Arts and Sciences

“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