Updated: 30 min 15 sec ago
Ireland’s Heritage Council and Heritage Maps have launched a new dataset mapping all the Sheela-na-Gigs in situ and in collections around Ireland. Sheela-na-Gigs are female figures often characterized by bands across the forehead, visible ribs, and most notably, their hands spreading their vulvas wide open. They are found in the UK and to a lesser degree on the continent (mainly France and Spain), but Ireland has the greatest number of Sheela-na-Gigs. They are most commonly seen in churches and monasteries, usually ones of medieval Romanesque design or in newer ones that incorporate salvaged elements of earlier religious structures on the site. They are also found in lay buildings like castles.
Discussing the launch of this new cultural resource and the St. Patrick connection, renowned UCC folklorist Shane Lehane suggests “that perhaps the key to understanding the inherited notion that St Patrick had a wife, Sheela, is to explore the hugely interesting archaeological manifestation that also bears her name: the Sheela-na-Gig”.
“In Ireland, there are over 110 examples of these, oft misunderstood, medieval stone carvings of naked, old women exposing their genitalia. They are often positioned in medieval tower-houses, medieval church sites and holy wells. Up to recently these were seen as figures representing the evils of lust or as ways of averting the ‘evil eye’. More convincing reassessments have reinterpreted the Sheela-na-gig, in line with the Cailleach, as belonging to the realm of vernacular folk deities associated with the life-giving powers of birth and death. Placed with the cycles of both the natural and agricultural year and the human life cycle, she can be regarded as the embodiment of the cycle of fertility that overarches natural, agricultural and human procreation and death”.
Speaking about the launch of the Sheela-na-Gig map, Beatrice Kelly, Heritage Council Head of Policy & Research, stated, “Sheela-na-Gigs are very evocative symbols of the feminine in old Irish culture and their prominent positions in medieval churches and castles attests to the importance of the female in Irish society. As modern Ireland strives for equality in all aspects of life this map can help us all to understand the important place women have traditionally held within our culture and society.”
There are probably more Sheelas that haven’t been officially documented yet. The Heritage Council is hoping to add to the layer with new information and asks that members of the public contact them if they know of any Sheela-na-Gigs that are not yet marked on the map.
As the name suggests, Heritage Maps is a collection of culture-related data sets marked on a map of Ireland. You can select different layers to view on the map — shipwrecks, UNESCO World Heritage sites, burial grounds, walled towns, museums, protected architectural sites, and hundreds more — and create the mother of all heritage tours customized to your interests. There are more than 150,000 sites pinpointed in all of the layers, and the number increases all the time.
To view the new Sheela-na-Gig dataset, click on the Archaeology category in the Layer List and check the Sheela-na-Gig box. You’ll see the map populate with data points. Click on one of the points and then on the right arrow after the name for the full information to drop down, including a photo (just thumbnails, alas).
Artifacts and remains of the Wampanoag leader who forged the first alliance with the Pilgrims are being reburied in his original grave after a two-decade search for the scattered relics.
The Pilgrims called him Massasoit as if it were his first name and it has stuck, but in fact it’s a hereditary title meaning “Great Leader.” His name was Ousamequin. As Great Leader of the Pokanoket Wampanoags, he held the allegiance of numerous chieftains and villages in the Wampanoag Confederation stretching from Narragansett Bay east to Cape Cod, most of modern-day southeastern Massachusetts.
In the six years before the Mayflower landed at Plymouth, two smallpox outbreaks had decimated the Pokanoket, reducing their warrior ranks from a formidable 3,000 to a mere 300. With their enemies the Narragansetts at their doorstep (they controlled the territory west of Narragansett Bay), ready to take advantage of the Pokanoket’s military weakness, in March of 1621 Ousamequin entered into a treaty of nonaggression and mutual defense with the newly arrived English colonists. They agreed not to attack each other and to come to each other’s aid if either one were attacked by third parties.
The English had weapons and the ability to use them; the Pokanoket knew how to grow, make and find food. The military alliance was advantageous to both, since the Narragansetts were as ill-disposed towards the English as they were toward the Pokanoket, and good relations with their indigenous neighbors were essential to the survival of the colony. Without them, the Plymouth colony would quickly go the way of their countrymen at Jamestown and starve to death. As it was, they only had a place to live because they had moved into a Pokanoket village (Patuxet) left abandoned after a smallpox epidemic, and although Ousamequin didn’t know this, at the time of the alliance barely three months after their arrival, almost half of the colonists and Mayflower crew had already died from diseases contracted during the Atlantic crossing.
The alliance lasted 40 years, ending only with Massasoit Ousamequin’s death in 1661. English sources acknowledge that the colony would almost certainly have died on the vine in those difficult first few years without his invaluable aid and recognized him as a man of unimpeachable integrity, loyalty and generosity. That didn’t stop the growing colony from encroaching ever more on Pokanoket lands, of course, and as the decades passed, the alliance became increasingly strained. Under pressure from all sides, Ousamequin chose to keep the alliance together and repeatedly sold the colonists ever-larger sections of Pokanoket territory. In 1653, he and his eldest son Wamsutta sold land known as Sowams which included most of the present-day towns of Warren and Barrington, Rhode Island, and Somerset, Massachusetts, for 35 pounds sterling. The buyers were a who’s who of early New England history: Miles Standish, Josiah Winslow, William Bradford, John Winslow, et al.
One small piece of Sowams was not part of the sale: the “neck,” meaning the uplands overlooking the bay. Called Montaup, anglicized as Mount Hope, this was Ousamequin’s hometown and was to be reserved for the Pokanoket until such time as they chose to leave. After his death, he was buried there. By the end of King Philip’s War (King Philip was the English name of Massasoit Metacom, Ousamequin’s second son, who took up arms against the Plymouth Colony in 1675 to stop their untrammeled expansionism) in 1678, the surviving Pokanoket fled to Maine and Mount Hope Neck was absorbed into Warren, Rhode Island.
Neglected and unprotected, Massasoit Ousamequin’s grave was destroyed during construction of the Providence, Warren and Bristol Railroad, which opened in Warren on July 4th, 1851, 190 years after Massasoit’s death. His wasn’t the only grave on the hilltop, and souvenir hunters and archaeologists (who at this time were also largely souvenir hunters) dug up the site, collecting artifacts and human remains which wound up dispersed throughout personal collections and museums.
In 1990, the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act made it federal law that grave goods and human remains held in collections, institutions of learning and museums be returned to related tribes for reburial according to their religious traditions.
Members of the Wampanoag Nation have spent 20 years tracking down the remains and artifacts of Massasoit Ousamequin. It was their “spiritual and cultural obligation,” said Ramona Peters, who coordinated the effort. [...]
Ousamequin’s artifacts include a pipe, knife, beads and arrowheads.
The Rhode Island Historical Society has repatriated about 75 items to the appropriate tribes since the law’s passage, including artifacts belong [sic] to Ousamequin. They were donated as relics in the 1800s, but collections aren’t assembled in that way today, said Kirsten Hammerstrom, director of collections.
“Grave goods are not something we dig up and accept. They belong to the tribe,” she said. [...]
The Wampanoags have collected hundreds of funerary objects that were removed from the burial ground on the hill and held dozens of burials for their ancestors whose graves were disturbed, Peters said.
“It is an honor and a privilege to be able to do this for our ancestors,” she said.
Now it’s Massasoit Ousamequin’s turn.
A monumental mural painted by Jewish artist Hans Feibusch in St Mark’s Church in Coventry has been revealed after spending 44 years hidden behind a brick wall. It’s been hidden more than four times longer than it was in view, but now it’s out in the open for good.
A Victorian Gothic Revival church built in 1868, St Mark’s managed to survive the levelling of the Medieval city of Coventry by German bombing raids in World War II. The great stained glass window in the west wall was the only casualty. The church couldn’t afford to replace the window in the lean war and post-war years, so they bricked up the hole and the church was left with a very large, very plain wall where the window had once been.
In 1963, Hans Feibusch was commissioned to paint a mural depicting the Ascension of Christ on that plain wall. Born in Frankfurt in 1898, Feibusch served two years on the Eastern Front during World War I. After the war, he studied art and began working as a professional artist in 1925. He was quickly successful, winning an award from the Prussian Academy of Arts in 1931. When the Nazis came to power in 1933, Feibusch saw the writing on the wall and hightailed it out of Germany to England.
While he built a new life for himself in England, back in Germany Hitler’s personal taste in art was being enshrined as the ideal while the avant-garde that had thrived under the Weimar Republic was reviled as “degenerate,” the nobility of classical forms distorted and deformed by Jewish contamination of the culture. In 1937, Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels put together a Degenerate Art (Entartete Kunst) exhibition in Munich that collected the modern art his ministry had pulled from the walls of galleries, museums and private collections. Feibusch’s work was displayed alongside Jankel Adler’s and Marc Chagall’s next to the slogan “Revelation of the Jewish racial soul” written on the wall.
Feibusch’s career really took off in England after the end of World War II, thanks largely to the destruction wrought by German bombs. He became known as a muralist, especially as a church muralist. His main patron was the Bishop of Chichester Dr. G.K.A. Bell, who commissioned murals in Chichester Cathedral and in the bishop’s palace. Churches in Brighton, Portsmouth, Eastbourne and other cities small and large also commissioned murals from Feibusch. He ultimately painted murals for 30 churches, including St Mark’s, and major civic buildings like Dudley Town Hall in Worcestershire.
St Mark’s Church was deconsecrated in 1973 and converted into the outpatients department of the Coventry and Warwickshire Hospital. For the mural’s own protection (and maybe to make the space a little less obviously a church), the Ascension was bricked over. Even though out of view, it wasn’t forgotten.
The Coventry Society said: “Feibusch’s work is now recognised as being of national importance. In 2011 the Coventry Society noted that the listing particulars for the building did not include the mural. We therefore put in a formal request to English Heritage to amend the listing to include the mural and revise other details of the listing. This was approved by the Secretary of State for Culture, Leisure and Sport in January 2013.”
“In March 2017 it was announced that the building is to be re-opened as a City Centre Resource Church in September 2017. We are delighted to learn that the future of the building is now safe and that it is going to be restored.”
Hans Feibusch lived a very long life, dying four weeks shy of his 100th birthday in 1998. He not only outlived all of the Nazis who labelled his art degenerate, but also all of his fellow so-called “degenerate artists.” He is buried in Golders Green Jewish Cemetery.
Florence Nightingale wasn’t even 18 years old when she first realized the expected life of an elegant young woman of her milieu — husband, children, charitable causes — was not for her. One of two much-loved daughters of wealthy, upper class parents, Florence grew up at Embley Park in Hampshire, spending the summers in the manor house of Lea Hurst on her father’s estate in Derbyshire. Her parents had progressive views of women’s education, and both Nightingale daughters received a thorough classical education from their Cambridge-graduate father William. On February 7th, 1837, at Embley, Florence felt “God called her to His service.”
What form this service would take she wouldn’t know for some years, but at least by 1844, nursing was on her mind. American poet and author of The Battle Hymn of the Republic Julia Ward Howe recalled that while she and her husband Dr. Samuel Gridley Howe were visiting the Nightingales at Embley that year, Florence asked Dr. Howe, “If I should determine to study nursing, and to devote my life to that profession, do you think it would be a dreadful thing?” He replied that it would be a good thing, a response that buoyed her hopes.
She began to plan in secret to pursue her vocation. The plan was to learn the job by working as a nurse at Salisbury Hospital for a few months and then come home and display her newly acquired skills to such great advantage caring for the sick and destitute in the local village of West Wellow that any doubts her family might harbor would be instantly dispelled.
She didn’t even make it to the first step. Her mother was so horrified by the idea of Florence working as a nurse in a hospital that the plan was stillborn. It wasn’t the gross aspects of the job that so terrified Mrs. Nightingale. Disease, exposed body parts, gruesome operations, rivers of blood paled in comparison to the sexual shenanigans doctors and nurses were reputed to indulge in on hospital wards. Nurses were widely seen as little more than doctors’ paid mistresses.
To her parents’ credit, they both looked into the idea, contacting their many friends in the medical profession to ask their opinions. William Nightingale even argued Florence’s case in correspondence with a doctor friend, but the responses were uniformly negative. Nursing was no job for a moral, religiously devout, rich, attractive, highly educated and marriageable gentlewoman. Even pioneering female physician Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell told Florence that a young lady she knew decided the only way for her to be taken seriously as a nurse without being assumed to be some doctor’s side-piece was to dress in pantaloons, cut her hair short and hope her deep voice kept the wolves at bay. A head nurse in a London hospital told Florence “she had never known a nurse who was not drunken, and that there was immoral conduct practised in the very wards, of which she gave me some awful examples.”
Florence was passionately opposed to the life expected of her. She felt her calling to the marrow of her being. She wanted to be a “savior” in God’s name, for her existence to have a profound purpose. The Nightingales hoped some travel might distract their determined daughter, maybe even inspire her to follow her many intellectual pursuits instead of nursing. In 1847, Florence was sent to Rome with some friends of the family. She loved it, but as soon as she returned to London in 1849, she found work inspecting hospitals and working at schools for poor children.
And so the prospect of more foreign travel was dangled before her. This time her father was sending her, again with friends of the family, to Egypt and Greece. Again she loved it. On her trip to Egypt in 1850, she picked up several easily transported figurines as souvenirs. They were not fancy things, and as a group she had a rather low opinion of them, but there were some she really liked. She wrote to her sister Parthenope:
As for the Egyptian rubbish, you may do just what you like with it, keep it or give it away. There is nothing that reminds me of what I have seen, nothing that savours of my Karnak except the bronze dog, the brick seals which sealed the tombs at Thebes, and the four little seals in the light box … you don’t know how difficult it is to get anything at Cairo – for I know you will think, and very truly, what I have sent home very shabby.
Parthenope kept them, and they remained in the family for almost a century. The last owner was Rosalind Nash, daughter of Florence’s cousin and her close friend and confidante. In 1949, she donated the group to what is now the National Museums Liverpool. On April 28th, they will go on display for the first time in Liverpool World Museum’s new Egyptian gallery, home to the second largest collection of Egyptian antiquities in the UK (the British Museum has the largest).
Ashley Cooke, the senior curator of antiquities at the World Museum, is delighted to display her amulets at last. They included four to the protective goddess Taweret, particularly cherished by women during childbirth.
“What she brought back is fascinating to us, but I think she expected to be offered ancient treasures and she was very disappointed with what was available,” he said. “Ironically we are displaying some of the objects which she did rate and was very pleased at getting hold of – which have turned out, alas, to be fakes.” [...]
In a later letter she mentioned the most precious of her seals again: “I possess an antiquity though which I really do value, an official seal, of the time of Rameses the Great, my hero, with his cartouche upon it. An undoubted reality. Who will dare to open letters sealed with the great Rameses’ own seal?”
Cooke said kindly: “Unfortunately the four little seals are all forgeries but at least they gave her some pleasure and they are quite pretty little things.”
Not even all the wonders, fake or real, of Egypt could keep Florence from achieving her goal. Five years after her trip to Egypt, Florence Nightingale went to tend to the wounded of the Crimean War, and the rest, as they say, is history. Her role in the war may have been overstated in hindsight, but her struggle against societal disapproval to even get a chance at nursing played an essential role in her many great accomplishments after her experience in the Crimea. She built nursing into a profession with standards of care and commitment, founded the first secular nursing school and advocated tirelessly for improving healthcare for people of all social strata.
Since late last year, Jamestown Rediscovery archaeologists have been excavating the Memorial Church, built in 1907 over the foundations of three 17th century churches, the earliest being the 1617 timber-frame church in which the Jamestown colonists held the first representative assembly in English North America in 1619. (The second was built in 1640, the last in 1680.) The site was excavated in 1901 by the Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities (today known as Preservation Virginia) before construction of the Memorial Church. The foundations of the 1617 church were discovered in that dig, but archaeological priorities and methods were different then, and the APVA team poured concrete between the remains of foundation and wall thinking it would keep them intact. Archaeologists today are removing the concrete (no small task — some sections are as much as five feet deep) to uncover elements in the soil that their predecessors wouldn’t have noticed or cared about but that contain potentially significant information about the construction of the 1617 church.
One of the aims of the new excavation is to conserve a unique ledger gravestone (a marker that lies horizontally covering the full length of a grave) known as the Knight’s Tomb. Moniker notwithstanding, there is no knight, or anyone else for that matter, buried under the stone. There was originally, but sometime in the 17th century it was moved to the chancel aisle, just inside the doorway of the brick church, and recycled as a paver. It is the only surviving ledger stone in the United States.
The slab is six by three feet in dimension and has inset carvings which once held brass plates that identified and glorified the deceased. You can see the bolt holes that once affixed the plates to the stone. In the upper right hand corner is a shield, whose brass inlay would have been a family crest. Across from it is a scroll, and in the middle is a knight in plate armor standing on a rectangular pedestal which likely contained the full funerary inscription.
Because of the loss of the brass plates, researchers aren’t certain who the knight in question was, but there aren’t a ton of candidates. There are in fact only two knights who were buried in the 1617 church: Thomas West, Lord De La Warre, who died on the transatlantic voyage and was buried in Jamestown in 1618, and Sir George Yeardley, who actually managed to land in the Americas alive and well. He was Governor of Virginia during that first General Assembly meeting held in the original church in 1619. He died in 1627 and was buried in the church.
“When you’re studying mortuary practices, when you’re studying monuments, you never want to go to the records of the person who died, you want to go to the records of their offspring, of their family members who are still living,” said [Assistant Curator with Preservation Virginia Hayden] Bassett. “They’re the people who are largely going to be dealing with the logistics of getting a massive stone over here.”
Bassett said after searching through the journals of both men’s extended families, he thinks Preservation Virginia may have found mentions of the stone by Yeardley’s step-grandson Adam Thorowgood II, whose mother married Yeardley’s youngest son, Francis.
“What they mention is that they would like to have a black marble tomb with the crest of Sir George Yeardley and the same inscription as upon the broken tomb,” Bassett said. “We believe that might reference this stone.”
It was unearthed by the APVA in the 1901 dig. Its brass plates were long gone by then, and the stone was broken in several fragments, all of them quite large, one of them the full bottom half of the stone. They decided to keep it pretty much where they found it, moving it just a foot south. To seal it in place and fill the joins between the fragments, the team poured Portland cement around it and into the cracks. People loved their Portland cement back then because it’s so hard and durable, but as a preservation material it’s unfortunately terrible. The contrast between its hardness and the more porous, softer period materials causes moisture problems and puts undue stress on the historic structures.
The Knight’s Tomb is no exception. To ensure its long-term health, Jamestown Rediscovery archaeologists knew they’d have to get it out of that cement trap and into the hands of modern conservators who use materials that can be reversed should they cause problems down the line. On April 10th, conservator Jonathan Appell of of Atlas Preservation, an expert in the conservation of historic monumental stone memorials and gravestones, began the difficult job of releasing the ledger stone.
The cement around the edges of the gravestone was hand-chiseled away. Thankfully, the people who installed it in the floor of the Memorial Church in the early 20th century did not set it in a bed of Portland cement. Instead it was placed on slate shims over a mortared brick base, so once the cement was removed from the sides and under the edges, the stone could be pried off its base relatively easily. Once the Portland cement was gone, the stone came up in the same fragments it was first found in back in 1901. Very carefully and painstakingly, the team moved the stones up wooden ramps onto a platform where the detailed conservation will take place.
You can see some of their hard work explained by Jonathan Appell in this wonderful video on the Jamestown Rediscovery YouTube channel:
That YouTube channel is a gem, very much worth following and/or bookmarking. They have several videos documenting the current excavation of the 1907 Memorial Church.
Unrelated to the church and its tombs, this video about the discovery and conservation of the most complete set of jacks of plate (an armoured vest of overlapping plate sewn onto canvas) in the United States is just plain cool.
Harvard researchers have discovered a second manuscript written on parchment of the Declaration of Independence in a county archive in Chichester, UK. The only other parchment manuscript is the original Matlack Declaration in the National Archives, the large-scale, or “engrossed,” in the parlance of 1776, version with John Hancock’s John Hancock that everyone pictures when they think of the Declaration of Independence. The newly discovered one is engrossed too, at 24″ x 30″ the same dimensions as the Matlack Declaration, only this one is oriented horizontally instead of vertically.
In August 2015, Emily Sneff was working on a database of every known example of the Declaration of Independence for Harvard’s Declaration Resources Project when she came across a reference to a copy of the Declaration kept in the West Sussex Record Office. The document was described in the archive’s catalog as “Manuscript copy, on parchment, of the Declaration in Congress of the thirteen United States of America.”
She initially suspected it would turn out to be a printed copy of a kind that were widespread in the 19th century because she had encountered such errors — copies mistakenly catalogued as manuscripts even though they were later prints — in other archives. The reference to parchment, however, was unusual and intriguing. She contacted the West Sussex Record Office and they sent her a CD with photographs of the document.
The pictures made it clear that it was indeed a manuscript, not a printed copy, and that wasn’t the only uncommon feature. The names of the signatories were not in their traditional order, with Hancock’s signature first and the rest grouped according to the states they represented in the Second Continental Congress. The punctuation of the text is idiosyncratic and there’s very little of it. There appears to be a spot of erased text at the top, and the neat, compact handwriting was unlike any Sneff had seen before.
Sneff took the pictures to her colleague Danielle Allen, and together they worked for two years to unlock its mysteries. They dubbed the manuscript the Sussex Declaration, which is more than a geographical designation. They believe the Sussex Declaration to have belonged to Charles Lennox, 3rd Duke of Richmond, also known as the “Radical Duke” for his avowed anti-colonialist stance and support of American independence. It was likely made in America, probably New York or Philadelphia, and then sent overseas to the Duke, but who commissioned it and whose is the wonderful hand that wrote it remain uncertain.
The leading candidate for the commissioner of the parchment is James Wilson of Pennsylvania, himself a signatory of the Declaration of Independence, one of the greatest legal minds of the nascent republic who played a large part in the drafting of the US Constitution and was appointed by President George Washington as one of the first six justices of the Supreme Court. He believed fervently that the principles of the Declaration should play a central role in the political ideology of the United States, despite its not having the strength of law. The Sussex Declaration, notably the arrangement of names, may be making a political statement about the importance of the new country having a strong federal government if it is to succeed.
Analysis of the parchment, handwriting and spelling date the Sussex Declaration to the 1780s, a period when these issues were front and center in a United States in dire financial straits, fraught with conflict about the role of central government versus the states and still governed by the loose Articles of Confederation.
Among the chief political debates of the era, Allen said, was whether the new nation had been founded on the basis of the people’s authority or the authority of the states. By reordering the names of the signers, perhaps the most conspicuous feature of the parchment, the Sussex Declaration comes down squarely on one side of the argument.
On most documents of the era, Allen said, the protocol was for members of each state delegation to sign together, with signatures typically running either down the page or from left to right, with the names of the states labeling each group. An exception was made for a small number of particularly important documents — including the Declaration, which was signed from right to left, and which omitted the names of the states, though the names were still grouped by state.
“But the Sussex Declaration scrambles the names so they are no longer grouped by state,” Allen said. “It is the only version of the Declaration that does that, with the exception of an engraving from 1836 that derives from it. This is really a symbolic way of saying we are all one people, or ‘one community,’ to quote James Wilson.”
Read about Sneff’s and Allen’s use of handwriting and parchment analysis and their examination of spelling errors in the names of the signatories in their first published paper on the Sussex Declaration (pdf). Their second paper (pdf) focuses on James Wilson, the evidence indicating he commissioned the Sussex Declaration and why. They’re both fascinating, but I was particularly captivated by the second because I knew nothing about James Wilson and he deserved far better from me.
Last November, piano tuner Martin Backhouse was having a hard time with some sticky keys on a 1906 Broadwood & Sons upright piano he was overhauling for The Community College of Bishops Castle. Martin found the problem when he removed the keys: eight parcels full of gold coins.
The school alerted the Finds Liaison Officer for the region, Peter Reavill, and he and his colleagues at the Portable Antiquities Scheme examined and catalogued the hoard. Inside seven cloth-wrapped parcels and one suede drawstring pouch, they counted 913 gold sovereigns and half-sovereigns ranging in date from 1847 to 1915, issued in the reigns of Queen Victoria, Edward VII and George V. The weight of the coins totals more than 6 kilos (13+ pounds) of gold bullion.
One of the pouches was packed with cardboard that provided an important clue to when the hoard was hidden. It was an ad for Shredded Wheat created after 1926 and likely before 1946. Attempts to trace the ownership history of the piano to determine who might have stashed the coins inside it went nowhere. After its manufacture by Broadwood & Sons of London, it was sold to music teachers Messrs. Beavan & Mothersole of Saffron Walden, Essex. There is no trace of its movements for almost 80 years. The trail picks up again in 1983 when it was acquired by Mr. and Mrs. Hemming, also of Saffron Walden, for the children to learn on. It remained with the Hemmings until last year when they donated it to the Bishops Castle Community College.
On April 20th, John Ellery, senior coroner for Shropshire, held an inquest in Shrewsbury and declared the gold coins treasure according to the 1996 Treasure Act, which means they now officially belong to the Crown. The British Museum will convene a Treasure Valuation Committee to assess the market value of the coins. Local museums will be given the chance to acquire the hoard for the assessed sum, which will then be split between finder Martin Backhouse and the piano’s owners, the Bishops Castle Community College.
Coins made of precious metals that are more than 300 years old qualify as treasure, but these coins are comparatively recent. The determination that they are treasure is based on three criteria: 1) they are made of gold, 2) they were deliberately hidden with the ultimate aim of recovering them at a later date, 3) the owner and/or heirs are unknown. This was the standard applied to the Hackney Double Eagle hoard discovered in a London backyard in 2010, whose coins are also gold and have almost the exact same date range (1854-1913). The publicity from that case resulted in the identification of the legitimate owner, the son of the original owner who had died in 1981.
That has not happened in this case, despite the coroner adjourning the inquest twice to give any potential claimants the chance to come forward. Surprising absolutely nobody, many claimants came forward, almost 50 of them, hoping to get their hands on some of that sweet, sweet gold sovereignage, but no evidence was found to substantiate any of the claims, hence the treasure verdict.
This video from the British Museum’s YouTube channel tells the story of the Piano Hoard.
When researchers discovered an escape tunnel dug by Jewish prisoners in the forest of Ponar outside Vilnius, Lithuania, last year, their investigation was filmed by PBS for a future episode of its consistently excellent NOVA series. The NOVA episode premiered on PBS Tuesday, 73 years almost to the day after the escape on Passover night, April 14th, 1944, and it did not disappoint.
It opens with an overview of the history of the Jewish community of what was then known as Vilna. This was one of the largest, richest and most culturally important Jewish communities in Europe, even earning the moniker of the “Jerusalem of Lithuania,” not a title that was cast about carelessly. Part of the program is dedicated to the archaeological excavation of the site of the Great Synagogue Complex, obliterated by the Nazis and finished off by the Soviets after the war. The team is hoping to unearth the architectural remains of the mikvah, the ritual bath, but has very little time so it’s quite suspenseful.
In parallel with the city excavation, the team in the forest seeks evidence of unknown mass graves and to find the escape tunnel in Pit 6 used by the 11 survivors of the Ponar Burning Brigade, a group of 80 Jewish prisoners forced by the SS to dig up tens of thousands of bodies of their loved ones (murdered by Nazis and Lithuanian militia between 1941 and 1944), stack them in alternating layers with logs, pour gasoline on them and burn them to cinders. There are some wrenching photos of these monstrous structures, and NOVA does a compelling job of explaining the sheer scale of this sickening project.
It also illustrates the technology used to find the tunnel very well. They focus on the non-invasive exploration of the site by electrical resistivity tomography (ERT), a technology used by geologists, oil and gas prospectors, but still very new to archaeology. The experts explain how the technology works in the context of this particular site, identifying distinct areas that stand out from the sand all around them. You can’t help but share their excitement as they identify first the exit point of the tunnel, then other points along the expected route of the tunnel which decisively confirm the find.
But the greatest triumph of this program, in my opinion, is the involvement throughout of the children of the escapees. They’re the ones who explain the Burning Brigade’s function, the horror their fathers experienced, how it haunted them for the rest of their lives. This is more than an effective framing device. The whole point of the Burning Brigade was to obliterate all the evidence of Nazi mass-murder, culminating in one last mass-murder of the Burning Brigade members themselves. Once they were dead, there would be nobody left to remember the Nazi atrocities in the Ponar forest. They escaped not just to save their lives, but so that someone would be alive to tell the tale.
The children of the survivors telling the stories they’d heard from their fathers and then being presented with all the evidence discovered by the archaeologists and researchers confirming those stories is not only deeply moving, but a final defeat of the Nazi attempt to cover up their crimes.
In conclusion, watch this show.
An archaeological survey of a subway construction site in Chengdu, Sichuan province, southwestern China, unearthed a tomb containing four model looms. It dates to the reigns of the Han Dynasty Emperors Jingdi (157 to 141 B.C.) and Wudi (141 to 88 B.C.). The tomb is 24 feet long, 16 feet wide and 9 feet high and made of painted wood. It is divided into five chambers, a full-length burial chamber above, four small chambers underneath. Archaeologists discovered the remains of a woman about 50 years of age. While the jade seal on her coffin was broken, likely by tomb robbers not long after the burial, her name can still be read on it: Wan Dinu.
It was in one of the four rooms under the burial chamber that the model looms were found. Made of wood and bamboo, the model looms have preserved cinnabar-dyed red silk threads and brown silk threads on the beams. Each of the models is to scale, about 1/6th the size of their full-size cousins, and come with an array of accessories and operators which are also about 1/6th life-sized. There are tools for warping, rewinding and weft winding and 15 carved figurines including weavers (four men) and their assistants (nine women). The weavers are about 10 inches high and are depicted in action poses, warping, rewinding and weft winding, just as their real-life counterparts would do using the tools also included in the loom tableau. The figurines all have individual names written on the breast, which means they were probably representations of actual weavers and their assistants.
The largest of the four looms is 33 inches long, 10 inches wide and 20 inches high, about the size of a toy piano, but its historical significance is oversized.
“We are very sure that the loom models from Chengdu are the earliest pattern looms around the world,” said the study’s lead researcher, Feng Zhao, the director of the China National Silk Museum in Hangzhou, China, and a professor at Donghua University in Shanghai.
It’s thought that the earliest looms date to China’s Neolithic age, including looms found in China’s eastern Zhejiang province: an approximately 8,000-year-old loom from the Kuahuqiao site; and a roughly 7,000-year-old loom found at the Hemudu site, Zhao said. Other looms include pieces of Egyptian creations from about 4,000 and 3,400 years ago, respectively, and Greek looms illustrated on vases dating to about 2,400 years ago, the researchers said.
However, unlike their predecessors, pattern looms are used to weave a “complex kind of textile,” Zhao told Live Science in an email. Weavers used this type of loom to create patterns by stringing up the weft (the crosswise yarn on the loom) and weaving the warp (the longitudinal yarn that is passed over and under the weft) through it, he said.
These model looms are replicas in miniature of a technology that revolutionized silk manufacture in the 3rd century, making possible the creation of the famed Han Dynasty Shu jin silks, textiles that were traded across Europe, Asia and the Levant via the Silk Road.
The fascinating paper on the discovery, the reconstruction of the looms, how they were operated and their historical meaning has been published in the journal Antiquity and can be read in its entirety free of charge here.
Archaeologists have discovered a tomb containing 10 coffins, eight mummies and more than 1,000 funerary statues in the Draa Abul Nagaa necropolis on the west bank of the Nile in Luxor. The team had to work hard to get to this point, removing more than 450 cubic meters of debris before reaching the door to the entrance of the tomb.
The tomb is T-shaped with an open courtyard leading to a rectangular hall which is connected to a second chamber by a corridor. The longitudinal chamber held four painted wood coffins, the inner chamber six. In a shaft nine meters (30 feet) long, archaeologists found more Ushabti figurines, plus wooden masks and the handle from a sarcophagus lid.
While the human remains are in varying states of decay — from intact linen-wrapped mummies to disarticulated skeletonized body parts — the coffins are largely in good condition. Some are broken, but the rich polychrome paint in combinations of yellow, red, blue, green and black is still vibrant.
First built to house the mortal remains of an 18th Dynasty city judge named Userhat who lived around 3,500 years ago, the tomb was converted into a duplex in the 21st Dynasty. That means the artifacts and human remains do not all belong to Userhat or members of his family/retinue. The mummies and wooden sarcophagi found in the second chamber were placed there at that time. The inner chamber also held more ushabti funerary figurines made of faience, terra cotta and wood and a group of clay pots painted in patterns of orange and green.
The tomb was opened to add more mummies during the 21st Dynasty, about 3,000 years ago, to protect them during a period when tomb-robbing was common, [head of the archeological mission Mostafa] Waziri said at the site.
“It was a surprise how much was being displayed inside” the tomb, Antiquities Minister Khaled el-Enany told reporters outside the tomb.
Ushabti figurines represented the servants and workers who would follow the deceased into the afterlife and serve him there as they had served him in this world. The discovery of so many of them at one time is of great historical significance. And there could well be more to come. The whole tomb has not been fully excavated yet. There is at least one more room which archaeologists are working on now.
Nevine el-Aref, the spokeswoman for the antiquities ministry, said: “there is evidence and traces that new mummies could be discovered in the future.”
Before he was General Bonaparte, before he was First Consul, before he was Emperor of the French, even before the French Revolution that made it possible for a Corsican nobody to reach such dizzying heights of power, Napoleon Bonaparte was a wet-behind-the-ears graduate from the École Militaire in Paris. The first Corsican to graduate from the institution, Napoleon completed the program in one year instead of two (forced by a precipitous decline in his finances after the death of his father), so he was just 18 years old when he received his first commission as second lieutenant in the La Fère regiment in October 1785.
He was stationed in a garrison in Valence, southeastern France, where he was introduced to one Madame Grégoire du Colombier, a cultured, charming woman who saw promise in the young lieutenant and took him under her wing. From the memoirs of Emmanuel, Comte de Las Cases, who accompanied Napoleon to exile on Saint Helena and assiduously documented everything he said:
Madame du Colombier often foretold that [Napoleon] would be a distinguished man. The death of this lady happened about the time of the breaking out of the Revolution: it was an event in which she took great interest, and in her last moments was heard to say that if no misfortune befell young Napoleon, he would infallibly play a distinguished part in the events of the time. The Emperor never spoke of Madame du Colombier but with expressions of the tenderest gratitude; and he did not hesitate to acknowledge, that the valuable introductions and superior rank in society which she procured for him had great influence over his destiny.
She could have had a more personal connection to the future emperor. In early 1786, she invited him to stay at her estate at Basseaux, outside Valence, where he met her daughter Charlotte Pierrette Anne, known as Caroline. Napoleon courted Caroline du Colombier that summer and there were intimations that he might even propose. That didn’t happen, but Napoleon remembered their sweet young love until the end of his life. The Comte de Las Cases again:
Napoleon conceived an attachment for Mademoiselle du Colombier, who, on her part, was not insensible to his merits. It was the first love of both; and it was that kind of love which might be expected to arise at their age and with their education. “We were the most innocent creatures imaginable,” the Emperor used to say; “we contrived little meetings together; I well remember one which took place on a midsummer morning, just as daylight began to dawn, it will scarcely be believed that all our happiness consisted in eating cherries together.”
Napoleon moved on from Valence, following his career star. Caroline married Monsieur Gamparet de Bressieux, a much older former army captain, in 1792 when General Bonaparte was on his Egyptian campaign. They stayed in touch, corresponding occasionally over the years. In 1804, now Emperor Napoleon I replied warmly to a letter from Caroline de Bressieux, offering to help her brother and herself. Shortly thereafter he appointed her lady in waiting to Madame Mère, his mother Letizia Bonaparte.
Madame Junot, the Duchesse D’Abrantès, described Madame de Bressieux at court after her appointment as Letizia’s lady in waiting.
She was both witty and good and her manners were at once gentle and agreeable. I can very well understand the Emperor going to gather cherries with her at six o’clock in the morning merely to talk to her and with no less worthy motive. A thing that struck me the first time I saw her was the interest she seemed to take in the Emperor’s most trifling acts. She kept her eyes fixed upon him with an attention that could only come from the heart.
And that was a decade after their youthful romance had passed and they had married other people. One day, when Napoleon, his mother and Caroline were all together, he asked her who owned the Basseaux estate where they had spent their summer of love together. Caroline replied that her sister and brother-in-law lived there now. The Emperor expressed a desire to grant them any wish, in honor of his fond memories of the estate. Caroline declined in their name, assuring him that those happy memories were gift enough.
He said no more about it, but a few weeks later he presented Caroline with a token of his appreciation for all Basseaux had meant to him. It was a ring, a seemingly modest one, made of gilded bronze with a central bezel containing a miniature carved country scene under a glass cover. It was the carving, made of marine ivory, that made this ring a masterpiece. In exquisite detail, the scene depicted a group of country folk collecting fruit from trees under the shadow of an ancient temple. The fruits were, of course, cherries.
The ring stayed in Caroline’s family, a treasured heirloom, for more than 200 years. On Sunday, March 26th, the heirs sold this beautiful symbol of Napoleon before he was THE Napoleon at auction in Paris. The pre-sale estimate was 15,000-20,000 € ($16,000-21,000). It sold for 36,250 € ($38,580), a tribute to its artistry, yes, but more so the poignant sweetness of its history.
The mortal remains of five Archbishops of Canterbury have been discovered in a hidden chamber underneath the floor of the deconsecrated church of St Mary-at-Lambeth in London. The surprise find was made last year during renovations to the building, now the home of the Museum of Garden History, but was kept quiet to protect the crypt until it was stabilized.
Contractors discovered the secret entrance to the crypt when removing some York stone pavers to even out the treacherous floor and make the altar area wheelchair accessible. Lifting the flagstones, contractors found the entrance to a passageway with a staircase going down into the darkness. They attached a cellphone to a long stick and filmed the brick-lined vault. They were shocked to discover it was crammed from floor to ceiling with lead coffins, 30 of them. One of the coffins, they noted, had a red and gold pointed hat perched upon it, the mitre of an Archbishop.
Two of the coffins had nameplates – one for Richard Bancroft (in office from 1604 to 1610) and one for John Moore (1783 to 1805) whose wife, Catherine Moore, also had a coffin plate.
Bancroft was the chief overseer of the publication of a new English translation of the Bible – the King James Bible – which began in 1604 and was published in 1611.
According to Mr Mount, St Mary-at-Lambeth’s records have since revealed that a further three archbishops were probably buried in the vault: Frederick Cornwallis (in office 1768 to 1783), Matthew Hutton (1757 to 1758) and Thomas Tenison (1695 to 1715). [...]
Also identified from coffin plates was the Dean of Arches John Bettesworth (who lived from 1677 to 1751) – the judge who sits at the ecclesiastical court of the Archbishop of Canterbury.
Because the church had been extensively rebuilt in the Victorian era, nobody thought there was still a crypt underneath it. The church is so close to the Thames that any underground space would have been dangerously flood-prone, and it was believed that any vaults under the church were cleared out by the Victorians and filled with soil. That was almost true. Most of the vaults were cleared of their coffins and filled in, but one of them, the crypt underneath the altar, the holiest location in the church and thus the burial place for multiple Archbishops of Canterbury, was left alone.
The church of St Mary-at-Lambeth has a very long and storied connection to the Archbishops of Canterbury. Edward the Confessor commissioned the construction of the first Westminster Abbey in 1042. The Romanesque church was still being built when Edward’s sister Goda had a more modest wooden church built across the river on her manor of Lambeth. St Mary’s was rebuilt in stone a few decades later. By the end of the 12th century the manor of Lambeth belonged to the Archbishop of Canterbury, which elevated its profile considerably. The Archbishop’s residence, Lambeth Palace, was built next door in 1197, and St. Mary’s graduated from the parish church of a small manor to the Archbishop of Canterbury’s palace church.
Almost entirely rebuilt in 1851, St Mary-at-Lambeth was used for burials until 1854. An estimated 26,000 burials took place there, nearly 16,000 of them in just two decades (1790-1810). Prominent residents were buried at St Mary’s. There are three Grade II listed graves in the churchyard, those of Captain Bligh of The Mutiny on the Bounty fame, pioneering plant collector and royal gardener John Tradescant and artificial stone manufacturer John Sealy.
Fallen into disrepair, its parishioners depleted by neighborhood blight, St Mary-at-Lambeth was deconsecrated in 1972 and was slated for demolition to make way for a parking lot. It was saved from that dire fate by one Rosemary Nicholson, a gardening history buff who had sought out the dilapidated church to visit the overgrown and neglected tomb of John Tradescant. She appealed directly to the Archbishop of Canterbury and with her husband John founded the Tradescant Trust to rescue the church and burial ground. They were extraordinarily successful, raising money for much-needed repairs and securing a 99-year lease on the church and property from the Diocese of Southwark. The Trust gave St Mary-at-Lambeth new life as the Museum of Garden History, the first of its kind in the world.
The Garden Museum closed in October 2015 for a major £7.5 million ($9,400,000) refurbishment. It will reopen on May 22nd with a new glass panel in the floor that will allow visitors to view the staircase into the crypt. The coffins, which have been left untouched in the chamber, will not be accessible.
St George’s Hall in downtown Liverpool is a grand Neoclassical building constructed between 1841 and 1854. Located across the street from the Lime Street railway station, St George’s Hall was designed first and foremost to host Liverpool’s triennial music festivals, plus concerts, dances and other cultural activities. The Liverpool Corporation raised funds for the new building by selling subscriptions, and in 1839 held a design contest to choose an architect for the hall.
The winner was Harvey Lonsdale Elmes, a 25-year-old architecture prodigy who also happened to win another contest held at the same time to design a new building for the Civil and Crown Courts. He suggested both projects be combined, and thus St George’s Hall became the only combined concert venue, ballroom and courthouse in the country, possibly the world.
The Great Hall, a vast space 169 feet by 77 feet with 82-foot ceilings, was lavishly decorated with monumental red granite columns, statues and tunnel vaulting. But its greatest glory is the floor, a riot of color composed of more than 30,000 tiles depicting Liverpool-related motifs including the liver bird, the symbol of the city, and maritime imagery like Neptune, tridents, dolphins and sea nymphs. The floor was installed in 1854, the jewel in the crown of St George’s Hall. It is today the largest, most intricate example of a Minton tile floor.
Founded in 1845, Minton, Hollins & Company specialized in decorative tiles for the floors and walls of churches, public buildings and private homes. Minton’s encaustic tiles — ceramic tile with multiple colors created by different colors of clay rather than different glazes — were all the rage in the Victorian era. They were considered the epitome of beauty and durability and won gold medal upon gold medal at trade shows across the globe. There are Minton encaustic tile floors in the Palace of Westminster, the Victoria & Albert Museum, prestigious hotels, elegant mansions and even in the United States Capitol.
St George’s Hall only enjoyed the full glory of its Minton tile floor for a decade. A wooden covering was added in the 1860s to make it more comfortable for dances and other events. This reduced the wear and tear from thousands of foxtrotting feet over the decades, but it also left the tile unmaintained, not to mention hidden away. The building was all but abandoned in the 1980s when the courts moved to a new building. With no money for ongoing maintenance, the great neoclassical building, widely considered one of the most spectacular examples of the period in the world, rapidly deteriorated.
In the 1990s funds were raised to repair parts the building, and in the early 2000s a major refurbishment project saved St George’s Hall. In 2007, the Grade I listed building opened to the public once again, restored to its former splendor. The Minton floor, however, was deemed too fragile to expose to all those feet again. It was covered with protective wooden panels which are very rarely removed. Sections of the floor received the first thorough restoration only in 2015.
If you’d like to see the greatest extant Victorian encaustic tile floor, you have a brief window to do so. The floor will be uncovered and open to visitors only until Wednesday, April 18th. The entrance fee is £2.50 to view the floor from a viewing platform. There are also Walk the Floor tours (£10) and a Night on the Tiles option (£12, including a flute of prosecco).
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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!
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).
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?
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.