Arts and Sciences

10 coffins, 8 mummies, 1,000 ushabtis found in Luxor tomb

History Blog - Tue, 2017-04-18 23:36

Archaeologists have discovered a tomb containing 10 coffins, eight mummies and more than 1,000 funerary statues in the Draa Abul Nagaa necropolis on the west bank of the Nile in Luxor. The team had to work hard to get to this point, removing more than 450 cubic meters of debris before reaching the door to the entrance of the tomb.

The tomb is T-shaped with an open courtyard leading to a rectangular hall which is connected to a second chamber by a corridor. The longitudinal chamber held four painted wood coffins, the inner chamber six. In a shaft nine meters (30 feet) long, archaeologists found more Ushabti figurines, plus wooden masks and the handle from a sarcophagus lid.

While the human remains are in varying states of decay — from intact linen-wrapped mummies to disarticulated skeletonized body parts — the coffins are largely in good condition. Some are broken, but the rich polychrome paint in combinations of yellow, red, blue, green and black is still vibrant.

First built to house the mortal remains of an 18th Dynasty city judge named Userhat who lived around 3,500 years ago, the tomb was converted into a duplex in the 21st Dynasty. That means the artifacts and human remains do not all belong to Userhat or members of his family/retinue. The mummies and wooden sarcophagi found in the second chamber were placed there at that time. The inner chamber also held more ushabti funerary figurines made of faience, terra cotta and wood and a group of clay pots painted in patterns of orange and green.

The tomb was opened to add more mummies during the 21st Dynasty, about 3,000 years ago, to protect them during a period when tomb-robbing was common, [head of the archeological mission Mostafa] Waziri said at the site.

“It was a surprise how much was being displayed inside” the tomb, Antiquities Minister Khaled el-Enany told reporters outside the tomb.

Ushabti figurines represented the servants and workers who would follow the deceased into the afterlife and serve him there as they had served him in this world. The discovery of so many of them at one time is of great historical significance. And there could well be more to come. The whole tomb has not been fully excavated yet. There is at least one more room which archaeologists are working on now.

Nevine el-Aref, the spokeswoman for the antiquities ministry, said: “there is evidence and traces that new mummies could be discovered in the future.”

 

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Napoleon’s first love captured in a ring

History Blog - Mon, 2017-04-17 23:36

Before he was General Bonaparte, before he was First Consul, before he was Emperor of the French, even before the French Revolution that made it possible for a Corsican nobody to reach such dizzying heights of power, Napoleon Bonaparte was a wet-behind-the-ears graduate from the École Militaire in Paris. The first Corsican to graduate from the institution, Napoleon completed the program in one year instead of two (forced by a precipitous decline in his finances after the death of his father), so he was just 18 years old when he received his first commission as second lieutenant in the La Fère regiment in October 1785.

He was stationed in a garrison in Valence, southeastern France, where he was introduced to one Madame Grégoire du Colombier, a cultured, charming woman who saw promise in the young lieutenant and took him under her wing. From the memoirs of Emmanuel, Comte de Las Cases, who accompanied Napoleon to exile on Saint Helena and assiduously documented everything he said:

Madame du Colombier often foretold that [Napoleon] would be a distinguished man. The death of this lady happened about the time of the breaking out of the Revolution: it was an event in which she took great interest, and in her last moments was heard to say that if no misfortune befell young Napoleon, he would infallibly play a distinguished part in the events of the time. The Emperor never spoke of Madame du Colombier but with expressions of the tenderest gratitude; and he did not hesitate to acknowledge, that the valuable introductions and superior rank in society which she procured for him had great influence over his destiny.

She could have had a more personal connection to the future emperor. In early 1786, she invited him to stay at her estate at Basseaux, outside Valence, where he met her daughter Charlotte Pierrette Anne, known as Caroline. Napoleon courted Caroline du Colombier that summer and there were intimations that he might even propose. That didn’t happen, but Napoleon remembered their sweet young love until the end of his life. The Comte de Las Cases again:

Napoleon conceived an attachment for Mademoiselle du Colombier, who, on her part, was not insensible to his merits. It was the first love of both; and it was that kind of love which might be expected to arise at their age and with their education. “We were the most innocent creatures imaginable,” the Emperor used to say; “we contrived little meetings together; I well remember one which took place on a midsummer morning, just as daylight began to dawn, it will scarcely be believed that all our happiness consisted in eating cherries together.”

Napoleon moved on from Valence, following his career star. Caroline married Monsieur Gamparet de Bressieux, a much older former army captain, in 1792 when General Bonaparte was on his Egyptian campaign. They stayed in touch, corresponding occasionally over the years. In 1804, now Emperor Napoleon I replied warmly to a letter from Caroline de Bressieux, offering to help her brother and herself. Shortly thereafter he appointed her lady in waiting to Madame Mère, his mother Letizia Bonaparte.

Madame Junot, the Duchesse D’Abrantès, described Madame de Bressieux at court after her appointment as Letizia’s lady in waiting.

She was both witty and good and her manners were at once gentle and agreeable. I can very well understand the Emperor going to gather cherries with her at six o’clock in the morning merely to talk to her and with no less worthy motive. A thing that struck me the first time I saw her was the interest she seemed to take in the Emperor’s most trifling acts. She kept her eyes fixed upon him with an attention that could only come from the heart.

And that was a decade after their youthful romance had passed and they had married other people. One day, when Napoleon, his mother and Caroline were all together, he asked her who owned the Basseaux estate where they had spent their summer of love together. Caroline replied that her sister and brother-in-law lived there now. The Emperor expressed a desire to grant them any wish, in honor of his fond memories of the estate. Caroline declined in their name, assuring him that those happy memories were gift enough.

He said no more about it, but a few weeks later he presented Caroline with a token of his appreciation for all Basseaux had meant to him. It was a ring, a seemingly modest one, made of gilded bronze with a central bezel containing a miniature carved country scene under a glass cover. It was the carving, made of marine ivory, that made this ring a masterpiece. In exquisite detail, the scene depicted a group of country folk collecting fruit from trees under the shadow of an ancient temple. The fruits were, of course, cherries.

The ring stayed in Caroline’s family, a treasured heirloom, for more than 200 years. On Sunday, March 26th, the heirs sold this beautiful symbol of Napoleon before he was THE Napoleon at auction in Paris. The pre-sale estimate was 15,000-20,000 € ($16,000-21,000). It sold for 36,250 € ($38,580), a tribute to its artistry, yes, but more so the poignant sweetness of its history.

 

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

5 Archbishops of Canterbury found under a church floor

History Blog - Sun, 2017-04-16 23:05

The mortal remains of five Archbishops of Canterbury have been discovered in a hidden chamber underneath the floor of the deconsecrated church of St Mary-at-Lambeth in London. The surprise find was made last year during renovations to the building, now the home of the Museum of Garden History, but was kept quiet to protect the crypt until it was stabilized.

Contractors discovered the secret entrance to the crypt when removing some York stone pavers to even out the treacherous floor and make the altar area wheelchair accessible. Lifting the flagstones, contractors found the entrance to a passageway with a staircase going down into the darkness. They attached a cellphone to a long stick and filmed the brick-lined vault. They were shocked to discover it was crammed from floor to ceiling with lead coffins, 30 of them. One of the coffins, they noted, had a red and gold pointed hat perched upon it, the mitre of an Archbishop.

Two of the coffins had nameplates – one for Richard Bancroft (in office from 1604 to 1610) and one for John Moore (1783 to 1805) whose wife, Catherine Moore, also had a coffin plate.

Bancroft was the chief overseer of the publication of a new English translation of the Bible – the King James Bible – which began in 1604 and was published in 1611.

According to Mr Mount, St Mary-at-Lambeth’s records have since revealed that a further three archbishops were probably buried in the vault: Frederick Cornwallis (in office 1768 to 1783), Matthew Hutton (1757 to 1758) and Thomas Tenison (1695 to 1715). [...]

Also identified from coffin plates was the Dean of Arches John Bettesworth (who lived from 1677 to 1751) – the judge who sits at the ecclesiastical court of the Archbishop of Canterbury.

Because the church had been extensively rebuilt in the Victorian era, nobody thought there was still a crypt underneath it. The church is so close to the Thames that any underground space would have been dangerously flood-prone, and it was believed that any vaults under the church were cleared out by the Victorians and filled with soil. That was almost true. Most of the vaults were cleared of their coffins and filled in, but one of them, the crypt underneath the altar, the holiest location in the church and thus the burial place for multiple Archbishops of Canterbury, was left alone.

The church of St Mary-at-Lambeth has a very long and storied connection to the Archbishops of Canterbury. Edward the Confessor commissioned the construction of the first Westminster Abbey in 1042. The Romanesque church was still being built when Edward’s sister Goda had a more modest wooden church built across the river on her manor of Lambeth. St Mary’s was rebuilt in stone a few decades later. By the end of the 12th century the manor of Lambeth belonged to the Archbishop of Canterbury, which elevated its profile considerably. The Archbishop’s residence, Lambeth Palace, was built next door in 1197, and St. Mary’s graduated from the parish church of a small manor to the Archbishop of Canterbury’s palace church.

Almost entirely rebuilt in 1851, St Mary-at-Lambeth was used for burials until 1854. An estimated 26,000 burials took place there, nearly 16,000 of them in just two decades (1790-1810). Prominent residents were buried at St Mary’s. There are three Grade II listed graves in the churchyard, those of Captain Bligh of The Mutiny on the Bounty fame, pioneering plant collector and royal gardener John Tradescant and artificial stone manufacturer John Sealy.

Fallen into disrepair, its parishioners depleted by neighborhood blight, St Mary-at-Lambeth was deconsecrated in 1972 and was slated for demolition to make way for a parking lot. It was saved from that dire fate by one Rosemary Nicholson, a gardening history buff who had sought out the dilapidated church to visit the overgrown and neglected tomb of John Tradescant. She appealed directly to the Archbishop of Canterbury and with her husband John founded the Tradescant Trust to rescue the church and burial ground. They were extraordinarily successful, raising money for much-needed repairs and securing a 99-year lease on the church and property from the Diocese of Southwark. The Trust gave St Mary-at-Lambeth new life as the Museum of Garden History, the first of its kind in the world.

The Garden Museum closed in October 2015 for a major £7.5 million ($9,400,000) refurbishment. It will reopen on May 22nd with a new glass panel in the floor that will allow visitors to view the staircase into the crypt. The coffins, which have been left untouched in the chamber, will not be accessible.

 

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

You have 3 days to see Liverpool’s glorious Minton tile floor

History Blog - Sat, 2017-04-15 23:25

St George’s Hall in downtown Liverpool is a grand Neoclassical building constructed between 1841 and 1854. Located across the street from the Lime Street railway station, St George’s Hall was designed first and foremost to host Liverpool’s triennial music festivals, plus concerts, dances and other cultural activities. The Liverpool Corporation raised funds for the new building by selling subscriptions, and in 1839 held a design contest to choose an architect for the hall.

The winner was Harvey Lonsdale Elmes, a 25-year-old architecture prodigy who also happened to win another contest held at the same time to design a new building for the Civil and Crown Courts. He suggested both projects be combined, and thus St George’s Hall became the only combined concert venue, ballroom and courthouse in the country, possibly the world.

The Great Hall, a vast space 169 feet by 77 feet with 82-foot ceilings, was lavishly decorated with monumental red granite columns, statues and tunnel vaulting. But its greatest glory is the floor, a riot of color composed of more than 30,000 tiles depicting Liverpool-related motifs including the liver bird, the symbol of the city, and maritime imagery like Neptune, tridents, dolphins and sea nymphs. The floor was installed in 1854, the jewel in the crown of St George’s Hall. It is today the largest, most intricate example of a Minton tile floor.

Founded in 1845, Minton, Hollins & Company specialized in decorative tiles for the floors and walls of churches, public buildings and private homes. Minton’s encaustic tiles — ceramic tile with multiple colors created by different colors of clay rather than different glazes — were all the rage in the Victorian era. They were considered the epitome of beauty and durability and won gold medal upon gold medal at trade shows across the globe. There are Minton encaustic tile floors in the Palace of Westminster, the Victoria & Albert Museum, prestigious hotels, elegant mansions and even in the United States Capitol.

St George’s Hall only enjoyed the full glory of its Minton tile floor for a decade. A wooden covering was added in the 1860s to make it more comfortable for dances and other events. This reduced the wear and tear from thousands of foxtrotting feet over the decades, but it also left the tile unmaintained, not to mention hidden away. The building was all but abandoned in the 1980s when the courts moved to a new building. With no money for ongoing maintenance, the great neoclassical building, widely considered one of the most spectacular examples of the period in the world, rapidly deteriorated.

In the 1990s funds were raised to repair parts the building, and in the early 2000s a major refurbishment project saved St George’s Hall. In 2007, the Grade I listed building opened to the public once again, restored to its former splendor. The Minton floor, however, was deemed too fragile to expose to all those feet again. It was covered with protective wooden panels which are very rarely removed. Sections of the floor received the first thorough restoration only in 2015.

If you’d like to see the greatest extant Victorian encaustic tile floor, you have a brief window to do so. The floor will be uncovered and open to visitors only until Wednesday, April 18th. The entrance fee is £2.50 to view the floor from a viewing platform. There are also Walk the Floor tours (£10) and a Night on the Tiles option (£12, including a flute of prosecco).

 

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

“The Two Maidens” of Pompeii are men

History Blog - Fri, 2017-04-14 23:31

An ongoing project to CT scan the plaster casts of the victims of the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 A.D. has revealed that the cast of two embracing figures known as The Two Maidens are in fact men. The skeletal remains of the couple and the cavity in the volcanic rock left by the decay of their soft tissues were discovered in the garden of the House of the Cryptoporticus in a 1914 excavation overseen by Pompeii’s director of works Vittorio Spinazzola. The remains of eight people were found in that little peristyle garden, two of them in 1913, the rest between July 2nd and 21st of 1914.

All eight were found in the fine ash layer that followed the pumice fall, encased by the pyroclastic flow that covered the town. Plaster casts were made of three of the eight (the right conditions for creating the casts are rare; out of more than 1,100 human remains found at Pompeii, casts have been made of only 86 of them), with particular attention paid to the more complex problem of the couple. The Two Maidens were erroneously assumed to be women because of their posture and the shapeliness of their legs. Here is how Spinazzola described the find in the yearly report on the excavation (translation mine):

One of the fallen lies on the left side, the head pointing to the east and the legs, a bit contracted, to the west. The left hand is folded near the head, in the ashes, and the right is under the chin as if to push away something obstructing the mouth and preventing breathing. The other person is bent on the right side with his head on the breast of the first. And this pose against the abdomen of the first fallen, the right arm buried in the ashes, the left gently bent under the breasts, the legs with full and tender female contours, one more, one less contracted, as of someone sweetly reclining to sleep an eternal sleep in a protective womb.

Apparently seeking comfort in the face of apocalyptic death was deemed to be a feminine impulse rather than a human one. The supposed “female contours” of the legs and later descriptions of “little rings” found on the fingers were extensions of that assumption.

Examination of osteological and morphological features on the CAT scan indicates that both individuals are male and that the individual with his head against the chest of the other was a young man about 18 years old at the time of death. The other person is believed to be an adult male who was at least 20 years old when Vesuvius claimed his life. Mitochondrial DNA extracted from one tooth and bone fragments established conclusively that the younger of the two was male. DNA analysis confirmed that the two were neither brothers nor father and son. Some news stories have leapt to the conclusion that they were therefore lovers, which is not remotely supportable by the evidence and seems to me just another iteration of the same prejudices that caused the original Two Maidens error.

The scans are part of the Great Pompeii Project, an extensive program of architectural restoration and stabilization of the most endangered features of the ancient city. The 86 human casts, the oldest of which date to the 1860s when pioneering archaeologist Giuseppe Fiorelli first filled a cavity with plaster to capture the final death throes of one of Vesuvius’ victims, are in need of restoration as much as the buildings are, and they pose a thorny challenge since they contain human remains. In order to get a clear idea of what’s inside the plaster shell — bones, metal supports, more plaster in varying states of decay — conservators borrowed a state-of-the-art 16-layer CT scanner that was able to penetrate the dense materials.

With the scans as guides, the team was able to extract mitochondrial DNA (which survives far better than nuclear DNA in archaeological contexts) from the skeletal remains with pinpoint precision and minimal damage. This opens up a whole new arena of information about the people of Pompeii.

 

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Jorvik Viking Centre reopens 16 months after flood

History Blog - Thu, 2017-04-13 23:06

On December 27, 2015, the Jorvik Viking Centre was flooded by the heavy rains that submerged downtown York. One of York’s most popular attractions, the Jorvik Centre is a recreation of the streets of Viking York whose foundations were discovered on and around Coppergate Street during an excavation by the York Archaeological Trust from 1976 to 1981. The excavations unearthed artifacts like a silk cap, coins, amber and cowrie shells that proved 10th century Viking York had extensive trade links stretching as far as the Byzantine Empire and beyond.

(Coppergate is also the find spot for a record-breaking archaeological treasure: the Lloyds Bank Coprolite, discovered in 1972 at the construction site of the bank branch. It is the largest known human coprolite, a majestic turd eight inches long by two inches wide, that was mineralized and thus preserved in exceptional condition. The crap provided a rich glimpse into the life of a 10th century York Viking. He or she subsisted mainly on bread and meat, which explains the sheer size of that beast, and was riddled with parasites and parasite eggs.

This video featuring York Archaeological Trust paleoscatologist Dr. Andrew Jones talking about the coprolite beats raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens by a mile on my personal favorite things scale.

(Pardon the digression. You know I can never resist archaeological poop.)

Curators were able to rescue the large collection of artifacts unearthed in Coppergate from the floodwaters, but the mannikins of Vikings going about their daily lives and their recreated homes and businesses could not be moved. They stewed in the murky water that filled the first floor of the museum until it receded. The damage to the exhibits and the facilities was extensive.

Insurance payments and copious fundraising allowed the Jorvik Centre to rebuild and expand, improving some of the tableaux, adding new stinks to the beloved smell-o-vision feature of the recreations, and creating a new gallery that will allow the museum to securely host important loans from other institutions. After 16 months and £4.3 million ($5,380,000), the newly renovated Jorvik Viking Centre reopened to the public on April 8th.

One of the centerpieces of the grand reopening is the Coppergate or York Helmet, an 8th century Anglo-Saxon helmet that was found in a wood-lined well during construction of a shopping center in 1982. The pit was near the site where the remains of Viking York were discovered that is now the Jorvik Viking Centre. Even though the helmet was damaged by the mechanical digger that found it, conservators at the British Museum were able to reconstruct it to its original condition. It is one of only three intact Anglian helmets ever discovered in Britain.

The York Helmet’s permanent home is the Yorkshire Museum. It will be on display at the Jorvik Centre for four weeks in honor of the reopening.

“Although itself not strictly Viking, it is likely that it was appropriated and used by one of the Viking settlers into the late ninth century. It is a prestigious piece of armour, so it could have been buried in its wood-lined pit by the new owner to hide it, but for some reason, was never reclaimed, and remained underground until the very last excavations of the Coppergate dig in 1982,” comments director of attractions for York Archaeological Trust, Sarah Maltby. “We are looking forward to bringing the helmet back in Coppergate — it is a real treat for those visiting during our first month of re-opening that they will see it in almost exactly the same spot as it was unearthed.”

After this brief visit to its old stomping grounds, the helmet will return to the Yorkshire Museum for a new exhibition Viking: Rediscover the Legend. A collaboration with the British Museum, the exhibition will bring together for the first time some of the greatest Viking and Anglo-Saxon archaeological treasures ever discovered, including the Bedale Hoard, the Vale of York Hoard, the Gilling Sword and the Lewis Chessmen. It opens at the Yorkshire Museum on May 19th and runs through November 5th before touring the country, stopping at the University of Nottingham, The Atkinson, Southport, Aberdeen Art Gallery and Norwich Castle Museum.

 

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Roman settlement in north England may rewrite history

History Blog - Wed, 2017-04-12 23:08

The expansion of the A1, Britain’s longest road, has unearthed a major Roman settlement at Scotch Corner in North Yorkshire. Some of the artifacts are of exceptional quality, so much so that archaeologists are having to revise their understanding of the Roman conquest of northern England. There had to have been very wealthy Romano-Britons further north and earlier than previously realized, and a Roman administrative center to boot.

The settlement, about 40 miles north of York, was a small town by the standards of the mainland, but it was big for northern England. The site extended just under a mile from north to south and contained a mixture of Roman and native buildings. About 40 Roman buildings — rectangular and likely a combination of private homes and businesses — abutted the Roman road from London to Brigantia, the territory of the Brigantes tribe in northern England. Only 12 of them have been excavated so far. Back from the road archaeologists discovered Iron Age British roundhouses, probably the same number as the Roman structures; 14 of them have been excavated.

Archaeologists believe the Roman buildings were built in the 50s A.D., which means the road they face was already built or at least in the process of being built at that time. Before this discovery, historians believed it was constructed in the early 70s A.D., almost 20 years later.

Amidst the structures and buried in votive pits, archaeologists found expensive imported artifacts including a high relief glass bowl, glazed Roman tableware, a copper mirror and drinking vessels. One of the standout pieces is an exceptionally rare fragment of a carved amber figurine. The torso of a man wearing a toga, believed to represent an actor, was likely made in Italy in the 1st century A.D., and while a similar piece has been found at Pompeii, this is the first one of its kind ever discovered in the UK. For the Scotch Corner settlement to have had artifacts like this, they had to have a line on the highest quality export goods Rome had to offer.

The strongest evidence that Scotch Corner was a major administrative center is the large number of pellet moulds used to create gold, silver and copper coins. Fragments of dozens of ceramic mould trays were unearthed in the area where the British roundhouses have been found. Two distinct types of trays were discovered, one for making 100 smaller pellets, another for making 50 larger ones. The pellets were the first step in coin production. The balls would then be struck with hammer and die to create coins. This is the northernmost archaeological evidence of coin production discovered in Europe.

The moulds and alloys are characteristic of native British coin manufacture, but no Brigantian coins have ever been discovered and the scale of production indicated by the sheer number of moulds suggests the involvement of Roman administration or a massive increase in need for coinage stimulated by the Roman arrival.

The Scotch Corner settlement predates the Roman settlements in York and Carlisle by a decade, which means the Romans established themselves in the north 10 years earlier than historians thought. It didn’t last long, however, no more than two or three decades. It was eclipsed as a population and administrative center by the neighboring settlement of Catterick (Cataractonium).

The A1 excavation has unearthed a wealth of valuable artifacts from Cataractonium as well, among them a gorgeous ring shaped like a snake; many leather shoes in excellent condition; uncut sheets of leather indicating a large-scale manufacture of shoes and clothes, possibly for the Roman army; iron keys large and small; a pewter inkpot; and a number of styli, attesting to a high level of literacy in the population.

Neil Redfern, Principal Inspector of Ancient Monuments at Historic England said: “The sheer amount of exceptional objects found on this road scheme has been extraordinary. Through them we are learning more and more about life here in the Roman period. This project has given us a unique opportunity to understand how the Romans conducted their military expansion into Northern England and how civil life changed under their control.”

 

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

St. Ambrose’s silk tunic liberated from glass prison

History Blog - Tue, 2017-04-11 23:29

Textile conservation experts from the University of Bonn have been preserving the fragile silk textiles believed to have belonged to Saint Ambrose, the 4th century archbishop and patron saint of Milan, since 2014. Considered holy relics of the saint, the ancient silks are so delicate the team created a mobile conservation lab so they could be preserved in situ at Milan’s Basilica of Saint Ambrose. The process of cleaning damaging dust from the silk fibers using small brushes and miniature vacuum cleaners has taken years.

Now conservators have taken on the most daunting project of all: raising a pane of glass weighing 80 kilos (176 pounds) from the silk tunic it was meant to protect. The pane was supposed to keep the silk threads clean and allow the tunic to be displayed without damage, but instead the fibers formed undulations under the massive weight of the glass. The fine threads also adhered to the glass over the years, making it extremely difficult to remove the pane without tearing the tunic. Even simply moving the tunic still under glass into a space where it could be conserved required elaborate planning.

The silk tunic measuring an impressive approx. 170 x 280 centimeters was stored in a drawer cabinet in the gallery of Sant’Ambrogio. However, this room was unsuitable for the preservation work. The transporters thus packed the glass panes with the valuable cargo between two large wooden boards, and the huge artwork was then carried vertically along the narrowest, winding corridors into the basilica’s archive, which was transformed into a workshop for a month. “This transportation was highly risky,” reports the restorer Ulrike Reichert. In some places, the art transporters had to proceed millimeter by millimeter to ensure the transit was ultimately successful.

Once they arrived in the workshop, the six art transporters heaved the glass, silk tunic and wood sandwich onto a large table. The most dangerous moment of the preservation was now imminent. While the art transporters lifted the glass pane very slightly using suction handles, Ulrike Reichert used a flat stick to very carefully separate adhering parts of the silk tunic from the glass pane square centimeter by square centimeter. “This work took a long time – for the helpers, it was a feat of strength to keep the heavy pane in the air the whole time,” says Schrenk.

Once all the silk fibers were separated from the pane, the transport crew lifted the heavy glass slowly a centimeter at a time. If the suction cups had failed or the glass had broken, the tunic could have been irreparably damaged. Thankfully nothing went wrong. The glass lifted clean and the silk didn’t budge. The crew was able to quickly move the pane off the tunic and put it down.

The tunic can now be painstakingly cleaned as its brethren were. Once it has been fully cleaned and stabilized, it will be covered with a lightweight acrylic pane which will preserve the silk textile without forcing it to bear the weight of a grown man sitting on its chest for decades.

 

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Look at Idrimi’s statue and receive his blessing

History Blog - Mon, 2017-04-10 23:31

One of the gems in the British Museum is the statue of Idrimi, King of Alalakh, an ancient city-state in what is now Turkey, in the 15th century B.C. Destroyed in 1200 B.C., probably by the Sea People, Alalakh was never rebuilt. The remains of the city are today the archaeological site of Tell Atchana, which was first excavated by famed archaeologist Sir Leonard Woolley in the 1930s. The statue of Idrimi was unearthed by Woolley in the remains of a temple during the 1939 dig season.

Woolley described the find in a dispatch on May 21st, 1939:

“A rubbish-pit at the temple gave us great surprise. From it there came a white stone statue just over a metre high of a Hittite king, a seated figure; the head and feet were broken off but except for part of the foot the statue is complete and in wonderfully good condition and even the nose is only just chipped. The figure is covered literally from head to foot with cuneiform inscription which begins on one cheek, runs across the front and one side of the body and ends at the bottom of the skirt, rather more than fifty lines of text. Nothing like that has been found before.”

Nothing like that has been found since. The Akkadian language inscription (pdf of translation here) is a detailed autobiography of Idrimi’s life and military conquests. Its chronology of monarchs, wars and population shifts remains to this day the primary source for the history of the Levant in the 15th century B.C. According to the inscription, Idrimi was born in Halab, modern-day Aleppo, Syria, part of the kingdom of Yamhad, the youngest of seven sons of a prince. Driven out of Aleppo by an unspecified “outrage,” Idrimi and his family fled to Emar where their maternal aunts lived, but Idrimi couldn’t tolerate going from prince to the poor relation; so he took his groom and chariot and joined up with groups of nomads in Canaan who recognized his noble lineage and acknowledged him as their ruler. This is the first known written reference to the Land of Canaan.

After seven years of vicissitudes and sacrifices to the god Teshub, Idrimi finally reclaimed his ancestral heritage and became king of Alalakh. Many conquests, much booty and the construction of great palaces and temple followed. Alalakh prospered for 30 years under Idrimi’s rule. At the bottom of the inscription, Idrimi threatened dire consequences to anyone who would seek to erase this record of his achievements or claim it as their own.

He who removes this my statue, , may the sky curse him, may his seed be closed in the underworld, may the Gods of sky and earth divide his kingdom and his country! He who always changes it, in any way whatever, may Teshub, the lord of the sky and the earth and the great gods in his land, destroy his name and his descendants!

There’s another coda to the inscription, this one anomalously carved into his cheek so it looks like the cuneiform version of a speech bubble.

Thirty years long I was king. I wrote my acts on my tablet. One may look at it and constantly think of my blessing!

That goal will now be fulfilled on a vastly greater scale than Idrimi could ever have imagined. The statue has been in the permanent collection of the British Museum since it was excavated. Its surface is so fragile that to preserve the inscription the statue is on display behind protective glass. Not even researchers are allowed to get behind the glass, which means the inscription has not been able to benefit from the latest scholarship on Akkadian cuneiform.

Scanning technology has stepped into the breach. For two days, Idrimi was liberated from his enclosure so experts from the Factum Foundation could 3D-scan the statue using close-range photogrammetry and white light scanning. With every minute detail of the surface captured, the data was used to generate a 3D model available online to anyone in the world who wants to examine the statue.

It is encased in glass because “dust contains moisture, which wears away the natural laminates in the stone”, [Curator for the Levant at the British Museum James] Fraser says. It is carved from magnesite — a soft, brittle stone that may have been chosen because it was easy to carve. The glass barrier also prevents close study of the text. Instead, scholars have had to rely on old photographs and transliterations of the text to aid their research. “The digital model will revolutionise access to the object,” he says. It will also act a great touchstone for conservators because it is an accurate representation of the object’s condition as of 2017.

James Fraser gives a brief tour of the inscription during the short time Idrimi was out of his enclosure for the scanning in this video:

And now for Idrimi in his full 3D scan glory. Get your ancient king’s blessing here!

Statue of Idrimi, king of Alalakh by The British Museum.

Incidentally, Idrimi is in excellent company on the British Museum’s Sketchfab page. There are 3D scans of ancient statuary from Egypt, Greece and Rome, a Bronze Age bracelet and two of the Lewis chessman (one king, one queen).

 

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Fabergé egg reunited with missing surprise in Texas

History Blog - Sun, 2017-04-09 23:16

An imperial Fabergé egg will be reunited with its original surprise for the first time since the 1920s in a new exhibition at the Houston Museum of Natural Science (HMNS). Made of a translucent celadon stone and crisscrossed with a trellis pattern of rose-cut diamonds, the Diamond Trellis Egg is part of the McFerrin Fabergé Collection, the largest private collection of Fabergé treasures in the world, which is housed in the HMNS. The surprise inside, a jeweled ivory elephant wind-up automaton, was recently rediscovered in the Royal Collection and has been loaned to the museum by Queen Elizabeth II.

Presented by Tsar Alexander III to his wife the Empress Maria Feodorovna (née Princess Dagmar of Denmark) for Easter in 1892, the Diamond Trellis Egg held an elephant surprise that was a virtually identical replica of the badge of the Order of the Elephant, Denmark’s highest chivalric order. The only differences are the materials — Fabergé used ivory instead of white enamel — and the automaton mechanism. It was the second egg Alexander commissioned for his wife to have a Danish theme. The first was the Danish Palaces Egg, presented to Maria Feodorovna on Easter, 1890. The surprise inside was a ten-panel folding screen with miniatures of the Tsarina’s favorite Danish and Russian palaces. After Alexander’s sudden death in 1894 at the age of 49, his son Tsar Nicholas II continued the tradition of Fabergé Easter eggs, gifting them to both his wife and to his mother. It was Nicholas who gave the Dowager Empress her third and last Danish egg, the Royal Danish Egg, now lost.

The Diamond Trellis Egg and its elephant were confiscated from the Anichkov Palace in St. Petersburg, Maria Feodorovna’s home base, by the Bolsheviks in 1917. It was sold in 1930 by the Antikvariat, the agency tasked with selling off Russia’s cultural patrimony to raise money for the Soviet government, probably to Emanuel Wartski, although there are no records of the sale.

At some point in the saga the three parts of the egg, the base (now lost), the elephant and the egg got separated. In 1935 King George V bought the little elephant without knowing it was part of an Imperial Egg or even that it was made by Fabergé. It has been in the Royal Collection ever since, on display in one of the state rooms for decades.

In 2015, Caroline de Guitaut, Senior Curator of the Royal Collection Trust, was cataloguing the collection when she noticed the elephant figurine bore a resemblance to the surprise in the Diamond Trellis Egg as described in Fabergé’s ledgers: “ivory figure of an elephant, clockwork, with a small gold tower, partly enamelled and decorated with rose-cut diamonds,” with “a black mahout…seated on its head.” The Trust’s restorers and clockmakers painstakingly took the elephant apart down to the internal mechanism. They finally found the confirmation of the figurine’s origin under the top part of the castle on the elephant’s back. There was the unmistakable hallmark of Carl Fabergé.

When the cleaned and restored elephant was put back together, curators were ecstatic to find that the mechanism still worked. They slid the key into the hole hidden under the diamond cross on the elephant’s side, wound it up, and the little guy walked and nodded his head like he’d never lived through war, revolution and separation from his home egg.

The reunited egg and elephant will help inaugurate the Houston Museum of Natural Science’s new gallery dedicated to the Artie and Dorothy McFerrin Collection and its whopping 600 pieces of Fabergé. Fabergé: Royal Gifts featuring the Trellis Egg Surprise opens April 10th. The elephant will be on loan for a year before returning to the Royal Collection.

There are some beautiful views of the glittering egg and surprise in this brief video in which Caroline de Guitaut and Joel Bartsch, President of the Houston Museum of Natural Science, discuss the discovery of the missing piece. There’s an all too brief glimpse of the elephant’s movement at the 1:57 mark.

This video from the Royal Collection Trust, on the other hand, shows nothing but the automaton’s motion, starting with the wind-up. He raises his head every few steps. It’s absurdly cute.

Oh hey, guess what?

ELEPHANT BUTT!

 

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Stolen Norman Rockwell painting found after 41 years

History Blog - Sat, 2017-04-08 23:28

Norman Rockwell’s original painting for Boy Asleep with Hoe, a.k.a. Lazybones or Taking a Break, has been recovered by the FBI more than 40 years after it was stolen. The 25-by-28-inch oil painting was stolen from the home of Robert and Teresa Grant in Cherry Hill, New Jersey, on June 30th, 1976. The thieves also helped themselves to the Grants’ silver coin collection and their television. The Cherry Hill Police Department investigated the crime at the time but made no progress.

The FBI’s Art Crime Team got involved last year, partnering with the Cherry Hill police to launch a fresh appeal for leads in the very cold case on the 40th anniversary of the theft. It apparently worked, because a few months later in October the FBI got a phone call from a lawyer representing an anonymous client who wanted to return the painting.

Apparently the client was an antiques dealer who had the painting for years. He didn’t realize it was the original. He assumed it was a copy and had tried to sell it but never found any buyers, so he just hung it on his kitchen wall. That’s where it stayed for almost 40 years. The authorities found no evidence whatsoever that he was involved in the theft. It seems he was an unwitting fence of a stolen Norman Rockwell, and as soon as he realized it he made arrangements to return it. He is cooperating with the authorities in creating a composite drawing of the man he bought it from, but since four decades have passed it’s unlikely to lead to a sudden unmasking of the geriatric Lupin.

The image of a boy napping under a tree, the hoe between his legs a mute testament to the work he’s not doing, graced the cover of the September 6th, 1919, issue of the Saturday Evening Post. While Rockwell’s magazine covers enjoyed great popular success, his original paintings weren’t in demand at all, not for decades. Robert Grant acquired Boy Asleep with Hoe for $50 in 1952, and he only bought it because he had to after he poked a hole in it with a pool cue at a friend’s house. Robert’s son John says the friend told his father, “You just bought yourself a painting.”

That hole from the pool cue was key to the authentication of the painting. Experts from Christie’s and the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, confirmed it was the real thing. Because the Grant family submitted a claim to their insurer, Chubb, at the time of the theft and the claim was paid, Chubb was the legal title-holder. The company graciously agreed to allow the Grant family to reimburse them for the $15,000 claim payment in exchange for the painting. Given that the estimated value of the painting today is between $600,000 and $1,000,000, this was an incredibly generous act. Chubb isn’t even keeping the money. It plans to donate the claim payment to the Norman Rockwell Museum.

The painting was officially returned to the Grant family at a ceremony attended by representatives from the FBI and Chubb in Philadelphia on March 31st. There are six Grant heirs who now have to decide together what they’ll do with it. For obvious reasons, none of them wants to run the risk of keeping the painting in their home, so for now it’s going into storage.

 

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Republican aqueduct found in Rome

History Blog - Fri, 2017-04-07 23:38

The construction of Rome’s new metro line has encountered yet another archaeological marvel: a Republican-era aqueduct dating to around the 3rd century B.C., likely a section of the first aqueduct built in Rome. Archaeologists found the structure during construction of a ventilation shaft under Piazza Celimontana on the Celian hill. The shaft’s 18-meter (60-foot) depth allowed them unique access to the 3rd century layers of the city. Without the bulkheads keeping the water from flooding the site, it wouldn’t have possible to excavate anywhere near that deep.

“The opportunity to safely reach this depth allowed us to uncover and document an exception sequence of stratigraphy and structures from the Iron Age (tombs and grave objects from the tenth century BC) to the modern age (foundations of 19th-century housing,” [sic] [said lead archaeologist Simona Morretta].

Because the structure was buried under intact layers of earth, the team was able to work out that after falling out of use as an aqueduct, Romans living in the first century BC used it as a sewer.

What’s more, close examination of the earth revealed the remains of food leftovers, offering an insight into what Romans used to eat, and the animals they kept as pets – from wild boars to swans, pheasants, and large seawater fish.

The dating of the aqueduct, determined by the stratigraphy, and its location under the Celian hill point to it being part of the Aqua Appia, the first aqueduct in Rome, built by censors Gaius Plautius Venox and Appius Claudius Caecus in 312 B.C. The source was about 10 miles outside the city, and unlike later aqueducts, almost the entirety of the length of the Aqua Appia was underground. Outside the city it ran through tunnels carved into tufa hills; inside it ran on top of the Servian Wall for stretch, but was mostly carried through channels deep under the city.

Only three sections of the Aqua Appia have been discovered, one by Raffaelo Fabretti in 1667 just inside the Porta San Paolo gate, one by English archaeologist John Henry Parker in the San Saba tufa quarries near the Aventine in 1867, and by Rodolfo Lanciani under the remains of an ancient villa on the Via di Porta San Paolo in 1888. These sections were small and in poor condition, cut tunnels that were later lined with stones.

The newly discovered section is distinct both because it is in exceptionally good condition and because it is a constructed dry stone wall an extraordinary 32 meters (105 feet) long. It is two meters (6.5 feet) high and is made of five rows of large tufa blocks arranged in prism shape. The water was carried from east to west by a lead pipe known as a fistula aquaria.

Because the structure is buried so deep, it wouldn’t be possible to put the aqueduct on display in situ. Archaeologists are therefore dismantling the whole thing in order to rebuild in a new location as yet to be determined.

 

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Michelangelo’s crucifix in 360 degrees

History Blog - Thu, 2017-04-06 23:32

A painted wooden crucifix by Michelangelo Buonarrotti has returned to its original home, the Basilica of Santa Maria del Santo Spirito in Florence, after a fresh restoration and a year on the road. Carved by the artist when he was 18 or so, it’s one of his earliest extant works. Not the earliest, though, because Michelangelo’s artistic gifts were evident from a very young age.

Michelangelo was apprenticed to Domenico Ghirlandaio, then at the peak of his popularity and productivity, in 1488. It’s a testament to Michelangelo’s indisputably immense talent (and his irascible father’s insistence) that even though he was just 13 years old, his apprenticeship contract guaranteed him a salary, six florins for the first year, eight for the second, 10 for the third. This kind of deal was very much against custom for such a young, unproven apprentice. Michelangelo was special, though, and Ghirlandaio knew it.

The lad didn’t end up spending three years in Ghirlandaio’s workshop as per contract anyway. In 1489, Lorenzo de’ Medici asked Ghirlandaio to send his two best students to an academy for sculptors and painters Lorenzo had founded in his palace gardens where he also maintained an extensive collection of Roman antiquities. This was a seminal period for the teenaged Michelangelo. Lorenzo took a personal interest in him, inviting him to live in the palace and exposing him to the greatest Humanist thinkers, artists and poets of the era assembled at the Medici court. He carved his first two sculptures at Lorenzo’s academy, the marble bas reliefs the Madonna of the Stairs and the Battle of the Centaurs, the latter showcasing how strongly influenced Michelangelo was by classical design already. For the rest of his life he would consider himself first and foremost a sculptor no matter how famous and in demand he became for his frescoes and paintings.

The death of Lorenzo de’ Medici on April 8th, 1492, put an abrupt end to Michelangelo’s formative idyll. He moved back in with his father, but he continued to study on his own. The Augustinian prior of the convent of Santo Spirito allowed the artist rooms to live with them from the spring of 1493 until the fall of 1494 so he could do anatomical studies of cadavers in the associated hospital of Santo Spirito. Lorenzo’s son Piero de’ Medici, called the Unfortunate, who was a big fan of Michelangelo, gave him permission to dissect and examine the hospital’s corpses, a rare opportunity for a young artist, and one he did not squander.

He carved the polychrome wooden crucifix to thank the prior for giving him lodgings and an invaluable understanding of the human body. When medical professionals examined the carving a few years ago, they determined it was an accurate and realistic reproduction of a dead youth about 14 years old. It seems Michelangelo, then just a few years older than the deceased boy who served as his unwitting model, gave Santo Spirito the very fruits of the anatomical studies it had made possible.

The sculpture hung above the high altar of Santo Spirito until the early 17th century when the altar was replaced with a more elaborate one. Michelangelo’s simple design was no longer deemed appropriate for the new setting and it was moved. After the French occupation in the late 18th century and the dissolution of the monasteries, the crucifix was considered lost. In fact, it never left Santo Spirito. It was rediscovered in 1962 by German art historian Margrit Lisner during her cataloguing of Tuscan crucifixes. It was hanging in a corridor at the convent and had been so thickly overpainted that not just its color was altered, but its form as well. With the original features dreadfully obscured in this condition, Lisner’s identification of it as the Michelangelo work was very much in doubt.

Nonetheless, it was cleaned and restored and put on display in the Casa Buonarrotti Museum, where it remained until December 2000 when it was returned to the basilica of Santo Spirito. While still not universally accepted, the attribution question was largely settled the next year when Umberto Baldini, director of the cultural division of Italy’s National Research Council, declared the carving the work of Michelangelo after a thorough artistic and forensic examination.

Now it has returned to its original stomping grounds, but in a new location. When the church reinstalled it in 2000, the crucifix was affixed to a side wall and could only be seen from the front. Today it hangs above the church’s old sacristy so people can walk beneath and around it and can view it from all sides.

 

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Rich Roman finds surprise Dutch archaeologists

History Blog - Wed, 2017-04-05 23:55

Archaeologists excavating the site of future construction in the eastern Dutch town of Tiel have unearthed an unexpectedly large number of high quality Roman artifacts. Five archaeological companies and dozens of volunteers have been working assiduously to excavate a massive area the size of 36 soccer fields by their October deadline. They started last November, so they will have less than a year to excavate 80 hectares.

So far they have discovered an astonishing 2,500 bronze objects, most of which haven’t even been cleaned yet, but which include many fibulae, other jewelry, oil lamps and a wine sieve complete with its underplate. The most spectacular of the bronze objects is a balsamarium, a vessel that contained ointment or perfume, decorated with a relief of frolicking Eros figures. Other notable finds include a rare cameo ring with a centaur design, a limestone statue of Jupiter and a fragment of an altar or grave stone inscribed DEAE (“to the goddess”). These are not ordinary objects; only a rich Roman household would possess such a wealth of expensive goods.

The archaeological teams have excavated two burial grounds on the site, both cremation burials and inhumation burials. About 80 cremation burials were found with goods, including delicate clear glassware, scissors and a razor. An intact set of dinnerware composed of an earthenware jug, two drinking cups and a shallow bowl or plate were discovered in excellent condition. The inhumation burials, extremely rare for this period, were marked with earthen mounds. One of them is a double grave containing the remains of two babies.

It’s not surprising that there would be Roman artifacts in Tiel. What is now the Dutch province of Gelderland was part of the Roman province of Germania Inferior, and there were several military outposts and towns along the strategically important border on the Rhine Valley, Nijmegen the largest and most important among them. Had these high quality finds been discovered in Nijmegen, they would still have been exciting and rare discoveries, but not unexpected. Tiel, on the other hand, was a backwater inhabited by Batavian farmers in mud huts with thatched roofs.

Roman artifacts were widespread throughout Roman territory — the mass production and distribution of consumer goods all over the empire attests to an attainable standard of living that after the collapse of the Western Empire would not be achieved again until the modern era — but for such a wealth of expensive goods like the wine sieve, balsamarium and centaur cameo ring to be found suggests the area may have been more thoroughly Romanized and wealthier than archaeologists realized.

[Archaeologist Jan] Van der Velde has two theories. “The owner of the artefacts could have been an important Batavian who wanted to recreate a piece of Rome in his villa by surrounding himself with expensive and rare objects. But perhaps we have stumbled on a temple. Almost all the bronze objects were found in a square of 20 by 50 metres, so it may well have been a sacrificial site.”

The dig will have to shut down for the next few months to give the present-day farmer a chance to sow and reap his harvest. Van der Velde will then try to discover a floor plan so he can determine the presence of a villa or temple.

There will be an open day at the dig site on Saturday, April 8th, from 11:00 AM to 4:00 PM. A selection of the artifacts will be shown to visitors. This fall, a full exhibition on the excavation and its treasures, not just the Roman finds but archaeological material going back 6,000 years, will be held at the Flipje & Streekmuseum in Tiel.

 

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Update on 18th c. scuttled ship found in Alexandria

History Blog - Tue, 2017-04-04 23:27

There’s news about the large piece of an 18th century ship discovered on the Potomac riverfront in Alexandria, Virginia, in December of 2015. Archaeologists have been studying the 50-foot section of hull which was deliberately scuttled to fill waterfront property. Property records were able to narrow down the date of the ship’s burial to between 1775 and 1798, but it took dendrochronological analysis to discover the ship’s age. The tree-rings in the planks reveal that the trees used to make the timber were cut down in Boston after 1741.

[City of Alexandria archaeologist Benjamin] Skolnik said some of the earliest tree rings from the ship are from 1603 — four years before John Smith showed up in Jamestown and 17 years before the Pilgrims showed up in Massachusetts.

“So the wood in the ship comes from a time of early American history that even predates the earliest permanent English settlements here in the New World,” he said.

Preserving these venerable timbers poses a great challenge. The surviving section of the hull includes some of the keel, frame, bow stem, stern, exterior boards and interior flooring. The archaeological team dismantled the ship one board at a time, numbering, tagging and inventorying each timber so it could be reassembled in its original configuration once the wood was stabilized. Getting to that point was by no means a foregone conclusion, however.

The immediate problem when I first wrote about this find early last year was locating a space that could accommodate 50 feet worth of ship timbers in a climate and humidity controlled environment. The wood had to be kept in water to keep it from drying out and warping, and there were no facilities that could accommodate the sheer size of the 18th century ship parts. The solution was a building known as the “bus barn,” a large depot used by the City of Alexandria to store emergency vehicles and school buses.

The ship’s timbers were transported to the bus barn by archaeologists and volunteers. The largest pieces were submerged in two massive water tanks lined with plastic. The smaller timbers were placed on a tarp, hosed down and covered with another tarp to create a wood-preserving tarp sandwich. The ship has been in the bus barn since January of 2016.

The next step is permanently preserving the wood with polyethylene glycol (PEG), a waxy substance that gradually replaces the water in wood leaving it supple and stable, the same treatment that preserved the Mary Rose and the Vasa. The problem with PEG is that it’s expensive and it takes decades, but that time can be significantly shortened if the PEG treatment is followed by freeze-drying, as was done with French explorer La Salle’s frigate La Belle.

Even so, the conservation process will take five or six years and will cost more than the city can afford by itself. So far, the costs have been defrayed by a combination of private donations, grants and city funds, but the long-term preservation and display of the ship requires significant additional funding. It’s worth it, though.

“One of the appeals of the ship is, I mean it’s something large, and it’s very visible and very tangible piece of the past that you know, sometimes when you’re in school and you’re learning about history, it’s sort of in the abstract. You sort of have to imagine it, but if you have a 46-and-a-half-foot chunk of a ship standing in front of you, I mean it’s very very visible and very very real,” Archeologist Benjamin Skolnik said.

The City of Alexandria has set up a donation page on its website.

 

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Ancient mummy shroud found in museum storage

History Blog - Mon, 2017-04-03 23:50

Curators at the National Museums Scotland have discovered a unique ancient mummy shroud folded up in brown postal paper in storage. Senior curator of Ancient Mediterranean collections Dr. Margaret Maitland found the shroud during the course of a thorough examination of the museum’s Egyptian collections in anticipation of a new permanent ancient Egyptian gallery opening over the next two years. At first, she didn’t even know it was a shroud. The only information on the parcel was a note written by a curator in the 1940s and sealed in a World War II service envelope identifying the contents as having come from an ancient tomb in Egypt.

The textile inside the paper wrap was too dry and brittle to be unfolded and examined right off the bat. First conservators had to gently humidify the fabric to soften it enough so it could be unfolded without damage. The humidification and unfolding was so painstakingly done it took close to 24 hours. The results were more than worth the wait.

Conservators found the textile was a full-length linen shroud painted with the image of the deceased as the god Osiris. A full-length painted shroud from Roman Egypt is an extremely rare artifact. Only a handful of comparable finds are known, and this one is unique because it comes with extensive background information. Hieroglyphics painted on the shroud identified the deceased as Aaemka, the son of the high official Montsuef and his wife Tanuat. Montsuef and Tanuat are known to have died in 9 B.C., which makes it possible to date this shroud with exceptional precision.

Dr. Margaret Maitland:

“To discover an object of this importance in our collections, and in such good condition, is a curator’s dream. Before we were able to unfold the textile, tantalising glimpses of colourful painted details suggested that it might be a mummy shroud, but none of us could have imagined the remarkable figure that would greet us when we were finally able to unroll it. The shroud is a very rare object in superb condition and is executed in a highly unusual artistic style, suggestive of Roman period Egyptian art, yet still very distinctive.”

The shroud was discovered in a tomb originally built around 1290 B.C. in Thebes. Its first residents were a chief of police and his wife, but the tomb was repeatedly looted and reused by later officials. Montsuef, Tanuat and Aemka appear to have been the last to make use of it before the tomb was sealed in the early 1st century A.D. It was excavated in the 19th century, and artifacts from the tomb wound up in the collection of the National Museums Scotland. Montsuef and Tanuat’s relics went on display. Aaemka’s, for some reason, went into storage and was forgotten.

Now the son has been reunited with his parents, and the shroud is on display for the first time since its discovery in The Tomb: Ancient Egyptian Burial, which opened on March 31st and closes September 3rd, 2017. The wooden box of Amenhotep II with its recently rediscovered fragments is also part of the exhibition, as are a great many exceptional funerary artifacts from Egyptian tombs. The exhibition is something of a capsule collection, a glimpse into the deep bench of the National Museums Scotland’s Egyptian collection before it finally gets a permanent gallery of its own.

 

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Cape Fear’s first flushing toilet goes on display

History Blog - Sun, 2017-04-02 23:52

A stone toilet bowl from the 18th century that is believed to be the first flushing toilet in the Cape Fear region of North Carolina has finally been given the pride of place it deserves at the Brunswick Town/Fort Anderson Historic Site after years of sad neglect in archaeological storage.

The bowl was discovered by archaeologist Stanley South during his excavation of the remains of the Russellborough colonial mansion in 1966. Originally built by Captain John Russell in 1751, Russellborough would become the home of two colonial governors, Arthur Dobbs and his successor William Tryon. It was burned to the ground by the British in 1776 at the beginning of the Revolutionary War, but South’s excavation discovered notable remains, including a wine cellar that held at least 300 bottles when the house was burned, a brick well used to cool bottles (probably some of those 300 wines and liquors in the cellar), and one big stone toilet bowl.

Installed in the home in the 1760s, likely when Dobbs was governor, this is believed to be the first example of an indoor plumbing system in the lower Cape Fear area, although not in the state of North Carolina as a whole. It was discovered in what had once been a side porch of the home, which is a sensible location for a privy with its many noxious odors and miasmas. Next to it was a brick vaulted tunnel which likely served as a pipeline carrying both trash and sewage out of the house to the Cape Fear River or its adjacent swamps and rice fields.

No detailed archaeological reports were published from the original excavation 50 years ago, so a few old low resolution pictures, Stanley South’s field notes and a few articles he wrote over the years are all researchers have to go on when trying to determine what the toilet may have looked like and how the flushing system worked in the 18th century. This is all he had to say about the discovery in a 1967 article (pdf) published by The South Carolina Institute of Archaeology and Anthropology:

Immediately in front of the tunnel opening was a tabby object, twenty inches square at one end with a round, tapering hole throughout its 18 inch length. Just what this object was used for is unknown, though it might have been a liner for a water closet associated
with the tunnel and the porch.

Made out of coquina, a type of limestone composed of shells of various marine invertebrates that was extensively quarried in the Cape Fear region during the 18th century, the bowl has a hole at the bottom where the waste would be flushed into a pit, either through a lead pipe or a simple drain. The tunnel ran from the pit to the bluff, dumping the untreated sewage from there into the swamp or river. The top of the bowl is eroded now, but originally would have been square and a wooden seat or bench added on top to cover the gaping maw of the bowl creating a more human-sized hole and, most importantly, keeping the governor’s tender bits from grinding against ancient mineralized cockle shells.

The field notes describe what the archaeologists believed at the time to be an iron flush valve, but if it still exists, it has yet to be rediscovered. There are uncatalogued artifacts in the Raleigh storage facility; perhaps the valve is among them. Based on the design of other toilets from this period, researchers believe there was likely a tank installed above this one. No parts of it have survived, to our knowledge. It would have been filled manually, and when the rope was pulled, the valve would open, dumping water from the tank straight into the bowl. The force of the water pushed the waste down the drain into the pit.

The bowl was put in storage in Raleigh and that’s where it remained until Brunswick Town/Fort Anderson Historic Site director Jim McKee rescued it from oblivion and put it on display in the site’s museum on March 16th of this year.

The toilet excites McKee because it is so different from the dishes, pots, pans, bullets and smoke pipes on display.

“A toilet is universal,” he said. “Everyone has used one, and everyone can relate to it. Now visitors can see where they come from, how they were built, and how did we get to the throne we have today.”

McKee thought of all sorts of puns to name the display: Royal Flush, Royal duty or Royal throne.

Instead the placard is a bit more professional. It just reads, “Russellborough toilet.”

What, no Flushy McFlushface? Seems like a missed opportunity.

 

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

LoC, Smithsonian buy Harriet Tubman photo

History Blog - Sat, 2017-04-01 22:55

The previously unknown photograph of Harriet Tubman recently discovered in a carte-de-visite album compiled by Quaker abolitionist and educator Emily Howland has been acquired by the ideal owners: the Library of Congress and the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of African American History and Culture. The album was sold at a Swann Auction Galleries auction in New York City on March 30th for $130,000 plus a $32,500 auctioneer fee. The joint purchase allowed the institutions to be able to afford the exorbitant cost.

The collaboration ensures these pieces of American history will be accessible to the public in perpetuity.

“It is a distinct honor to have these photographs that tell an important part of America’s history,” said Lonnie Bunch, founding director of the National Museum of African American History and Culture. “We are pleased and humbled to work with the Library of Congress to ensure that this rare and significant collection will be preserved and made accessible to the American public.”

“To have a new glimpse of such key figures in American history is rare indeed,” said Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden. “Through this extraordinary collaboration, these images will be forever part of our shared heritage and will be a source of inspiration for many generations to come.”

The pre-sale estimate was $20,000 to $30,000, which was always modest given the great historical significance of the earliest known picture of Harriet Tubman. Add to that the 43 other rare photographs of prominent personages from the period in the album, including the only known photograph of John Willis Menard, the first African American man elected to (although never seated in) Congress, and there was little doubt the album would exceed the estimate. Well aware of this, the Library of Congress and Smithsonian pooled funds from existing donations to ensure they had the wherewithal to bid successfully against collectors with deep pockets.

The two institutions will be perfect partners in this endeavor. Both of them have unparalleled expertise in the conservation of historic documents and photographs and long-standing commitments to the digitization of their massive collections. In keeping with their dedication to making the historical patrimony in their care as widely accessible to the public as possible, the entire Howland carte-de-visite album will be digitized as soon as possible and high resolution photographs of each of the 44 pictures will be made available online for the free use of scholarly researchers and history nerds alike.

 

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Iron Age horse, chariot burial found in Yorkshire

History Blog - Fri, 2017-03-31 23:37

Archaeologists have discovered an extremely rare Iron Age horse and chariot burial in Pocklington, East Yorkshire. The site of a planned housing development on Burnby Lane has been excavated since 2014, and it soon became evident that these homes were going to be built on a major Iron Age burial ground. (I will update this story when the first new resident gets sucked into a television.) So far 75 square barrows and 142 individuals from the middle Iron Age Arras culture have been unearthed there.

The Burnby Lane burial graves have yielded remarkable finds before — a man buried on his shield, jewelry, spears, a sword, pots — but the remains of a chariot and two articulated horse skeletons are nothing short of sensational. Only 26 chariot burials have ever been found in the UK (most of them in East Yorkshire) and the last one was discovered two centuries ago. That makes the Pocklington chariot burial the only one of its kind to be excavated with modern archaeological methods, and it’s the only one to include horse burials.

The Pocklington chariot burial, excavated over the past two months, was the final resting place of an upper-class Iron Age Briton – probably a warrior – who lived in the third or fourth century BC. It is possible that he was a member of an ancient British tribe called the Parisi (or their ancestors) – a culture related to other Iron Age peoples in Northern France.

Excavating his grave, archaeologists from a Yorkshire-based company MAP Archaeological Practice – [sic] have found the stain ‘imprints’ left in the ground by the rotted wood of the 12 spokes of one of the chariot’s wheels; the iron tyre (which would have gone round that wheel); the stain imprint of the chariot’s central timber pole (which connected the vehicle to the two horses pulling it); the stain imprint of the box-shaped compartment that the driver (and potentially one companion) stood in; the two horses used to pull the vehicle; the bridle bit; the iron nave hoop band (which went round the axle); and the remains of the driver himself.

The only missing element (almost certainly destroyed by mediaeval ploughing) is the second wheel.

The chariot and horses were found in the last square barrow at the outer edge of the cemetery. It’s a hugely lucky break that it and the other burials in the cemetery survived the millennia. The agricultural work that may be responsible for the loss of the second wheel does not seem to have continued in that field. The neighboring field was extensively ploughed and farmed, but the archaeological gods must have been looking out for the Arras culture’s dead because the land was dedicated to grazing and pasture for hundreds of years, preserving its ancient subterranean burial ground.

Researchers will now study any DNA they are able to extract from the remains of the chariot burial and some of the other remains found in the burial ground. They hope to confirm the chariot driver’s gender, health and, thanks to stable isotope analysis, his place of origin.

This burial and some of the other highly significant graves will give historians a unique new perspective into the Arras culture. In addition to the warrior buried strapped to his shield, there’s a mysterious man who died from violent trauma inflicted by objects both blunt and sharp and was buried face down much deeper than usual. Archaeologists think he may have been an enemy warrior and was buried in such a manner as to prevent his rising from the grave to take his revenge on his killers. Then there’s the man who was buried honorably with his sword and was then ritually speared. Men, perhaps his fellow warriors, thrust six spears into his body, one into his groin. When his grave was filled and mounded over with earth, the spears were still in his body. Very few other examples of this unusual ritual are known.

“This spectacular group of graves is yielding extremely important new information about Iron Age life and culture. It is one of the most significant Iron Age funerary complexes discovered in Britain over the past half-century,” said one of the archaeologists involved in the project, Dr Peter Halkon of the University of Hull.

 

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Mosaic floors, first remains of ancient city, found in France

History Blog - Thu, 2017-03-30 23:59

An excavation on the site of a boarding school in Uzès, southern France, has unearthed ancient remains from the 1st century B.C. through the 7th century and beyond into the Middle Ages. The most dramatic discovery is a pair of large mosaic floors of superlative quality from around the 1st century A.D. The aesthetic value of the mosaics would make this a find of international significance in any context, but the historical import compounds its value because these are the first significant archaeological remains discovered from the Roman city of Ucetia. A smattering of mosaic fragments have been unearthed over the years in Uzès, but before now, the existence of the town was documented archaeologically solely by its mention in a geographical inscription in Nîmes.

Ucetia was founded in the 1st century B.C. as a Gallo-Roman oppidium (fortified settlement) at the source of the Alzon river, a strategically important location that only increased in significance as the starting point of the Augustan-era aqueduct that carried water 15 miles south to the important Roman colony and regional capital of Nîmes. The magnificent Pont du Gard is part of this aqueduct system.

The earliest finds unearthed by the team from France’s National Institute for Preventative Archaeology (INRAP) excavating the 43,000 square-foot site are walls and masonry from a structure dating to the Roman Republican period shortly after the conquest of Gaul. They found the hearth of a bread oven in one of the rooms, and a later dolium, a massive ceramic jar probably used to store foodstuffs.

In another part of the site, archaeologists discovered a large colonnaded building which may have begun as a public building and later been converted to a private dwelling. There are four connected rooms, two of them with concrete floors and painted plaster walls, one with a mortar floor embedded with opus signinum tiles. That room leads to the largest, most glamorous of the four: a 645-square-foot space with two large mosaics in the floor.

The most spectacular mosaic is bordered with geometric designs — meanders, checkerboards, waves, stripes — surrounding a medallion with rays and chevrons. At the four corners of the medallion are four polychrome animals: a duck, an eagle, a fawn and an owl so enchanting it gives that enameled Roman fibula a run for its money. The second mosaic is much the same size, but its central motif — also geometric borders around a medallion with rays — is much smaller, so there’s a lot more white tile covering the surface area.

The building was in use until the end of the 1st century A.D. After that, the space was rebuilt several times and the mosaics, damaged over the years, were not repaired. The clean mortar floors were also damaged, but replaced with cheaper, rougher concrete.

Other buildings found on the site include a large structure that was probably a 1st century A.D. domus, a large single-family home. Multiple dolia were found in this building, indicating the location was used for wine storage and/or production. There was a mosaic floor found in this dwelling as well, made of individual tesserae in a geometric pattern with dolphins on each of the four corners. This building too was restructured in the late imperial era. A new hypocaust-heated room was built, all of which remains now are the brick piles that allowed the hot air to heat the floor. The building appears to have been in use until the very latest antiquity, through the 7th century.

The site will be open to visitors this weekend who will get tours of the finds guided by INRAP experts. This is a one-time deal, I’m afraid, as the current plan is for the mosaics and all the other above-ground elements to be dismantled and raised next month. The dig will continue until the end of the year and the construction of the school is scheduled to be completed in 2019.


 

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History