Arts and Sciences

Pietà by pioneer Netherlandish painter loaned to Rijskmuseum

History Blog - Thu, 2017-07-13 23:08

Johan Maelwael, also known by the French version of his name Jean Malouel, was born in Nijmegen in around 1365. Nijmegen was part of the Duchy of Guelders then (now the province of Gelderland in the Netherlands) and had just joined the Hanseatic League in 1364. The prosperity that came with the increase in trade and commerce engendered a flourishing of the arts. Johan came from an artistic family — his father and uncle were successful artists — and he trained in his father Willem’s workshop from an early age.

He started his professional career as a painter of heraldic imagery at the court of the Dukes of Guelders in his hometown of Nijmegen. That experience proved desirable and portable, and in 1396 he moved to Paris where he specialized in painting heraldic and armorial images for Isabeau of Bavaria, Queen of France. Isabeau was a great patron of the arts who during this period had built something of a shadow court thanks to her husband’s increasingly frequent bouts of mental illness. (Whenever the King succumbed to one of his spells, which lasted months at a time, he did not recognize Isabeau and demanded that strange woman be removed from his presence.)

Maelwael’s work for the Queen lasted no more than a year, and by the summer of 1397 Maelwael was in Dijon, capital of the Duchy of Burgundy, where he was appointed court painter to Philip the Bold, Duke of Burgundy. The appointment came with the rank of valet de chambre and a hefty salary. Maelwael would keep the job even after Philip’s death in 1404, remaining court painter to his son and successor John the Fearless.

At the Burgundy court, Maelwael again painted heraldic images on banners, pennants, flags and armour, but he also went further afield. Among other works, the dukes commissioned large-scale murals, devotional panel paintings, elaborate altarpieces for the Carthusian monastery of Champmol where Philip’s tomb was located, and the painting and gilding of sculptures. He experimented with new approaches and pioneered what would become known as the International Gothic style.

The greatest surviving example of this is a tondo known as La Grande Pietà, a tempera on wood panel painting that many art historians consider to be the first proper tondo of the Renaissance. The iconography is not typical of later Renaissance pietas because in addition to the dead Christ held by his disconsolate mother Mary, God the Father is also in the picture, holding up the body of his sacrificed Son. Two angels help hold up the body, and a four more balance out the composition on the left side, adding splashes of color and a variety of anguished facial expressions. On the far right is a facepalming St. John.

On the back of the round is an example of the specialty that launched Maelwael’s illustrious career: the coat of arms of Philip the Bold of Burgundy. This suggests the painting was commissioned by Philip before his death, and the unusual combination of a pieta and the Holy Trinity suggests it may have been intended for the Burgundy tombs at Champmol since the monastery was dedicated to the Trinity and the ducal family also evinced a particular devotion to the Trinity.

Besides the imagery, Maelwael also included unusual features in the technical aspects of the painting. The frame of the tondo was carved out of the wood panel, something I don’t recall seeing in any other example of the form. His use of transparent glazes over the tempera was also ground-breaking. Early Netherlandish master Jan van Eyck, who a decade after Maelwael’s death followed in his footsteps as painter to the Duke of Burgundy (Philip the Bold, in his time), would take those transparent glazes and run with them.

One of the reasons the tondo is so special is that it is one of very few extant works that can be conclusively attributed to Johan Maelwael. Acquired by the Louvre in 1864, La Grande Pietà is one of the treasures of the museum’s early Flemish collection. It hasn’t left Paris since 1962, but come this fall, the greatest surviving masterpiece of the first painter of the Northern Renaissance will be heading to the Netherlands for the first time in its existence when it goes on display at the Rijksmuseum.

At the Burgundian court, Maelwael painted flags, banners and armour; he designed patterns for fabrics; he executed large religious paintings; he created refined miniatures in illuminated manuscripts; he decorated sculptures with gold-leaf and color and he painted small devotional pieces and portraits. Around 1400 Maelwael introduced his three talented nephews as miniature painters in France: the legendary Limbourg brothers Herman, Johan and Paul.

For the first time, Maelwael’s paintings will be exhibited alongside medieval art treasures, manuscripts, precious metalwork and sculpture – from among others, the Musée du Louvre in Paris, the MET in New York and the Gemäldegalerie in Berlin. Maelwael’s paintings will be juxtaposed not only with the sculpture of his contemporaries Claus Sluter and Claes van Werve, but also with the richly decorated illuminated manuscripts of the Limbourg brothers.

The Johan Maelwael exhibition will run at the Rijksmuseum from October 6th, 2017, through January 7th, 2018.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Greek theaters had moveable stages on wheels

History Blog - Wed, 2017-07-12 23:20

A paper about a new survey of the 4th century B.C. theater in Messene, Greece, reports that three lines carved in stone next to the stage were track lines used to wheel massive wooden set pieces into place. Researchers from Japan’s Kumamoto University studied the Greek Classical period theater’s stone lines and compared them to similar ones found in theaters built around the same time in the nearby city states of Sparta and Megalopolis. The lines at Messene are 9 to 12 cm (3.5 to 4.7 inches) wide and 3.8 to 5.4 cm (1.5 to 2.1 inches) deep and are almost perfectly level. The grooves are two meters (6.5 feet) apart.

A few years ago, there wasn’t much of a theater left to survey. After six centuries of continuous use, the theater was abandoned in the early 4th century A.D., its marble and stone pilfered for use in local construction. In the early 1990s, excavations began at the site. At first it didn’t look like there was anything left of the theater after so many years of neglect and architectural recycling. There were a few barrier walls visible above ground, but that’s it. Olive groves surrounded the site and thick deposits of earth covered what had once been the orchestra (the circular or horseshoe-shaped space between the audience and the stage where the chorus performed) and the koilon (the bleachers where the audience sat). Archaeologists laboured for more than two decades to excavate every last piece of the theater they could find and restore as much of it as possible. In August of 2013, the theater reopened for the first time in 1,700 years with 2,000 seats, all of them jigsawed together from the scattered ruins.

A large storage room and the three stone lines weren’t discovered until 2007 during a field study by archaeologists from Kumamoto University. They’ve been studying the finds ever since, comparing them with the theaters in Sparta and Megalopolis and attempting to determine what role these structures played in ancient theatrical productions. The Kumamoto University researchers have now published the result of their investigation in Archäologischen Anzeigers, the journal of the German Archaeological Institute.

What was the purpose of these stone rows? In the Hellenistic theater, a one-story building called the “proskenion” was placed on the stage. The Proskenion was used as a stage background and it is thought that actors were also able to speak from its balconies. Behind that was a two story “skene” that was used as both a dressing room and another stage background. In the past, it was thought that the proskenion and the skene were either stone-built and fixed or wooden and wheeled. If they were wheeled, they would have moved as one massive construction along three stone rows. As a result of their investigation, however, the Kumamoto University researcher proposed that the proskenion and skene were separate constructs, each with their own set of wheels, and that there is high possibility that each proskenion and skene was pulled in and out of the storage room on two stone rows respectively.

“A large force would have been required to move stage equipment as large as the proskenion and skene,” said Associate Professor Ryuichi Yoshitake who led the research project. “In previous studies, there was a theory that the proskenion and skene were simultaneously moved along just three stone rows, but I think it is more logical that the proskenion and skene each had their own set of two stone rows to move along. I came to this conclusion due to the positions of three stone rows and the fact that it would have been quite difficult to move the heavy proskenion and skene together using a single axle with three wooden wheels.”

Ancient literature makes it clear that that there were rotating stage devices in both Greek and Roman theaters. The newly discovered stone rows and storage rooms at the Messene Theater are important remains that show the likelihood is extremely high that mobile wooden stages existed in the theaters of the Hellenistic period. Future research is expected to clarify the appearance of a wheeled wooden stage like that in Messene and the influence it had on later stage building.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Oldest madeira collection found in New Jersey museum

History Blog - Tue, 2017-07-11 23:27

Workers renovating Liberty Hall Museum at Kean University in Union, New Jersey, discovered a rare collection of Madeira wines, some dating back to Colonial times. Museum staff knew the Kean family had wine storage shelves in the cellar, but they were obscured by a plaster and plywood wall built during Prohibition. When workers broke through the wall and the locked wooden cage behind it, they found a collection of 18th and 19th century wines far larger than they realized. There are three cases containing more than 50 bottles of Madeira, the oldest of which date to 1796. The attic held an unexpected wine cache as well, not in bottles but in 42 demijohns dating to the 1820s. It’s the oldest and largest known collection of Madeira in the United States.

The museum staffers cataloged the cases and jugs of Madeira as they were discovered. While some of the stock needed to be researched online, most of the wine was still labeled with handwritten tags, or could be looked up in the thousands of Liberty Hall documents dating more than 200 years.

“We have the receipts from the liquor store, or the liquor distributor in New York, in Elizabeth or wherever,” [Liberty Hall director of operations Bill] Schroh said. “We can also trace the purchaser, when it was purchased and who it was purchased from.”

Part of the research showed some of the Madeira was imported by Robert Lenox, a millionaire merchant from New York who owned land in the heart of Harlem, which is where the borough’s main avenue gets its name.

Liberty Hall was the country home of William Livingston, scion of a prominent New York family and a successful lawyer. When he bought the land in Elizabethtown (now Elizabeth), New Jersey, he planned to retire to the estate. He was intimately involved in the design of the 14-room Georgian home and of the landscaping and orchards on the 120-acre property. He and his wife settled in to their happy retirement home in 1773, but Livingston’s retirement wouldn’t even last a full year. Revolution pulled him back into political and military action. He was a delegate to both Continental Congresses, was a general in the New Jersey militia and was New Jersey’s first elected governor in 1776.

Livingston was only able to return to Liberty Hall in 1783 and the estate had been rudely treated by the British who trashed the place on the regular searching for him when he was a wanted man. American soldiers also looted the home. Livingston lovingly repaired the home and gardens, even as he continued to serve as governor until his death in 1790.

The hall was purchased by Peter Kean, the son of Livingston’s niece Susan, in 1811. Peter and his mother maintained the estate for the next 22 years. In 1833, Susan’s grandson Colonel John Kean inherited it and over the course of six decades, transformed the Georgian home into a 50-room Victorian mansion. It has remained in the Kean family who have worked to preserve it and open it to the public as a museum displaying original artifacts from the Livingston and Kean families in rooms dedicated to different time periods.

It seems the wines were collected by both the Livingstons and the Keans.

Some of the original Madeira stock was shipped to the second generation who lived at Liberty Hall, in anticipation of John Adams’ presidency. Although Liberty Hall President John Kean was well aware of the wine collection, he couldn’t have imagined its historical significance.

“We knew there was a lot of liquor down here, but we had no idea as to the age of it,” said Kean, first cousin to New Jersey’s former governor. “I think the most exciting part of it was to find liquor, or Madeira in this case, that goes back so far. And then trying to trace why it was here and who owned it.”

Madeira was a popular tipple for the early American upper crust, because unlike most wines at that time, it can take a lot of jostling of the kind sure to be experienced on a trans-Atlantic ocean voyage. The fortified dessert wine also lasts far longer than other wines without spoiling or turning to vinegar. In the 18th century, the 13 colonies bought 95% of the Madeira produced on the Portuguese archipelago and gentlemen of wealth and good taste would have a selection of Madeiras in their cellars (or attics). The Liberty Hall collection has six different kinds of Madeira.

The newly liberated cellar space with its original wooden shelves, now restored and structurally reinforced, is open to the public, along with some of the bottles and demijohns. John Kean had the opportunity to taste a sample from one of the Madeiras and he said it tasted fine, like a sweet sherry. The bottles from 1796 have not been sampled. They might be whipped out for an appropriate special occasion in the future: a visit from the President of Portugal.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

New cache of Roman writing tablets found at Vindolanda

History Blog - Mon, 2017-07-10 23:13

Archaeologists excavating the Roman fort of Vindolanda have discovered a new cache of 25 Roman writing tablets. The wood tablets were unearthed in a sodden trench (it’s been raining a lot up there) on June 22nd in a small section less than 10 feet long. These invaluable records of daily life in a Roman fort on the far northern border of the empire date to the end of the 1st century A.D., which means they were written no later than 15 years after the first version of the fort was built.

Many of them less than two millimetres thick, simple slivers of birch rather than the notebook-like rectangles you might think of when you see the word “tablet,” this incredibly rare group of letters, lists, official and private correspondence were likely part of an archive that was lost or unceremoniously discarded, albeit in a weird way. The tablets weren’t grouped together as they would be if they’d be enclosed in a bag or dumped in one spot. They were found spaced out along the trench at regular intervals. The archaeological team speculates that they may have fallen out of a bag with a hole in the corner, or else someone took the time to remove individual tablets and toss them into the rubble of a foundation layer every other step.

Vindolanda was a Roman auxiliary fort and associated vicus (an independent civilian settlement) in Northumberland just south of Hadrian’s Wall. Multiple iterations of the fort were built starting with simple wood and turf structures in the late 1st century through to the stone forts of the late 2nd and early 3rd century. That last stone fort was repaired and occupied in fits and starts until the end of the 4th century in the twilight years of Roman Britain.

That long, varied record of occupation was preserved for nigh on 2,000 years by the site’s anaerobic soil. Organic materials that would normally decay survived in the waterlogged mud of Vindolanda in exceptional condition, among them wood plumbing pipes, an inscribed barrel stave, the only known Roman wooden toilet seat, leather shoes by the thousands and of course, the artifacts voted the UK’s top archaeological treasure by British Museum curators, more than 1,700 fragmentary and complete wooden writing tablets.

Ever since the first writing tablets were discovered at Vindolanda in 1973, individual tablets have been found during the ongoing excavations. One small but important fragment with four lines of ink writing clearly visible to the naked eye (many tablets have no visible ink remaining and can only be deciphered using infrared photography) was just unearthed on June 15th. It dates to between 92 and 105 A.D. Not exactly a writing tablet because there is no ink or lettering on the surface, but just five days later archaeologists found a wooden stylus tablet that once held a wax layer on which letters would be written.

A cache of writing tablets is a much different and rarer animal, however, even in the miraculously soggy soil of Vindolanda. The last time a tablet hoard was found was in 1992 and it was massive, containing hundreds of writing tablets. This batch is far more modest in size, but it has some singularly important features.

As the archaeological team, carefully and painstakingly extracted the delicate pieces of wood from the earth they were delighted to see some of the letters were complete and others had partial or whole confronting pages. The confronting tablets, where the pages are protected by the back of the adjoining pages, are the most exceptional discoveries as they provide the greatest chance of the ink writing being preserved.

Dr Andrew Birley, CEO of the Vindolanda Trust and Director of Excavations spoke about the day the tablets were recovered “What an incredible day, truly exceptional. You can never take these things for granted as the anaerobic conditions needed for their survival are very precise.

I was fortunate enough to be involved when my father, Dr Robin Birley, excavated a bonfire site of Vindolanda tablets in 1992 and I had hoped, but never truly expected, that the day might come when we would find another hoard of such well preserved documents again during a day on our excavations.

I am sure that the archaeological staff, students and volunteers who took part on this excavation will always remember the incredible excitement as the first document was recognised in the trench and carefully lifted out. It was half a confronting tablet, two pages stuck together with the tell-tale tie holes and V notches at the top of the pages. The crowd of visitors who gathered at the edge of the excavation fences were also fascinated to see tablet after tablet being liberated from a deep trench several metres down”.

Like the fragment discovered the week before the cache, several of the writing tablets in the group have readable ink. This is immensely exciting to archaeologists because they don’t have to wait for the painstaking process of conservation followed by infrared photography before they can even attempt to decipher the spikey Latin cursive. The oak confronting tablet is not legible at the moment because oak darkens over time much more than birch, but the team is optimistic there may be sufficient ink on the surface to be detected by infrared imaging.

Some of the names in the letters have been deciphered already because they’re known from previously deciphered tablets. One character named Masclus makes a second appearance after a very memorable first one. In the first letter from Masclus discovered at Vindolanda, he asked his commanding officer to send more beer to his outpost on Hadrian’s Wall. In the tablet discovered last month, Masclus is asking to be granted leave (commeatus), possibly due to a crippling hangover.

Cleaning and conservation of the tablets has already begun — you can’t waste any time when keeping organic archaeological materials from decay once they’ve been exposed to the air — and once they’re clean and stable, the writing tablets will be analysed using infrared photography so the ones with faded ink can be read and translated.

For more about the endlessly fascinating (and endlessly wet) work of the Vindolanda archaeological team, follow Digging Vindolanda, a blog of the seasonal digs by one of the volunteer excavators.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

US returns looted royal seals to Korea

History Blog - Sun, 2017-07-09 23:27

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) returned two looted royal seals from the Joseon Dynasty to the Republic of Korea at a ceremony held in Washington, D.C., on June 30th. The repatriation ceremony was planned to coincide with South Korean President Moon Jae-In’s visit to Washington so that Thomas D. Homan, acting director of ICE, could formally hand the seals over to the President who then carried them back to South Korea personally.

The two royal seals are the same size — four inches square — and both have handles shaped like turtles, but they were made a century apart from different materials. The oldest of them is the royal seal Queen Munjeong (1501-1565) which was made in 1547 out of gilt bronze. Technically 1547 was the second year of her son’s reign, but King Myeongjong was just 12 years old when he ascended the throne after his half-brother’s death under suspicious circumstances, so Queen Munjeong acted as regent. The seal uses a title given to Munjeong during her early regency.

(It was widely believed that Myeongjong’s half-brother King Injong, who reigned for only one year after his father’s death and was 30 years old when he died, was poisoned to death. Queen Munjeong was the prime suspect for the ringleader of the conspiracy to remove the young, reform-minded, active king and replace him with his kid brother whom she could easily manipulate. She stayed on as regent long past her son’s majority, remaining queen until her death 20 years later. Myeongjong was 32 years old when he finally became king in more than name.)

The second royal seal was made for the future King Hyeonjong (r. 1659-1674) to commemorate his becoming the crown prince in 1651. It’s carved out of highly prized white jade and is taller and more massive than the Queen’s seal.

Both of these are of a type of royal seal known as an “eobo,” used for ceremonial purposes rather than for official government documents which were the province of the “guksae” or the great seal. Because they were the official stamp of royal authority, the production, deployment and retirement of royal seals were stringently regulated by the Jongmyo, the Confucian shrine dedicated to the preserving the memory and rituals of the Joseon royals. The Joseon Dynasty is one of the longest ruling dynasties in the history of the world (1392 to 1897), so you might be forgiven for thinking they were lousy with royal seals after all that time, but because of that strict oversight, during the 500+ years of the Joseon Kingdom and Korean Empire only 37 guksae and 375 eobo were made.

They were all present and accounted for until the Japanese occupation of Korea (1910-1945). The seals were hot items for looters and pillagers, and continued to be actively stolen during the Korean War (1950-53). The two returned seals are microcosms of the larger syndrome. Queen Munjeong’s seal is believed to have been stolen during the Korean War, King Hyeonjong’s during the Japanese occupation. The Korean government has vigorously pursued all leads to track down their precious cultural heritage since the 1950s. Four of the great seals have been recovered and seven of the royal seals. There are still 29 great state seals and 46 royal ones unaccounted for as of today.

The seals are a microcosm of Korea’s assiduous attempts to reclaim their lost treasures too. There are US State Department records going back to the mid-1950s that document requests from the Korean ambassador to locate the stolen seals of Queen Munjeong and King Hyeonjong. There is no evidence of any investigation taking place at that time. That would have to wait until 2013 when ICE’s Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) division opened an investigation into Queen Munjeong’s royal seal at the request of South Korea’s Cultural Heritage Administration (CHA) who had found out the seal at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) and had been for 13 years. The Korean Broadcasting Service did a little digging and identified the private collector who sold the Queen’s seal to LACMA in 2000. They found the King’s seal at his house.

The seals will be conserved and stored at the National Palace Museum of Korea in Seoul. They won’t go on display right away. The CHA is currently planned a special exhibit in August that will put the royal seals on public view.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Aztec golden wolf burial found in Mexico City

History Blog - Sat, 2017-07-08 23:42

Excavations in Mexico City run into momentous finds every other week, it seems. It’s like Rome. As soon as anyone puts a shovel a couple of feet into the ground, they bump into a treasure trove of the city’s ancient history. The latest announcement is of a discovery made by archaeologists in April of this year: the remains of a sacrificial wolf literally draped in gold. The final tally is 22 intact pieces of jewelry made from thin sheets of gold elaborately decorated with symbols. Most were pendants, the tie that held them together long since decayed; there’s also a nose ring and a chest plate.

The wolf was about eight months old when it was ritually killed. Its body was adorned with gold ornaments and a belt of shells from the Atlantic. It was then placed on a bed of flint blades inside a stone box and buried near the staircase of the Templo Mayor (behind the colonial-era Metropolitan Cathedral), the primary center of worship in the sacred precinct of Aztec Tenochtitlan. It was buried facing west and was meant to represent Huitzilopochtli, the Aztec god of war and of the sun. Archaeologists found layers of offerings in the burial pit, items representing air, earth and sea and laden with religious meaning.

In forty years of excavations around the Templo Mayor area in Mexico City’s Zocalo, or central square, the gold covering this little wolf is far and away the finest in both metal quality and in its crafting. More than 200 ritual sacrifices and offerings have been found over the four decades. Only 16 of them contained gold, and little wonder since the Cortes and his successors took every last atom of Aztec gold they could find and melted it down for the Spanish treasure ships. Looters, both deliberate (treasure hunters) and incidental (workmen stumbling on something and pocketing it for sale on the black market), despoiled what was left underground. The Aztec, famous for their prized gold work, have been archaeologically denuded of it in Mexico City, the modern city built over their great capital of Tenochtitlan.

This small wolf burial, therefore, is of oversized historical importance as well as great pecuniary and artistic value. It came very close to disappearing from the archaeological record before it was ever documented. A city sewage line built in 1900 interfered with the burial, damaging the box. Thankfully the contents were not exposed, because one little glint of gold and the crew would have helped themselves to all of it, leaving nothing but scattered bones.

The golden wolf was buried during the 1486-1502 reign of King Ahuitzotl, the most feared and powerful ruler of the Mexica, who extended the empire as far south as present-day Guatemala. The reign of Ahuitzotl was particularly brutal, which may also explain the fate of the young wolf.

[Lead archaeologist Leonardo] Lopez said tests on its ribs will be needed to confirm his theory that the animal’s heart was torn out as part of the sacrifice, just as captured warriors were ritually killed on blood-soaked platforms of Aztec temples.

But this was no ordinary violence, noted [Harvard historian and Aztec expert David] Carrasco.

“These people didn’t just kill these things. They didn’t just kill people and throw them away,” he said. “They took elaborate, symbolic care for them because they knew that the presence that they represented, the presence of god, had to be nurtured.”

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Breakthrough on the dating of Borgring

History Blog - Fri, 2017-07-07 23:36

The ring fortress discovered on the island of Zealand, Denmark, in 2014 seemed from the first geophysical surveys of the site to fit a very rare and important type of fort built by King Harald Bluetooth (r. 958 — ca. 986). The circular design, the imposing size (475 feet in diameter), the four gates placed at the cardinal compass points, thick inner ramparts encircled by a spiked wooden palisade are all characteristics of Trelleborg-type fortresses, a network of powerful ring forts built by Harald in around 980 A.D. to form a defensive line against Germanic incursions. Only eight Trelleborg-type forts have been found in what is now Denmark and the southern tip of Sweden.

The 2014 excavation was limited in scope. Only a few trenches were dug revealing small sections of what archaeologists believed to be the north and south gates and some of the ramparts. The geophysical data was significant, but open to interpretation. Scholars were reluctant to accept that the Zealand structure, dubbed Borgring, was a fortress of the Trelleborg type based solely on these initial discoveries.

In order to conclusively identify it as one of Harald’s Trelleborg-type forts, archaeologists needed to narrow down the date of its construction as accurately as possible. These forts were built during a short window of a few years at the end of his reign, so pinpointing its age was essential. In the initial excavation, large oak timbers were unearthed at the north gate, charred in a fire that had engulfed the gate after its construction. Preserved by the flames, the wood could be radiocarbon dated, and because the timbers were so large, archaeologists were optimistic that they could be tree-ring dated as well. Carbon-14 testing can only return a date range, but dendrochronological analysis can, in the best case scenario, pinpoint the precise year in which a tree was felled.

Two samples taken from the north gate timbers were radiocarbon dated and produced pleasingly consistent dates. The oak logs dated to between 895 and 1017 A.D. Those dates fit squarely within the hoped-for range, but there was still too much wiggle room to prove that Borgring was a Trelleborg fortress. Archaeologists hoped the timbers could be dated dendrochronologically as well, but the charring impeded the analysis.

That was three years ago, and while excavations have been ongoing, the radiocarbon dating results from the north gate timbers have remained the only absolute dates on the table. That changed on June 26th, 2017, when the archaeological team from the Museum of South East Denmark and Aarhus University dug new trenches in the field next to the fortress. Just over eight feet below the surface, the team unearthed a piece of wood about three feet long. The carved oak plank was drilled with holes, some of which contained wooden pegs still in place. There is evidence of wear, but it’s unclear what exactly the plank was used for before it wound up discarded just outside the south gate.

Getting discarded was the best thing that could have happened to it, archaeologically speaking, because that field is composed of layer of peat, that blessed substance, preserver of organic remains large and small. The peat kept the wood from rotting and kept its rings in counting order.

Leading specialist in dendrochronological dating, Associate Professor Aoife Daly from the University of Copenhagen and the owner of dendro.dk, has just completed his study of the piece of wood and says: “The plank is oak and the conserved part of the tree trunk has grown in the years 829-950 In the Danish area. A comparison with the material from the Trelleborg fortress in Sjælland shows a high statistical correlation that confirms the dating. Since no splints have been preserved, it means that the tree has fallen at some point after year 966 “.

Research leader Jens Ulriksen says: “The wood piece was found on top of a peat layer, and is fully preserved as it is completely water-logged. We now have a date of wood in the valley of Borgring, which corresponds to the dating from the other ring fortresses from Harold Bluetooth’s reign. With the dendrochronological dating, in conjunction with the traces of wear the piece has, it is likely that the piece ended as waste in the late 900s, possibly in the early 1000’s. ” […]

Søren M. Sindbæk, professor in Archaeology at Aarhus University and part of the excavation team says: “This find is the major break-through, which we have been searching for. We finally have the dating evidence at hand to prove that this is a late tenth century fortress. We lack the exact year, but since the find also shows us where the river flowed in the Viking Age, we also know where to look for more timbers from the fortress.”

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Wedgwood First Day’s Vase saved

History Blog - Thu, 2017-07-06 23:28

One of four vases made by Josiah Wedgwood on the opening day of his new Etruria Works at Stoke-on-Trent, Staffordshire, has been acquired by the Potteries Museum & Art Gallery after coming within a razor’s width of being exported out of the UK by an overseas buyer. The vase was bought at a Christie’s auction on July 7th, 2016 for £482,500 ($625,759). In December, Culture Minister Matt Hancock placed a temporary export bar on the vase as an object of its rarity and national significance to British art, industrial and ceramic history. It would have been the only one of the four First Day’s Vases to leave the UK. Two are in the Victoria and Albert Museum; the other is still owned by the Wedgwood family.

After a fundraising campaign that saw donations from hundreds of members of the public, private businesses and institutions like the Art Fund and National Heritage Memorial Fund, Stoke-on-Trent City Council and the Friends of the Potteries Museum & Art Gallery were able to raise the £482,500 purchase price to keep the vase in the UK. They have negotiated with the auction buyer and have worked out the exchange. The vase will now go back to the Potteries Museum & Art Gallery where it was on display, loaned by the owner, the granddaughter of Cecil Wedgwood, from 1981 until it was withdrawn in 2016 to be sold to the highest bidder.

Made of Black Basalt and decorated with a painting technique Wedgwood termed “encaustic” (hand-painted with enamel pigments and a clay slip then fired), six First Day’s Vases, each slightly different, were thrown by Josiah Wedgwood himself on June 13th, 1769, the opening day of his new Etruria factory. His partner Thomas Bentley turned the wheel. Four of the six vases survived the firing process. Wedgwood, who had a real understanding from the very beginning of the importance of preserving his company’s history, specifically noted in a letter to Bentley’s workshop that the vases “sho’d be finish’d as high as you please but not sold, they being the first fruits of Etruria.”

The figures are copied from a 5th century B.C. Attic red-figure vase in the collection of antiquarian Sir William Hamilton (whose wife, Emma Hamilton, was very notoriously and very scandalously the lover of Admiral Horatio Nelson for seven years before his death at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805). The vase was published in the illustrated catalogue of Hamilton’s vase collection in 1766 and Josiah Wedgwood got a preview copy of the book because of his connection to Sir William. Hamilton was a generous patron to Wedgwood, giving him access to his collection of vases so he could study and often times duplicate their forms and decoration.

The piece that inspired Josiah Wedgwood’s First Vase is an elaborately painted water jar that features dense and complex groupings of figures from Greek mythology — the kidnapping of the Leukippides, Heracles in the garden of the Hesperides — and was considered by art historians of the 18th and 19th centuries as one of the greatest extant examples of Greek design. Today it is known as the Meidias Hydria now that its artist has been identified as the Meidias Painter. It was acquired by the British Museum in 1772 when Hamilton sold his entire vase collection to the institution.

Wedgwood getting access to Hamilton’s collection and an early view of the high quality plates in the catalogue before any other artist gave him a great advantage in the market. Neo-classical decorative arts were all the rage, and Josiah Wedgwood was ideally positioned to fulfill the public’s craving. Modelled in both shape and decoration directly from the original ancient vessels, the First Day’s Vases tapped into this market with a verisimilitude that none of Wedgwood competitors could boast of, and the influence of Hamilton’s antiquities was felt throughout the Wedgwood line, in vases, tableware, reliefs and patterns.

At the foot of all four of the First Day’s Vases is the inscription “Artes Etrurae Renascuntur,” meaning the Arts of Etruria are Reborn. Josiah Wedgwood played a large role in popularizing neo-classicism, and these vases, the name of his factory, the duplication of elements of ancient vases but on an industrial scale, underscore how central the inspiration of antiquity was to Wedgwood. It was the foundational idea behind the Etruria Works.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Graves of very tall Neolithic people found in China

History Blog - Wed, 2017-07-05 23:22

They’re being called “giants,” because headlines and hyperbole would be lost without each other, but in fact the late Neolithic skeletal remains discovered by archaeologists in Shandong, eastern China, are more accurately described as having belonged to men of greater than average height. Some of them are very tall even by modern standards, and markedly exceed the current average height for an adult man in Shandong.

Measurements of bones from graves in Shandong Province show the height of at least one man to have reached 1.9 meters [6’3″] with quite a few at 1.8 meters [5’11”] or taller.

“This is just based on the bone structure. If he was a living person, his height would certainly exceed 1.9 meters,” said Fang Hui, head of Shandong University’s school of history and culture.

The average height for an adult man in Shandong in 2015 was 5’9″, which beats the national average by an inch. Indeed, Shandong residents pride themselves on being taller than their compatriots, and have done so for a long time. The philosopher Confucius (551 B.C. – 479 B.C.) was born in what is now Qufu, in southwestern Shandong, and he was reputedly 6’3″.

Archaeologists have been excavating the village of Jiaojia near Jinan City, Shandong Province, since 2016 and have unearthed the remains of an extensive Neolithic settlement including 104 houses, 205 graves and 20 sacrificial pits. The homes were mainly row houses, lines of adjacent dwellings not unlike modern townhouses. They were nicely appointed, too, which separate bedrooms and kitchens, indicating a high standard of living not reserved only for the elite. The settlement dates to around 5,000 years ago, a period when the Jinan City area is thought to have been the most important political and economic center of what is now northern Shandong.

These are the remains of the Longshan Culture, also known as the Black Pottery Culture, which inhabited the middle and lower Yellow River valley from around 3000 to 1900 B.C. Officially named after Mount Longshan in Zhangqiu, a modern town next to the the Chengziya Archaeological Site where the first archaeological finds from this culture were made in 1928, the Longshan Culture is renowned for its exceptional pottery crafts, especially the glossy black pottery that gave the culture its alternative name.

Some of that pottery, not just black but in a prismatic array of brilliant saturated color, was found in the graves of the tall men. Only a few of the 205 graves discovered were so richly adorned with goods. Six of those graves are the largest in size and also contain the remains of the tallest men in the burial ground. Archaeologists believe these were men of high rank and therefore had access to the best diet, hence their impressive heights. There’s also evidence of deliberate damage done to the skulls, leg bones, pottery and jade objects in the six tombs. They were likely inflicted shortly after burial and may be the result of conflict between high-status factions, political one-upsmanship in the form of grave desecration.

By this time agriculture was well-established in the Longshan towns. They grew millet as their primary crop and raised animals, mainly pigs, for food. Bones and teeth from domesticated pigs were found in some of the burials. With steady, varied sources of nutrition, safe, comfortable dwellings and wide access to regional trade, people of the Longshan Culture from this period experienced the kind of growth spurt seen in many different eras across the world when children no longer have to deal with the deprivations that their parents suffered.

So far have only scratched the surface of this exceptional site, and excavations are ongoing.

The range of the Jiaojia site has been enlarged from an initial 240,000 square meters to 1 sq km. Currently, only 2,000 square meters has been excavated.

“Further study and excavation of the site is of great value to our understanding of the origin of culture in east China,” said Zhou Xiaobo, deputy head of Shandong provincial bureau of cultural heritage.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Revolutionary War musket ball found in Charleston cracks archaeological case

History Blog - Tue, 2017-07-04 23:36

A team of archaeologists and college students have unearthed a single lead musket ball from the Revolutionary War in Charleston, South Carolina. This is the first archaeological evidence found of the British lines from the Siege of Charleston in 1780.

Archaeologists and students from the College of Charleston had been excavating behind the historic Aiken-Rhett House (built in 1835 on an infilled work yard) for two weeks in the hopes of discovering physical traces of a British trench that was part of a network of trenches used to besiege the city. A ground-penetrating radar survey indicated significant soil disturbance under the surface, so the team of more than a dozen people was assembled to excavate quickly and efficiently.

On Wednesday of last week the team was excited to find a lead ball, but their hopes were dashed when it was identified a post-Revolutionary lead shot from a hunting gun. Thursday their luck turned when they dug up a small lead ball that was the proper age, fired by the proper weapon (a musket) and was flattened on one side from the impact against a target. It’s the proverbial smoking gun.

Charleston Museum Director Carl Borick has been searching for the 1780 siege line for nearly 15 years. “Based on these artifacts, my research and the archaeologists’ assessment of the mottled soil in the trench, we have pretty much confirmed it was part of the British siege lines during the 1780 siege.”

As the students worked, the director of museums for the Historic Charleston Foundation, Lauren Northup, led tours around the site explaining in detail what they hoped to discover.

“We have worked for three weeks to uncover evidence of a suspected revolutionary war seize trench dug by the British in 1780,” Northup told Fox News. “We are nearing the end of the field school and we have finally reached the trench.”

Northup says the British-built trenches were open only for a short period of time. “A trench was built very quickly and it was really meant to transport troops safely behind earthworks,” she explained. “Basically once they dug it and passed through they then filled it back in.”

That’s why it has been so difficult to find archaeological evidence of the trenches. They were dug and refilled so quickly, there’s no real structure to find. (They can’t all be Thaddeus Kosciuszko tunnels.) The only indication of their presence is the random stuff that the British troops dropped in the trench, or, as in this case, the remnants of battle.

This one tiny bullet could well crack the whole siege trench network wide open. Researchers will be able to compare the one known trench with military and historic maps of the British siege positions and marked trenches. That will give them an approximate idea of where to find whatever physical evidence survives of the other trenches.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Section of Great Wall repaired with traditional materials, toughness

History Blog - Mon, 2017-07-03 23:37

The Jiankou section of the Great Wall of China is famed for its picturesque tree-covered mountain locations and dramatic vistas of jagged peaks and plunging cliffs. Built about 50 miles north Beijing along the skinny spine of a mountain ridge with steep dropoffs left and right, Jiankou is a great draw to hikers and photographers fit enough to tackle the challenges of the winding rise and run of this section. They also have to be willing to take their lives in their hands, because it is a tough walk, all but vertical in some parts, and there are significant sections in dangerous disrepair.

The 12-miles stretch of wall at Jiankou was built during the Ming Dynasty (1369–1644). The Great Wall as we think of it today is largely the work of Ming emperors who took a scattershot collection of earthwork defenses built by their predecessors (the first border walls built to repel invaders go at least as far back as the 7th century B.C.) and transformed them into massive walls, first of tamped earth, then of stone and bricks. The Jiankou section was made of large white stone and bricks that contrast vividly with the dark greens of its wild backdrop.

It’s not clear under which Ming emperor and when exactly the stone and brick Jiankou wall was constructed. Chinese chroniclers credit Ming general and scourge of Japanese pirates Qi Jiguang (1528–1588) with repairing and improving this section of the wall when he was put in charge of defending the northern frontier from the Mongols in 1572. He also added a great many watchtowers to strengthen the border defenses. The copious use of brick in Jiankou also suggests a 16th century date, but it’s likely that the overall work was done in multiple stages of restoration, improvement and maintenance.

Repairs to the Jiankou section stopped altogether Qing conquest of China in 1644. The Qing conquered the Mongol Empire and annexed it, so the old borders were no longer relevant. The difficult terrain compounded the neglect and the wall at Jiankou was left virtually untouched for almost 400 years. There’s a big upside to centuries of abandonment in a remote location: a lot of the original materials are still in place — damaged, collapsed, structurally unsound, but original and therefore restorable to something close to its 16th century condition. More accessible sections of the wall were used as quarries for local construction so much of the original masonry and brickwork is lost forever. Others have been repaired with historically inaccurate materials like concrete (which always ends in disaster; concrete is not the friend of historic preservation) to make them more tourist-friendly.

In 2005, a program of restoration began on the Jiankou section of the Great Wall. This is excruciatingly slow work because it’s so hard getting materials up the mountain — mule trains are often the only option, and even mules can get a little cranky having to haul more than 300 pounds of bricks apiece up a precipitous mountain ridge — and finding skilled workers to do the dangerous construction job. It takes a special kind of testicular fortitude to lay brick while dangling from a rope over a freaking abyss.

The restoration is now in its third phase and the focus is on preservation, not creating a new tourist trap. Original materials are used where possible, accurate reproduction using traditional crafts where not.

Where they could, workers used the original bricks that had broken off the wall over the centuries. Where there were none to be found, they used new bricks made to exacting specifications.

“We have to stick to the original format, the original material and the original craftsmanship, so that we can better preserve the historical and cultural values,” said Cheng Yongmao, the engineer leading Jiankou’s restoration.

Cheng, 61, who has repaired 17km of the Great Wall since 2003, belongs to the 16th generation in a long line of traditional brick makers.
[…]

Just a tenth of the wall built during the Ming Dynasty has been repaired, said Dong Yaohui, vice president of the China Great Wall Association.

“In the past, we would restore the walls so that they would be visited as tourist hot spots,” he said, by contrast with today’s objective of repairing and preserving them for future generations. “This is progress.”

Amen to that. This video shows some of the workers being badasses on an ordinary day at the job site.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Templo Mayor skull tower keeps getting skullier

History Blog - Sun, 2017-07-02 23:52

The Aztec tzompantli (skull rack) discovered in the Templo Mayor complex in downtown Mexico City two years ago has proven to be on an even vaster scale than first realized. Archaeologists with the National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH) unearthed the tower of skulls six feet under the floor of a colonial-era house west of the Templo Mayor. At the center of a rectangular platform 34 meters (111.5 feet) long and 12 meters (40 feet) wide, they found a circular structure six meters (20 feet) in diameter made of skulls mortared together with a combination of lime, sand and volcanic gravel.

Tzompantli were used by the Aztecs to display the heads of the sacrificed, usually warriors captured in battle. The skulls were pierced from temple to temple and threaded onto wooden stakes that were mounted onto vertical posts like a grisly abacus. Pierced skulls and the remains of stakes have been found before, but they’ve been very modest in size and there was no permanent, mortared structure in place studded with the skulls of sacrificial victims.

The Templo Mayor skull tower is therefore unique in the archaeological record. Holes through the parietal bones of the skulls’ indicate that as unusual as it is, the tower was part of the life cycle (death cycle?) of the Huey Tzompantli, a huge skull display in the city center that horrified even the Spanish conquistadors, no strangers to mass slaughter. One of Cortes’ soldiers, Andres de Tapia, described the Huey Tzompantli as displaying thousands of skulls at a time. Archaeologists believe the tower was the stage two, the final disposition of the heads after they’d been exposed to the public on the Tzompantli array. The defleshed heads were then mortared into the tower, all of the skulls positioned to face the inside the circle.

When the discovery was first reported in August 2015, archaeologists had found 35 skulls. Now that number is now 676, and the excavation isn’t over yet. Archaeologists fully expect the final tally will reach into the thousands, just like de Tapia said. The sheer scale of the tower is striking enough, but the inclusion of skulls of adult women, youths and small children took archaeologists by surprise.

Historians relate how the severed heads of captured warriors adorned tzompantli, or skull racks, found in a number of Mesoamerican cultures before the Spanish conquest.

But the archaeological dig in the bowels of old Mexico City that began in 2015 suggests that picture was not complete.

“We were expecting just men, obviously young men, as warriors would be, and the thing about the women and children is that you’d think they wouldn’t be going to war,” said Rodrigo Bolanos, a biological anthropologist investigating the find.

“Something is happening that we have no record of, and this is really new, a first in the Huey Tzompantli,” he added.

The Templo Mayor was one of the most important temples in the sacred precinct of Tenochtitlan, the capital of the Aztec Empire which became Mexico City after the Spanish conquest. The tower is now located next to the Metropolitan Cathedral built over the Templo Mayor by the Spanish. When it was built during Stage VI of the construction of the Templo Mayor (between 1486 and 1502), it was on the corner of the chapel of Huitzilopochtli, Aztec god of the sun, war and human sacrifice, a fitting location for a tower of skulls.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Miniature apothecary’s shop in cabinet form

History Blog - Sat, 2017-07-01 23:46

If the shamelessly indulgent excess of Baroque pietre dure cabinets are too ostentatious for your tastes, the Rijksmuseum has an alternative for you: an 18th century collector’s cabinet that opens into a miniature apothecary shop complete with every Barbie Dream Apothecary Shop accessory you could possibly conceive of in your nerdiest of fantasies.

It doesn’t have the glorious riot of colors and patterns you see in the hard stone inlay, but by no means was this a modest piece. About eight feet high and three feet wide and deep, the cabinet is made of oak and pine wood with veneers of walnut and olive wood, plus shell and ivory inlays and gold-plated copper accents. When its doors and drawers are closed, the cabinet looks like a handsome piece expertly built out of fine woods. The way the veneers are cut and installed to create Rorschach-like complex symmetrical patterns attest to the craftsman’s skill before you even get a glimpse at the spectacular interior.

It’s divided into the three horizontal sections. On the bottom is a wide, deep two-door closet in which important books and larger items in the collection were kept. The middle section consists of three drawers, two small ones above one large one the full width of the cabinet. The top is another two-door closet, smaller than the bottom level and unlike the veneered ones below, these doors are mirrored.

It’s the mirrored doors that open to reveal the plethora of cubbies, drawers, shelves, bottles and more than 300 Delftware jars that are so instantly recognizable as an apothecary’s shop. The scale is so accurate that when you look at the open cabinet without seeing the rest of the cabinet, it looks like you could walk right in and buy all the basil, dried scorpion, mummy flesh and Mithdridatum you need. (All of those materials are listed on the labels of the Delft pots, btw.) There’s even a faux tiled floor made with inlaid wood veneers that looks totally real.

Painted panels on both sides of the central wall represent the medical motif. The top left painting depicts Apollo, Greek god of healing, standing on a pedestal inscribed “Ars longa” (art is long). His counterpoint on the right side is the grim skeletonized figure of death holding his scythe, standing on a pedestal inscribed “Vita brevis” (life is short). Life and death are the stocks in trade of the medical professional, then as now, and the phrase “Ars longa, vita brevis” is a Latinized version of an aphorism written by the Greek physician Hippocrates, the Father of Modern Medicine. The most prominent painted panel is the one on the center bottom in which a doctor examines a urine flask (which is a large part of what doctors did back then, other than read ancient sources). The painting to the right of this is a pharmacology student cooking something up in the lab; to one to the left is a room filled with books. They’re depictions of the practical, hands-on work, the book learning and the staring at pee that symbolize the broader medical profession, including pharmacology.

A pair of gilded putti hover at the top of the central wall. Above their heads they hold up a crown made of medicinal plants and in their other hands, a draped banner which bears the motto “Pietas, scientia, temperantia, vigilantia, et studium assiduum ornant pharmacopceum” (piety, knowledge, temperance, vigilance and assiduous study are ornaments to the pharmacist). The left, central and right walls of the miniature shop are covered head to toe with pharmacological specimens, each to its own, often labeled, jar or drawer. The Delft jars, some with spouts, others smooth-lipped, are all custom-made to fit the shop. There are dozens of them, each painted with their own label.

But no self-respecting cabinet would lay it all out there. Hidden compartments are a must, and this cabinet is no exception. The back “wall” of the shop conceals 56 more drawers, each divided into multiple compartments. Only five of them are empty. The rest still contain specimens of almost 2,000 plants, seeds, animal body parts, minerals, rocks and fossils, all deemed to have medicinal use back then. The whole back wall slides up to reveal its secret cache of drawers.

The maker of this masterpiece is unknown. Researchers have discovered that the cabinet was made around 1730 in Amsterdam, and the combination of quality materials, intensive attention to detail and the specificity of the pharmacological motif indicates this was a very expensive custom-made piece of furniture commissioned by a wealthy doctor or pharmacist. In the 18th century, the Dutch bourgeoisie, flush with profits from flourishing trade and business, enjoyed the conspicuous consumption the aristocracy had always indulged in, but put their own stamp on it. Instead of making collector’s cabinets that looked like church facades inlaid with a multitude of the hardest, most prized semi-precious stones, the kind of thing popes and princes were into it, the businessmen sought to create luxury versions of their own environments. What better way for a medical man to show off his collection of animal, vegetable and mineral specimens than in a cabinet that looks like a dollhouse version of his flawlessly appointed shop?

The Rijksmuseum acquired the cabinet in 1956, but it has very seldom been on display. It needed a great deal of study and conservation before it could be stabilized for its own safety and those of visitors. More than 50 experts were involved in this research project, and good thing too, because they found samples of uraninite and two other uranium-heavy minerals that had to be locked up in lead boxes and put into storage in accordance with the regulatory provisions of the Dutch Nuclear Energy Act.

The cabinet has now been conserved and has gone on display in the Rijksmuseum’s 18th century gallery. It is the only known 18th century miniature apothecary’s shop in the Netherlands, and will be displayed fully open so visitors can enjoy the cabinet in all its detail. The results of the research project has been published in a large-format book — so large the photographs capture the miniatures almost in real size — which can be preordered on Amazon (cost: $60) or purchased directly from the Rijksmuseum’s online store (cost: €40) starting July 3rd.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Neolithic funerary urn found in Yorkshire barrow

History Blog - Fri, 2017-06-30 23:09

Archaeologists have discovered a rare complete Late Neolithic funerary urn in Silsden, West Yorkshire. The clay vessel dates to around 3,000 B.C. and was buried in a prehistoric barrow discovered on the site of a future housing development. Because it was clear to the naked eye that there were archaeological features on site, a terrace on the north side of the River Aire, developers Barratt Homes engaged Prospect Archaeology (PA) to organize a seven-week excavation before construction began. PA brought in contractors Archaeological Services WYAS (ASWYAS) to evaluate and excavate the site.

The ASWYAS team began with a geophysical scan of the property. The magnetometer picked up anomalous features consistent with Late Neolithic and Early Bronze Age burials. Excavation confirmed the results of the scan. Just under the surface of the terrace was a prehistoric barrow bounded by a double ditch. Few artifacts and remains were discovered, but the ones that were are notable. Among the few flints unearthed was a Neolithic leaf-shaped arrowhead, a later flint blade and most significantly, a complete collared clay urn. The artifacts, size and design of the barrow indicates it was first created around 5,000 to 4,500 years ago in the late Neolithic/early Bronze Age.

The barrow is only part of a larger complex. About 100 meters (330 feet) from the barrow is squared space enclosed by ditches is probably a mortuary enclosure, used in funerary rites that culminated in the barrow burial. On the outside of the barrow’s outermost ditch archaeologists found a pit alignment — a lined up series of pits that delimit an area in the same way boundary ditches do — that dates to the Iron Age, 1,500 years after the barrow was first made. Pit alignments are still somewhat mysterious. Archaeologists aren’t sure if they were dug that way in haste — some were later dug out into full-on ditches — or if there was a deliberate purpose to the pit design. Soil samples have been taken from the bottom of the pits so that they can be dated and analyzed for more information.

The large urn was decorated with engraved lines in the collar. These types of vessels are believed to have been used primarily for burial or other ritual purposes. The Silsden pot falls into line with its brethren. It was found buried in a pit near the center point of the round barrow. Archaeologists believe it was the primary burial, the reason the barrow was built. This pot was not the only burial found in the barrow. Other pottery vessels that may contain human remains and a later cremation burial were unearthed from the barrow and its associated ditches. That means the barrow was recognized and used reverently for hundreds of years well into the Bronze Age.

To ensure its precious contents, which may still contain human remains, were not disturbed or worse, carried away by a stiff breeze, during excavation in situ, the main pot was wrapped on site and raised intact so it could be transported safely to the conservation lab and excavated in a contained and controlled environment. After excavation, conservation and study, the funeral urn will probably go on display at the Cliffe Castle Museum.

The excavation of the Silsden site also found later remains, mainly evidence of agricultural usage like field ditches, ridge and furrow cultivation from the Middle Ages, and relatively new features added in the 18th and 19th centuries. One of them in particular deserves a spotlight dance: a dry stone wall built to mark a boundary line or enclose a field. It is a real beauty and I feel compelled to give it a vigorous, even vehement, Charles Foster Kane clap. I love a great dry stone wall, and apparently Yorkshire is crisscrossed with them, like a great patchwork quilt with masonry seams. The craft is still very much alive, with drystone walling associations and training programs to ensure there will be a new generation of builders keeping the tradition, and any historic walls in need of repair, standing proud.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Archaeologist on vacation finds ancient figurine

History Blog - Thu, 2017-06-29 23:56

Archaeologist Piotr Alagierski was enjoying his vacation, taking a leisurely Sunday stroll through a farmed field in the southeastern Poland village of Kosina when he came across a small clay figurine. Just seven centimeters (2.8 inches) long, the little man was missing some of his parts. Only his head, torso and one arm or hand remain. What was left of him was enough for Alagierski to conclude that the fired clay piece is a Neolithic figurine that may be as much as 7,000 years old.

If that age is confirmed, it will make the figurine one of the oldest depictions of a human ever found in Poland and an object of national significance. Even among the few pieces from this period that have been found, he is extremely rare. The others have the voluptuous bodies and exaggerated sex characteristics frequently seen in prehistoric mother figures. All the detail in these types of figures tends to be centered on the breasts, belly and genitalia, not on facial features or adornments. The Kosina figurine takes a different approach.

“The style in which the figurine was made is surprising. It resembles similar figurines from Slovakia and Romania” – explained [Piotr Alagierski]. […]

“It is different in this case. The details of the head are clearly modelled – the hair, the nose, the chin are visible. There is a visible indentation on the chest, probably representing a garment, probably a tunic. A necklace is visible on the neck” – the archaeologist described. Contrary to the few figurines from this period previously found in Poland, this one does not have prominent sex features.

“In the field around the figurine I also noticed large quantities of fragments of ceramic vessels and obsidian, volcanic glass, which is produced by the instantaneous cooling of the lava. This material is also known from the areas of Poland’s neighboring countries: Ukraine and Slovakia” – Alagierski described in an interview with PAP.

Alagierski believes the area where the figurine was found was an agricultural settlement founded by some of the first farmers to make a living from the land in what is now Poland. That’s what he’s basing the date of the figurine on — that there was a farm on the site from early in the shift to agriculture, and that the figurine is contemporaneous with said settlement — which seems tenuous to me so early in the investigation.

We may get some firmer answers soon. Alagierski plans to excavate the site to find material evidence of the settlement and to flesh out the context in which the figurine was discovered. The figurine itself will also be studied. Researchers will run a series of chemical analyses that will determine where the clay came from. Given the objects and materials Alagierski saw in the field, it’s possible that the clay may not have been local, but rather from north of the Carpathians, which would suggest either population movements or trade with neighbors to the north.

The figurine is now in the custody of the Regional Office for the Protection of Monuments in Rzeszow.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Wood beams, furniture preserved by fire found in Rome

History Blog - Wed, 2017-06-28 23:55

The construction of Rome’s Metro Line C continues to be the archaeological gift that keeps on giving. The latest discovery is an early 3rd century villa that collapsed in a fire. The intense heat of the blaze charred wooden beams and the collapse of the structure on top of them helped preserved the organic remains for 1,800 years.

Organic remains preserved by instant carbonization have been found at Pompeii and Herculaneum, but those cities succumbed to a cataclysmic volcanic eruption that froze everything in time. Buildings burned down in Rome all the time, some fires spreading rapidly throughout the city like the Great Fire of 64 A.D. over which Nero is said to have sung mournfully about the destruction of Troy, some relatively contained either by (rudimentary) firefighting measures or by a fortuitous separation between buildings.

Surviving organic remains, however, are extremely rare in the city of Rome. Even though the tightly-packed, wood-heavy ancient city was subject to regular conflagrations, most of the evidence for them in the archaeological record consists of marks, dark spots indicating charring. Thousands of years of battling the water table and Tiber floods and construction over construction have made Rome a tough environment for the preservation of wood, textiles and organics of any type. The discovery of fire-preserved wood from a villa in the city is therefore an extremely exciting find.

“The fire that stopped life in this environment allows us to image life in a precise moment,” said Francesco Prosperetti, in charge of Rome’s archaeological ruins and excavations.

Experts say the Rome ruins might be from an aristocrat’s home at the foot of the nearby Celian Hill or from a nearby military barracks, which itself had been explored in other excavations for the subway line.

The remains were discovered last month at the bottom of a 33-foot hole bored into Rome’s undercarriage near the ancient Aurelian Walls (built between 271 and 275 A.D.). The most significant find was a charred wooden ceiling that collapsed during the fire. It is unique in Rome’s archaeological record. Pieces of furniture, hardened by the fire, also survived: the leg of a stool or table, a larger leg or foot believed to have come from a trunk, and two tables, one large rectangular one, one smaller piece. Other surviving wooden architectural features include a wooden railing or balustrade, rectangular wooden joists that acted as anchors for the rods that attach the plaster to the ceilings and walls, and a large support beam for the floor that Vitruvius described in De architectura as a contignatio. The beam still has notches where the transverse beams were once installed and a large iron nail driven into the middle of it. Fragments of a wooden window jamb with traces of the glass panes still extant were also found.

Non-organic features have survived in fine condition as well. There are frescoed sections of brickwork wall dating to the reign of Emperor Septimius Severus (late 2nd, early 3rd century) decorated with delicate red florals against a white background. Part of a black-and-white mosaic floor that had once been on the upper story of the building survived its plummet with its handsome double border, heart-shaped leaves and wave pattern intact.

In another nod to famous Pompeiian finds, the skeleton of a dog still posed in the crouching stance it was in when it died, was found at the door of the house. Archaeologists think it was trying to escape the fire but was trapped by falling debris when the building collapsed. The dog’s jaw complete with teeth has remained surprisingly intact. The skeleton of a second smaller animal found at the site, possibly the dog’s puppy or a cat, has yet to be identified.

The architectural and decorative materials are all in good state of preservation thanks to the fire, and archaeologists will study them in detail to discover new information about how wealthy Romans of the 3rd century lived, how their homes were built and furnished. Italy’s National Institute of Geophysics and Volcanology (INGV) will also study the site. They hope to determine whether the fire and collapse were caused by an earthquake.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Touch a 1,000-year-old Viking palisade

History Blog - Tue, 2017-06-27 23:34

The town of Jelling in Jutland, Denmark, was the seat of the earliest kings of Denmark in the 10th century. Today the Jelling complex consists of two large burial mounds, two monumental runestones and a small church built on the site of three earlier wooden churches going back 1,000 years. The combination of tumuli, runestones and church capture the transition from the traditional Norse religion to Christianity. King Gorm the Old, the first king of Denmark, dedicated the smaller and older of the runestones. The inscription translates to: “King Gormr made this monument in memory of Thyrvé, his wife, Denmark’s adornment.” His son Harald Bluetooth had the second, much larger stone raised and its runic inscription reads: “King Harald bade this monument be made in memory of Gorm his father and Thyra his mother, that Harald who won for himself all Denmark and Norway and made the Danes Christians.”

Within the perimeter of Jelling, the massive cultural shift from the reign of Gorm (936- ca. 958) to that of Harald (958– ca. 986) is documented in language, funerary and religious architecture. That’s why the Jelling mounds, runestones and church are on the UNESCO World Heritage List and why the site is one of the most important in Danish history.

In 2006, archaeologists were able to explore a previously inaccessible area: the bed of a pond across from Gorm’s Mound. Before a planned renovation, the pond was pumped dry giving archaeologists the opportunity to excavate the mucky bottom looking for remains of the large wooden stockade that once encircled the royal estate at Jelling. Postholes from the stockade had been found before, but no physical remains. The stockade was known to have intersected part of what is now the pond, and therefore there was a chance the thick clay and mud on the bottom of the pond had preserved the organic remains of the stockade’s timbers. Viking-era reports suggested there had been a body of water in the area when the stockade was built, so conditions for preservation of wood may have existed on site since the 10th century.

Excavation along what was believed to be the stockade line hit the jackpot almost immediately. Just over two feet under the pond bed surface, archaeologists unearthed four large oak posts. Radiocarbon dating of samples taken from three of posts found that all samples were approximately 1,000 years old. In later excavations (2012-3), archaeologists found vertical stakes also made of oak. They are 4-5 inches thick and were driven directly into the clay of the pond bed two-by-two. There was no ditch dug into the soil first as in evidence elsewhere along the palisade line. This could only have been accomplished if the site was already watery when the stockade was built in the 10th century by Harald Bluetooth who greatly enhanced the Jelling defenses.

King Harald’s stockade was a huge, kite-shaped fence measuring around 1180 x 1180 feet, totaling just under a mile of wooden palisades at least 10 feet high. There’s evidence of some sort of superstructure at the top of the fence, perhaps a parapet for defenders to patrol. It is by far the largest Viking fenced-in space ever discovered in Denmark or Scandinavia. It’s also the only kite-shaped palisade known. The discovery of the timbers has been a boon to research on the architecture and layout of Jelling. Excavations also unearthed evidence of three different longhouses and a boat burial, although no boat remains have survived.

So far, the oak posts and vertical stakes are all of the physical remains archaeologists have found of the stockade. One of their dearest wishes came true when they found a timber large enough among the thick, square planks to be dated with dendrochronological examination (i.e., tree ring counting). The wood posts and stakes were recovered from the pond site and transported to the National Museum’s Conservation Department in Brede. They were dendrochronologically dated to between 958 and 985 A.D., with 968 A.D. the likeliest year for the felling of the oak tree.

Even if the widest dates prove accurate, these years fall squarely into the reign of Harald Bluetooth, confirming the timbers found were part of Harald’s defensive expansion. After four years, the timbers have been stabilized and will go on display starting June 29th at the National Museum’s Jelling branch. The exhibition will explain to visitors the challenges in building such a huge structure in Jelling a thousand years ago. Just securing enough large oak trees for a palisade a mile long would have been enormously difficult; cutting them down, processing them and carrying them to Jelling added exponentially to the level of difficulty.

The surviving wood planks and posts will be displayed in custom cases, protected from light, heat, fluctuating moisture levels, humans and the wide variety of damaging microorganisms we take with us wherever we go. All except for one small fragment from the palisade that would have disappeared compared to the larger pieces behind the glass. Curators therefore decided to allow guests to touch a piece of a 10th century Viking stockade that once enclosed the royal compound of kings Gorm and Harald. Since it was Harald Bluetooth who ordered this stockade built, it’s eminently possibly that he even touched that same sliver of wood that Jelling visitors will now get to touch.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Original 1953 Disneyland concept map sells for $708,000

History Blog - Mon, 2017-06-26 23:50


The first map of Disneyland, created in a single frenetic weekend of 1953 by Walt Disney and Disney artist Herb Ryman, sold at a Van Eaton Galleries auction in Los Angeles on Sunday for $708,000. That’s on the low-end of the $700,000 to $900,000 pre-sale estimate — some breathless reports before the auction suggested the price could top $1 million — but it still sets a record for the most expensive Disneyland map ever sold, even though it’s not an actual map of the real life Disneyland.

The map was created to use in a pitch to a potential investor, the television studio ABC which was then just five years old. Walt Disney’s idea for a theme park nestled in the orange groves of Anaheim, California, sounded like a cockamamie scheme to most money people and Walt and his brother Roy were repeatedly turned down. Walt was so convinced this was a winning idea that he refinanced his home to raise money for the enterprise, but it wasn’t anywhere near enough. Construction of Disneyland would cost $17 million and to convinced financial types to invest that kind of money, Walt realized he needed to create a visual representation of his idea so they could get it without having to use their limited imaginations.

On September 26th and 27th, 1953, the weekend before Roy Disney’s pitch meeting with ABC executives in New York City, Walt Disney and Herb Ryman sealed themselves in to a room at Disney Studio a drew up a map. Disney told Ryman what to draw, and Ryman penciled his boss’ vision on a sheet of vellum. He then transferred the drawing to more durable paper and hand-inked and colored it. The map was mounted on a three-fold presentation board and Roy Disney hustled it off to New York to present Walt’s vision to the ABC people. It worked. In exchange for a Disney-produced TV series to be aired on the network, ABC agreed to finance the construction of Disneyland, still the biggest network deal in history adjusted for inflation. (Disney bought all of ABC’s shares of Disneyland in 1960 and 36 years later bought ABC itself.)

In October, Roy brought the map back to California where it was used throughout 1953 and 1954 to show designers, investors, engineers and artists what Walt had in mind. It was altered several times in 1954 — lines darkened, colors added, new cars hooked up to the train, the scroll gussied up — and was repeatedly featured in the advanced publicity materials from September 19th, 1954, until the park’s opening on July 15th, 1955.

It didn’t keep up with the planning, though. Land of Tomorrow on the map became Tomorrowland in the park. Frontier Country became Frontierland. Lilliputian Land never happened at all. Sleeping Beauty Castle, the center point of Disneyland, is way at the back of the park in the concept map. The train station and Main Street square do match up with the real Disneyland.

Even though the map had been essential to securing the funding for Walt Disney’s brainchild and in promoting it in the months before its opening, Walt gave it away without hesitation before the park was even completed. The lucky recipient was one Grenade Curran, a show business veteran and jack of all trades who worked at Walt Disney Studios.

Grenade’s father was Charles Curran, an adept with the hand-held camera who became both Clark Gable’s and Roy Rogers’ personal cameraman. His mother had been an MGM dancer in her youth and had a very successful later career in the studio’s scenic art department. With an uncle and cousin in the business as well, Grenade grew up on the backlots of Hollywood. He was buddies with some of the most famous actors of all time and their children. From the time he was a baby, he was in front of the camera in commercials and movies. As an adult, he followed in his mother’s proverbial footsteps and worked as a background dancer in classic MGM musicals like Singin’ in the Rain, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers and The Band Wagon. Over his decades in the business, he also worked behind the camera, touching every aspect of production from wardrobe to set design to direction.

In 1954 he got his first job with Walt Disney Studios working as a safety diver on 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea starring Kirk Douglas. Several other behind-the-scenes jobs followed in Disney pictures and television shows. Walt Disney knew Curran’s family and he took a liking to Grenade, not the least because of his undeniably kickass first name. So even though he was just a regular production guy, not an executive, animator or an artist, Grenade found himself in the middle of historic events thanks to that jocular rapport he had with Disney.

After the deal was struck in New York, Walt Disney showed Grenade the first check from ABC and the check the mortgage company gave him when he refinanced his home. Grenade also saw the map, witnessing artists make changes and additions at Disney’s command. In March of 1955, Grenade asked him what he planned to do with the map and then boldly asked if he could have it. Walt said yes and Grenade Curran became the proud owner of the first map of Disneyland.

Construction on the park began in 1954 and on July 15th, 1955, Disneyland had its World Premiere Invitational Opening broadcast live on television and hosted by Art Linkletter, Ronald Reagan and Robert Cummins. Walt Disney assigned Grenade Curran to drive one of the Autopia cars in the very first Main Street Parade led by Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck. Actor Don DeFore road in the car with him.

The opening was supposed to be an invitation-only preview, a show for celebrities and tantalizing glimpse brought to the rest of the country by ABC, but word got out and the public showed up in droves. The park, which was still under construction as of that morning, wasn’t even remotely ready for the 50,000 people who clamored to ride the teacups, moon over Sleeping Beauty’s Castle and squeal with delighted horrors through Snow White’s haunted forest. The asphalt on the streets melted in the 100 degree Anaheim heat. The toilets backed up. Everything that could go wrong did go wrong. And yet, the massive failure of the opening day was also proof that Disneyland was a major draw, would make all of its costs back lickety-split and basically turn out to be a license to print money.

Curran knew when he got the map that it was significant as a piece of history and a unique example of Walt Disney’s creativity and his team’s artistry. When Disneyland’s success birthed a myriad theme parks all over the world, he realized the map marked the beginning of a global cultural phenomenon. He kept it for 25 years before selling it to avid Disney collector Ron Clark. Clark has had it in a vault ever since. The map went on display for the first time in more than 60 years earlier this month at the auction preview.

The buyer has chosen to remain anonymous but appears to be a private collector. Clark had hoped the map would be acquired by Disney so it could go home, but they must not have been bidding because there’s no way a company with pockets as deep as Disney’s wouldn’t push the hammer price above the low estimate.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Large collection of Nazi objects found in Buenos Aires

History Blog - Sun, 2017-06-25 23:51

Argentina’s federal police and Interpol discovered a secret cache of Nazi artifacts in a Buenos Aires home earlier this month. It was an accidental find. The police were looking for smuggled Chinese art, antiquities and mummies but instead found around 75 Nazi objects in a room at the end of a secret passageway whose entrance was hidden behind a bookshelf. The collection is varied but appears to be of very high end material — magnifying glasses, telescopes, firearms, medals, an award from Krupp, a Reichsadler (imperial eagle) manufactured by Carl Eickhorn of Solingen, busts and reliefs of Hitler, a presentation dagger with carved antler handle and swastika medallion, swastika-branded toys like board games and harmonicas to help raise good Nazi children. It is the largest collection of Nazi tat ever found in Argentina.

Officials believe these pieces may have been entered Argentina with one of the high-ranking Nazi officials who traveled to the country either during the party’s heyday or who fled there after Germany’s defeat. The monster/doctor Josef Mengele who used Auschwitz inmates as guinea pigs in his sickening and usually fatal experiments lived in Buenos Aires for more than a decade from 1949 until 1960. Adolf Eichmann, one of the main architects of the Holocaust who was “just following orders,” was captured by Mossad agents in Buenos Aires in 1960, tried in Israel, convicted and executed. The home where the secret trove was found is in Beccar, a northern suburb of Buenos Aires. Both Mengele and Eichmann lived in Beccar during their sojourns in the Argentinian capital.

The name of the homeowner has not been released. All the authorities will say about this individual is that he is a collector who claims to have acquired the Nazi memorabilia in a single purchase 25 years ago from an Argentinian national. He has an eclectic group of 17 different collections, including a collection of erotica which features highly decorative Russian dildos from the Tsarist era. The collector has yet to be charged for any crime, but he is accused of smuggling (charges unrelated to the Nazi artifacts) and is being investigated for illegal sale of Nazi propaganda. He insists he wasn’t selling any of those objects and his ownership of them is not against the law.

Meanwhile, the objects have yet to be authenticated. No matter what he was doing with them, if they’re fakes, it’s not illegal even if he was trying to sell them. The police have called in historians to study the pieces and help determine their origin.

“Our first investigations indicate that these are original pieces,” Argentine Security Minister Patricia Bullrich told The Associated Press on Monday, saying that some pieces were accompanied by old photographs. “This is a way to commercialize them, showing that they were used by the horror, by the Fuhrer. There are photos of him with the objects.” […]

Police say one of the most-compelling pieces of evidence of the historical importance of the find is a photo negative of Hitler holding a magnifying glass similar to those found in the boxes.

“We have turned to historians and they’ve told us it is the original magnifying glass” that Hitler was using, said Nestor Roncaglia, head of Argentina’s federal police. “We are reaching out to international experts to deepen” the investigation.

Militaria expert and appraiser Bill Panagopulos of Alexander Historical Auctions disputes the police’s initial conclusions in the strongest possible terms, calling the objects “carnival-quality garbage” and “a bunch of ersatz liverwurst.”

There’s no question that authentication is going to be challenging, if not impossible. The Eickhorn company still exists today in Solingen, for example, but their records are patchy thanks to the disruption war and several bankruptcies. They found nothing in the archives matching the Eickhorn pieces found in Buenos Aires, and counterfeits abound.

Once the investigation is complete, the plan is to give the artifacts to the Holocaust Museum of Buenos Aires. Whether this actually happens remains to be seen. If they prove to be fakes, the museum may not be interested, and even if they are authentic, this could well end up in civil court if the collector files a claim of legitimate ownership.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Ancient cemetery found during work on new Managua stadium

History Blog - Sat, 2017-06-24 23:11

A few days ago, workers with Nicaragua’s National Electric Transmission Company (Enatrel) discovered six large pottery vessels while digging a ditch for a substation to power the new National Baseball Stadium currently under construction in Managua. They called in experts from the archaeological department of the Nicaraguan Institute of Culture (INC) who excavated the site further and discovered more than 30 of those large vessels. They also found the vestiges of inhumation burials, skeletal human remains and smaller pieces of pottery. Archaeologists believe this was a Pre-Columbian cemetery dating to sometime between 800 and 1350 A.D., although those dates have yet to be confirmed.

The skeletal remains are few and scattered. One of the most intact skeletons has a skull with some teeth still in the jaw (important features if there’s any hope of stable isotope analysis or DNA extraction), ribs, arm and leg bones. Its hand and feet, however, are missing.

Some of the large pottery vessels contain human remains as well, and while their contents haven’t been thoroughly examined in situ, these were almost certainly Pre-Columbian funerary urns. Even though they were found buried less than three feet under the surface, many of them are in excellent condition, complete with fitted lids, reliefs and engraved images of animals like iguanas and human faces. Some even have traces of the original polychrome paint. They come in a variety of shapes — squashed spheres, pot-bellied, horizontal alien egg with the lid all the way to one side.

According to INC Director of Archeology Ivonne Miranda, this is a finding of national significance. It’s the first funerary complex found in Nicaragua with such a density of burials in the same small area. The ancient cemetery site hasn’t been populated in modern times, which is damn good luck because there’s no way these delicate remains and ceramics would have survived major construction just a few feet underground, but centuries ago the indigenous people who lived in what is now Managua settled there because of the ample sources of water from a nearby lake and rivers.

Other objects from the period have been found in Masaya and Granada, about 20 miles southeast of Managua, and in Rivas, about 56 miles south of the capital. Archaeologists hope this historic find will shed new light on the population and culture of the region.

“This allows us to understand a little better how the dispersion of these materials in the same space of time … and try to rescue the cultural identity of the old settlers of Managua,” Miranda said.

The archaeological discovery also “helps us to know about the behavior of our pre-Hispanic societies,” Miranda said.

Excavations are still ongoing. The urns, remains and other artifacts will be transferred to the National Palace of Culture where they will be analyzed in the National Museum’s laboratory.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History