely populated and included several residential complexes of some 300 square metres, with eight to twelve rooms in each residence. The buildings’ walls were constructed with stones and argamasa [a kind of lime mortar], and covered with layers of mortar. Some parts contain stucco decorated with geometric and naturalistic motifs, a novelty which represents the discovery of an Argaric artistic style.
Among the discoveries made is a wide hall with high ceilings measuring some 70 square metres, with capacity for 64 people seated on the benches lining the walls. The hall includes a ceremonial fireplace and a podium of symbolic character. This unique building was used for political purposes and archaeologists consider that it must have been used to celebrate hearings or government meetings.
Archaeologists affirm that this is the first time a building specifically dedicated to governing purposes has been discovered in Western Europe, and believe that decisions were taken here which affected many of the region’s other communities.
The ceremonial hall is flanked by adjoining rooms. Because of its political significance and large size, archaeologists categorize this structure as a palace, and a highly advanced one at that, comparable only to near Eastern buildings from this era.
Another reason to deem the building a royal palace is a tomb that was found adjacent to the main wall of the government hall. It holds the skeletal remains of an adult man and woman who were buried with 30 artifacts made of precious metals and gemstones. The woman wore a silver diadem around her head, one of only five Agaric diadems ever discovered and none of the other four remain in Spain. They were found at the El Argar type site by Belgian mine engineers Henri and Louis Siret in the 1880s and are now in the permanent collection of the Royal Museums of Art and History’s Cinquantenaire Museum in Brussels.
The royal couple were also buried with four ear dilators, two of gold, two of silver, plus silver rings, earrings and bracelets. A bronze dagger had silver nails in the handle. These are rare and important examples of the advanced metallurgy of the El Argar culture. Two other pieces are uniquely significant on that score: a ceramic vessel with bands of finely layered silver and a punch with a bronze tip and a silver handle. Both of them are one of a kind objects that demonstrate the high level of Argaric silver craftsmanship.
A volunteer with WallQuest, a community archaeology project excavating Arbeia Roman fort in South Shields at the easternmost end of Hadrian’s Wall has discovered a carved stone head of a goddess. The small figure is just over three inches high and is finely carved. She wears a mural crown — a crown in the shape of battlements — that identifies her as a protective goddess. Archaeologists believe she is a representation of Brigantia, the goddess of the northern British tribe of the Brigantes. Indeed, an altar inscribed “Deae Brigantiae sacrum Congenncus (V[otum] S[olvit] L[ibens] M[erito]” (To the sacred goddess Brigantia Congenncus willingly and deservedly fulfilled his vow) was unearthed 100 yards from the head in 1895, and at least one other statue of Brigantia wearing a mural crown has been found.
The find is a small, finely carved female head which is believed to date back to the second century AD and stands at 8cm high. Every part is delicately carved including eyes, nose, mouth and hairstyle with traces of pink paint on the statues face as well as a bit of red on her lips.
The head dates to the 2nd century A.D., early in the life of the fort which was first built overlooking the River Tyne around 160 A.D. and enlarged in 208 A.D. to serve as a maritime supply base the soldiers along Hadrian’s Wall. We know the stone goddess predates that expansion because it was found in an aqueduct channel that was filled so new construction could be done on top of it. The statue of the goddess wouldn’t have been freestanding on its own; given the discovery of her head and the altar found in the 19th century, it’s likely that there was a shrine to Brigantia in Arbeia that was demolished to make room for the enlargement of the fort.
Troop divisions at Arbeia that have been identified thus far include boatmen from the Tigris River in what was then Persia, now Iraq, Gaulish infantry, Spanish cavalry (First Asturian) and Syrian archers. Although locals probably enlisted later on, when the statue was standing, it was these units from all over the empire who were likely responsible for creating the shrine to the local goddess.
Nick Hodgson, WallQuest Project Manager, said:
“The head is a truly wonderful find. Northern Britain was a dangerous place for the Roman army in the second century AD; if the goddess is Brigantia it shows how keen the Romans were to placate the spirits of the region.”
It must have worked, because Arbeia and the civilian settlement that grew in its shadow remained in active use for decades after most of the other fort settlements on Hadrian’s Wall were abandoned or greatly contracted. There was new construction in the Arbeia settlement in the late 3rd century or early 4th. This is attributable to its commercial importance as a maritime fort and market center. The only permanent masonry granaries ever found in Britain were built in Arbeia. The fort and settlement were in use through the end of the Roman occupation in the 5th century.
The head of Brigantia will be conserved over the next few months. In Spring of 2015, it will go on display at the Arbeia Roman Fort & Museum. At the same time the community excavation project at Arbeia will begin again, and volunteers will have the opportunity to look for the rest of the statue.
The shipwreck found last month near King William Island in the eastern Queen Maud Gulf has been identified as Franklin’s flagship, the HMS Erebus. Captained by explorer Sir John Franklin on the hunt for the legendary Northwest Passage, Erebus and its companion ship HMS Terror got stuck in the ice in September of 1846. Nearly 130 souls were lost and as were the ships. People have been searching for the Franklin ships ever since.
When a coalition of private and public organizations led by Parks Canada discovered the ship on September 7th, they weren’t certain which of the two Franklin vessels it was. Storms kept researchers from exploring the wreck for three days, leaving only a brief two-day window before the temperatures dropped below zero and put an end to the summer campaign. They made those two days count, sending four two-man teams on seven dives lasting a cumulative 12 hours. The divers took high resolution photographs, high-definition video and measurements of the wreck
It was the measurements taken during the dives that allowed the research team to identify it as HMS Erebus. The ship is such a good state of preservation that it was possible to compare the measurements to the plans of the ship at the UK National Maritime Museum in Greenwich. Erebus is longer and wider than Terror and the measurements and sonar data found that length and breadth aligned with the Erebus plans. The position of certain deck structures also matched Erebus, not Terror.
No artifacts have been recovered as the divers did not go inside themselves. With the limited time they had, researchers would not have been able to explore the interior with the kind of diligence required for a maritime archaeological exploration. The team will be returning next summer (and who knows how many summers after that), so these two days were more gainfully employed surveying the structure and layout of the site. Parks Canada underwater archaeologist Ryan Harris:
“As an archaeological and underwater site, it’s complex and novel, in that it’s a significant three-dimensional structure that we’re going to have to figure out to work inside the interior spaces,” he said.
They did send a camera through an opening in the deck to get a glimpse of the interior of the ship. They were able to view the ship’s galley and the crew’s sleeping quarters. They also saw a mechanism that was part of the custom alterations done to the ship especially for the expedition: a lift that pulled the propeller out of the water up a bronze track to save it from being damaged in thick ice.
Exploring the interior of the stern is a high priority. That’s where Franklin’s cabin and log room were. It’s possible that there could be surviving documents, believe it or not, because the logs were written on rag paper that is very durable and because the cold and darkness of the Arctic water is an excellent preservative. Even if the ink has washed off, imaging technology could detect what was written on any surviving pages.
On a tangentially related note, the discovery has brought to the fore a macabre but awesome story involving a cursed painting that freaked out students taking their exams. In 1864, Sir Edwin Landseer exhibited a painting he’d done inspired by the lost Franklin expedition. It’s entitled Man Proposes, God Disposes and features two ravenous polar bears tearing into the wreck of a ship and the skeletal remains of one of its crew members.
It made a strong impression on critics who described it using words like “tragic grandeur” and “living fire of imagination” and was by far the most popular piece at the Royal Academy that year. Lady Franklin and the Admiralty were less enthused. At best the scene was a horrific depiction of Franklin’s fate. At worst those bears were allegorical references to reports that the crew had succumbed to cannibalism which had been very much in the news since Captain John Rae of the Hudson Bay Company had returned from a rescue expedition in 1854 with Inuit testimony of mutilated bodies and bones in kettles. You can read both sides of the cannibalism question debated in Charles Dickens’s literary journal, Household Worlds. Dickens believed Franklin and the fine men of the British navy would never stoop to such behavior. He made his moral argument in two parts, then printed Rae’s response also in two parts.
In his response, Rae specifically rebutted the contention that those gnawed bones could have been the work of polar bears.
Had there been no bears thereabouts to mutilate those bodies — no wolves, no foxes? is asked; but it is a well-known fact that, from instinct, neither bears, wolves, nor foxes, nor that more ravenous of all, the glutton or wolverine, unless on the verge of starvation, will touch a dead human body ; and the carnivorous quadrupeds near the Arctic sea are seldom driven to that extremity.
Franklin’s crew certainly were driven to that extremity, however, and the Inuit who told Rae about it also found Franklin’s telescope which is in the painting.
Victorian patent medicine mogul Thomas Holloway bought the painting at auction in 1881. Holloway died in 1883; in 1886, Man Proposes, God Disposes moved to Royal Holloway College, the all women’s college he had founded in 1879. It now hangs in the school’s Picture Gallery at eye level to students trying to take their exams.
“Originally, it was bad luck if you sat next to it. We really do not know where the rumour started. It must be the subject matter – the biggest failure that Victorian Britain tackled up to that point,” said Royal Holloway curator Dr. Laura MacCulloch.
“When you look at this picture, it’s so miserable and so bleak.”
Yet for one student in the 1970s, the thought of sitting next to a depiction of such failure while writing exams invoked a strong protest.
“The poor registrar had to find something to cover it and the only thing that was big enough was a Union Jack,,” said Dr MacCulloch.
To this day, the painting is covered by the Union flag while students sit exams but Dr MacCulloch denied a story that the painting’s curse was so strong that a student who sat by it committed suicide, leaving a diary entry saying ‘the polar bears made me do it’.
“There is no evidence of that ever happening,” she clarified.
The enamelled bronze cockerel found in a child’s grave in the western cemetery of Roman Cirencester in 2011 has gone on display at the Corinium Museum along with other artifacts excavated during that dig. The site was known to have had a Roman cemetery since the 1960s when it was surveyed before the construction of Bridges Garage, but the auto body shop had dug deep to accommodate two huge underground fuel tanks, so archaeologists thought whatever was left of the cemetery was probably destroyed.
When the Bridges Garage property was slated for redevelopment in 2011, the archaeologists who returned to survey the site had modest expectations. Much to their surprise, they found 71 inhumations and three cremations, a surprisingly high number of the former (the 60s excavation had found 46 cremations and eight inhumations). The cemetery spanned almost the entire period of Roman Britain, from the late 1st century through the fourth. Archaeologists were able to identify 30 females and 21 males from the inhumations (the sex of the remaining 20 could not be determined). There was significantly more bone wear in the shoulders of the male, probably an indication of repetitive motion strain from skilled crafts like stone-working rather than agricultural work.
The grave in which the cockerel was found is one of the earlier ones, dating to the middle of the 2nd century A.D. The child was about two or three years old and must have come from a wealthy family because she or he was buried in a wooden coffin with the bronze cockerel placed near his head and a pottery feeding cup with a drinking spout known as a tettine. The cockerel was a very expensive piece, the product of high quality workmanship made in northern Britain and exported all over the empire.
Only eight of these objects survive, four in Britain, four in Germany and the Low Countries. This is the only one of the British cockerels to have been found in a grave, and the only one of all of them that still has its tail. That’s significant not just because it’s a fabulous openwork enameled rooster tail, but because before it was found, archaeologists speculated that these figurines might have had a practical use, like as lamps, due to their hollow bodies. The tail was soldered in place, however, making the hollow body inaccessible and usage as a lamp impossible. It was likely included in the grave as a symbol of the god Mercury who guided the souls of the dead to the afterlife.
In the same display case with the cockerel are a selection of jewels also found in the grave of a child. Jet beads found around the neck were once part of a necklace. Jet bracelets and bangles were found at the wrists, while two bronze bracelets were buried under the child’s feet. This was a later burial than the cockerel child’s, dating to the late 3rd or early 4th century. Other jewels on display were found in the grave of a late Roman woman. Near her wrist archaeologists found bone bracelets with metal clasps, a sheet metal bracelet with abstract designs and a bracelet of glass and bone beads strung on a copper-alloy wire chain.
Archaeologists excavating the ancient city of Cástulo in south central Spain have found a glass liturgical vessel from the 4th century that is the earliest known representation of Christ ever discovered in Spain. It’s a paten, a shallow bowl or dish used to hold the consecrated host during the sacrament of the Eucharist. Although it was found in fragments, they’re in excellent condition with only very few details of the decoration eroded, a survival all the more remarkable when you consider that the high quality blown glass is just two millimeters thick. The pieces were painstakingly puzzled together with Paraloid, a thermoplastic resin used as a glass and ceramic adhesive by conservators, to form 81% of the complete dish. In total 175 grams of glass were recovered.
The paten is 22 centimeters (8.7 inches) in diameter and is scratch-engraved with a depiction of Christ in Majesty. He stands in the center of the dish, holding a bejewled cross, symbol of resurrection, in his right hand and the gospels in his left. Above him to the right is the Chi Rho symbol between the alpha and omega. Two men, apostles, likely Peter and Paul, flank Christ, each holding a scroll. The figures are bracketed by date palm trees, symbols of immortality in paleochristian iconography.
Archaeologists were able to date the paten to the 4th century thanks to ceramic pieces and coins found in the room, one of which was minted under Emperor Constantius II (337-361 A.D.). That places the vessel in the early decades of Christianity as a legal religion that could be practiced in public. The Edict of Milan, which granted religious liberty to Christians, was promulgated by Emperors Constantine I and Licinius in 313 A.D. Before then depictions of Christ were hidden in private homes and catacombs while in public Christians used cryptic symbols like the ichthys (Jesus fish).
The depiction of Christ as a beardless youth with short curly hair in the Alexandrian style wearing a philosopher’s toga is typical of this transitional period of Christianity. The scene itself, a version of the Traditio legis (“transmission of the law”) in which Christ stands or sits enthroned giving scrolls to Peter and Paul on either side of him, is a paleochristian motif drawn from depictions of the Roman emperor. The standing Christ is earlier than the enthroned version which became popular in the second half of the 4th century, as in the central relief panel of the Sarcophagus of Junius Bassus, made in 359 A.D.
Both apostles carry the rotulus legis (scroll of the law) and they’re both wearing togas. They have short but full hair and are cleanly shaven, another mark of how early this image is since once the iconography became standardized Peter and Paul would be depicted with balding heads and beards.
The fact that the paten is made of glass is another indication of its age. According to the Liber Pontificalis, a compendium of papal biographies, Pope Zepherinus (199-217 A.D.) “made a regulation for the church, that there should be vessels of glass before the priests in the church and servitors to hold them while the bishop was celebrating mass and priests standing about him. Thus mass should be celebrated and the clergy should assist in all the ceremony, except in that which belongs only to the bishop; from the consecration of the bishop’s hand the priest should receive the consecrated wafer to distribute to the people.”
One pope later, Urban I (222-230 A.D.) “had all sacred vessels made of silver, and he gave as an offering 25 patens of silver [one for each titular church].” The source for Urban’s order replacing all glass liturgical vessels with ones made of precious metals is thought to be a 6th century hagiography of St. Cecilia, which is shaky, to say the least, so it’s likely the shift from glass to silver is of later date.
The discovery of the glass paten in the context makes it even more important. Before its discovery, some archaeologists had posited that the 4th century building in which it was found was a very early Christian religious structure, midway between the catacombs and clandestine churches in private homes and the first official Christian architecture of the Roman empire. However there was no direct evidence of that — no frescoes or crosses or any other overtly Christian decoration. The paten supplies that evidence that the building was used for Christian services.
Inhabited since the Neolithic, Cástulo was important center of trade in the Roman world. It had been an ally of Rome since the city betrayed the Carthaginian army in the second century B.C., and its location on the Guadalquivir River connected it directly to Córdoba, capital of the Roman province of Hispania Ulterior Baetica. Just a few meters away from the structure where the paten was found is a building from the first century A.D. dedicated to the cult of Emperor Domitian. In 2012, archaeologists unearthed a mosaic floor there that is nothing short of spectacular. Because Domitian was assassinated in 96 A.D. and the Senate issued a damnatio memoriae erasing his name from all public documents, art and architecture, the building was never completed. The walls were demolished, covering the mosaic with rubble and preserving it in unbelievable condition for archaeologists to find. It’s made from 750,000 tiles in 24 brilliant colors imported from all over the empire. Do yourself a favor and explore the entire mosaic in high resolution here. Its quality is a testament to the wealth and importance of the ancient city.
Once Christianity came into the picture, Cástulo became an episcopal see. We know there was a bishop there at least as early as 305 A.D. because records of the ecclesiastical Synod of Elvira (305-6 A.D.) list one of the bishops present as “Secundinus episcopus Castulonensis,” or Secundinus Bishop of Castulo. It remained an episcopal see under Visigothic rule until the second half of the 7th century. Cástulo became overshadowed by its castle-defended neighbor of Linares after the Muslim conquest and was ultimately abandoned in the 13th century.
The paten is now on display at the Archaeological Museum of Linares.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art has stepped in to save an ancient Egyptian collection of artifacts from dispersal into the auction void. The Treasure of Harageh, a group of Twelfth Dynasty jewelry and travertine vessels excavated in 1913-14 from Tomb 124 at Harageh near the city of Faiyum in Middle Egypt, was supposed to go under the hammer at the Bonhams Antiquities sale on October 2nd. At the last minute, the lot was withdrawn and Bonhams announced it had negotiated a private sale for an undisclosed amount to the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
This was a happy result for a controversial sale. The controversy wasn’t the usual kind. There was no trumped up “Swiss private collection” provenance; the ownership history was clear and unblemished, the publication record extensive. It was the seller raising eyebrows: the American Institute for Archaeology’s St. Louis Society. The AIA is opposed on principle to the sale of antiquities, believing they belong in the care of experts who will conserve them and make them available to the public for educational purposes. The St. Louis Society is an independent non-profit, however, and its charter with the AIA only explicitly prohibits the sale or purchase of undocumented artifacts, so no matter how horrified the national organization was, it could not prevent the sale.
The artifacts have belonged to the St. Louis Society since they were first excavated by a British School of Archaeology team led by Reginald Engelbach under the direction of pioneering archaeologist William Matthew Flinders Petrie. The Society helped fund the excavation. In return, they received this exceptional group of artifacts. There are five travertine objects, four of them vessels, one of them a cosmetic spoon with a handle in the shape of an ankh. The jewelry group is seven cowrie shell-shaped pendants made of silver, a rare material worth more than gold in the Middle Kingdom, 14 real sea shell pendants mounted in silver and 11 silver pieces inlaid with various hardstones that probably were part of a pectoral plaque.
It’s the 11 pectoral pieces that date the artifacts. Individual pieces are designed as hieroglyphs that spell the name of Pharoah Senusret II, the fourth pharaoh of the Twelfth Dynasty who ruled from 1897-1878 B.C. One of the 11 is also the standout piece of the collection. It’s a unique jewel in the shape of a bee. What makes it unique is that it’s three-dimensional, with inlays on both sides and even visible from the top. There is no other 3D jewel known from the Middle Kingdom. The bee, the real shell pendants (the first known instance of actual shells being used in Egyptian jewelry) and the ankh spoon are all unique and of major historical significance.
For many years the collection was kept at the St. Louis Art Museum. In 2011 it was moved to Washington University in St. Louis and two years ago it wound up in private storage at a cost of $2,000 a year. It was that storage fee and the conservation challenge that drove the St. Louis Society to sell the Treasure of Harageh. Howard Wimmer, secretary of the St. Louis Society, said: “If there had been any way that we could have reasonably kept these items in St. Louis, we never would have pursued this course. One way or the other, we had to find a new home.”
It’s that one way they chose that was the sticking point. The AIA might not have had grounds to block the sale, but it wasn’t the only interested party.
Alice Stevenson, curator of the Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology in London, said a sale to a private buyer would have violated an agreement between the museum’s namesake explorer and the St. Louis group that the antiquities be distributed to public museums, accessible to both researchers and the public.
“Museums and archaeologists are stewards of the past,” she said. “They should not sell archaeological items in their collections for profit.”.
Thanks to the Met, which is glad to join this treasure to other Harageh artifacts in its permanent collection, the sale of these antiquities won’t see them dispersed contextless into private collections out of the reach of the public and scholars. Unfortunately, there was one lot from the St. Louis Society’s Harageh artifacts, a Tenth-Eleventh Dynasty travertine head rest (2150-1990 B.C.) that did not get an eleventh hour reprieve. It sold to an unknown buyer for £27,500 ($44,182). I wonder if the Petrie Museum is aware of this sale. It seems like they might have legal grounds to void it.
The earthquake that struck the central Italian city of L’Aquila on April 6th, 2009, also devastated the small town of Casentino 10 miles to the southeast. The church of St. John the Evangelist, a masonry structure largely built in the 18th century, was heavily damaged. The apse, the vault over the altar, collapsed, reducing the floor to rubble and exposing a long corridor leading to an underground room. When the firefighters arrived to clear the rubble, they found the remains of 150 people, about 30 of them naturally mummified and about 10 of those exceptionally well-preserved.
The find came as little surprise to the residents of Casentino, since the little village didn’t even have a dedicated cemetery until the 20th century; before then people were regularly buried in the ossuary under the church. Over the years the bone pile grew enough to be visible through a lancet window on the back of the church. They didn’t know there were natural mummies in excellent condition, however.
Since the needs of earthquake cleanup and repair took priority, the remains were moved to a protected area of the church for later retrieval. It was two years before experts from the cultural patrimony ministry and archaeological superintendence were able to remove the 10 or so mummified remains in the best condition to the superintendence’s headquarters in Chieti. There they could be preserved in ideal climactic conditions and studied by the anthropology department of the University of Chieti. The rest of the remains were reinterred in the church.
This Italian language news story has some good views of the damaged church and some of the mummies:
Archaeologists studied the clothing and human remains in the hope of learning more about how people lived and died in this small countryside hamlet. Their clothes were in the French style of the Napoleonic era, but upon closer examination the deceased were found to date to different periods over a 200 year range, at least some of the victims of a documented plague in the 1800s. Textiles, shoes, corsets, skirts, shirts, shrouds, rings and rosary beads can be dated by their materials and styles to the 19th century or earlier. People of all sexes and ages are represented: women, men, children, the elderly and even one fetus.
Anthropological examination found an unusually high number of bodies bore evidence of having been autopsied. Dissected skulls (craniotomy) and ribs (costotomy) were particularly common. This wouldn’t be so incongruous in, say, a university city, but in a little country village it’s practically unheard of. There must have been a very curious physician practicing in the area.
It’s the fetal mummy that proved the most startling. Researchers were able to radiocarbon date the shroud wrapping the tiny mummy and found that it was buried around 1840. The fetus died around 29 weeks of pregnancy, so small that sex determination from the bones was not possible. An X-ray of the mummy bundle found the skeleton was not articulated. The skull was dissected in several places and separated from the neck. The arm bones were removed from the skeleton and dislocated at various joints.
This disarticulation is different from the autopsies found in the other mummies from the site. It appears to have been done in utero, not outside of the mother’s body.
All of these characteristics “strongly suggest a case of embryotomy,” which was a procedure that occurred before removing the fetus from the womb, study author Ruggero D’Anastasio of University Museum at University of Chieti, Italy, told Live Science.
Embryotomy was a common practice in ancient times, D’Anastasio said. The procedure was practiced in Alexandria and then in Rome during the first and second centuries, the researchers wrote in the study. Physicians typically performed it when a mother’s life was threatened due to delivery complications or when the fetus was already thought to be dead in the womb.
The little fellow was buried with the utmost care, all the body parts placed back together in the proper anatomical placement and then clothed. The skull fragment was placed on top of the mummy’s head and covered with a little cap.
The concluding paragraph of the study report in the International Journal of Osteoarchaeology:
In summary, our report provides evidence for what is likely the best example of embryotomy in the archaeological record of Italy. It also demonstrates that the praxis specialised in gynecology was surprisingly diffused into a very little and peripheral village in Central Italy, where evidently physicians with high degree of professionalism worked. By contrast, the recomposition of the cut-up body and its perfect dressing indicate high sense of pity for the death and for children never born.
I am delighted to report that the Wedgwood Collection has been saved and in record time. The Art Fund’s public campaign to keep this irreplaceable archive that combines 8,000 ceramics with more than 80,000 documents recording 250 years of the political, social, industrial, artistic, technological history of Britain began on September 1st. Their goal was to raise £2.74 million by November 30th. Added to the £13.1 million they had already raised with contributions from the Heritage Lottery fund and private organizations, the total £15.75 million ($25,617,000) was the price to acquire the entire Wedgwood Collection.
Within two weeks we had raised £700,000, contributed by 4,000 members of the public. A few days later, the campaign reached £1m from the public and £1m from major donors and grant-making foundations, propelling the total to £2m.
In the last week the match fund was extended and public donations continued to flood in. The appeal surged towards its final target thanks to donations from two regional sources: £250,000 from the Bet365 Foundation, led by Denise Coates CBE, and £100,000 from Staffordshire County Council.
Nearly 7,500 people donated sums as small as £10 and as large as six-figure checks. The most popular amount was £25. Donors chipped in from all over the world, but fully one fifth of the public donations came from the Midlands, the home region of the Wedgwood Collection. Every donation from individual tenners to large pledges like £100,000 from Staffordshire construction equipment manufacturer JCB was matched by a private foundation, a generous gift that was originally only going to last the first few weeks of the challenge but was then extended through the entire campaign.
The massive groundswell of support to save the Wedgwood Collection was unprecedented in the 111-year history of the Art Fund. This was its fastest fundraising campaign ever.
Now the Art Fund has to acquire the collection as per their agreement with all parties. They will then donate it to the Victoria & Albert Museum who will be the archive’s legal owner in perpetuity. The V&A will set up a long-term loan of the archive to the Wedgewood Museum in Barlaston, Stoke-on-Trent. At no point will the collection physically move. It’s in the Wedgwood Museum now and there it will remain while money changes hands and legalities are sorted out.
The post-bankruptcy merged company Waterford Wedgwood Royal Doulton (WWRD) is in the middle of an extensive £34 million redevelopment of the Wedgwood factory site which will include a new visitor center at the museum. The new World of Wedgwood is slated for completion next spring. (No, I don’t know why they had £34 million to spend on the center but had to get charity to spend less than half that amount securing the actual collection that is the major part of what visitors go to see. It’s probably some hideous legal Gordian Knot involving the bankruptcy and the pension fund liability.)
Now is the time on The History Blog when we dance, Wedgwood style.
Leif Arne Nordheim, long annoyed by a group of flagstones that poked up above ground level impeding the path of his lawnmower, borrowed his neighbor’s backhoe to remove them. At first the job was uneventful, but when he was finishing up with the last of the slabs, he unearthed what looked like a large pair of pliers or tongs. They looked like they might be a couple of hundred of years old but he didn’t think much of it until he came across a bent sword next. That’s when he realized they might be archaeological artifacts rather than old tools and called in the experts.
Archaeologists from the county Cultural Department and Bergen University came to excavate the site. They found an axe and several other pieces of metalwork that stylistically date to the 8th or 9th century A.D. State Conservationist Eva Moberg noted that this is an extremely rare find. The last time similar artifacts were unearthed was in 1913 at the grave of Viking blacksmith. Although no human remains were discovered in Mr. Nordheim’s back yard, it’s possible that this too was a deposit of grave goods for the person who used those tongs in life.
The excavation is continuing at county expense. The artifacts will be conserved and ultimately put on public display at the University Museum of Bergen. There’s excellent video of the yard and excavation in this news story which is almost entirely in Norwegian except for one archaeologist’s comments that are in English.
This is not the first time notable archaeological objects have been discovered in the area. In 1917, a farmer turned up the Eggja stone while plowing a field just a kilometer from the Nordheim homestead. The stone, found face-down over the grave of an adult male, is inscribed with about 200 runes of Elder Futhark, the oldest runic alphabet. It dates to 650-700 A.D. and is the longest surviving inscription of Elder Futhark. There are multiple possible interpretations of the runes on the Eggja stone, see the Rune Project database for possible translations of section 1, 2 and 3).
Four transverse ribs are carved into the inside of the hull at regular intervals and a horizontal girder intersects the ribs down the length of the piece. Because the ribs are heavier on the side with the curved end, that was probably the lower side of the canoe. This is the first time these kinds of ribs have been documented in New Zealand, although they were reported in the Southern Cook Islands just a hundred years ago.
The edges are perforated with lashing holes chiseled through the wood. Four of them are still packed with caulking made from pounded wads of bark (probably from the totara tree). Radiocarbon dating performed on three wood samples from different areas of the hull and four caulking samples taken from three of the lashings returned a result of around 1400 A.D. for the last time the canoe was caulked.
That’s enormously significant as Wairau Bar, a settlement on the northeastern coast of South Island that is the earliest known colonization, dated to the early 1300s. The Anaweka canoe, therefore, was in use within a century of colonization. There is only one other surviving canoe from early colonization found more than 30 years ago in the Society Islands 2,500 miles away from South Island. Archaeologists have had little to go on to reconstruct the ocean-going canoes Polynesians used for maritime migration and long-distance travel between islands after colonization. The main sources have been observations by European explorers centuries later and analysis of canoe-related vocabulary in Austronesian languages. This new find lends rare insight into the maritime technology that drove the East Polynesian settlement of New Zealand.
When intact, the canoe was probably at least 46 feet long. Archaeologists believe it was a double canoe, although it could also have been a single with an outrigger. It was a large, complex composite of planked and dugout canoe, an adaptation of East Polynesian maritime technology developed in the wake of the colonization of New Zealand. The form required very large trees to produce, trees that would only have been available to the Polynesians after settlement in New Zealand.
A raised relief of a sea turtle is carved into the outer hull at the curved end. A carved ridge runs behind the turtle to the very edge of the hull. Archaeologists believe the ridge may depict the wake of the turtle as it swims, which may be a clue to which way the canoe moved through the water (matching the direction of the turtle, that is). This is a spectacular feature, not just because it’s adorable but because it’s a clear representation of Polynesian culture. The Maori rarely used turtles as decorative motifs before the arrival of Europeans, but turtles are all over Polynesian art. Sea turtles are known to make very long ocean voyages, so they were more than appropriate spirit animals for the people who colonized the Pacific, and they make fine figureheads for the ocean-going canoes that made colonization possible.
Leonardo da Vinci’s Adoration of the Magi has been in the hands of the Opificio delle Pietre Dure conservation institute in Florence since November of 2011 after Uffizi Gallery curators determined that the painting’s progressive darkening was becoming an increasingly urgent problem. After a year of preparatory work deploying a wide array of diagnostic technologies — Fourier Transform Infrared spectrometry, X-ray fluorescence, Infrared reflectography, X-Ray imaging, 3D relief for the measurement of micro deformation, Optical Coherence Tomography, chemical analysis, spectrophotometry — to analyze the paint and wood panel, conservators began cleaning the surface a year ago.
The oil on panel painting was commissioned in March 1481 by the Augustinian monks of the monastery of San Donato in Scopeto, but Leonardo, who was then a youth of 29 just starting his career, sought greener pastures with Ludovico Sforza, Duke of Milan, and the next year moved to Milan leaving the Adoration of the Magi incomplete.
The painting on wood, measuring about 2.5 by 2.5 metres (8.2 by 8.2 feet) depicts the three wise men who paid tribute to the infant Jesus in Bethlehem, but it also includes a riot of human figures, battling horses, architectural designs, landscapes and skies.
Done on 10 slabs of wood glued together, it has blank areas, areas with under-drawings, and sections in advanced stages.
“This is perhaps the most quintessential work-in-progress in the history of art,” said Cecilia Frosinini, one of the directors of the ongoing restoration of the work, which is slated to return to Florence’s Uffizi Gallery next year.
“Leonardo never wanted this to be seen by anyone at this stage, probably not even by those who commissioned it, probably not even his assistants. This is the phase in which he was still elaborating in his mind what the final work would look like,” she said, standing in front of the piece.
The monks eventually turned to Filippino Lippi who completed his Adoration of the Magi in 1496, and Leonardo’s piece wound up in the collection of the de Medici family 100 years later. The Medici restorers filled in paint and added layers of clear and brown varnish to give it a more finished, monochromatic look.
In addition to the accumulation of dirt, smoke and pollutants, the Opificio curators had to deal with all those past restorations. The paint and varnishes have changed over the centuries, oxidizing, discoloring, sometimes separating, sometimes adhering to the original surface and blending into it, so conservators had to be very selective in deciding what to remove. The bottom layer of varnish, for example, could be kept as a fixative and a patina, so there was no danger of damaging the original paint. Their goal was not to return the painting to original condition which simply cannot be done, but to restore its readability and brightness in a way that respects the passage of time while ensuring the most authentic and stable possible result.
The cleaning phase is almost done now (about three quarters of the painting has been cleaned) and it has brought to light much of the expressiveness of Leonardo’s faces, color details like the blue of the sky, design elements like the volume of the clothing and figures previously invisible to the naked eye. You can now see builders working on the ancient temple in the left background, and even subtle sketched details. One of the horses on the right has several heads in different positions, while other horses have an extra leg, evidence that Leonardo wasn’t working from a perforated cartoon outline, but rather drawing freehand as he painted.
The cleaning is expected to be finished in 2015, after which the team will turn their attentions to the wood panels. There are four major vertical cracks that need to be fixed to restore structural integrity to the fragile work. The total cost of the four-year process is expected to be €170,000 ($218,000), which will funded by the Friends of the Uffizi Gallery. Once restoration is complete (hopefully by the end of 2015), the Adoration of the Magi will return to the Uffizi Gallery where it will be on display in a special room along with two other works by Leonardo.
A “Tutti Frutti” Art Deco Cartier brooch found in a £38 ($60) box of costume jewelry sold at auction on Friday for £10,800 ($17,550). The anonymous seller bought the box at a tabletop sale in Staffordshire, not realizing that there was a tiny treasure inside.
The brooch has a central ruby engraved with a stylized flower growing from two leaves. On either side of the ruby are three alternating cabochon emeralds and sapphires. Underneath the ruby are four pavé diamonds in a platinum geometric Tetris-like setting. A slender gold pin connects the ruby top to a base of six pavé diamonds flanked by two cabochon sapphires. The piece is signed “Cartier, London.”
Cartier’s “Tutti Frutti” line has become one of its most famous styles. It debuted in the 1920s, a dramatic break from the severe geometries and monochromatic emphasis of Art Deco. Officially named “pierres de couleur” (colored stones), the style was inspired by traditional Indian jewels and the same floral patterns of the Moghul emperors that inspired those gorgeous chintz textiles I wrote about recently. Cartier had done business in Indian since Pierre Cartier was commissioned by Queen Alexandra to make an Indian-style necklace from several pieces in her collection. Cartier London thus became the center of work in Indian gemstones and design.
Jacques Cartier, head of the London office, traveled to India in 1911 and was so struck by what he saw there that he soon integrated Indian style and gemstones into the company’s jewels. Agents in India bought gemstones, among them vintage stones carved with the leaf, flower and berry shapes characteristic of the Moghul period. Cartier’s designers in Paris, New York and London took the Indian stones and mixed them with the white diamond severity of Art Deco to create uniquely colorful patterns that injected naturalism and color into Art Deco shapes.
Society fashion plate and Singer sewing machine heiress Daisy Fellowes had a famous example custom made by Cartier in 1936. It was called the Collier Hindou and she bought it as a consolation prize for herself after the hardships of the Depression forced her to sell her yacht. (I guess that’s the insanely rich version of a breadline.) The necklace became known as the Tutti Frutti, but according to Cartier, the style itself wasn’t given the name until 1970. According to British Museum curator and Cartier expert Judy Rudoe, the “pierres de couleur” style became known as “Tutti Frutti” colloquially in the 1940s, probably inspired by bakelite fruit jewelry popularized by Carmen Miranda and her Tutti Frutti hat.
Tutti Frutti pieces go for millions of dollars today. They are highly sought after by jewelry collectors so much so that even tiny little brooches in Derbyshire auctions draw bidders from all over the world and exceed their pre-sale estimates by more than £2,000.
A brass signet ring bearing the initials “CC” has been unearthed at the Zekiah Fort archaeological site in Waldorf, Maryland. Students from St. Mary’s College of Maryland led by anthropology professor Julia King discovered the 17th century ring on June 13th during a six week excavation that has turned up, among other artifacts, glass trade beads, lead shot, gunflints, arrowheads and pipes. The ring is highly distinctive, and King believes it either belonged to Charles Calvert, 3rd Baron Baltimore, Governor and Proprietor of Maryland, or it was a diplomatic gift in his name.
Since the discovery, King and her colleagues and students have been studying historical records to determine its origins and have been unable to tie it to anyone besides Calvert. She believes that the ring was used as a diplomatic gift by a representative of Calvert’s to the Indians, as a gesture of good will. The archaeologists hope to do more work at the site and learn more about the history of the ring though records and studying the remains of other structures and artifacts.
“We don’t think that Charles Calvert went up there,” King said. “He’s sending his counselors, diplomats, his rangers, carrying this ring as a gift.”
So far all the research into the historical record has returned no other likely candidate for the CC initials, and given his direct involvement in the settlement of Zekiah Fort, the context strongly suggests this ring was his, if not a personal accessory then one created as a token for his representatives to use a gift.
Zekiah Fort was a settled by the Piscataway Indians in 1680 when they were forced to leave their ancestral lands north of the Potomac River. The English colonists had been significantly encroaching on their territory for more than 20 years, and conflicts with the neighboring Susquehannock and Seneca drove the Piscataway into Charles County in southern Maryland. Baltimore had the fort built ostensibly as a refuge for about 320 Piscataway, but it’s no coincidence that English settlers, not rival Native Americans, promptly moved onto the lands of the displaced.
The location of the fort was lost until 2011 when researchers from St. Mary’s College of Maryland and the College of Southern Maryland poring through historical documents identified the spot as a field that was a fortuitous island surrounded by development. The 100-acre site — complete with woods and historic trails as well as the fort site — was bought by Charles County in 2012. Grants from the Maryland Historical Trust and the Charles County Board of Commissioners funded this summer’s archaeological excavation.
All the artifacts will be sent to state experts for conservation. If the ring can be confirmed to have belonged to Charles Calvert or to have been a diplomatic gift from him, it will be one of very few personalized Calvert artifacts found in Maryland. Although Charles’ grandfather George Calvert, 1st Baron Baltimore, did all the work to secure the charter to the land north of the Potomac River on either side of the Chesapeake Bay, he died a few weeks before it was issued. His son Cecilius or Cecil received the proprietorship in his stead but he ruled from across the Atlantic, never stepping foot in Maryland. Cecil made his 24-year-old son Charles his deputy governor and after his father death in 1675, Charles became the governor and proprietor. He was the first Calvert to take possession of Maryland in person. (Leonard Calvert, Cecil’s brother acted as deputy on site as well, but he was never a Proprietor.)
This is why Calvert family artifacts are hen’s teeth rare, and why the ring could be of immense historical significance.
Britain’s Portable Antiquities Scheme (PAS) has reached a milestone in a most dramatic fashion: its one millionth recorded find is a 4th century Roman coin proved to be the first in a hoard of 22,000 coins. It was found on November 16th of last year by semi-retired builder and metal detector hobbyist Laurence Egerton on the Clinton Devon Estates, near Seaton Down, Devon. He found the first two coins just under the surface, then dug deeper. His shovel came up overflowing with similar coins.
Here’s video his wife shot of his discovery:
Egerton alerted the Devon PAS Finds Liaison Officer and the county archaeologist. He was told to remove all the loose objects and refill the hole while the Devon County Council arranged a professional excavation. Just to be sure nobody else interfered with the hoard, Egerton slept in his car next to it for three nights. Between November 18th and 22nd, contract archaeologists excavated an area of three square meters around the find spot.
They found thousands of coins stuck together in one main group in a small pit. There are two concreted lumps within the main group which may indicate several deposits were made over time. The lozenge shape of the main deposit suggests they were buried in something flexible like a bag rather than, say, a chest. Underneath the coins fragments of what may be a fabric of some kind were recovered. They’ll be tested to determine whether they could be the remains of the bag that once held the coins.
The Seaton Down Hoard was transferred to the British Museum where the coins were lightly cleaned so they could be valued in compliance with the Treasure Act. The total weight of the coins is 68 kg (150 pounds). They range in date from the 260s A.D. to the 340s with 99% of them struck between 330 and 341 A.D. in the reigns of Constantine and his sons Constantine II, Constantius II and Constans. The most recent coins date to 347-8 A.D. from the joint reign of Constantius II and Constans, the latter of whom was the last legitimate Roman emperor to visit Britain in 343 A.D.
Almost all of the coins are a very common type known as a nummus made of copper-alloy with a small amount of silver. (The handful of 3rd century coins are radiates.) Most of them, more than 11,000, were struck at the mint in Augusta Treverorum (Trier), with 3500 struck in Lugdunum (Lyon) and 2000 at Arelate (Arles). In total an impressive 17 mints are represented in the hoard, and there are some ancient forgeries of indeterminate origin too.
The millionth PAS find, the first coin Egerton unearthed, is a nummus struck in 332 A.D. at the Lyon mint to celebrate Constantine’s founding of the new imperial capital of Constantinople. The obverse of the coin features a personification of Constantinopolis, a laureate and helmeted bust with a scepter over the left shoulder; the reverse depicts winged Victory standing on ship’s prow, holding a scepter of spear in front of her and a shield behind.
Coin hoards from the reigns of Constantine and his sons are among the most commonly found in Britain, but Seaton Down is notable both for its large size (the fifth largest ever found in Britain) and because it was excavated and recorded by archaeologists. All the other big Constantinian hoards, like the one of 22,670 coins unearthed at Nether Compton, Dorset, in 1989, were never recorded, analyzed or studied before being returned to the finder who broke up the collection and sold the coins piecemeal. Copper coins weren’t considered Treasure Trove by the laws at that time, and the local museum that kept the hoard until it was returned to finder just didn’t have the resources to study it properly.
The Portable Antiquities Scheme was founded in 1997 to help prevent that kind of loss to the nation’s scholarship cultural heritage. In this case it has functioned as planned, giving archaeologists the opportunity to remove the coins in solid blocks so that even tiny fragments can be analyzed for key information by an institution (the British Museum) that has the technology, expertise and funding to thoroughly study and document the find.
The hoard was officially declared treasure this month. Next on the schedule for the Seaton Down Hoard is for its market value to be determined by the Valuation Committee. The Royal Albert Memorial Museum & Art Gallery in Exeter, the museum in Devon closest to the find, wants to get a jump on the process. They’ve launched a fundraising campaign so they’ll have the money to pay the finder and landowner the amount of the valuation and keep the hoard together in the county where it was discovered. You can donate online here.
It all began in 1952 when a team of archaeologists from the Roman and Medieval London Excavation Council dug a few exploratory trenches on a construction site in central London’s Walbrook Square. Victorian buildings on the site had been all but leveled by German bombs during the Blitz. The ruins were slated to be demolished a new office block for an insurance company to be built at the location. The only reason archaeologists were there is that the lost river Walbrook had once flowed through the area so the site was surveyed to record alluvial deposits that would establish how the Walbrook changed over time. Informative, but far from glamorous.
For two years the excavation, led by Welsh archaeologist Professor William Francis Grimes and Audrey Williams, puttered along drawing no interest whatsoever. They were almost done when the team unearthed the walls and floors of a stone building from the Roman period. They thought it was a private villa or maybe a public building until in mid-September they found an altar at one end that identified the structure as a temple. As historically significant a find as it was, it was still slated to be destroyed to make way for the ugly new grey box of offices.
Then on Saturday, September 18th, 1954, the last day of the excavation, a marble head of the god Mithras, identifiable by his characteristic Phrygian cap, was found. The handsome young deity would have gone unnoticed too if it hadn’t been for a newspaper photographer from nearby Fleet Street who was on the spot and took some pictures. They were printed the next day in The Sunday Times and caused an immediate sensation.
For weeks it was front page news. Immense crowds flocked to the site to see the temple, an estimated 400,000 people in total. The question of the temple’s dire fate was now a national scandal. It was debated in Parliament and twice in the Cabinet of Prime Minister Sir Winston Churchill. The problem was nobody had the money to preserve the temple in situ. The government was broke and the developers couldn’t afford to move the planned building. Ultimately a compromise was worked out: the Ministry of Works would fund additional excavation and the developers would pay to remove the temple and reconstruct it at ground level for public display.
The extended excavations unearthed more sculptures — a group including Minerva, the hand of Mithras and a head of Serapis that were deliberately buried under the nave perhaps to keep them safe from depredation or as a respectful deposition when the temple was rebuilt and re-dedicated to the god Bacchus. Pottery from the earliest layers indicates the Mithraeum was first built around 240 A.D. It was extensively reconstructed in 350 A.D. after which it remained in use until the end of the Roman period.
The sculptures were conserved and put on display in the Museum of London where they joined a relief of Mithras slaying the Bull of Heaven that had been unearthed at Walbrook in 1889. The relief has an inscription that may shed light on the temple’s construction: “Ulpius Silvanus / Emeritus Leg(ionis) II Aug(ustae) / Votum Solvit / Factus Arausione” meaning “Ulpius Silvanus / veteran of the Second August Legion / paid his vow / made at Orange.” “Made” in this case doesn’t refer to the relief sculpture, but rather to Ulpius Silvanus himself, either he was discharged (made a veteran) or initiated into the Mithraic religion (made a devotee of Mithras). The Walbrook Mithraeum itself could be the vow he paid.
The temple was rebuilt in 1962 on Queen Victoria Street, 300 feet or so from its find site and 30 feet above its original depth. The ancient masonry was put back together using modern cement mortar on a crazy-paving floor. The original floor was wood. We know this because some of the joists were found during the excavation thanks to the preserving power of the waterlogged Walbrook soil. It looked … weird, to put it generously, out of place and squat and not at all like it had looked in situ. Grimes said the 1962 rebuild was “virtually meaningless as a reconstruction of a mithraeum.”
In December 2010, Bloomberg LP bought the Walbrook Square site to build its new European headquarters. The archaeological survey has retread some of the same ground as the Grimes excavation but has found oh so much more amazingness. The new complex will integrate the archaeological discoveries into the construction, and the Temple of Mithras will be part of that plan. In 2011, stonemasons carefully dismantled the reconstructed temple, removing the 1960s concrete and carefully storing the original Roman stone and tile. It will be rebuilt with a care for authenticity this time, installed 25 feet below ground level in the same spot where it was found. The underground space will be a public exhibition area in the Bloomberg building. The building is scheduled to be complete in 2017.
The Museum of London is collaborating with Bloomberg to ensure the Walbrook Mithraeum re-reconstruction is done properly this time. The museum has extensive records from 1954, but they have no extant color images of the temple in situ. In order to get as many details as possible about the temple, both for the reconstruction and to more thoroughly document this exceptional find while people who remember it are still around, the museum is collecting oral histories, pictures, home movies, ephemera about the 1954 dig.
They’re also hoping someone somewhere may have some actual pieces of Roman stone or mortar. At the time, construction workers and visitors were known to have pilfered themselves some souvenirs, so there could well be something very important cluttering up people’s attics that they may not even realize. Anything that reveals the original color of the stones, bricks, tiles and mortar would be very helpful. The oral histories, images, etc. will be included as part of the Temple exhibition in the Bloomberg building.
If you have any memories, information, images or souvenirs of the 1954 excavation, email the Museum of London at email@example.com or call them at 020 7410 2266 during office hours.
Now, thanks to the ever-delightful Pathé archive, please enjoy two newsreels about the dig. The first is a short clip of the excavation site. The fellow with the glasses is Harold Plenderleith, a pioneering conservator and archaeologist who part of the team who excavated King Tutankhamun’s tomb, Sir Leonard Woolley’s digs at Ur, and the Sutton Hoo ship burial. How’s that for an archaeological trifecta?
A more detailed look at the sculptures recovered and their conservation:
The Barcaccia fountain at the foot of the Spanish Steps in Rome’s Piazza di Spagna reopened to the public Monday after a 10-month restoration. The restoration cost 209,960 euro ($268,000) and was funded entirely by the sale of advertising space on site during eight months of the work. According to Paola Conti, technical director of Technicon, the firm contracted to restore the fountain, the most time-consuming aspect was removing the calcification that in just 15 years since the last restoration had grown up to a centimeter thick. They also had to remove biological organisms that thrive in the wet, light-filled environment. Old plaster from past repairs was replaced and finally the entire structure painted with a protective coating.
The fountain was built between 1627 and 1629 by Pietro Bernini, father of Gian Lorenzo Bernini whose architecture and sculpture would come to define Baroque Rome, in the shape of the low flat-bottomed river boats used to carry cargo across the Tiber in the 17th century. This was a very unusual approach in Mannerist Rome, more sculptural than architectural, a naturalistic, deceptively simple design that symbolized the fruitfulness and plenty of a boat low in the water, laden with bounty. Legend has it that during the devastating flood of Christmas 1598, the high waters, which reached a top mark of 20 meters above sea level, carried a boat all the way to the Piazza di Spagna. When the waters receded, the boat was stranded in the exact spot of the fountain. Ostensibly that’s why Bernini built the fountain in the shape of a boat 30 years later.
Pope Urban VIII commissioned Pietro Bernini to build the fountain as part of a program envisioned by earlier popes that would place fountains in every major piazza in Rome. Urban also wanted to celebrate his restoration of the great Acqua Vergine aqueduct, originally built in 19 B.C. by Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa, Augustus’ son-in-law and right hand man. The pope had appointed the elder Bernini architect of the aqueduct in 1623, so having him build a new fountain to take advantage of the refreshed water source was a fitting bookend.
The Acqua Vergine is unique among Rome’s aqueducts in that it was the only one that continued to work even in the devastated Medieval city through the Renaissance revival of public works. In the 14th century, when almost the entire city population was clustered on the malarial and flood-prone banks of the Tiber because they were bound by the range of the professional water carriers, only rione Trevi, the district at the foot of the Quirinal hill blessed with a fountain fed by the Acqua Vergine, had a significant population relatively distant from the Tiber. That Trevi fountain was not the one you see today with the giant statue of Oceanus guarding ever so many tourist coins. The current fountain was built in 1762. The Medieval one was a modest affair, a rectangle with three basins, enlarged in the 15th century to a wide trough fed by three spouts.
The aqueduct was regularly maintained and repaired during the heyday of the Western Empire, but even after the Goths sacked the city in 537 A.D., specifically targeting the aqueducts, the Acqua Vergine kept trucking. This is mainly attributable to its nearby source and the predominance of underground tunnels. The water starts as rainfall in the Alban Hills, then filters through volcanic tuff before springing up in a town about eight miles east of Rome called Salone. The aqueduct starts at Salone, so it doesn’t have far to go to get to Rome, and since it was intended to water the lower-lying areas of the city, the pathways stay down low too. It was restored once in the 8th century by Pope Hadrian I and that seems to have kept it going until the 15th century when Pope Nicholas V commissioned a restoration project.
There were always issues, mind you. It needed repair and cleaning on the regular to keep the water flowing, and the city magistrates passed all kinds of laws to keep people from tainting it by bathing their livestock and doing their laundry in the Trevi basin. Then there were all the individuals illegally tapping into the conduit to water their personal homes and gardens. A pope was one of the greatest offenders on that score: Pope Julius III, who swallowed up so much Acqua Vergine for his new home, the Villa Julia (built in 1553) and its elaborate grounds and entrance fountain, that by 1559 the Trevi fountain ran dry. To address the choked supply, in 1570 Pope Pius V had the Acqua Vergine restored all the way back to Salone. Urban VIII’s intervention in 1623 extended the path of the aqueduct to supply the growing city. It was this restoration that brought the water to the location of the current Fountain of Trevi.
The Barcaccia played a more poignant historical role 200 years later. The poet John Keats lived the last few months of his life in a house on the Spanish Steps. So devastated by tuberculosis that he often cried upon waking to find himself still alive, Keats took comfort from the soothing sound of the Barcaccia’s flowing water. It made him think of a line from the Jacobean play Philaster by Francis Beaumont and John Fletcher: “As you are living, all your better deeds / Shall be in water writ.” Inspired by that line, Keats asked that his tombstone be inscribed solely “Here lies one whose name was writ in water,” no name, no date. When the tuberculosis finally claimed his life on February 23rd, 1821, his friend and carer Joseph Severn couldn’t quite bring himself to comply with Keats’ final wish. Instead, he took the opportunity to castigate the critics who had never appreciated Keats’ genius in life.
“This Grave / contains all that was Mortal / of a / Young English Poet / Who / on his Death Bed, in the Bitterness of his Heart / at the Malicious Power of his Enemies / Desired / these Words to be / engraven on his Tomb Stone: / Here lies One / Whose Name was writ in Water. 24 February 1821″
Although the fountain was inaccessible to visitors during the restoration, it and the conservators were visible thanks to an innovative plexiglass enclosure. Seeing is nice, but the Barcaccia is an interactive experience. It was specifically designed for people to drink from. The pure and delicious Acqua Vergine springs from jets at the bow and stern. Travertine platforms at each end of the boat give you a place to stand, albeit a rather damp place, so you can stretch out and quaff mightily from the water’s spouts. At Monday’s inauguration of the pristine fountain, the mayor of Rome Ignazio Marino, culture councillor Giovanna Marinelli and the Capitoline Superintendent Claudio Parisi Presicce were the first to drink from the newly reactivated water. They used a plastic cup, though, which is just wrong, in my opinion. They should have stretched out like the rest of us, sashes and suits be damned. Virgin Water in a plastic cup? I mean really.
You can see the fountain cleaned and the waters turned back on in this Italian news story about Monday’s inauguration:
New York City’s Museum of Modern Art has discovered footage of a previously unknown 1913 film with vaudeville and Broadway pioneer Bert Williams starring in a cast of all black actors. It’s not a completed film that a movie theater would have received, but rather seven reels of unassembled daily rushes, multiple takes from each scene, that the director and editor would later edit together into the finished picture. The museum discovered the footage in its collection of 900 negatives from the Biograph studios that were rescued from destruction by MoMA’s first film curator, Iris Barry, when the company’s Bronx warehouse closed in 1939.
It is the earliest surviving film to feature an all-black cast, and is among the earliest ever shot. The Foster Photoplay Company, a Chicago film production company founded in 1910 by theatrical promoter and entertainment journalist William Foster, released what is thought to be the first all-black picture, The Railroad Porter, in June of 1913. MoMA researchers discovered that the Bert Williams film was shot in September of 1913. None of the early Foster Photoplay movies have survived. (Unrelated but interesting coincidence: William Foster worked as a publicity promoter for Bert Williams and his partner George Walker’s groundbreaking 1903 musical In Dahomey, the first full-length musical comedy written and performed by African-Americans to be staged in a Broadway theater, and its equally successful 1906 follow-up Abyssinia.)
Unlike the Foster pictures which were created, shot and performed by black artists, only the actors in the recently discovered footage were black. They were employed by the famed Biograph Company, the film production company which launched the careers of D. W. Griffith, Mack Sennet, Mary Pickford, Lilian Gish, Mabel Normand and Lionel Barrymore. Biograph hired Bert Williams, who by then was hugely famous for his vaudeville routines, musicals and best-selling song recordings, to star in their all-black comedies. He had to wear blackface, which is as incongruous as it is gross considering that none of the other actors (that I can see in the stills, at least) are in blackface.
Even though it includes elements of minstrelsy, the general subject matter and approach does appear to be more in keeping with the “race films” that Foster and other black producers made to counter the ugly stereotypical caricatures of on-screen minstrel pictures.
Of historical relevance is the display of adult romantic feelings between black performers, which was largely considered unacceptable to white audiences into the first two decades of the 20th century. In the film, a repeated, lengthy kiss between Williams and his costar appears to be the earliest surviving portrayal of a serious romantic relationship between black characters on film. The film also features a lengthy early example of African American vernacular dance, with a nearly two-minute, full-cast performance of a cakewalk, the dance that Williams and partners George Walker and Aida Overton Walker had made an international sensation with theater audiences and the white upper class around 1900.
Although no main title, intertitles, script, or production credits have survived with the film, MoMA’s curators tried to reconstruct the film’s narrative, ultimately piecing together what appears to be a middle-class comedy centered on the membership of Williams’s character in a black social club, with an additional plotline concerning Williams and rival suitors vying for the hand of the local beauty after a day of fairground activities, a bit of larceny, and a night of exhibition dancing.
The plot and characters of the film aren’t the only historically significant elements of this find. There’s also behind-the-scenes footage of the black cast interacting with the white crew on set in New York City and on location in what curators believe is Englewood, New Jersey.
The unedited rushes and MoMA’s research will go on display at the museum’s 100 Years in Post-Production: Resurrecting a Lost Landmark of Black Film History exhibition on October 24th. The assembled footage will be screened at MoMA’s 12th annual film preservation festival To Save and Project on November 8th.
Meanwhile, here’s a 1916 Biograph picture starring Bert Williams that has survived intact. As with the cakewalk scene in the recently discovered film, A Natural Born Gambler features one of Bert Williams’ most famous vaudeville routines. It’s the final scene of the picture (beginning at 19:30) in which Williams pantomimes an entire poker game alone.
The Internet Archive, bless its generous heart, has an impressive collection of Bert Williams’ music. His recordings were wildly successful, selling in the hundreds of thousands back when a record that moved 10,000 copies was considered a best-seller. His most famous was probably Nobody, but my favorite is 1920′s When The Moon Shines on The Moonshine both because it’s catchy and because it’s such a perfect little window into the first year of Prohibition.
The day before Napoleon and Josephine’s wedding, the couple signed a marriage contract, but it wasn’t like a license you’d get from city hall. It takes a hard-nosed practical approach we’d recognize today as a prenuptial agreement, and quite a progressive one at that.
Article 1: There will be no community property between the future spouses. … Accordingly, the future spouses will not be liable for each other’s debts and mortgages.
It seems that lack of inventory may have been a deliberate oversight on Josephine’s part. Without an itemized list, who’s to say which items she wanted to take should the marriage fall apart was community property from her first marriage? Then there’s the deception both spouses engaged in. Josephine was six years older than Napoleon and this was subject of some societal and familial tut-tutting, particularly on his family’s side. So in the official marriage contract, Napoleon is aged by one year and Josephine rejuvenated by four.
On the afternoon of March 8th, 1796 (18 Ventôse IV by the French Revolutionary Calendar), the marriage contract was signed by Napoleon Bonaparte, Chief of the Army of the Interior (he had already been appointed Chief of the Army of Italy on March 2nd, but the promotion didn’t take effect until March 11th, the day he left Paris with his army to invade Italy), and Rose Marie Josèphe Tascher, widow of Alexandre François Marie de Beauharnais. It was notarized by Maurice-Jean Raguideau de La Fosse and Étienne-Gabriel Jousset and witnessed by the future general and future count Jean-Léonor-François Le Marois, Napoleon’s aide-de-camp. On March 9th, 1796, Napoleon and Josephine were wed.
The notary Raguideau reportedly thought this marriage was a terrible idea, not for Napoleon but for Josephine. This anecdote is from the questionably accurate Memoirs (Volume 2, Chapter XXIX) of Louis Antoine Fauvelet de Bourrienne, a diplomat and former schoolmate of Napoleon’s who served as his secretary shortly after the marriage.
When Bonaparte was paying his addresses to Madame de BEAUHARNAIS, neither the one nor the other kept a carriage; and therefore Bonaparte frequently accompanied her when she walked out. One day they went together to the notary Raguideau, one of the shortest men I think I ever saw in my life, Madame de Beauharnais placed great confidence, in him, and went there on purpose to acquaint him of her intention to marry the young general of artillery,—the protege of Barras. Josephine went alone into the notary’s office, while Bonaparte waited for her in an adjoining room. The door of Raguideau’s office did not shut close, and Bonaparte plainly heard him dissuading Madame de Beauharnais from her projected marriage. “You are going to take a very wrong step,” said he, “and you will be sorry for it, Can you be so mad as to marry a young man who has nothing but his cloak and his sword?” Bonaparte, Josephine told me, had never mentioned this to her, and she never supposed that he had heard what fell from Raguideau. “Only think, Bourrienne,” continued she, “what was my astonishment when, dressed in the Imperial robes on the Coronation day, he desired that Raguideau might be sent for, saying that he wished to see him immediately; and when Raguideau appeared; he said to him, ‘Well, sir! have I nothing but my cloak and my sword now?’”
Because both parties lied shamelessly, the contract would have been null-and-void had it ever seen the inside of an honest courtroom. Instead, when Napoleon tired of Josephine’s lovers, debts and her uterus’ insistence on not producing an heir, he divorced her. They had a formal divorce ceremony on January 10th, 1810, and although Napoleon married Marie Louise, Archduchess of Austria, just two months later, he and Josephine remained friends. Napoleon ordered that she retain the rank and title of empress, granted her full ownership of the Château de Malmaison and a pension of 5 million francs a year. She was at Malmaison when she died in 1814 while Napoleon was in exile on the island of Elba. Her name was the last word he spoke on his death bed in 1821.
There are two extant copies of Napoleon and Josephine’s prenup. Napoleon’s personal copy went to the National Archives because he didn’t have time to have it sent to him before his departure for Italy. Josephine’s copy, bound in a portfolio of rose morocco, has been in private hands for two centuries. It was sold at the Osenat auction house in Paris on September 21st. Three phone bidders drove the price from the €60,000 to €80,000 ($77,000 – $103,000) pre-sale estimate to a final cost including fees of €437,500 ($560,000).
The buyer was the Museum of Letters and Manuscripts, a privately-owned museum in Paris that bought Napoleon and Josephine’s divorce agreement from Osenat in 2007. Now they have the legal bookends of one of history’s greatest love stories.