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18th c. sculpture of Jesus has human teeth

Sun, 2014-08-10 23:58

Restorers from Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH) working on a polychrome statue of the Christ of Patience have found eight human teeth in the figure’s mouth. These types of statues often have teeth, but they’re carved out of wood or bone either as a plate or as individual teeth. This is the first time actual human teeth have been found.

The ends of the teeth can be seen through the open mouth of the statue (they’re rather impressively white and even, too), but it wasn’t until restorers X-rayed the head to determine its conservation needs that they saw that they were full adult teeth complete with roots. According to Fanny Unikel, head restorer of INAH’s Restoration Workshop of Polychrome Sculpture of the National School of Conservation, Restoration and Museology (ENCRyM), the teeth were probably donations made by devout parishioners, a practice seen frequently with far less painful materials like hair for wigs or clothing. Had they been saintly relics, they would have been displayed on their own and highlighted for people to revere.

The dental implant Christ is one of a group of 17th and 18th century statues of the saints belonging to the church of San Bartolo Cuautlalpan, a farming community in the central Mexico municipality of Zumpango. They have major condition problems — missing parts, termite and rodent damage, multiple layers of overpainting obscuring the original paint, bad previous repair attempts, thick coatings of hardened eggs and baby oil used by the parishioners to polish the statues — and have undergone an extensive program of restoration this year.

Saint Bartholomew, Saint Joachim, Saint Anne and Our Lady of Sorrows were all in significantly worse condition than the Christ of Patience. He may be drenched in blood and have bone-deep gouges in the flesh of his cheek and knee, but over the centuries he was always covered in clothing and only taken out for the Holy Week procession. The other statues have carved clothes and appear on saint days and other religious events; some spent time in a warehouse where they were at the mercy of vermin and less than ideal climactic conditions. Our Lady of Sorrows has a very rare mechanical element — her hands could be raised to her face as if she were crying — that hasn’t worked in years. In order to examine her insides with the aim of repairing the mechanism, restorers had to give her a CT scan because X-rays couldn’t see through the layer of lead paint, one of eight layers of overpainting just on this one statue.

Compared to his mother’s travails, Jesus has had it relatively easy. After examining the statue closely and X-raying to determine any internal damage, restorers found his structure is sound. The statue was cleaned and some areas of paint loss on the torso, sandal, legs and soles of the feet were filled in using a technique called rigatino which lays stripes of several hues in short brush strokes that from a distance blend in with the original painting but that do not attempt to disguise the fact that restoration was done. The platform on which Christ of Patience sits had been overpainted in a tragic beige. Restorers were able to remove it and reveal the reds and greens of the original polychrome.

There are some lovely gruesome views of the statue in this Spanish-language video featuring restorer Fanny Unikel talking about the teeth, the statue’s excellent condition and restoration.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

World’s oldest eel dies at 155 in Swedish well

Sat, 2014-08-09 23:35

Sweden is in mourning today over the death of the world’s oldest eel. Åle the eel was around 155 years old when he left a country bereft, a prodigious age for the European eel Anguilla anguilla which in the wild typically lives around seven years in fresh water before returning to the ocean to spawn and die. They can be very long-lived, though. The oldest recorded wild eel was 85 years old.

Åle was put in the well in the fishing village of Brantevik on the southeastern tip of Sweden by eight-year-old Samuel Nilsson in 1859. This was a common practice in a time when running water was rare (Stockholm only got public water mains in the 1850s; it took more than a century after that for waterworks to be installed in smaller towns) and a good eel could keep the home’s water supply free of bugs, worms, eggs, algae and any other number of critters. European eels will even eat carrion, so they’re extremely helpful additions to a well.

This particular eel has been a star for close to a hundred years, garnering articles in the paper, TV news stories and documentaries, even making an appearance in the Swedish Tom Sawyer, Bombi Bitt and I written by Fritiof Nilsson Piraten in 1932. Thomas Kjellman, current owner of the cottage, remembers Åle from when he was a boy. His family bought the house in 1962 with the understanding that the eel came with the property.

Last Tuesday, Kjellman lifted the lid off the well to show his famous eel to guests when he discovered Åle was no more. He had fallen apart, in fact, which must have put a bit of a damper on the annual crayfish party. They had to drain the well in order to recover the delicate remains which are being kept in the freezer until eel expert Dr. Håkan Wickström comes to pick them up. He will then take them to a laboratory in Stockholm for a necropsy.

Although the body is in pieces, the entire spine is intact and the family is hoping to send along the head as well. Rings in the otolith, or ear stone, of the eel would reveal its exact age.

The Kjellman family will have to take solace in the fact that they have a backup superannuated eel. Their other well eel, currently unnamed, is only about 110 years old.

You can catch a glimpse of Åle in his rather depressing well home/dungeon at 2:39 in the following video. You can see him in all his big-eyed glory (reportedly a result of a century spent in near constant darkness) when they bring him up into the light starting at 4:00.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Chianti well preserves 15 centuries of history

Fri, 2014-08-08 23:25

An Etruscan well in Cetamura del Chianti, an archaeological site on the property of the Badia a Coltibuono wine-making estate in Tuscany, has proven a cornucopia of historical artifacts from 300 B.C. through the end of the Middle Ages. The well — which technically is a cistern rather than a well since it isn’t spring-fed but rather a rain catchment shaft — was dug more than 105 feet deep into the sandstone bedrock of the Cetamura hilltop. Over the centuries, a vast number of artifacts made from bronze, silver, lead and iron, plus ceramics, glass, bricks, tiles, wood, 70 bronze and silver coins, jacks-like game pieces (astragali), animal bones, antlers and grape seeds were thrown into the well, probably as votive offerings in antiquity and as simple discards in later eras.

The Cetamura settlement has been excavated since 1973, unearthing Etruscan remains including an acropolis and extensive artisan quarters, a Roman villa and baths and a medieval fort. The well is in Zone 1, the acropolis area on the top of the hill, and a team of archaeologists and students led by Florida State University Etruscan expert Nancy de Grummond have been excavating it since 2011. So far the team has unearthed 14 Roman and Etruscan bronze vessels, an impressive number of very rare Etruscan wood pieces and almost 500 grape seeds.

The bronze vessels, of different shapes and sizes and with varying decorations, were used to extract water from the well, which has been excavated to a depth of more than 105 feet.

“One of the Etruscan vessels, actually a wine bucket, is finely tooled and decorated with figurines of the marine monster Skylla,” de Grummond said. “Another was adorned with a bronze finial of the head of a feline with the mane of a lion and the spots of a leopard and, for handle attachments, had African heads, probably sphinxes.”

The grape seeds, found in at least three different levels of the well — including the Etruscan and Roman levels — are of tremendous scientific interest, according to de Grummond.

The seeds date to the third and second centuries B.C. (Etruscan) and to the late first century B.C., early first century A.D. (Roman). The waterlogged environment preserved them exceptionally well which will give researchers the rare opportunity to do DNA testing as well as radiocarbon dating. This has the potential to illuminate the viticultural history of one of the famous wine growing regions of the world, a history that is very little known. Genetic and morphometric analyses of the seeds will categorize the different grape varieties and, if all goes well, will determine if any of these ancient Chianti grapes are related to the ones used to make Chianti wines today. The Roman seeds discovered in the 2012 and 2013 dig seasons have already been sorted into three different types.

Interestingly, the grape seeds weren’t just thrown in to the well in handfuls. The team found most of them inside the bronze vessels, evidence that they may have been ritual offerings rather than garbage. The wood from the early Etruscan level also appears to have played a ritual role.

“Many of the pieces of wood were worked, and already several objects have been identified, such as parts of buckets, a spatula or spoon, a spool and a rounded object that might be a knob or child’s top,” [de Grummond] said. “The sheer amount of Etruscan waterlogged wood — with some recognizable artifacts — could transform views about such perishable items.”

To follow the news from the Cetamura del Chianti well excavation, keep an eye on their Facebook page.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Plough turns up rare Pictish symbol stone

Thu, 2014-08-07 23:05



In May of last year, a farmer ploughing a field in Dandaleith, near Craigellachie in northeastern Scotland, encountered an intriguing obstacle. The landowner reported to the authorities that he had “broken his plough on a rather large stone with some sort of carving on one side,” but he was underestimating it. The solid pink granite stone actually has carvings on two sides, which makes it rare, and those sides are adjacent, which may make it unique.

Experts found that the boulder, which is nearly five and a half feet long and weighs almost 1,500 pounds, is a Class I Pictish Symbol Stone, meaning it’s an unshaped stone incised with symbols but no cross. This is the earliest type of symbol stone, and the Dandaleith Stone may date to as early as 500 A.D. The symbols on one face are an eagle with a crescent and V-rod underneath it. On the adjacent face there’s a mirror case symbol (a circle atop a rectangle) with a notch rectangle and Z-rod symbol underneath.

The symbols have been typed and categorized from the 350 or so stones that have been found, but experts still don’t know what they mean or how the stones were used. One theory is that the symbols represent a kind of heraldry for important families. The stones could have been grave markers (although archaeological evidence of burials associated with Pictish Symbol Stones is sparse) or perhaps boundary markers. For more information about the Picts and the symbol carvings, see Historic Scotland’s dedicated website.

Dr David Clarke, former Keeper of Archaeology at the National Museum of Scotland, said: “The presence of two sets of symbols on a single stone is itself a very unusual feature relative to the corpus of symbol-bearing stones, but the presence of two sets of symbols on adjacent faces may be unique. The corresponding orientation of the sets of symbols is also a very unusual feature.”

The stone was declared a Treasure Trove following its discovery, and was reported to Aberdeenshire Council Archaeology Service (ACAS), who act as the regional archaeology service for Moray Council. Claire Herbert, regional archaeologist at ACAS, said: “Members of the public regularly contact the Archaeology Service about artefacts they have found, but the reporting of the Dandaleith Stone was something truly unexpected, a real rarity. I would like to thank the ploughman and landowner for reporting their find to us, and for their continued help and cooperation.

“To our knowledge, this is a truly unique find which has the potential to alter our understanding of Pictish Symbol Stones. We are privileged to be involved in the continued protection of such a wonderful object.”

As per the Treasure Trove law, once an object is declared treasure, the Scottish Archaeological Finds Allocation Panel (SAFAP) determines which of the interested museums will be allocated the artifact and what sum it will pay the finder as an ex gratia payment. The amount of the payment is determined by how much it would cost to purchase an equivalent object on the antiquities market. In March of this year, the SAFAP allocated the Dandaleith Stone to the Elgin Museum which is just 15 miles north of Dandaleith.

While the museum raises the funds for the payment, display and transportation of this large and heavy piece of granite, the stone is being conserved and documented at Graciela Ainsworth Sculpture Conservation in Edinburgh.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Mystery of skeleton in Penn Museum basement solved

Wed, 2014-08-06 23:56

A skeleton kept in an old wooden box in the basement of Philadelphia’s Penn Museum has regained his history, and what an illustrious one it is. Curator of the museum’s Physical Anthropology Section Dr. Janet Monge knew the skeleton was there, one of 2,000 complete skeletons in the collection, but it had no catalog card or any other identifying marks. It might have remained a mystery skeleton forever had it not been for one of my favorite things: an ambitious digitization project.

In 2012, the Penn Museum and the British Museum embarked on a collaborative mission to digitize all the artifacts, photographs, archives, maps, notes and other documents from Sir Leonard Woolley’s excavations of Ur, now in southern Iraq, from 1922 and 1934. The 12 years of excavations were joint expeditions of the British Museum and the Penn Museum. As was common archaeological practice at the time, half of what they unearthed remained in country, while the other half was split evenly between the two institutions. Funded with a $1.28 million grant from the Leon Levy Foundation, Ur of the Chaldees: A Virtual Vision of Woolley’s Excavations will digitally reunite all the products of these seminal digs and make high resolution images of every pot fragment, cuneiform tablet, archaeological layer map, bull-headed lyre, etc. available for free in an online database.

Dr. William Hafford, Penn Museum’s Ur Digitization Project Manager, encountered in the course of his work some division lists recording which items were sent to Philadelphia and which to London. It was the list for the 1929-1930 dig season (a fateful season during which Katharine Woolley invited Agatha Christie to visit the dig where she met her future husband, archaeologist Max Mallowan) that caught his eye.

It said that the Penn Museum would receive, among other items, one tray of “mud of the flood” and two “skeletons.” Further research into the Museum’s object record database indicated that one of those skeletons, 31-17-404, deemed “pre-flood” and found in a stretched position, was recorded as “Not Accounted For” as of 1990.

Exploring the extensive records Woolley kept, Hafford was able to find additional information and images of the missing skeleton, including Woolley himself painstakingly removing an Ubaid skeleton intact, covering it in wax, bolstering it on a piece of wood, and lifting it out using a burlap sling. When he queried Dr. Monge about it, she had no record of such a skeleton in her basement storage—but noted that there was a “mystery” skeleton in a box.

When the box was opened later that day, it was clear that this was the same skeleton in Woolley’s field records, preserved and now reunited with its history.

The fact that he’s garnered the nickname “Noah” is a hint of that history. The skeleton is 6,500 years old, 2,000 years older than the remains found in the more glamorous Royal Cemetery of Ur. Woolley found it in Pit F, a trench he dug 50 feet deep under the surface of the archaeological site of Ur. When he reached 40 feet down, he countered a thick layer of water-lain silt that became known as the “flood layer.” This was the find that provided evidence of a great flood, not the world-destroying flood that would thousands of years later be described in the Biblical story of Noah, but a major local disaster that submerged Ur when it was an island surrounded by marshes. People regrouped after the flood, rebuilding Ur and burying their dead, but the story of the flood became legend and was incorporated in literature like the Epic of Gilgamesh.

Woolley kept digging underneath the flood layer and found 48 graves from the Ubaid period (5,500 B.C. to 4,000 B.C.). The Penn skeleton had been buried with ten pottery vessels at his feet in a grave dug into the silt, which indicates he had survived the flood.

Thanks to Woolley’s conscientious method of excavation and preservation — coating the skeleton and the soil around it in wax then covering it in plaster of Paris to keep it safe during the journey — Noah will be a great boon to research on this early period of Ur. Modern technology may be able to reveal much about his life, diet, health, perhaps cause of death, maybe even some DNA given the good condition of his teeth. Not much is known about the Ubaid period, so this research could fill in a great many blanks. And let’s not forget the silt. Archaeologists are learning amazing things from context soil nowadays.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Faces of medieval Scotland

Tue, 2014-08-05 23:59

In 2009, preparatory work for the Edinburgh Trams project unearthed approximately 400 medieval and early modern burials under Constitution Street. The site had once been part of the South Leith Parish Church graveyard in the port town of Leith (incorporated into Edinburgh in 1920) but had fallen into disuse centuries earlier and was quickly forgotten. In 1790 the Church Council declared they knew of no bodies buried in that location when Constitution Street was built to provide better access to the harbor. The archaeological survey was done because the Constitution Street area was close to the city center of early medieval Leith and to the town’s defenses in the 16th and 17th centuries. The discovery of so many human remains outside the wall of the existing graveyard, therefore, was an unexpected and potentially important source of information about how people lived in died in medieval Leith.

A comprehensive study of the bones ensued, complete with forensic examinations, isotope analysis and facial reconstructions of all the bodies where there were sufficient remains to make it possible. In the final tally, there were 302 complete burials with partial remains of at least 100 more people discovered. Thirty-three of the bodies were dated. They all pre-date 1640 with the earliest dating to 1315. The South Leith Parish Church was founded as St Mary’s Chapel almost two centuries later in 1483, and 33% of the burials happened before that date, which means this church was built on the site of a pre-existing one.

The 1640 cut-off may be related to the Plague of 1645 which killed 2,700 people, half the population of Leith. The South Leith Parish Church played an important role in implementing sanitary measures and in the care of the sick during the plague, but its graveyard couldn’t handle the burial of half the city nor would the center of town be an ideal location for large plague pits. Then the Civil War happened. The church was occupied and used as a powder magazine by Parliamentary troops from 1650 until 1657. It was subsequently restored to ecclesiastical use, but the one-two punch of plague and war may explain why the burials stopped and were all but erased from memory.

Researchers determined that the people buried in this part of the churchyard were shorter than the UK average of 164cm for women and 171cm for men. The average height of the women was 155cm (5’1″) while the men averaged 169cm (5’5.5″). The overwhelming majority (90%) died before the age of 35 and 32% of the deceased were children, particularly older children aged 7-12. Isotope analysis on the remains of 18 bodies found that 80% were very much local having been raised in the Leith/Edinburgh area. The rest were only slightly less local, having been raised within a radius of 15-30 miles.

Most were buried in single graves, interred in wooden coffins or wrapped in shrouds. Three communal graves were found in which women were buried with children. One woman was found buried with a neonate across her pelvis, which means she probably died late in her pregnancy or in childbirth.

The facial reconstructions done by post-graduate students at the University of Dundee’s Forensic Art course personalize all these facts and figures.

By using forensic modelling to determine the shape and depth of facial muscles and soft tissues, isotopic analysis to ascertain individuals’ origins and state-of-the-art computer programming, researchers were able to build up lifelike facial representations for the 400 to 600-year-old remains.

Amongst the reconstructions was that of a boy, aged between 13 and 17, who was thought to have lived around Leith and Edinburgh and to have died in the late 14th or early 15th century, an adult male aged 25 to 35 who lived in the mid 16th to 17th century and a woman also aged between 25 and 35, who died in the late 14th and early 15th century.


Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Four schoolboys find 4,300-year-old gold ornament

Mon, 2014-08-04 23:04

A group of boys seven to ten years old from Alston Primary School in Cumbria discovered a rare gold ornament from the Copper Age on an archaeological dig in Kirkhaugh, Northumberland. The ornament is a thin oval sheet of gold 1.3 inches long rolled into a semi-cylinder with two rows of repoussé dots along the outer perimeter and two parallel lines in the center crossing the width of the piece. On the rolled edge between the two lines is a long, thin tab also bordered in repoussé dots.

It’s not certain how they were meant to be worn. Called tress rings, they may have been hair tresses, worn wrapped around a braid or lock of hair. They’ve also been labeled “basket earrings” (because they look like the kind of curved edge basket ladies in period movies use to collect flowers from a garden) and may have been worn with the tab inserted into a piercing and then wrapped around the outside of the semi-cylinder. They would have hugged the outside of the ear like modern ear cuffs do.

Aidan Bell (10), Luca Alderson (8), his brother Sebastian Alderson (10) and Joseph Bell (7) learned about the area’s Copper Age history in school and through a brilliant program called Dreaming the Land that draws on local archaeology and folklore and involves the children through art work and performance. That inspired them to participate in a community dig organized by the North Pennines Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty’s Altogether Archaeology project (which also organized Dreaming the Land), and next thing you know, they struck gold.

Seven-year-old Joseph Bell, one of the four boys to make the discovery, said: “We were digging carefully in the ground and I saw something shiny, it was gold. Me and Luca started dancing with joy. It was very exciting.” His friend, eight-year-old Luca Alderson, added: “When I first saw it I felt happy but I thought it was plastic. When I found out it was gold, I was very happy.”

As well he should be. Not only is it gold, but at around 4,300 years old, it’s one of the earliest metal objects ever discovered in the UK and one of only 10 similar pieces known. One of those other nine was also unearthed at Kirkhaugh in 1935. It was found in a burial mound along with a decorated ceramic drinking vessel known as a beaker, the type artifact for and the late Neolithic/early Bronze Age Beaker Culture of western Europe, and a “cushion stone,” a flat-faced stone used as an anvil for crafting gold and copper.

The recently discovered piece was also found in a burial mound, this time accompanied by three flint arrowheads and a jet button. In a beautiful fluke of history, brothers Sebastian and Luca Alderson are the great-great-grandsons of Joseph William Alderson who worked on the 1935 dig. The newfound ornament and the 1935 one have the same decoration and dimensions. Archaeologists believe they are a matched pair and because of the cushion stone found in 1935, probably the work of professional metalworkers exploring the area for its mineable resources, the first in a long line of people who would seek to exploit the area’s richness in precious ores.

[Altogether Archaeology leader Paul] Frodsham said: “When the metal worker arrived in the area I’m sure he’ll have been seen as someone very exotic and special because the chances are that no-one here will have ever seen a metal object until he showed up. We can only assume he was buried here, alone, because he was a long way from home and died unexpectedly.”

Prof. Fitzparick Andrew added: “I don’t think that it is a coincidence that the grave it is on the edge of the Alston ore field. I think the man buried at Kirkhaugh was part of a small group that was prospecting for copper over 4,000 years ago.”

The ornament and other artifacts will be studied by experts, after which the gold piece will hopefully be reunited with its 1935 brother currently on display at the Great North Museum in Newcastle.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

WWI flamethrower excavation and reconstruction

Sun, 2014-08-03 23:07


In 2010, a team of archaeologists excavated the muddy fields of Montagne de Cappy, a mile south of Mametz in the Somme department of northern France, looking for the remains of the last Livens Large Gallery Flame Projector, a 56-foot-long, 2.5 ton flamethrower invented by Royal Engineers officer William Howard Livens to shoot a 300-foot wall of fire across the German trenches. The British built four of these complex machines for use on the first day of the Battle of Somme (July 1, 1916). Two were put out of commission by German shells before the battle. The other two were deployed and successfully cleared the German lines, allowing the British forces to penetrate well into German territory while everywhere else along the front lines the stalemate persisted.

Because they were so unwieldy and unusable when the lines were moving, the British only deployed the projector one more time in 1917. They apparently gave a few to the Russians as well, but none have survived that we know of. The archaeologists digging in Montagne de Cappy hoped to find one of the two that were shelled by the Germans on June 28th, 1916. They researched the location thoroughly, turning to diaries, trench maps, aerial photographs and ground penetrating radar to narrow down the possible spot.

When I wrote about the project a week before excavations began, I didn’t realize that Time Team, Channel Four’s capsule archaeological dig program, were filming the dig as well as building an experimental reconstruction of the Livens projector. The episode covers the background history of the invention, the 2010 Montagne de Cappy excavation and the Royal Engineers’ reconstruction of a Livens projector using modern materials. The result is flaming hot drama.

In part one of the episode, we see William Livens’ personal story, the invention is described, the location explained via trench maps and excavations begin. The tunnel that collapsed onto the Livens flamethrower was called Sap 14 and the team soon find some timbers that may be an entrance to it.

The next section focuses on the excavation. The search for the flame projector stalls a little, but they still find lots of artifacts — glass jars, bullets, a toothbrush, a jam tin — that illuminate life in the trenches. Around the 10:30 mark, the first flamethrower-related artifact is unearthed, a tool used to assemble the projector on site. More tools are found and then finally a piece from the Livens device itself: a valve.

When the part is recovered, it’s in such good condition that they can still turn the valve. Archaeologists then excavate a 30-foot stretch of wooden roof and walls from Sap 14. You can see when they dig down that thick, watery clay soil that caused so many problems for the Royal Engineers to tunnel through. This is where the Manchester sewer builders with their clay-kicking technique came in to play. Incidentally, historian Peter Barton, author of a book about the tunneling companies who discovered the photographs of the Manchester sewer workers, is part of the Montagne de Cappy excavation team.

This last video shows the discovery of a key piece of the Livens projector and the experimental model in action. Step back from the screen or risk frying off your eyebrows.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Intact Merovingian necropolis found in Normandy

Sat, 2014-08-02 23:24

Archaeologists have unearthed 300 intact Merovingian-era graves at Saint-Aubin-des-Champs in the Calvados region of Lower Normandy. The presence of a necropolis on the site was first recognized during a preliminary survey last year in anticipation of construction of a housing development. Excavations began this March. They found the cemetery was complete — the enclosure delineating the full perimeter of the grounds was identified — and undisturbed with 300 burials of men, women and children from the 5th through the 7th centuries.

The burials were found at different depths up to five feet below the surface. The deceased were buried in wooden coffins (all of them now decayed into nothingness leaving only the shape behind) and almost all of the graves contain the remains of clothing and some artifacts. A third of the burials contain a particularly rich array of grave goods. These date to the 5th century, as identified by the artifacts.

One burial stands out for its fabulous accouterments. The skeleton of adult male was found buried with 20 objects, among them ceramic vessels, glassware, a bronze bowl, an intact wooden bucket with bronze strapping, an axe, a spear, a dagger at his waist, shoes on his feet and a silver coin in his mouth. The later the tombs the fewer the artifacts (a side effect of the growth of Christianity) and the 7th century tombs have no grave goods at all, solely bronze or iron belt buckles.

Initial osteological analysis confirmed that the burials include people of all ages and genders, with the exception of very young children. This could be the result of smaller, shallower graves having been disturbed over the centuries, or it could be a cultural practice. Infants and small children in antiquity and the early Middle Ages were sometimes buried within the boundaries of the home property rather than in the town cemetery.

Archaeologists believe the necropolis was the cemetery of a small village. Burials ceased at the end of the 7th century and the cemetery was abandoned, probably in favor of new Christian cemeteries. In the 7th century a monastery was built on the site of the current church of Saint-Pierre Évrecy. It is likely to have had an associated cemetery that may have supplanted the former community burial ground.

The necropolis is a very important find. There are no historical sources that refer to it and looters were blessedly unaware of its existence as well, leaving the grave goods in stellar condition and giving archaeologists the rare opportunity to study three centuries of undisturbed burials in context. This is a very thinly documented period of history, so the discovery is an invaluable resource.

Archaeologists plan a comprehensive study the cemetery in the hope that it will illuminate the life of the community as well as the burial practices of the region during the transitional period between traditional Roman religion and Christian dominance.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Ice Age lion figurine gets his full head back

Fri, 2014-08-01 23:18

Archaeologists have found a fragment from the head of a pre-historic lion figurine carved out of mammoth ivory 40,000 years ago. The body with one side of the head still attached was discovered in Vogelherd Cave in southwestern German in 1931. The other half of the head was found in the same cave in recent excavations spearheaded by the University of Tübingen.

Before the discovery of the additional head fragment, archaeologists thought the lion was a rare relief carving, worked only on one side. Many of the earliest figurative art in the world has been found in this cave and other caves in the area, and this lion was the only one-sided one. The new piece fits on the other side of the head and makes it a three-dimensional sculpture, bringing it in line with its bother and sister artifacts.

The new fragment was discovered when today’s archaeologists revisited the work of their predecessors from the 1930s. “We have been carrying out renewed excavations and analysis at Vogelherd Cave for nearly ten years,” says Conard. “The site has yielded a wealth of objects that illuminate the development of early symbolic artifacts dating to the period when modern humans arrived in Europe and displaced the indigenous Neanderthals.” He points out that the Vogelherd Cave has provided evidence of the world’s earliest art and music and is a key element in the push to make the caves of the Swabian Jura a UNESCO World Heritage site.

The Swabian Jura, also known as the Swabian Alps, has four caves just a hop, skip and a jump from each other — the Vogelherd, Hohlenstein-Stadel, Geißenklösterle and Hohle Fels — in which some of the oldest human art has been discovered. The world-famous Lion Man, the oldest figurative art known, was found in the Hohlenstein-Stadel Cave. One of the oldest musical instruments, a flute carved from the bone of a griffon vulture 35,000 years ago, was found in the Hohle Fels Cave (hear a replica of it played here). The oldest human figure known was also found in Hohle Fels, the pulchritudinous Venus of Schelklingen who is between 35,000 and 40,000 years young.

As the discovery of the lion head fragment underscores, these caves continue to produce artifacts of immense significance to our early history. I’m surprised the caves haven’t already been declared a World Heritage site.

The newly reconstructed 3D lion is on display at the University Museum in Hohentübingen Castle where visitors can also see the Venus of Schelklingen, an extremely cute mammoth and a dynamic horse among other ivory and bone figurines found in the caves.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Caravaggio, Rubens receive Getty panel conservation grant

Thu, 2014-07-31 23:50

David with the Head of Goliath by Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio and Stormy Landscape with Jupiter, Mercury, Philemon and Baucis by Peter Paul Rubens, both in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, are the latest recipients of a conservation grant from the Getty Foundation. They join the spectacular Ghent Altarpiece and Giorgio Vasari’s The Last Supper, brutalized in Florence’s great flood of 1966, as part of the Panel Paintings Initiative, a program that funds the conservation of damaged oil on wood panel masterpieces in order to train the panel painting conservators of tomorrow.

The €300,000 ($416,000) grant will be well-spent on dealing with the major issues plaguing both paintings. The Caravaggio depiction of the Biblical David holding his sword over his shoulder in one hand and the head of Goliath in the other, one of only two known surviving panel paintings by the Baroque genius, was savaged by past restorations that shaved the wood support to the thickness of a piece of paper. The plan is to remove the panels from the rigid wood cradle that is meant to keep them from warping and then, after they’ve had a chance to breathe a little and assume their natural positions, build a new cradle that is flexible and moves with the natural expansion and contraction of the wood. Conservators will also repair the panoply of fractures on the wood panels that you can see have already had an impact on the integrity of the paint.

The Rubens painting, which in a style typical of the Flemish Baroque adds figures from mythology or religion to a landscape, depicts Jupiter and Mercury leading their favored humans Philemon and Baucis away from a storm set to destroy their entire neighborhood. It’s a story told in Ovid’s Metamorphoses Book 8: 679-724 and while it wasn’t an unheard of subject for a painting, it wasn’t very popular and almost all of the previous treatments set the foursome inside Philemon and Baucis’ modest little cottage.

This work is immense at 20.85 meters (68.4 feet) wide and 14.60 meters (just short of 48 feet) high [EDIT: I misread the dimensions. The painting is actually 2 meters by 1.46 meters. Thank you for the correction, Maurizio!]. Rubens made it all himself rather than enlisting the aid of his workshop painters, and did so without a commission. He used 10 pieces of wood joined together to make the vast panel and each plank has aged differently. The aging has left gaps between the 10 pieces that are clear to the naked eye.

The grant will not only enable the Kunsthistorisches Museum experts to work with some of the most accomplished and experienced panel painting conservators in the world on solving the thorny problems of the Caravaggio and Rubens masterpieces, but it will create a core of expertise that will expand in central and eastern Europe. Five conservators from Krakow, Dresden, Prague, and Vienna will be trained on these works. They will then be able to bring the invaluable expertise they learn on the job back to their homes. Two of the five are already teachers at conservation schools, so they’ll be able to immediately pay it forward to their lucky students.

Panel paintings are extremely complex to conserve because unlike artworks on canvas, they require an in-depth knowledge of carpentry as well as paint conservation in order to repair properly. It takes years to develop the necessary abilities and expertise, and there aren’t a lot of people in the pipeline. With the vast majority of current panel painting conservators approaching retirement age within the decade, in 2009 the Getty Foundation launched the Panel Paintings Initiative to bridge the alarming knowledge and experience gap.

With two more years of grant-giving to go and more years after that of continuing work, the PPI has already proven a brilliant success. More than 20 conservators have received in-depth training and years of practical experience working on some of the world’s greatest masterpieces on wood, and hundreds of other conservators and students have learned from workshops offered as part of the conservation projects, in university classes taught by people connected to the projects and from published studies.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

British early Christian artifacts preserved in Viking graves

Wed, 2014-07-30 23:39

An Irish archaeologist has identified British early Christian artifacts in the collection of the University Museum of the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU). One is a part of a gold crozier that dates to the late 8th or early 9th century; the other is tin-plated wooden reliquary shaped like a church with kite-shaped metal fittings that once held gems or other decorations that have since fallen out. The crozier fragment and reliquary were discovered in 1961 in the grave of high status Viking woman in the central Norwegian town of Romsdal.

For the past year, Griffin Murray from the University College Cork has been researching Irish archaeological artifacts in Scandinavian collections, looking particularly for early Christian croziers that may have been pillaged by Viking raiders and recycled into jewelry and other objects worthy of being buried as grave goods. He initially thought the Romsdal crozier was Irish, but upon closer examination he found the decoration is characteristic of the north of England rather than Ireland.

The backing of the crozier fragment is semi-cylindrical in shape, which means it adorned the middle of the staff. It was cut in half and converted into an adornment of some kind, perhaps a brooch, the fate of the Celtic disc from a Viking woman’s grave in Lilleberge, Norway, discovered in storage at the British Museum early this year. Its age makes the crozier piece highly significant.

“The most striking aspect of this object is the era it comes from. This is the oldest known English fragment, and the only one that dates from before 1000. If the Norwegian Vikings had not stolen it, it would most probably have been lost,” Murray said of the University Museum’s little piece of history. [...]

[NTNU curator Jon Anders] Risvaag believe that the Viking raids may have saved the museum’s piece of crozier, noting that most of the croziers that remained in the British Isles were melted down for other uses.

“In Norway and other Scandinavian countries, these artefacts were buried as grave goods, which is why the finest objects are usually found in gravesites,” he said. “This tradition appears to have saved one of the oldest croziers we know of today.”

The Viking Age dawned with the 793 raid on the priory of Lindisfarne in Northumbria, the earliest known Viking raid on the west. The crozier was made around that same period in the general area, so it could conceivably have been loot from one of the earliest Viking incursions on the British Isles.

Here’s a contemporary reaction to the Lindisfarne raid from a letter written by Alcuin of York (pdf), a church deacon and scholar at the court of Charlemagne, to Ethelred, King of Northumbria:

Lo, it is nearly 350 years that we and our fathers have inhabited this most lovely land, and never before has such terror appeared in Britain as we have now suffered from a pagan race, nor was it thought that such an inroad from the sea could be made. Behold, the church of St Cuthbert spattered with the blood of the priests of God, despoiled of all its ornaments; a place more venerable than all in Britain is given as a prey to pagan peoples. And where first, after the departure of St Paulinus from York, the Christian religion in our race took its rise, there misery and calamity have begun. Who does not fear this? Who does not lament this as if his country were captured? Foxes pillage the chosen vine, the heritage of the Lord has been given to a people not his own; and where there was the praise of God, are now the games of the Gentiles; the holy festivity has been turned to mourning.

I wonder what Alcuin would make of the fact that the very despoliation of those ornaments ensured their survival.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Four pelvises on a stick found in Jutland peat bog

Tue, 2014-07-29 23:22

The Alken Enge wetlands in East Jutland, Denmark, continues to produce exceptional and exceptionally gruesome finds. Thanks to the history-preserving wonder of peat, the remains of more than 200 Iron Age warriors who were sacrificed after a defeat in battle around 1 A.D. have been unearthed from in excavations from the 1950s to the present. The 2012 dig found a skull with a hole in the back from a projectile or spear, a thighbone hacked in half, numerous other bones and well-preserved weapons including an axe with its entire wooden shaft intact. The teeth on the pierced skull were in good enough condition for a testable sample of DNA to be extracted.

This year’s excavation has discovered evidence that the sacrifice of victims didn’t just happen in the immediate aftermath of the battle, but rather that remains were left to rot where they fell for six months before being butchered for ritual purposes. Cut and scrape marks on bones mutely testify to how the rotted flesh was removed from the bones. The bones were then sorted and collated for sacrifice: bones were bundled together, skulls were crushed, and in one particularly gruesome find, four pelvic bones were mounted on a wooden stick.

Here’s a 3D video composite of the pelvises in situ:

Once sorted and desecrated, the bones were thrown into the ancient lake that would become today’s bog along with animal remains and clay pots that archaeologists believe probably contained food offerings.

“We are fairly sure that this was a religious act. It seems that this was a holy site for a pagan religion – a sacred grove – where the victorious conclusion of major battles was marked by the ritual presentation and destruction of the bones of the vanquished warriors,” adds [Aarhus University Project Manager] Mads Kähler Holst.

Geological studies have revealed that back in the Iron Age, the finds were thrown into the water from the end of a tongue of land that stretched out into Mossø lake, which was much larger back then than it is today.

“Most of the bones we find here are spread out over the lake bed seemingly at random, but the new finds have suddenly given us a clear impression of what actually happened. This applies in particular to the four pelvic bones. They must have been threaded onto the stick after the flesh was cleaned from the skeletons,” explains Field Director Ejvind Hertz from Skanderborg Museum.

We still don’t know exactly where the fallen warriors came from, whether they were local fighters or other Germanic peoples attempting to move northwards under pressure from Roman activity across the Alps.

If you’re fortunate enough to be summering in Jutland right now, the Alken Enge site will be open to the public for guided tours on Thursday, July 31st, and 3:00 PM and 5:00 PM. The tours are free but you must register ahead of time so they can control numbers. The maximum number of people allowed is 200 per tour. You can register online on the website of the Skanderborg Museum here.

The artifacts and remains from the Alken Enge digs are being conserved at the Skanderborg Museum, and some of the more exceptional finds are on display there, including the four pelvises on a stick. The exhibition has been four years in the making and covers not just the history of the site, what the science says took place there 2,000 years ago, but also the history of archaeological explorations of the bog from the 19th century to the high tech laboratory work of modern day archaeologists. As soon as I find that winning lottery ticket someone dropped, I’m making a beeline for this show.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Carving defaced by Akhenaten found in tomb

Mon, 2014-07-28 23:36

A carving of the god Amun that was defaced by order of Akhenaten has been discovered in a tomb in the necropolis of Sedeinga, Sudan. The slab of Nubian sandstone was 5.8 feet high and 1.3 feet wide and was found in two pieces, broken across the width just above the god’s elbow. The carving was used as a bench for the coffin to rest on in the tomb, but that wasn’t its original intent or location. It was recycled as a mortuary platform several hundred years after it was created in the mid-1300s B.C.

It was first made to adorn the temple of Queen Tiye, wife of Amenhotep III and mother of Akhenaten. A tribute to the high esteem her husband held her in, the temple presented Tiye as the incarnation of the goddess Hathor and was a companion to a temple to Amenhotep a few miles to the south in Soleb. Tiye’s deification in her lifetime was one of several firsts for a queen of Egypt. She was depicted as a female sphinx, an honor previously reserved for the pharaoh, and attributes of Hathor — the horns and sun disk — were added to headdress is other images. An inscription in the Sedeinga temple calls her “great of fear, mistress of all the lands,” meaning her greatness dominated the women of foreign lands (Sedeinga was part of the Egyptian colony of Nubia during the reign of Amenhotep) just as her husband’s greatness conquered the men.

Tiye outlived her husband by many years — inscriptions indicate she was living in the 12th year of Akhenaten’s reign — so she may even have been witness to her son’s defacement of her own temple. Akhenaten changed his name from Amenhotep and founded a new religion worshiping the sun disc Aten in the fifth year of his reign. That same year construction began on his new capital Amarna where inscriptions continued to call Tiye queen and beloved of the pharaoh.

It wasn’t a falling out, therefore, that spurred Akhenaten’s defacement of her temple in Sedeinga. It wasn’t personal; just religious business, part of his policy of chipping away the face and name of Amun in all the major sites, including his mom’s temple in Nubia.

The new religion could not long outlast its founder, however, and the newly discovered carving attests to the reinstatement of the worship of Amun as well.

The archaeologists also found that, after Akhenaten’s death, the god’s face and hieroglyphs on this carving were restored. This restoration may have been done during the reign of the boy king Tutankhamun (reign 1336-1327 B.C.), who is famous for his rich tomb.

“The name of Amun as well as his face were first hammered out and later carved anew, proving that the persecution of this god extended to this remote province during the reign of Akhenaton and that his images were restored during the following reigns,” Francigny and Claude Rilly, director of the French archaeological mission in Sedeinga, wrote in the most recent edition of the journal Sudan and Nubia.

Over time, Tiye’s temple decayed into ruin and people helped themselves to pieces of it. The carving of Amun with its historically significant restored damage was thus preserved in a new location. Today the temple is almost completely gone. All that remains is a single wonky column standing forlornly in a pile of rocks.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

King Richard III Visitor Centre opens in Leicester

Sun, 2014-07-27 23:31

Leicester’s new King Richard III Visitor Centre opened on Saturday. The £4 million ($6.8 million) museum was built in the former Alderman Newton Boy’s School, a Victorian brick building that over the years has housed a boy’s school, a girl’s school and most recently the Leicester Grammar School which closed in 2008. The building has been empty since then, but location is everything in real estate, and it just happens to be adjacent to the council parking lot under which the remains of King Richard III were discovered in September of 2012. Three months later, the city council providently bought the school building.

The inside of the school has now been transformed into a voyage through the life and death of Richard III, and of the archaeological excavation that against all conceivable odds, found the king’s mortal remains. The ground floor is dedicated to Richard III’s life, his controversial rise to the throne at the expense of the nephews he declared illegitimate and locked up in the Tower of London never to be seen again, the three decades of conflict between the Lancaster and York branches of the Plantagenet dynasty known as the Wars of the Roses, and Richard’s death at the Battle of Bosworth in 1485.

The story is told through high tech audio-visual displays where video projections recreate the places where Richard lived and died in an atmospheric, stylized manner. A digital reconstruction of Grey Friars Church shows visitors what the medieval church that used to stand where they are standing looked like. It includes a virtual visualization of Richard’s tomb as it would have looked after Henry VII had a proper tomb built a few years after Bosworth.

The second floor focuses on the excavation and takes an unusual approach that makes the quotidian elements of the dig into artifacts for exhibit. The boots worn by Richard III Society’s Philippa Langley at the dig site are on display, as are the hard had and neon yellow vest Mathew Morris was wearing when he first unearthed King Richard’s bones on the first day of the excavation. The highlight is a 3D-printed replica of the skeleton. The original will be buried at Leicester Cathedral next year. The cathedral is just across the street from the former school, so people will be able to make an easy day of it and see the tomb then walk over to the visitor center.

The best part of the new center is that the site of Richard III’s Grey Friars grave has been integrated into it. It’s a minimalist space, no glowing blue neon or elaborate set pieces, as it should be given that it was a king’s grave for 500 years, with clear plexiglass over the burial site. The only video element is a subtle projection of the skeleton in the position it was in when the archaeologists found it.

There is very little information on the center’s website. Right now it’s all about directions and ticket bookings, but I hope they flesh it out further in the days to come. You can get a glimpse of the King Richard III Visitor Centre in this video:

I don’t want to judge without seeing, but it looks a little low-information for my taste. Lots of video projections, few period artifacts, boots and hazard vests from the dig, but not much about the science (DNA, osteological analysis, radiocarbon dating) that actually identified the king. Or about the 3D printing process, for that matter, a subject I am completely obsessed with, especially in regards to archaeological and museum applications. I’m glad they didn’t just repave the burial site and keep it a parking lot, which was the original plan, let’s recall, so at the very least the center has that going for it, and that’s quite a lot.

I’d love to hear an eye witness report, so please do share your impressions should you visit the center.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Possible 1792 Vancouver fleet anchor at Texas A&M

Sat, 2014-07-26 23:53

A large anchor that may be the sole surviving relic of Captain George Vancouver’s 1792 exploration of Puget Sound is now at Texas A&M’s Center for Maritime Archaeology and Conservation where it will be conserved and, if all goes well, conclusively identified. If it does prove to be the anchor lost by the HMS Chatham on June 9, 1792, it will upend convention historical wisdom.

The anchor was discovered in 2008 by sea-cucumber diver Doug Monk when his airhose got caught on it off Whidbey Island. He and a group of amateur historians including medical device salesman Scott Grimm spent years researching the artifact, reading ship logbooks, explorers’ journals, nautical charts, 19th British patent office records as well as numerous books. They concluded that the anchor was the Chatham‘s that got stuck in a large rock grouping and broke free when its hemp cable snapped.

The loss of the anchor and the failed attempts at recovery were recorded in the log books, but the exact location was unclear. Historians have long held that it was lost 30 miles away from Whidbey Island in Bellingham Channel, but the channel has been searched repeatedly and no anchor has ever been found. The Bellingham theory also assumes that Vancouver’s ship, the HMS Discovery, and its smaller companion the Chatham were together when the anchor was lost. Several journals said they were, but Grimm noticed the wording in those entries was identical, as if they’d been copied from each other at a later date. When he stuck to the witness accounts from the Chatham‘s crew, the terrain they described and the logged compass bearings fit Whidbey more than Bellingham. He also contacted the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration whose maritime history experts calculated that on the day of the accident, the currents around Whidbey were 5.5 knots, much faster than they were in Bellingham Channel.

Earlier this year Monk and Grimm secured the necessary permits to recover the anchor. On Monday, June 9th, exactly 222 years after the Chatham lost its anchor, the one off Whidbey Island was raised. It spent a few weeks on display at the Northwest Maritime Center being prepped for transport, then Monk and Grimm loaded the anchor into a custom-made tank on the back of a truck and drove it the 2,200 miles to Austin. The anchor is 10 feet long and weighs about 1,400 pounds, so that was no mean feat. They also had to keep the anchor wet the whole time with soaker hoses.

The anchor is now in the hands of a team headed by Jim Jobling, a research associate at the Texas A&M center’s Conservation Research Laboratory, a veteran in tackling such tasks.

Jobling estimates work on the anchor will take 18 to 24 months, at which time Grimm and Monk will retrieve it for the trek back to the Northwest and hopes of finding a museum or other location for its permanent display.

“Our goal is definitely to keep it in the Northwest,” Grimm said.

“Also, we’re confident the anchor is from the HMS Chatham, and we’re confident—certainly hope—that the conservation work at Texas A&M will uncover some markings that show beyond a shadow of a doubt that it belonged to the (British) crown,” he added.

They university team will use a variety of methods — chemicals, electricity — to remove the thick concretions that may be obscuring any marks identifying the anchor. The design of the anchor does fit the admiralty pattern, but makers didn’t always put a mark on their work in the 18th century, so we may never get a firm yea or nay on whether the anchor belonged to the royal navy.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

James IV and Margaret Tudor wedding chest found

Fri, 2014-07-25 23:26


University of Aberdeen experts have confirmed that an oak chest acquired by a collector was made for the 1503 wedding of King James IV of Scotland and Margaret Tudor, daughter of King Henry VII of England. When antique furniture collector Aidan Harrison researched the carvings on the chest he’d acquired a few years ago, he found they were very similar to the iconography associated with the history-making union celebrated in person (there had been a proxy wedding in England a few months earlier) at Holyrood Abbey in Edinburgh on August 8th, 1503. One of the carved panels on the front of the chest features the IM monogram (for James and Margaret) linked by a love knot, a symbol of their marriage that was repeated in multiple decorative elements.

Harrison brought his research to art history Professor Jane Geddes from the University of Aberdeen. The university has a facsimile of the Hours of James IV, an illuminated prayer book made as a wedding gift for Margaret (the original is now in the Austrian National Library in Vienna), so Professor Geddes was able to compare the design on the chest to the Book of Hours.

“The similarities between the carvings on the chest and the illuminations in the Book of Hours are striking. Three illuminated documents relating to the royal wedding all show the IM monogram (James and Margaret) tied together with a similar love knot, just as it is carved on the chest. This was such a trademark for the union that even the floor tiles for Linlithgow Palace were made with the same design. James gave the palace to his bride for a wedding present. The tassels on the knot are shaped as thistles, a reminder of the king and his country.

“A wooden chest was one of the most important items of medieval furniture, because aristocratic families spent so much time travelling with pack-horses all around the country to their various homes. All the royal bride’s personal items would be kept in a chest like this. It is remarkable that it has survived for so long before its significance was fully appreciated.”

The chest and the facsimile Book of Hours will go on display together at the University of Aberdeen’s Sir Duncan Rice Library. This is especially meaningful for the school because William Elphinstone, Bishop of Aberdeen, accomplished diplomat and founder of the university, played an important role in negotiating the wedding.

The hope was that the marriage of James and Margaret would end hostilities between the countries and establish a lasting peace. Their marriage treaty was signed the same day as the Treaty of Perpetual Peace (January 24th, 1502), an agreement that would prevent the countries being dragged into war over border skirmishes. Although the Treaty of Ayton had established a truce between England and Scotland in 1497, it was slated to expire in 1504. The Treaty of Perpetual Peace was the first long-term peace treaty between the countries since the Treaty of Berwick had ended the Second War of Scottish Independence in 1357.

Unfortunately it was perpetual in name only. Henry VII died in 1509 and his son Henry VIII was keen to make a name for himself on the battlefield. In 1513, Henry VIII invaded France, expecting the treaty to keep Scotland out of it. Scotland had been allied with France for centuries, however, and by the terms of the Auld Alliance of 1295, France and Scotland were to come to each other’s defense. James, hoping also to reclaim some border territory occupied by England, declared war on England and led his army into Northumberland. On September 9th, 1513, James IV met the Earl of Surrey at Flodden Field. It was a rout. James was killed along with 28 of his nobles, 50 knights and more than 10,000 infantry.

Margaret, who had opposed her husband going to war with her brother, was left regent of Scotland for her son, the future James V who was just over a year old when his father died. The crown of Scotland passed from James V to his daughter Mary, Queen of Scots, to her son James VI. After the death of Henry VIII’s daughter, Margaret’s niece, Queen Elizabeth I of England, James VI inherited the throne of England through his descent from Margaret. In 1603, a few months short of a century after James IV and Margaret spoke their vows at Holyrood Abbey, their great-grandson became James I of England and the two crowns were united.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

13th c. frescoes in Rome monastery opened to public

Thu, 2014-07-24 23:59

The Augustinian monastery complex of Santi Quattro Coronati on the north slope of Rome’s Caelian Hill has a rich history dating to the earliest days of the Christian city. Construction of the first church was begun by Pope Miltiades in the 4th century on top of an aristocratic villa. It was one of the earliest Christian churches in Rome and its location made it one of the most important.

Miltiades was pope from 311 to 314 A.D., a short but incredibly pivotal time in Church history since it saw Constantine’s defeat of Maxentius under the sign of the cross at the Battle of the Milvian Bridge in October of 312. It was Pope Miltiades who first moved into the Lateran Palace after Constantine gave it to him around 313. The basilica of Santi Quattro Coronati is a five minute walk from the Lateran Palace, so by the time construction was complete in the 6th century, the church was closely associated with the papacy.

It was expanded and renovated by subsequent popes over the centuries, with more buildings added including a palace for the basilica’s titular cardinal. Much of the church was burned down in the 11th century during the Norman sack of Rome, but the original apse still stands and was incorporated into the new church built by Pope Paschal II. In the 13th century the cardinal’s residence was enlarged and reinforced by Cardinal Stefano Conti, Vicarius Urbis, so it could provide protection for the princes of the Church during the power struggle between the papacy and the Holy Roman Emperors of the Hohenstaufen dynasty.

It was during that 13th century renovation that some artistically and historically significant frescoes were painted. On the ground floor of the fortified side of the basilica, the Chapel of Saint Sylvester was adorned with legendary scenes from the life of Pope Sylvester I and one of the earliest surviving depictions of the Donation of Constantine. On the second floor is a large hall that became known as the Gothic Hall because of the arch vaulting of the roof. It was decorated with 800 square meters of primarily profane topics like the Zodiac and Constellations, the Four Seasons, the Twelve Months, the Ages of Man, a seascape, the Liberal Arts and a panel of saints with the Virtues on their shoulders and the Vices under their feet. King Solomon, the wise judge, in the center position suggests the hall may have been used as a court of law as well as for feasting and banqueting.

The basilica and the cardinal’s palace in particular were nearly abandoned when the papacy moved to Avignon in the 14th century. The buildings were restored by Cardinal Alfonso Carillo when the pope returned to Rome during the papacy of Martin V starting in 1417, but when the Papal Court moved from the Lateran Palace to the Apostolic Palace in the Vatican in the mid-15th century, Santi Quattro Coronati never recovered its former importance. In 1564, the complex was given to Augustinian nuns and became the monastery it still is to this day.

Damaged by earthquakes, neglect, refurbishment that knocked holes in the walls and painted layer upon layer of plaster and solid color over the frescoes, the great Gothic Hall lost its magnificent frescoes. In 1995, a chance discovery revealed that parts of the 13th century frescoes were still there underneath the overpaint. It took a full decade of restoration by Rome’s Superintendence for Cultural Heritage to repair the damage that could be repaired. In 2007, 300 square meters of the original 800 were restored as close to their former glory as possible. Very few frescoes from this period have survived in Rome, so their rediscovery and restoration is a big deal. (See this article for a wonderful description of the frescoes.)

They couldn’t be opened to the public, however, because it’s still an active cloistered monastery. In order to make the Gothic Hall accessible, parts of the cloister needed to be restored and all the public traffic areas closed off so the presence of tourists would not violate the sisters’ religious isolation. That took another seven years and 150,000 euros donated by Arcus.

Now for the first time in its existence, the Gothic Hall can be seen by members of the general public. The hall will be open two days a month, with one group of no more than 20 visitors allowed in every hour from 8:30 – 12:30 and 2:30 – 4:30.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Unique mortuary bundle found in Hidalgo

Wed, 2014-07-23 23:28

A pre-Hispanic mortuary bundle had been found in a rock shelter near the town of Zimapán in the Sierra Gorda of Hidalgo, southeastern Mexico. The skeletal remains wrapped in a dyed fabric and a braided mat were discovered by locals who alerted the National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH). INAH archaeologists examined the bundle and believe it is intact, although only the cranium with some hair still attached, tibias, clavicle, shoulder blades and some ribs are visible above the wrapping.

The remains haven’t been dated yet. It’s the positioning of the body in a seated posture, the plant fibers used in the shroud and the placement in a rock shelter that all point to this being a pre-Hispanic burial. In many Mesoamerican cultures, rock shelters and caves were believed to be entrances to the underworld and the abode of death gods. Thus these locations were seen as ideal burial spaces. Despite the rocky terrain of the Sierra Gorda being replete with these sorts of nooks and crannies, this is the only mortuary bundle of its kind found in the state of Hidalgo.

Forensic anthropologists have determined from the teeth and leg bones that the deceased was about 20 years old when he or she died. The third molars, which grow in early adulthood between 16 and 24 years of age, are present but show no signs of wear. In the tibia, the epiphyseal plate, a cartilaginous plate at the end of the long bones that is replaced by bone after puberty, has hardened into bone, leaving behind the scar of the epiphyseal line. The line is still visible, however, and that fades with time, so that suggests the person died in early adulthood.

Although there does not appear to have been any preservation of soft tissues, the semi-arid climate of the eastern Sierra Gorda did help preserve the organic fibers of the wrapping. The bundle has been moved to an INAH lab where it will be studied in detail and the wrapping removed to reveal the rest of the remains. First a conservator will treat the fabric and plant fiber mat to ensure they’re not damaged in the opening. Then experts will hopefully be able to determine the sex of the deceased from the pelvic and hop bones.

INAH researchers hope the bones will tell more of the person’s history — disease, nutrition, lifestyle — as well as which culture he or she was a part of. The rock shelter is an area that saw a variety of peoples living there, nomadic and sedentary. The bones might fill in some of those blanks. The archaeological context might help on that score. Vegetation found in the soil of the rock shelter (palm leaves, agave cactus) appears to have been deliberately layered on the spot. Archaeologists also found a small group of abstract cave paintings about 550 yards from the mortuary bundle.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

New burials found at Ostia necropolis

Tue, 2014-07-22 23:50

Excavations in Ostia, the ancient Roman harbour town at the mouth of the Tiber, have unearthed a group of more than 12 tombs from the 3rd-4th century A.D. Underscoring the cultural diversity of the port city, the necropolis includes inhumations and cremations, some right next to each other. The newly unearthed tombs are early Christian and surround a central tomb that belonged to someone of religious or social significance. The central tomb is a circular mausoleum lined in travertine that was originally built in the late Republican era and was reused in late antiquity. Archaeologists believe it may be an extended family unit who wanted to be buried at an important location, perhaps associated with one of the saints buried in early Christian Ostia.

The area being excavated, Parco dei Ravennati, was a suburb of the ancient city of Ostia on the left bank of the Tiber, now long since silted over. The area was used as a necropolis from the early imperial era through the 5th century when a basilica was built around the nearby tomb of 3rd century martyr Saint Aurea, patron saint of Ostia. The church was extensively renovated over the centuries; the current building was built by the Giuliano della Rovere, the future Pope Julius II, commissioner of Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel frescoes, in the 15th century. Another important saint, Saint Monica, mother of Saint Augustine, died in Ostia in the late 4th century and was buried there. Her remains were moved to the Saint Aurea church in the 6th century before moving again to the Church of Saint Augustine in Rome.

There may be more information on the burials forthcoming courtesy of some inscriptions.

Additionally, several tombs had funerary inscriptions and archaeologists found a possible tabella defixionum, a lead curse tablet intended to protect the dead and bring anathema to tomb desecrators.

“They were really horrible curses to protect the dead”, Paola Germoni, head of Ostia’s archaeological superintendency, added.

Studies remain ongoing, according to Michele Raddi, excavation co-director, who said “we found a number of fragmentary inscriptions in the tombs as well as a possible tabella defixionum, but we need to evaluate its context and see if it has an inscription”.

Parco dei Ravennati wasn’t just a necropolis, however. Multiple domestic spaces have been unearthed, including an elaborate opus sectile marble inlay floor from the late 4th century. This season’s excavations have found even more of that aristocratic home, a space adjacent to the opus sectile room that was paved with paving stones and converted to commercial use. The discovery of hooks and lead weights from fishing nets suggest the elegant home was re-purposed for fish processing in the early Middle Ages. Ancient sources and earlier archaeology pointed to Ostia being in steep decline as a commercial center starting in the reign of Constantine I (306-337 A.D.), so the discovery of active businesses from the early Middle Ages is going to change what we know about Ostia.

“What’s amazing is that you have continual use in this park straight through from republic and imperial times through to the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, its giving us precious information about the later periods and how it relates to Ostia Antica”, [director of the American Institute for Roman Culture Darius] Arya said.

“The discoveries in the Parco dei Ravennati underlines the extraordinary continuity of life and activity along the Tiber River banks, in Ostia Antica’s suburbs”

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History