Arts and Sciences

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

Medieval Jewish cemetery unearthed in Trastevere

History Blog - Wed, 2017-03-29 23:50

Archaeologists have unearthed a medieval Jewish cemetery in the Trastevere neighborhood of Rome. The discovery was announced last week, but it was made over the course of six years of excavations done in conjunction with the restoration of the Palazzo Leonori, now the new headquarters of the Assicurazioni di Roma insurance company. It was under the palazzo’s courtyard that 38 graves were found, neatly aligned in rows. Iron nails and wood fragments indicate the bodies were buried in coffins, now long-decayed.

Each grave contained a well-preserved, intact, articulated skeleton. The remains are of adult men and women, mostly men, and contain almost no grave goods. The only exceptions were two of the women, found wearing small gold rings, and one man who was buried with a set of iron scales, perhaps an indication of his profession or a metaphoric representation of a just man. Examination of the bones found signs of malnutrition and protein deficiencies. These were not wealthy people.

Because there were no grave markers discovered and with the excavation area limited by later construction, at first archaeologists weren’t sure whose bodies they’d found. They searched archives for maps and documents that might shed light on the question, and the find spot was marked on several maps as the Campus Iudeorum, or Field of the Jews, the cemetery of the Jewish community that lived in Trastevere from the mid-14th century through the mid-16th. Radiocarbon dating of the remains returned dates within that range. The lack of grave goods is also characteristic of Jewish burials. The last piece of the puzzle fell into place when a marble fragment inscribed in Hebrew with the words “here lies” was discovered nearby.

Jews have lived in Rome since the Maccabees sent a delegation in the 2nd century B.C., and by the Middle Ages the Trastevere area, with its bustling Tiber-side commerce and diverse population, was one of Rome’s main Jewish quarters. That ended abruptly in 1555, when all the Jews in Rome were ordered to pay for the privilege of being forced into the waterless, claustrophobic, flood-prone, malarial ghetto by the virulently anti-semitic Pope Paul IV. His Papal Bull, Cum nimis absurdum, decreeing their confinement to the ghetto and many other hateful provisions, minces no words. It opens:

Since it is completely senseless and inappropriate to be in a situation where Christian piety allows the Jews (whose guilt-all of their own doing-has condemned them to eternal slavery) access to our society and even to live among us; indeed, they are without gratitude to Christians, as, instead of thanks for gracious treatment, they return invective, and among themselves, instead of the slavery, which they deserve, they manage to claim superiority….

So the living Jews who stayed in Rome after 1555 moved across the river into the ghetto hellhole. Their deceased ancestors remained in place. It was not to be a peaceful sleep of death, alas. In 1625, our Barberini friend Pope Urban VIII found the time between tapestry appreciation, adding bees to everything and stripping ancient bronze off the Pantheon to decree that all Jews in Rome must be buried in unmarked graves. No names of Jews were to be carved in stone, period. (Exceptions were occasionally made for very prominent rabbis or wealthy men.) Extant gravestones were to be destroyed. Then in 1645, the cemetery was built over when a new city wall was constructed. This is why only a single fragment of a headstone was found in the excavation.

The Jews were allowed to move what remains they could to a new cemetery on the Aventine, but struggle followed them. Giambattista Nolli’s 1748 map of Rome marks the spot as the “Ortaccio degli Ebrei,” meaning “Garden of the Jews,” although that doesn’t convey the pejorative connotation of the suffix -accio. (The Ortaccio was the name for 16th century Rome’s red light district where the prostitutes were walled in much like Jews were in the ghetto.) Interestingly, Nolli’s map also shows how the Jews were forced to move across the river to the Aventine and may have been bumped one more time after that. The Trastevere cemetery site is on the left side of the map outlined in green. On the right side outlined in red is another “Ortaccio degli Ebrei,” presumably the active one in Nolli’s time, directly overlooking the Circus Maximus, which was itself divided into farmland. Just a hop to the southwest outlined in blue is the “Ortaccio Vecchio degli Ebrei,” or the “Old Garden of the Jews.” If that was the old one, the other one must have been (relatively) new.

The Aventine cemetery had an even shorter life than the Trastevere one. It was destroyed in 1934, this time courtesy of Mussolini’s grandiose plan to redesign Rome to showcase its ancient glories. Workers dug up all of the graves, put the bones in boxes and moved them to the Campo Verano cemetery outside the Roman walls where they were reburied in the Jewish section. The last Garden of the Jews is now a rose garden. Today only a modest memorial records what had once been a field of white gravestones with generations of Roman Jews buried beneath them.

The Palazzo Leonori site will become a mini-museum where some of the discoveries made in the six years of excavation will be on display. Large plastered tubs identified by an inscription as part of the Coraria Septimiana, 3rd century A.D. tanneries built by the emperor Septimius Severus to tan leather products for exclusive supply to the Roman army, will be viewable to the public in the courtyard of Palazzo Leonardi, a sort of mini-archaeological park.

The human remains will not be part of any future such plans, nor will they be studied further out of respect for the dead. Presumably they will be reinterred, but no decision has been announced at this time. The archaeological team is working closely with rabbinical authorities, among them Rome’s Chief Rabbi Riccardo Di Segni, to determine the next steps.

 

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Gainsborough painting slashed by attacker back on dispay

History Blog - Tue, 2017-03-28 23:53

On 2:15PM on Saturday, March 18th, 2017, Keith Gregory walked up to Mr and Mrs William Hallett by Thomas Gainsborough hanging in the British paintings room of London’s National Gallery and slashed it twice with a pointed metal object. The man was immediately apprehended by the Gallery Assistant with the aid of members of the public. They detained him until the police arrived and arrested him. The next day the 63-year-old man was charged with causing criminal damage.

The painting was removed to the museum’s conservation lab where conservators were relieved to find the “damage was limited to two long scratches which penetrated the paint surface and the canvas support, but did not break through the canvas lining.” National Gallery experts determined the repairs to the pigment layers would be relatively easy to make and it would not be long before the Gainsborough was back on public view. Ten days later, it was hanging in its spot in room 34 of the National Gallery again.

Larry Keith, the National Gallery’s director of conservation, said that the museum believed that the painting was attacked with a drill bit or a similar object. He said that the restoration process had included re-adhering loose paint that was still attached to the canvas; filling in areas of paint that had been scratched away, with a filling agent; painting the affected areas with new paint that had been closely matched in color and texture to the original; and, finally, covering the entire canvas with a light varnish.

Acknowledging that the particulars of the attack were unusual, Mr. Keith said that such interventions into a canvas were not rare. “Any painting of that age will almost always have had a history of interventions,” he said, calling them part of “the natural life cycle of old master paintings.”

Mr and Mrs William Hallett, better known as The Morning Walk was painted in 1785 when Thomas Gainsborough was at the height of his popularity. Originally a landscape painter, in the late 1740s Gainsborough switched focus to portraiture when he realized that was where the money was. At first his sitters were the local big fish in a small pond. Looking to appeal to a higher class of clientele, he studied the portraits of Anthony van Dyck and by the 1770s had moved up from country squires to counts and dukes. In 1780, he received his first commissions from King George III and Queen Charlotte. Many more would follow until his death in 1788.

The couple in The Morning Walk are William Hallett and Elizabeth Stephen, then 21 years old and soon to be married. Gainsborough depicted them walking through a country wood with an attentive white dog at Elizabeth’s side. Mr. Hallett is wearing a black silk velvet suit, while Elizabeth is clad in a gown of ivory silk with a black sash around her waist. This was a popular fashion among the Georgian aristocracy, having a portrait painted of them in a Romantic, pastoral setting wearing their most elegant clothes.

Mr. Gregory is currently out on bail and is scheduled to appear before a higher court next month. There is no word yet on what his motivation may have been. It seems such an innocuous painting to arouse slashing ire, but that’s never stopped people with ill-intent from fixating on certain artworks before.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

V&A receives major Fabergé donation

History Blog - Mon, 2017-03-27 23:17

The Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A) is the proud new owner of nine exceptional works by Carl Fabergé donated by the son of the late Kenneth Snowman, one of the world’s most prominent Fabergé experts. Two rare works by 18th century goldsmith Johann Christian Neuber were also part of the donation. Nicholas Snowman donated the pieces in the Kenneth and Sallie Snowman Collection under the Cultural Gifts Scheme, a program that allows the donation of significant cultural heritage objects in exchange for tax savings in the amount of 30% of their market value, in this case a discount of £615,000 ($772,000).

The Fabergé pieces in the donation include four animals masterfully carved out of chalcedony and agate for Queen Alexandra, wife of King Edward VII and Tsar Nicholas II’s aunt, herself an accomplished wood carver. Alexandra’s Fabergé animals are a hissing baboon, a sturgeon, a kangaroo and a chinchilla. Other animals in the collection include a seal carved out of obsidian with such dazzling attention to detail that the skin texture is perfectly matched to the stone, and a quartz hare inspired by Japanese netsuke. One of the objects, a rock crystal letter opener, has a moving sentimental collection to the last of the Romanovs. It was present given by Tsarina Alexandra to her onetime English governess, Miss Jackson, for Christmas in 1900. Miss Jackson had become a surrogate mother for Alexandra after her own mother died from diphtheria, contracted during her tireless nursing of her entire family when they were stricken by the disease. Alexandra was just six years old when her mother died, so Miss Jackson provided much-needed support to the bereft child.

Kenneth Snowman is a Fabergé legend. The son of jeweller Emanuel Snowman and Harriet Wartski, daughter of Morris Wartski, founder of the Wartski company which, thanks to Emanuel’s buying trips to the Soviet Union in the 20s and 30s when Fabergé had dropped out of cultural consciousness, became the leading dealers and experts in Fabergé’s exquisite Imperial Eggs and the many jeweled and enamelled treasures he made for the aristocracy of pre-Revolutionary Russia. Born in 1919, as a child Kenneth played with some of the nine Imperial Eggs his father brought home from the Soviet Union. Little wonder, then, that as an adult he become a published Fabergé scholar, curator and world-renown expert. When his father-in-law died, he became chairman of Wartski, which you might recall played an integral role in the stranger-than-fiction saga of the lost Imperial Egg found by a scrap metal dealer in the US midwest.

Nicholas Snowman’s choice of the V&A was a tribute to his father’s deep bonds with the institution.

The donor, Nicholas Snowman, son of Kenneth, said: “In 1977 my father curated a major Fabergé exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum to honour the Queen’s Silver Jubilee. He was devoted to the V&A.”

He said following the latest donation the V&A now “possesses the most significant public collection of Fabergé in Britain and its important collection of gold boxes has been enriched enormously.”

Tristram Hunt, director of the Victoria & Albert Museum, said: “Nicholas Snowman’s Cultural Gift is the most important donation of Fabergé ever made to a British public collection and will greatly enrich the V&A’s jewellery holdings. It is an act of great generosity and cultural philanthropy.”

Underscoring the generosity of the act is a 13th object Nicholas Snowman donated the V&A, only he didn’t do it directly. He deliberately donated a 16th century cameo portrait of Elizabeth I later mounted a ring to the Art Fund who then (by arrangement) donated it the V&A. He did this in recognition of the Art Fund’s hugely successful campaign to acquire the Armada Portrait for the Royal Museums Greenwich.


Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Iconic Roman Holiday Vespa, oldest in the world, for sale

History Blog - Sun, 2017-03-26 23:40

The iconic Vespa that supported the supple fundaments of Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck as they scootered their way through the Eternal City in the 1953 classic film Roman Holiday is currently for sale at the online auction site Catawiki. As if co-starring with two of the all-time greatest movie stars in one of the all-time greatest movies weren’t enough, this particular Vespa is also the oldest in the world. With a chassis number of 1003, the Vespa 98cc Serie 0 Numero 3 was the third Vespa ever made. Numbers one and two are long lost, leaving number three with the title of the oldest Vespa.

Piaggio began in the late 19th century as a manufacturer of railroad cars. Towards the end of World War I, the company switched its focus to aeronautics but continued to manufacture a wide array of vehicles and parts suitable for civilian and military use. When its main factory was destroyed by Allied bombs in 1940, Piaggio’s production was severely curtailed. After the war, Enrico Piaggio, son of company founder Rinaldo, wanted to produce a low-cost, easy to drive vehicle that could be a reliable mode of transportation for the population of a country whose economy and infrastructure were in ruins.

He asked Corradino D’Ascanio, an aeronautical engineer who had worked for Piaggio building airplanes during the war, to scare up a design for a small motorcycle that had none of complications and bulk of its big brothers, making it suitable for wide popular use. Corradino threw out all previous designs and in a matter of days created an entirely new one. His innovations included a gear shift on the handlebars to make driving easier, tires that could be replaced by anyone without need of a mechanic, a body design that protected riders from mud, dust, water and assorted street debris, an enclosed engine that saved street clothes from the scourge of grease stains, and a driving position that allowed riders to be comfortably seated even for long journeys.

When presented with the prototype in April of 1946, Enrico Piaggio exclaimed delightedly “It looks like a wasp!” And that’s how the Vespa got its name. In the first decade of manufacture, the Vespa went from a production of 2,000 of the first V98cc models to one million in 1956. In 1965, 3.5 million Vespas were sold, one for every 52 Italians. Today it remains one of the great successes in motor vehicle history, and the original Vespa is an icon of Italian design. There’s a 1955 model in the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. The indelible images of Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck zooming through Rome on that Numero 3 certainly played a large part in making the Vespa a worldwide icon.

The Serie 0 were prototypes, a sort of run-through of different options, not production units, which is why they are also known as the “pre-series.” Only 60 of the series were manufactured. Every part of the Serie 0 Vespas was individually made specifically for one bike. You can see the chassis number 1003 stamped not just on the frame, but on the fenders, muffler, kickstand and many other parts. This vehicle was lovingly handcrafted piece by piece. It’s also tough as nails. The paint is gone, but 71 years after it was made, Number 3 is still in working condition.

As is the case with some cars, Vespa scooters have become increasingly valuable over time.

“Thanks to a huge fan base, old Vespa scooters tend to keep their monetary value,” said [Vespa expert Davide] Marelli.

“A Vespa scooter from the 1970s, for example, can be worth five times as much as its original retail price. The older the Vespa, the more valuable it is,” he said.

For many years it has belonged to a private collector who has a prestigious, very select group of 60 rare and important Vespas. The presale estimate is 250,000-300,000 euros ($268,150-$348,600). Bidding is already up to $195,748 and there are still 36 hours to go before the sale closes. A small price to pay for the chance to own a piece of history and to touch butts with Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck via the Transitive Postulate.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

16th century aqueduct found in Italian hamlet

History Blog - Sat, 2017-03-25 23:17

Two forestry workers have discovered a 16th century aqueduct in the southern Italian hamlet of Monte Cicerale. Franco Avenia and Edoardo Palumbo were clearing underbrush and brambles in a wooded area above the highway when they stumbled across a small stone structure partially embedded into a hillside. A square opening in the structure led to an underground passage. The two contacted a friend of theirs, local historian Simone Gioia, who quickly ran to join them in exploring the find.

Crawling on his hands and knees through very constricted spaces, he found the oldest part of the network was a tunnel dating to around 1500. On the ground in the center of this tunnel runs an overlapping series of earthenware tiles that create a channel. Hard water rich in calcium still flows over the tiles. Their downward slope allows the water to flow indefinitely — the same gravity tech the Romans used in their aqueducts, although they went much longer distances and thus had far shallower inclines.

Avenia, Palumbo and Gioia explored about 50 meters (164 feet) of the aqueduct, which was pretty damn bold of them because those tunnels are just barely big enough to fit a grown man on all fours. Simone Gioia described it as “a beautiful, albeit claustrophobic, experience.” He also noted the aqueduct is in an exceptional state of preservation.

Monte Cicerale is on the ancient Via Poseidonia that led from ancient Greek colony of Paestum (it was called Poseidonia by the Greeks) to the very heart of the Cilento region in Campania. It has a tiny population of 312 souls, but the town of Cicerale, less than a mile away, can boast 1,200 residents. Even in the 1500s these were remote hilltop communities, sparsely populated with very limited infrastructure. The people were hard-working, poor and primarily engaged in agriculture and animal husbandry, fields of endeavor that require a steady supply of water. It seems they built themselves an acqueduct to ensure that supply using local stone and what look to me like roof tiles. They did an unreservedly great job of it too, as the photographs show. It is a true feat of engineering.

Archaeological remains attesting to the rural history of the Cilento region are extremely rare. The acqueduct is, as far as anyone knows, the oldest, most intact and most significant surviving example of this material history.

There’s no word on a professional excavation of the site, but local authorities expect the regional Archaeological Superintendency to study the acqueduct, especially now that it’s made regional and national headlines (and I guess international ones too, if I count).

Simone Gioia has dozens of photographs of the acqueduct in a photo album on his Facebook page. He has also uploaded video of his exploration of the tunnels. The quality is not very good, but that’s to be expected given the circumstances. They do a fine job of conveying the constricted spaces and the excitement of the find.

Here’s his first visit:

Here’s the second:

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Vindolanda toilet seat to get setting worthy of its greatness

History Blog - Fri, 2017-03-24 23:52

The Roman fort and settlement of Vindolanda just south of Hadrian’s Wall in Northumberland is perhaps best known for the 1,700 wooden writing tablets from the 1st and 2nd centuries A.D. that have been found there, preserved for 2,000 years in the site’s anaerobic soil. Because of the unique insight this record of daily correspondence gives us into the daily lives of the ancient Romans and Britons who lived at Vindolanda, the tablets were voted Britain’s top archaeological treasure by British Museum curators in 2003. They have been extensively studied and displayed at the Vindolanda Museum.

Less known are the many other wooden objects discovered at Vindolanda. Almost 1,500 artifacts have been unearthed from that blessedly waterlogged soil — cart axles, bread shovels, potter’s wheels, plank flooring, joists, that amazing inscribed barrel stave and my personal favorite, the only Roman wooden toilet seat ever discovered.

They even found intact water pipes made of alder wood logs, bark still on them, that had been drilled through the length with an augur, creating a hollow center 5 centimeters (two inches) in diameter. There were 30 yards of pipes joined with oak junction boxes to create a network of water mains supplying Vindolanda with fresh water from a local spring. The ends of the logs were tapered to fit a hole in a block of oak. On the other side of the block another hole was drilled and another tapered log fitted into it. That was some quality joinery. With nary a single iron or lead fitting to keep the pipes together and almost two millennia after they were installed, the alder water pipes were still working when they were excavated in 2003, carrying fresh water to a building that archaeologists believe may have been a hospital. Lead pipes, even tile ones, are fairly common in the Roman world, but wood pipes are very rare — usually only the metal collars survive — and ones still in working order are rarer than hen’s teeth. As far as I was able to ascertain, the Vindolanda pipes are unique.

As rare and historically significant as they are, none of these wooden treasures have not been exhibited. Conserving, stabilizing and storing them them once they have been removed from their protective environment is expensive, difficult work. Creating a display space with the technology to ensure the long-term preservation of the wooden objects while making them viewable to the public is a far greater challenge still.

A Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) grant has gotten the ball rolling. The Vindolanda Trust was able to secure a development grant of £20,400 ($25,400) from the HLF to develop the plans for a new addition to the site’s already excellent museum. The new space will be dedicated solely to the wooden artifacts that have been hidden away in storage for years. Unlocking Vindolanda’s Wooden Underworld will

The popular museum will be expanded to create a new gallery with special display cases allowing temperature and humidity to be kept at safe levels. Not only will this mean their story can finally be told but it will also ensure they survive for future generations to enjoy.

Visitors will also hear the incredible survival story of the collection – from the science behind how they lasted two millennia, to their conservation and the research that is uncovering their origins.

Now, obviously the new gallery will cost vast sums more than the initial grant. This is just the first step. The Vindolanda Trust must have a fully developed and budgeted plan for the new gallery before the HLF can consider a much larger grant for the actual construction phase. Once the plans are complete, the Trust will apply for the full grant of £1,339,000 ($1,670,000). Then we can gaze in awe at the toilet seat and give it its proper respect. Some might be tempted to take a bunch of selfies squatting in front of the display case, but we’re all too dignified for those sorts of shenanigans, am I right?

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Earliest color movies of the White House found

History Blog - Thu, 2017-03-23 23:13

Researchers have discovered the earliest known color movies of the White House in the archives of the Herbert Hoover Presidential Museum-Library in West Branch, Iowa. We owe these precious glimpses of First Family life to First Lady Lou Henry Hoover, an enormously accomplished woman — Stanford graduate, world traveler, co-translator with her husband of a Latin mining text by Agricola, fluent Chinese speaker (she remains to this day the only First Lady to speak an Asian language) — with a wide variety of interests, among them photography. When the pictures started moving, she was an enthusiastic early adopter of the new technology and was shooting home movies with her own camera by the early 1920s.

When Kodac introduced the Kodacolor motion picture process in 1928, Lou Hoover was on it like white on rice. Kodacolor was an additive color system, filmed on black-and-white stock through a three-colored striped filter. When footage was shot, the three colors were recorded in strips on the film in different densities and proportions depending on the natural color of the subject. The camera had to be used at a very specific frame rate in order for the filter to work, and bright ambient light was de rigeur.

Lou Hoover started shooting in Kodacolor in 1929 and must have stopped by 1935 when the process was superseded by Kodachrome film. Her home movies capture President Hoover at leisure both at the White House and on vacation. There are shots of Herbert fishing in Florida in January of 1929, wearing a coat and tie. He was still President-elect at that time, but he believed the dignity of the office he’d been elected to required a certain formality of attire, even on private fishing trips. Mrs. Hoover also captured their grandchildren playing, their sons of vacation, historic sites of Washington, DC, dogs frolicking at the White House, White House butler Alonzo Fields and shots of Lou in the White House garden. The last of the seven reels shows the President throwing a medicine ball back and forth with staffers on the White House grounds. This sport would become known as Hooverball.

Kodacolor film required a projector with a filter similar to the one used on the camera in order for the color to display. If you just look at the film, or use a projector without the Kodacolor Projection Filter, it looks like a weirdly stripey black and white movie. That’s what the staff of the Herbert Hoover Presidential Museum-Library thought about their collection of Lou Hoover’s home movies. Audio Visual Archivist Lynn Smith recognized those tell-tale stripes as Kodacolor, and thus very likely the first color film shot at the White House. (Calvin Coolidge wasn’t a home movie guy, and he had one foot out the door when Kodacolor was introduced.)

Smith applied for a grant from the National Film Preservation Foundation to have the rare historic home movies restored, and the NFPF came through. They preserved the footage, digitized it and sent the reels back to West Branch in December.

Worried she might damage the film, Smith said she used a hand-crank projector to play the film when it arrived. For the first time, she could see the colors of First Lady Lou Hoover’s dress and the hues of the White House Rose Garden.

“It was pretty amazing to see the color,” said Smith, 50. “I’m looking at theses images of Lou in the White House, Mr. Hoover playing Hoover ball and other things in Washington, D.C.”

The Herbert Hoover Presidential Museum-Library will debut all seven reels in their auditorium on Wednesday, March 29th. The museum picked the date on purpose to celebrate Lou Hoover on what would have been her 143rd birthday. On the same day, the films will be uploaded to the Library’s YouTube channel, so bookmark or subscribe to see the rare footage fresh off the virtual presses. Until then, we’ll have to make do with this short preview of the Hoover home movies:

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Earliest European burial in Asia-Pacific found in Taiwan

History Blog - Wed, 2017-03-22 23:34

Archaeologists have discovered the remains of 17th century Christian burial on a Taiwanese island. This is the earliest European burial ever discovered in the Asia-Pacific region. Under the direction of María Cruz Berrocal from the University of Konstanz in Germany, the archaeological team has excavated the site on the island of Heping Dao in northern Taiwan since 2011. The digs have unearthed material going back as far as the island’s first human habitants. The evidence of early European colonization is exceptionally significant because there is little known about the period and archaeological remains are few and far between.

The settlement of San Salvador de Isla Hermosa was founded on the island as a colony of Spain in 1626. They occupied the site until 1642 when the Dutch took over. After the Dutch came the Chinese, and then Japan occupied Heping Dao until the end of World War II. Because its time as the San Salvador de Isla Hermosa colony was brief and the island passed through several hands in the centuries since, archaeologists didn’t expect to find anything from the early colonial period. The Spanish occupation was known solely from archival records; no archaeological materials associated with it had ever been found before.

Instead, the excavations revealed a wealth of important discoveries from the early days of the colony: the foundations of a church or convent and its cemetery from the Spanish settlement. Thus far, the team has unearthed six burials and disarticulated human remains. Last November, they discovered the skeleton of an adult buried with his hands folded in the traditional Christian prayer pose. Osteological examination of the skeletal remains indicate bodies of European, Taiwanese local and maybe African origin (presumably brought to the island as slaves) were interred in the cemetery.

“These are the first European burials from this time period discovered in the entire Asia-Pacific region and they contain the first documented human remains. The colonial cemetery that we unearthed is also the oldest in the region,” says María Cruz Berrocal.

Additional analysis of the bones and teeth should answer a great many questions about the deceased. Recovering nuclear DNA from archaeological remains is a tricky thing, but researchers from the French National Center for Scientific Research, the Royal Belgian Institute of Science and the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History are now carrying out stable isotope and botanical analyses on the teeth, examining pathogen and human DNA recovered from the bones. The isotope analysis will narrow down their place of origin. Pathogen DNA will shed new light on the vectors of disease transmission between European colonists and the local people. Botanical analysis may provide important information on the introduction of non-native plant species during the early colonial period.

This research has the potential to rewrite the sparse history of the Spanish colonization of the island. The historical records are deeply one-sided. According to the Spanish settlers, they dominated the island, the biggest fish in the smallest pond, and had little but contempt for the locals. The archeology puts the lie to their self-promotional exaggerations. In fact there were very few Spanish colonizers in Heping Dao and far from living like lords impressing the natives with their fancy European goods, they were desperately poor. They needed trade with China to survive and left behind almost nothing of their material culture. The excavation has found exactly one European artifact: a bronze buckle.

That’s not how it was supposed to go.

“The results demonstrate that we are dealing with an early globalisation hub here. The Spanish-style construction of the church illustrates that this colony was just as important to the Spanish Crown as other colonies established elsewhere, as in the Americas, for example. However, its attempt to gain a long-term foothold in the Pacific region was ultimately unsuccessful. For this reason, historians have since assumed that Taiwan only played a marginal role. But that is not the case,” concludes María Cruz Berrocal.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Barberini tapestries return 16 years after fire almost destroyed them

History Blog - Tue, 2017-03-21 23:58

The Life of Christ tapestries have made their triumphant return to public view for the first time since a 1981 fire almost reduced these precious 17th century masterpieces to cinders. As of March 21st, they are hanging in the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine in Manhattan. It has taken a decade and a half of painstaking labour from conservators for this day to arrive.

The story begins with a pope who had a great love of luxury textiles and an even greater love of nepotism. Maffeo Barberini was elected the Throne of St. Peter as Pope Urban VIII in 1623 and wasted no time in spreading the ecclesiastical wealth around to his family members. He made his brother Antonio a cardinal. He made his brother Carlo’s sons Francesco and Antonio cardinals too. Other family members got grand titles (Duke, Prince), extensive properties in the Papal States, cushy sinecures and military commands requiring little in the way of actual soldiering.

Rome was not known for its tapestry industry — France and Flanders dominated tapestry production in Europe — but for a brief window in the 17th century, it came to prominence thanks entirely to Cardinal Francesco Barberini, Urban’s nephew. He founded a private tapestry workshop in 1627, hand-picked its staff and oversaw the production of six multi-tapestry series depicting the early history of Christianity and the Church.

His papal uncle shared Francesco’s love for tapestries, the more silk, gold and silver thread the better. He already had a large collection before he was elected pope. After the dramatic improvement in family status, Francesco’s workshop gave the Barberini the opportunity to create personalized tapestries by the greatest artists in the richest materials, the kind of access only royalty (and in Italy the Medici family of Florence), had.

The Life of Christ cycle, designed by Giovanni Francesco Romanelli and woven by Gaspare Rocci, Caterina della Riviera and Maria Maddalena della Riviera, monopolized the workshop from 1643 to 1656. There were some gaps in there due to unforseen obstacles. Urban VIII died in 1644, severely hampering the production schedule. The new pope was no Barberini fan, and Francesco was soon tied up investigations on his alleged misappropriation of funds. Production cranked back into gear in 1647 but it still took another nine years to complete the series.

The workshop died with Francesco, its driving impetus, in 1679, and that was the end of Rome’s brief moment of relevance in the history of Baroque tapestry. The Life of Christ cycle hung on the walls of the Barberini family palaces until it was purchased along with the rest of the Barberini tapestry collection (135 in total) by wool manufacturer and tapestry expert Charles Mather Ffoulke in 1889. He moved them to the States where he resold the Life of Christ tapestries to Mrs. Elizabeth U. Coles. A devout congregant, Coles donated the complete series to the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine in 1891, before the church was built.

The Barberini tapestries were added to by other donors, until by the mid-20th century, Saint John the Divine found itself the proud owner of Flemish tapestries depicting the Acts of the Apostles made from Raphael cartoons and nine Mortlake tapestries. With such an important and unique collection, the Cathedral opened an in-house Textile Conservation Laboratory in 1981.

That expertise proved invaluable when tragedy struck in December 2001. A five-alarm fire broke out in the sanctuary, and the six Barberini tapestries hanging on the other side of the wall in the nave (the other six were already in the conservation lab when the fire started, thankfully) took heavy smoke and fire damage. Two of them, The Last Supper and The Resurrection, were so damaged that 30 to 40% of them were destroyed.

The conservation lab has been working on the delicate tapestries ever since. It’s a time-consuming, incredibly detailed job to clean and repair tapestries 16 feet tall and 12-19 feet wide one inch at a time. It has taken 16 years, but now 10 of the 12 tapestries of Life of the Christ have returned to the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine. The two heavily damaged ones have been stabilized but are in no condition to be hung.

Instead of being installed way up high above the transepts as they were before the fire. They are now hanging in three chapels at eye level.

The Rev. Canon Patrick Malloy, the priest who oversees arts-related projects at the cathedral, in the Morningside Heights neighborhood of Manhattan, said the idea was to recreate a Baroque chapel and show the tapestries differently from when they hung over the transepts. But he said the exhibition was more than just that.

“They’re hanging in a liturgical space,” Dr. Malloy said, “so they’re not just works of art but devotional objects. It wouldn’t be the same if they were in the Met. I go to the Cloisters from time to time. It’s wonderful, but it’s not the same as if it were a monastery.”

The new installation will give visitors the chance to examine the tapestries in much more detail. Tangential to the religious theme of the tapestries but very much central to the monarchical power they were meant to telegraph, the three bees on the Barberini family coat of arms are plastered in the four corners of each tapestry.

The Barberini bees are a common sight in Rome. After the elevation of Urban VIII to the papacy, he slapped those bees on everything from Barberini properties, to the bronze baldachin in St. Peter’s made of ancient Roman beams stolen from the Pantheon and melted down, to frescoes in the Vatican made a dozen years before Maffeo was even ordained a priest.

Of course they were woven into the tapestries, just as the kings of France wove their fleurs-de-lis on the tapestries they commissioned. The ones in the corners are the traditional three bees, two on top, one of the bottom, encircled by a laurel wreath in place of the shield, but the bees also appear on the tapestries in a rather bizarre tableau that I’ve never seen before, notwithstanding the Barberini penchant for scattering their pollinators far and wide in the city of Rome. There are three bees, yes, but two of them are pulling a plough while one rides above them holding a whip. This curious arrangement is apparently a very, very arcane reference to Virgil’s Georgics, and symbolizes the powerful combination of “highest rule, sown fields of cultivated land, production of honey.” It may be a nod to Urban’s three nephews — Francesco, Antonio and Taddeo — who held the three highest offices (not counting the pope, of course) of the Roman Church and whose combined labours were meant to ensure the continued wealth and victory of the Church.

I don’t know if any of that makes much sense, but I’m kind of crazy about the image of the Barberini bees pushing that plough with their tiny bee hands while their brother/overseer cracks the whip.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Treasure of Ming Dynasty uprising leader found

History Blog - Mon, 2017-03-20 23:22

Archaeologists have discovered a massive treasure from a 17th century shipwreck in Meishan City in the Sichuan Province of southwest China. The ship sank where the Jinjiang River branches off from the Minjiang River in 1646, and with it plunged more than 10,000 gold, silver and bronze coins, ingots, jewels, gold artifacts and weapons including iron swords, spears and knives. They are in pristine condition, with engraved inscriptions on the ingots still clearly legible, inscriptions that name one of the self-styled titles of Zhang Xianzhong, a famed rebel against the Ming Dynasty.

It all started with a looter. He, like everyone else in the region, knew the legend of the great treasure of Zhang Xianzhong which had sank with all his ships in the river. With the Minjiang less than 10 feet deep, the looter, who happened to be an experienced diver, decided to have a look around in the dark of night to see if he might get his hands on a little illegally obtained cultural heritage. He found a gold tiger first, then an inscribed square piece, also gold, with four little divots that the tiger’s feet fit into perfectly. The inscription confirmed it was a gold seal (the tiger was its handle) made in lunar November, 1643, and bearing the title “Grand Marshal of Yongchang,” one of Zhang’s honorifics. He also found an incredibly rare gold and silver books, ingots, coins and several other treasures, all of which he sold to an unscrupulous collector for 13,600,000 yuan (ca. $2,000,000).

More precious objects from this period began to appear on the black market. Police investigated and last fall were able to bust 10 artifact looting gangs and 70 traffickers and recover hundreds of artifacts of significant historical import. It was the largest looting case ever cracked in China. So, with the scofflaws apprehended and their contraband found, cultural heritage authorities turned their collective unblinking eye to the find site of some of the most important objects. Time for the professionals to get a turn.

The ambitious excavation project began in January with the arrival of the dry season. Water was pumped out of the river leaving a passable but very mucky riverbed. The archaeological team then had to dig down five meters (16’5″) beneath the surface of the riverbed before they literally struck gold. In the two months since excavations began, the team has unearthed more 10,000 objects. The inscriptions on several them point to them having been either produced under the aegis of Zhang Xianzhong or stolen by him during his long committment to raiding the valuables of Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) palaces. They even found an item that matched a description in the Qing Dynasty records as having been used by Zhang: a tree trunk split lengthwise, hollowed out, filled with silver ingots and then clamped back together with iron or copper shanks.

Zhang Xianzhong, known as Yellow Tiger after his complexion and his strong “tiger jaw,” was born in poverty in Shaanxi Province in 1606. He joined the army of the Ming Dynasty, but he wasn’t great at following orders and soon found himself with a death sentence hanging over his head for breaking military rules. He was spared by a superior officer who was swayed by his height and strength, but by 1630 Zhang was officially over it and went AWOL.

He joined a peasant revolt that was then spreading all over the country, spurred by the Ming administration’s oppressive taxation during a time of famine and drought. He carved out a space for himself as leader of a group of rebels in his home province of Shaanxi. Seven years later, he had an army of 300,000 at his command. While suffering occasional defeats, one a very big one, at the hands of Ming Dynasty armies, he and his forces won more than they lost, and they collected great gobs of loot along the way.

In 1644, the year of the fall of the Ming Dynasty, Zhang went for the big score. He and 100,000 of men conquered Sichuan. All of it. In September of that year, Zhang’s forces took Chengdu. He crowned himself the first king of the Daxi Dynasty and made Chengdu his capital. The good times didn’t last long. In the spring of 1645, pro-Ming troops retook Chongqing and in a classic piece of projection, Zhang started seeing conspiracy and rebellion everywhere. He decided to fight the seditious elements in his “kingdom” with a campaign of terror. Piles of body parts, flaying and killing became the order of the day.

It’s difficult to know precisely how many people he killed, but according to Jesuit priests who had worked for him in the beginning when it seemed like he would be a benevolent ruler, only a handful of people made it out of Sichuan alive. The only hard figures we have come from census records. The 1578 Ming census, the last we have for Sichuan before Zhang, recorded a population of 3,102,073. In 1661, there were a grand total of 16,096 men registered in Sichuan. The province was depopulated on a massive scale, that much is certain, and the blood of many was on Zhang’s hands, but there was a lot of conflict in the region before and after Zhang’s very brief rule, and widespread famine also must have taken a great toll on the populace.

In October of 1646, with a new and vigorous enemy, the army of the Manchu Qing Dynasty, coming for him, Zhang decided to leave Sichuan with a quickness and head back home. He loaded 1,000 boats with all the cash and treasures he’d accumulated over years of raids and conquest and sent them south to Shaanxi. The recently unearthed ship only made it about 50 miles from Chengdu before sinking. In July 1647, Zhang’s army and allies clashed with Manchu forces. He either died in this battle, or he fled with his troops on his treasure-laden ships which then sank either because they were set on fire by the enemy or because in the chaos of retreat, the vessels crashed into each other and went down.

“The objects have helped identify the area where the battle was fought and are direct evidence of this historical event,” said Wang Wei, a Chinese archaeologist. [...]

“The items are extremely valuable to science, history and art. They are of great significance for research into the political,economic, military and social lives of the Ming Dynasty,” said Li Boqian,an archaeologist from Peking University.

The excavation will continue through April and archaeologists fully expect to find more of Zhang’s not-quite-legendary-after-all lost treasure.

This news story has the best views of the excavation and a small fraction of the artifacts recovered I could find:

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Colossal statue not Ramesses II

History Blog - Sun, 2017-03-19 23:40

The colossal statue discovered in the Matariya neighborhood of Cairo on March 7th is not of Pharaoh Ramesses II, Egypt’s Minister of Antiquities Khaled El-Enany announced at a press conference Thursday. When the head and bust of the statue were unearthed, the massive scale and style suggested it might be a depiction of Ramesses the Great who was fond of having giant sculptures of himself made. He was built extensively in the sacred city of Heliopolis whose remains underly Matariya.

After causing much controversy by removing the massive head of the statue from the muddy pit using a bulldozer, archaeologists took a kinder, gentler approach with the torso. It was strapped to a crane and slowly lifted out of the waterlogged trench on March 13th. The torso alone weighs three tons, the head 1.5 tons. The weight of the complete statue could have been as much as 50 tons; the estimated height is nine meters (30 feet).

When the head was moved, archaeologists noticed some stylistic features characteristic of later periods. Then, on the back pillar of the statue they found an inscription with key evidence for a very different and much later identification: Pharaoh Psamtek I.

Mr el-Anani, speaking at the famed Egyptian museum in the heart of Cairo, said they were lucky to spot an inscription of one of Psamtek’s five names on the statue.

“It’s a part of the royal protocol, each pharaoh had five titles followed by five names,” he said.

“We were lucky to find the second title — the Nepti title — drawn with a vulture and a cobra, followed by the name Neb Aa.

“Neb Aa means the possessor of the arm, which means the mighty.”

The only pharaoh who was referred to as Neb Aa was the Pharaoh Psamtek I from the 26th Dynasty who ruled Egypt for 54 years.

Ramesses reigned from 1279–1213 B.C., more than 600 years before Psamtek I (664–610 B.C.) ascended the throne. Psamtek would have good reason to want to be associated with one of Egypt’s most successful and best remembered pharaohs. He too was a highly effective ruler, both military and political. Founder of the 26th Dynasty, Psamtek I kicked out the Assyrians after 17 years of occupation and reunified Egypt. His reign, almost as long as Ramesses’, was something of a renaissance for Egypt, a revival of its ancient glories, albeit in much diminished form. Psamtek and his successors deliberately sought to emulate the iconography of Old Kingdom Egypt.

Despite the strong evidence of the unique title in the inscription, Enany won’t categorically state that the statue depicts Psamtek I at this juncture, a wise choice in the wake of the overly enthusiastic Ramesses claims. First the excavation team must finish their exploration of the site. There may be more fragments still to be found there. A close study of the inscription and pieces will, hopefully answer some of the questions about its age and identity. For instance, what if it’s both Ramesses and Psamtek? There’s an outside chance the latter recycled a statue of his great predecessor, altering it to make it resemble him more and adding the inscription.

If the identification and dating is confirmed, the colossus will be far and away the best surviving example of an Old Kingdom throwback from Psamtek’s reign. More than that, it will be the largest statue from the Late Period (664-332 B.C.) ever found.

The most urgent issue is the stabilization of the statue fragments. The sudden change in environment from the muddy, wet and below the water table to the desert heat of the surface can damage the quartzite stone. Cairo Museum conservators will spend at least three months helping the statue adjust to its new circumstances.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Gilded horse bridle fittings found in Viking grave

History Blog - Sat, 2017-03-18 23:37

Archaeologists have discovered the grave of a Viking man containing gilded bronze and silver-plated mounts from a horse bridle in the town of Hørning near Skanderborg in Jutland, Denmark. The large grave complex consisting of multiple contiguous chambers was discovered in 2012, but only a very small section of it has been excavated. The site was cleared and a small test pit dug in one of the chambers revealed the bridle fittings. The bridle area was raised in a soil block and excavated in the laboratory. Archaeologists have dubbed the grave’s occupant the Fregerslev Viking, the name of the spot where the burial was found.

“The artefacts that we’ve already found are exquisite gilded fittings from a horse bridle. This type of bridle would only be available to the most powerful of people in the Viking Age, and we believe it might have been a gift of alliance from the king,” said Merethe Schifter Bagge, a project manager and archaeologist at the Museum of Skanderborg

“The fittings date to circa 950 AD, which means that the Fregerslev Viking could have been the confidant of the king, Gorm the Old – or alternatively a rival.”

The bridle artifacts are such a rare find and indicate such high status that the find is being compared to two of the greatest archaeological discoveries in Danish history, the impossibly life-like bog body Tollund Man and the fantastically stylish immigrant teenager Egtved Girl.

The discovery has been announced now, more than four years after it was made, because the team led by Museum of Skanderborg archaeologists has finally secured funding for a full excavation of the site. The grave complex is unusually large for the period, so there may be as many as three chambers. Archaeologists hope the excavation will reveal more about the Fregerslev Viking, perhaps additional grave goods, maybe even a horse sacrifice. There’s also the chance there are other people buried in the complex, possibly family members or servants. The wider goal of the project is to gain new insight into the power elite, trade and commerce of 10th century Viking society.

The excavation begins on April 18th, and best of all, the site is open to the public. There will be daily tours guided by a team member so visitors can get the full picture of the site while they watch the archaeologists at work. Meanwhile, the fittings that have already been excavated will be on display at the Museum of Skanderborg.

The museum has created a website dedicated to the Fregerslev Viking excavation. (It’s on Danish only, so you may have to deploy an online translator.) Follow it to keep updated on new developments.

This very brief teaser video from the museum show aerial shots of the find spot and X-ray of the fittings in the soil block.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History