History Blog

Syndicate content
Updated: 15 min 39 sec ago

Viking hoard in Carolingian pot revealed

Wed, 2016-03-23 23:14

Historic Environment Scotland has released the first images of the objects found inside the Carolingian pot that was part of a Viking hoard discovered in Dumfries and Galloway, Scotland, in September of 2014. Archaeologists took the unusual step of CT scanning the rare silver alloy vessel shortly after it was unearthed because they were concerned it was too fragile to just take the lid off and see what it contained. The scan identified at least one Anglo-Saxon openwork brooch, four other silver brooches, some gold ingots and ivory beads coated in gold, each wrapped in an organic material.

Armed with a CT roadmap of the vessel’s contents, conservators painstakingly excavated the interior, taking care to preserve every fragment of organic material they could to prevent it from crumbling into dust when exposed to the air. In addition to the ingot and silver-encased ivory beads detected on the scan, they found a total of six Anglo-Saxon silver brooches, one penannular brooch likely made in Ireland, a richly decorated gold pendant which may have held holy relics, several mysterious gold and crystal objects and, breaking the precious metals trend, two large seeds of nuts. The nuts have yet to be identified, but obviously they came from a very special plant that probably wasn’t indigenous to the area.

The hoard was found in two layers: a top one 24 inches under the surface with silver armbands, ingots, a gold bird pin and a silver and enamel cross wrapped in a silver chain, and underneath it the pot. It’s the largest Carolingian pot ever discovered and there are only six known. Scholars believe it may have had been used for important Christian ceremonies and was raided during a Viking incursion on a monastery or church in Germany or France. By the time it was buried, it could well have been a family heirloom.

The levels appear to have been arranged according to the their importance. The pieces on top were valuable, but most of them were the kind of thing that was cut up for currency, ie, hacksilver before the hacking. The pot, on the other hand, and its contents, must have been deemed of greater significance to their owner. Each object was wrapped in a textile and placed inside the vessel which was topped with its lid and then it too was wrapped with cloth or leather. Textile experts studied the fragments from inside the pot and identified several of them as silk samite, a super deluxe fabric woven in Byzantium, North Africa, or southern Spain. This fabric was exclusively the province of monarchs, the highest ecclesiastical officials and the remains of venerated saints buried in churches.

The style of the artifacts in the hoard date them to the 9th and 10th centuries, which means the hoard was likely buried in the 10th century, a period when the Vikings in the British Isles had suffered setbacks after more than a century of successful raids starting in the 790s. In the 9th century there was extensive Norse settlement of Scotland and the their military victories continued even as the country unified under Kenneth MacAlpin, King of the Picts and first King of Scotland (Alba). Several of his successors — Constantine I, Indulf — died fighting the Norse. Then there were the English to deal with. In 937 King of Scotland Constantine II allied with his once and future enemy Olaf Guthfrithson, the Viking king of Dublin, to defeat the invading army of Æthelstan, King of England. They lost. It was a one-battle alliance anyway, and the conflict between the Scots and Norse continued throughout the century.

Galloway itself had a strong Viking presence from the 9th until the 11th century. It’s in southwest Scotland, with Norse-heavy Cumbria just to the south and the Norse-dominated Irish Sea to the west. The people who lived there in the 10th century were mostly Vikings in language and culture. The person who buried the hoard was likely trying to protect his savings rather than burying it as a religious offering. That’s why he was so very careful about how the valuables were buried. He planned to recover them but never did.

The ultimate fate of the hoard has yet to be determined. Its market value will be assessed by Scotland’s Treasure Trove Unit and the hoard will be offered to Scottish museums. Whichever museum wants it will have to raise the value of the hoard as a reward which will be split between the metal detectorist who discovered it, Derek McLennan, and the landowner, the Church of Scotland. The value is sure to be very high. No other Viking hoard has been found with such a wide variety of objects — gold, silver, glass, enamel, textiles — from such a wide geographic area. Preliminary estimates put it at between £500,000 and £1 million, closer to the latter than the former.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Explore Richard III’s grave in 3D

Tue, 2016-03-22 23:08

It’s been a year since the mortal remains of King Richard III were reinterred in Leicester Cathedral. Archaeologists from the University of Leicester are ushering in the anniversary with a 3D reconstruction of Richard III’s grave as it was when it was first fully excavated in September of 2012.

Photographs from the excavation were run through Agisoft PhotoScan software which processes images photogrammetrically to generate a 3D digital model. The software looks for shared elements in overlapping photographs which are then plotted onto a 3D point cloud. The cloud is converted into a polygon mesh and the photos applied to it so the topographic layout has a photorealistic surface.

Mathew Morris, Site Supervisor for University of Leicester Archaeological Services was the man who first discovered the remains of King Richard III on the first day of the dig under the Leicester car park. He said: “Photographs and drawings of the grave, whilst dramatic, are only two-dimensional and do not always best show nuances in spatial relationships that a three-dimensional model can.

“Photogrammetry provides a fantastic analytical tool that allows us to examine the grave from angles that would have been physically difficult or impossible to achieve during the excavation, and gives us the ability to continue to examine the king’s grave long after the excavation has finished.”

It also artfully conveys how shoddy a grave it was. It’s too short for one, which is particularly half-assed when you consider that Richard’s spinal curvature made him shorter than average. (Without the scoliosis, he would have been 5’8″ tall, about average height for the time. The S-curve in his spine knocked a couple of inches off his height.) The sides of the grave were not dug straight, but with sloping sides. The bottom of the grave was uneven. You can see on the 3D model just how restricted the space was, how the body leans towards one side like when you’re way too old to have to sleep in a twin bed and the head is propped up uncomfortably.

The interactive model has been uploaded to the 3D sharing platform Sketchfab. There are five points of note marked out — his skull with its war wounds, his curved spine, his missing feet, lost when a pit intersecting with the unknown grave was dug centuries later, the titled head indicating the grave was too short for the body and the sloped sides emphasizing how carelessly the grave was dug. There’s very little content, but when you click on one of the numbers, the view shifts in a neat way. It’s fascinating to see the grave from every possible angle, as if you were lying underneath it, above it, inside it or next to it.

King Richard III's grave
by Archaeological Services (ULAS)
on Sketchfab

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

“Joan of Arc” ring unveiled at French theme park

Mon, 2016-03-21 23:59

The ring purported to have belonged to Joan of Arc that was sold at auction last month for $412,845 is back in France. Its new home is the Puy du Fou theme park in the Vendée region of western France where the ring was unveiled with great pomp on Sunday by the park founder Philippe de Villiers before a crowd of 5,000.

The theme of Puy du Fou is French history through the centuries. Visitors can enjoy gladiatorial combat and real live quadriga races at the Gallo-Roman stadium, the traditional crafts in the medieval city, the adventures of the Knights of the Round Table complete with dragon slaying and enchanted lake, a Viking longship attack on a wooden keep, a working mill and musicians in the 18th century village, the bird of prey show in a ruined castle, a joust and tricks from horseback knights, the vicissitudes of a French naval officer fresh from the Revolutionary War in America to the French Revolution, a swashbuckling 17th century adventure of the dastardly Richelieu versus the King’s Musketeers, a Belle Epoque city ca. 1900, a fire fountain show on the lake at night and much more.

This party-time version of the past is a fitting setting for the ring because there are widespread doubts as to its authenticity. An Oxford University laboratory dated the ring to the 15th century based on its style, wear and engraving, but that’s as close as it gets to any actual facts linking this jewelry to the Maid of Orléans. They share a century. That’s all we know for sure. The long track record of ownership history included with the ring is entirely speculative. It’s based solely on the fact that Lady Ottoline Morrell’s ancestry can be traced back to Cardinal Henry Beaufort, Bishop of Winchester, who was present at the trial and execution of Joan of Arc. There are no references in archives or histories that mention the ring being owned by anyone in the family at any time between 1431 and when it first appears on the historical record in 1914.

On the advice of experts, neither the town of Orléans nor the Joan of Arc Historical Exhibition in Rouen bid for the ring. There are many fake Joan of Arc relics out there, and the association of this particular piece with Joan only dates to the early 20th century when there was a revival of Joanmania. Philippe de Villiers is no museum curator, however, and he insists despite the lack of evidence that the ring is unquestionably authentic. As a politician, leader of the conservative Movement for France party, he is keen to claim Joan and there’s a hefty portion of nationalism underpinning this acquisition. At Sunday’s unveiling he said “It’s a little bit of France that has returned. The ring has come back to France and will stay here,” then launched into a stirring rendition of La Marseillaise.

He was putting Britain on notice there. Appropriately enough, the export of the ring has sparked a war, of words this time, between the British and French. When the auctioneers gave the ring to park lawyers, they informed them that an export license would have to be secured before the ring could leave the country. Any antiquity worth more than £39,219 that has been in the UK for more than 50 years requires a special export license issued by the Culture Minister. The license is only issued after the Reviewing Committee on the Export of Works of Art and Objects of Cultural Interest (RCEWA) gives the Minister its recommendation, and in the case of this ring, it’s highly unlikely that they would have let it walk away without temporarily blocking export to give British institutions the chance to raise the purchase price and keep it in the country.

Philippe de Villiers has no intention of returning the ring, illegally exported or no, a position he made very clear at Sunday’s ceremony.

“The British government has sent our lawyer an unprecedented demand: the return of the ring to London,” Mr de Villers told the shocked throng. [...] “Is the ring part of England’s national heritage?,” he asked the crowd, which booed loudly. Cheers erupted, however, when he asked whether it was part of France’s heritage.

Mr De Villiers claimed that he had checked the rules and found they only apply if the object is taken out of the European Union. In a mocking nod to Britain’s upcoming referendum over whether to remain or leave the EU, he told the crowd: “It is not at all our intention to have a Puy de Fou exit.”

In a final flourish, he laid down the gauntlet by stating: “Ladies and gentlemen from Britain, if you want to see the ring, then come to the Puy de Fou. For the rest it’s too late.” “The ring has returned to France and here it will stay…even if the European Commission orders it back.”

So much ado about a very questionable artifact. I have to admit, though, as theme parks go, even with its inherently inaccurate, sanitized, kid-friendly, way too clean version of history, it’s pretty cool. I am all over that quadriga race.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Update: St Eric’s wounds consistent with legend

Sun, 2016-03-20 23:12

On April 23rd, 2014, researchers from Uppsala University opened a reliquary casket in Uppsala Cathedral to study the bones of King Eric IX of Sweden, the patron saint of Stockholm. The primary goal was to compare medieval remains to modern ones looking for changes in bone density for an interdisciplinary osteoporosis study, but while they were in the neighborhood, the research team examined the skeletal remains in the hopes of answering some questions about his national origins, health, diet and violent death.

The University has now released the first results of the study of Eric’s bones, and so far the osteological evidence is remarkably congruent with the stories told about him at least a century after his death. Since no contemporary writings about him have survived and the later histories are hagiographies that frame him as a saint in life, a martyr in death and a miracle-worker after death, it’s hard to know what’s fact and what’s legend. The study attempted DNA extraction and analysis, performed stable isotope analysis of his teeth, did a forensic examination of the bones looking for ante-mortem and perimortem wounds, radiocarbon dated the bones and enlisted orthopaedists and radiologists to determine his vital statistics and state of health.

There are 24 bones in the casket, 23 of them from the same person, plus one random shinbone. The group of 23 are the bones of a man about 35-40 years old who was 171 centimeters tall (5’7″). CT scans found no medical conditions evident on the bones. He did not have osteoporosis or suffer any kind of bone loss. On the contrary, his bone density was 25% greater than the average young man today. Eric was strong and very physically fit. Radiocarbon dating results are consistent with his having died in 1160.

Stable isotope analysis found one reason for his excellent health: he ate a great deal of freshwater fish. Kings had access to a great quantity and variety of animal protein, thanks to plentiful game and freshwater fish available on great estates. Eric ate both land animal protein and fish but emphasized the latter.This conforms to accounts of him in the hagiographies which describe him as fasting often out of religious devotion. Fasting in the Middle Ages didn’t require abstention from all food. It was usually meat that was excised from the diet, sometimes extended to animals products — butter, milk, cheese, eggs — during penitential seasons like Lent. The more extreme strictures were primarily observed by monks or individual ascetics. For lay Christians over most of the liturgical calendar, there were three fast days: Wednesday (the day Judas took 30 pieces of silver to betray Christ), Friday (the day Christ was crucified) and Saturday (the day dedicated to the Virgin Mary). Game birds like swan and peacock that only the aristocracy had access to were exempt from the no-meat rule.

Wounds on his bones also seem to fit the stories about Eric. His cranium had one or two healed wounds, possibly inflicted by sharp weapons. He fought a war, some call it a crusade, against pagan Finland, which would have afforded him plenty of opportunities for this kind of injury. The unhealed wounds inflicted at the time of his death match his story even better.

The saint’s legend says that in the king’s final battle, the enemy swarmed him, and when he fell to the ground they gave him wound after wound until he lay half dead. They then taunted him and finally cut off his head. The remaining bones have at least nine cuts inflicted in connection with death, seven of them on the legs. No wounds have been found on the ribs or the remaining arm bone, which probably means that the king wore a hauberk but had less protected legs. Both shin bones have cuts inflicted from the direction of the feet, indicating that the victim lay on his front.

A neck vertebra has been cut through, which could not have been done without removing the hauberk, i.e. not during battle. This confirms that there was an interlude, as described by the taunting in the legend, between battle and decapitation. At no point do the documented wounds gainsay the account of the fight given by the much later legend.

One thing that contradicts the hagiographies was an isotope analysis finding that suggests he spent the last decade of his life not in Uppsala, but in the southern province of Västergötland. This is only a preliminary finding, however, since stable isotopes have to be compared to previously recorded values in order to determine geographic locations and there’s still a lot of comparing to be done.

DNA analysis is still pending as well. Researchers were able to extract DNA samples successfully, which is a major hurdle to leap when dealing with 900-year-old bones. The DNA analysis is expected to take another year. They have DNA from King Magnus III of Sweden (reigned 1275-1290) who was descended from Eric IX through his mother Ingeborg. They will be compared to confirm the bones are indeed Eric’s.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Buckle from British Isles found in Danish Viking grave

Sat, 2016-03-19 23:00

A buckle of Scottish or Irish origin has been discovered in the grave of a Viking woman in Enghøj on central Denmark’s Jutland peninsula. The gilt bronze disc is a small piece of six centimeters (2.4 inches) with a Greek key-like geometric pattern that was made in the 9th century. The woman who took it with her to the grave died in the 10th century, so it was already decades, maybe even a century, old when it was buried in Denmark. She used it to keep her petticoat together.

Archaeologist Ernst Stidsing from the Museum East Jutland realized right away that it was a very unusual piece. He’d never seen anything like it before, so he sent pictures to Emerita Professor Else Roesdahl of Aarhus University. She had never seen anything like it either. Stidsing shared the pictures with English and German colleagues and they agreed that it was made in the British Isles. Having only the ornamentation to go on, the experts disagreed on whether it was of Irish manufacture or from southern Scotland.

They were certain that it didn’t start out as a buckle or brooch. It was a fitting from a shrine of some kind, stripped off a wooden box used to hold sacred objects. It’s therefore not a trade piece. Monasteries and churches weren’t in the practice of prying the decoration off their reliquaries and selling them to Vikings. This was acquired in a raid.

Viking loot from Britain and Ireland is very rare in Denmark, all the more so in a grave. It’s more common, albeit still a rarity, in Norway, where several examples have been discovered. A reliquary and fragment of an English 8th or 9th century crozier were found in the grave of a Viking woman in Romsdal, Norway, in 1961. A direct parallel, a Celtic disc, also originated in Scotland or Ireland as decoration on a shrine or reliquary. The Vikings converted into a brooch and it was buried the grave of a high-status woman in Lilleberge, Norway, in the 9th-10th century. It was unearthed in 1886 but kept in a soil block and only fully excavated and identified a few years ago.

Ernst Stidsing thinks there may have been a Norwegian connection for the Enghøj buckle.

“It could have been [brought by] a Norwegian woman who came to Denmark with her jewellery, and lived and died there,” says Stidsing.

He now hopes that strontium isotope analysis of the woman’s teeth could clear up where she came from.

“I’m pretty excited about the outcome of the analysis,” says Stidsing. “Especially as the Norwegian Vikings were often on expeditions to the north of England. It’s exciting that a woman may have come from Norway and have lived part of her life in Jutland [west Denmark].”

“It will confirm the picture that we were already [living] in a globalised world back then,” he says.

That picture was solidly confirmed most recently when Egtved Girl, the Bronze Age young woman whose exceptionally preserved burial complete with hollowed out tree trunk coffin, clothing, grave goods, textiles and accessories has become a Danish icon since its discovery in 1921, was actually from Southern Germany. Egtved Girl was a very important person even though she was only 16-18 years old when she died, a priestess or a dynastic bride, and it’s known that there were marriages between Danish kings and Slavic princesses starting in the 10th century. The woman who was buried with the buckle had status and wealth, but she wasn’t a princess. If isotope analysis finds that she was from Norway or somewhere else other than Denmark, it will give new insight into how mobile Vikings were at various social levels.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

35,000-year-old Twitter logo found in France

Fri, 2016-03-18 23:54

In 2003, a salvage excavation in advance of highway construction in the Dordogne region of southwestern France discovered a dense group of prehistoric occupations, 10 sites in an area of less than two square miles. One of them, Cantalouette II, is an open-air site that was used as a flint workshop, as evidenced by the large quantity of flakes and knapping debris. There are seven layers, ranging in date from the Middle Pleistocene to the Holocene. In the Aurignacian layer (35,000 – 31,000 years old), archaeologists found a remarkably naturalistic bird (pdf) engraved on a flint flake. Other engraved flakes were found at the site, but none of them were figurative. In fact, this is the first example of figurative art discovered in an open-air Aurignacian site.

The bird is depicted with its head raised and its wings open, parallel lines representing the feathers. The beak is short, thin and pointed. A single eye is visible with a small line underneath that may represent an undereye feature. A projection on the left side of the bird may be the legs or the tail. It’s a capture of dynamic action, a bird in the moment of drinking, courting or about to take flight. Or express itself it in 140 characters.

Another unique feature of this piece, besides a silhouette so reminiscent of Internet-era iconography, is the style of engraving. Usually artwork from the Upper Paleolithic period is an incised outline. Some of the details may give the impression of relief and in very rare cases actual reliefs have been found, like the friezes of the Roc-de-Sers rock shelter (ca. 17,000 B.C.). The bird of Cantalouette II, however, is the opposite of the Roc-de-Sers animals in that it was made by the removal of the material inside the figure, not by the carving away of material outside of it leaving a high relief behind.

This sunken relief is unique among the Aurignacian artworks. The technique has never been seen before. To better understand the engraving process, researchers recreated it experimentally and found it was completed in six phases. First the outline was incised, then the interior was scraped with stone tool that left a wavy surface. The third step was adding detail to the head and beak with an L-shaped bevel. Another bevel was then engraved to add dimension to the upper left wing area. In phase five, the artist micro-pecked the inside of the head giving it a distinctive rough surface that conveys the different type of feathers birds have on their heads as opposed to their wings. Lastly, the eye and the subciliar line were added.

Also rare is the subject matter. Upper Paleolithic animal figures are more often land-based — horses, bovines, ibex, bison — and while birds have been found before, including the fragment of an outline bird figure at Roc-de-Sers, none of them are so naturalistic and detailed. Roc-de-Sers dates to the Magdalenian period of the Upper Paleolithic, thousands of years after the Cantalouette II bird was carved. Narrowing it down specifically to the Aurignacian period, there are only two other known birds: an ivory water bird from Hohle Fels (ca. 39,000-34,000 years old) and an owl in the Chauvet cave. Neither of them have the same attention to detail as the Cantalouette II bird. Because of those details, experts were able to compare its features to birds found in the fossil record of Upper Paleolithic southwestern France. The likeliest candidates are the passerine, the wryneck or partridge/quail.

After all this trouble, the piece was simply discarded onto the pile of lithic fragments, the detritus of the prehistoric tool-making workshop. It wasn’t meant to be permanent like rock art on walls. It wasn’t even meant to be portable, like something pretty to wear or display. It seems to have been the artistic impulse of a flint knapper who, having completed his oeuvre, threw it away.

This engraving is distinct in the rarity of the animal depicted and the use of innovative techniques. They suggest an absence of rigid artistic traditions and techniques during the Aurignacian. This absence of canons is in fact characteristic of Aurignacian art, despite certain convergences, such as the depiction of dangerous animals in the Swabian Jura, Dordogne, Adèche and northern Italy. At the doline site of Cantalouette II, the artist was thus free to “test” other manners of representing volumes and outlines. The artistic liberty of this artist can be correlated with that of the Aurignacian flint knappers in the Bergeracois region, who surpassed their technical skills by producing unusually large blades. The object itself, discarded in a flint knapping workshop, suggests the existence of an ephemeral form of artistic expression, a behavior previously unknown in the Aurignacian, and which raises questions about the function of the earliest figurative art in Europe.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Torlonia collection to see the light after 40 years in the basement

Thu, 2016-03-17 23:01

One of the most important private collections of ancient sculpture in the world hasn’t been on display in four decades. In fact, it really hasn’t been on public display since the 19th century. The Torlonia family’s collection of antiquities, 620 world-class Greek, Roman and Etruscan statues and sarcophagi, has been favorably compared without hyperbole to the ancient sculpture collections of the Capitoline and Vatican Museums, and the Italian government has tried for years to craft an agreement with the family that would allow these unique treasures to be seen by the public. On Tuesday, March 15th, Culture Minister Dario Franceschini announced that the long-sought agreement has been reached and about 60-90 of the most important pieces in the Torlonia collection will go on display in 2017. The details haven’t been worked out yet, but the likely venue will be the Palazzo Caffarelli Clementino on the Capitoline Hill.

The Torlonia family are new, by Roman standards. The founder was Marino Torlonia, born Marin Tourlonias in Auvergne, France, in 1725. He moved to Rome and became the manservant of powerful Neopolitan cardinal Troiano Acquaviva d’Aragona, best remembered today for having employed Giacomo Casanova in 1744 only to dismiss him when he was discovered hiding a teenaged runaway in the cardinal’s residence on the Piazza di Spagna. Acquaviva died in 1747, leaving Marino Torlonia an inheritance which he used to set himself up as a textile merchant.

The business was successful and Marino parlayed some of his income into a small lending concern. When he helped Pope Pius VI with some pesky financial matters, he was granted the title of duke. It was his son Giovanni Raimondo Torlonia who took both businesses and ran with them. He made savvy deals with the French occupiers under Napoleon and when the French troops left after the Treaty of Paris in 1814, Giovanni was flush with cash, cash the old noble families distinctly lacked. The Banco Marino Torlonia was delighted to loan them money with their estates and furnishings as collateral.

Pope Pius VII granted Giovanni Raimondo Torlonia a princely title in 1814, the first of many. Just two generations removed from Marin Tourlonias, the Torlonia family was one of the richest in Rome, as ennobled as it could be and, thanks to advantageous marriages, related to some of the greatest noble houses of the city — the Colonna, Orsini and Borghese. When those loans went into default, the Torlonia family accumulated lands and artworks by the cartload, including pieces from the Orisini, Cesarini and Caetani-Ruspoli families and a prized 17th century collection of ancient sculptures from the Giustiniani family.

Not that they needed the loan collateral to make out like bandits. After the upheaval of the Napoleonic period, many noble families were compelled to sell their properties and private collections. The great collection of dedicated antiquarian Cardinal Alessandro Albani was sold along with his Roman palace, Villa Albani, to the Chigi family who in turn sold it to the Torlonia. Giovanni also bought more than a thousands pieces from the estate of sculptor and restorer Bartolomeo Cavaceppi, among which were important sculptures Cavaceppi had acquired from the collections of the Savelli, Cesi and Pio da Carpi families.

Their extensive property holdings proved invaluable sources of ancient statuary as well. Draining swamps and developing lands, the Torlonia unearthed antiquities hand over fist, particularly from the man-made Roman harbour of Portus, the town of Fiumicino where Leonardo da Vinci Airport now stands, and the ancient Etruscan cities of Vulci and Cerveteri

In 1859, Giovanni’s son Alessandro founded a private museum in one of their palaces on the Via della Lungara. The sculptures, including about a hundred Roman portrait busts from the late Republican and Imperial period so prized many scholars consider them superior to the busts in the Capitoline and Vatican Museums, were installed in the 77 rooms of the palace. Already by the 1870s the public was not allowed inside the museum. I can’t confirm whether they ever were, for that matter. Alessandro Torlonia granted access only to his aristocratic friends and occasionally to experts. The collection was catalogued repeatedly in the 1870s and 1880s. Some of the catalogues were illustrated with photographs, among the first in Italy to be printed with pictures instead of drawings. (here’s a text-only example from 1881)

In the 1960s and 1970s, the collection was gradually packed up and stored, perhaps in other Torlonia properties, perhaps in the basement of the old museum. Another Alessandro Torlonia, great-grandson of the museum’s founder, got permission from the government to repair the roof, but those repairs proved to be a smokescreen for an illegal subdivision of the palace into 90 tiny apartments. A 1979 judgement from Italy’s supreme court of appeals found that the sculptures had been stored in “narrow, insufficient, dangerous spaces [...] removed from the museum [...] crammed together in unbelievable fashion, leaned against each other without care for consistency or history.” The court ruled that the private owner should pay a fine to the state equal to the value lost or diminished by this dire, careless treatment of cultural patrimony. That ruling was never enforced.

With tension between the state and the family, the past 40 years have seen many long negotiations go nowhere. Finally the parties have managed to come together, although the vast majority of the Torlonia sculptures will not be on display, at least not right away. I hope this is just a first step. None of these works should be gathering dust in basements.

The history of this collection, how it was amassed from acquisitions, debt collections and excavations on Torlonia properties, may be a central theme of the first exhibition. It’s particularly relevant to the Torlonia collection as opposed to some of the older ones built gradually by noble families over the course of centuries. The way entire collections were absorbed by the Torlonia makes for a unique perspective into the history of antiquities collection in Rome, with built-in organizational divisions, like, for instance, the pieces from the Cavaceppi collection in one section, the pieces from the Giustiniani collection in another. The sculptures unearthed on Torlonia estates could be in another section.

Again, it’s still in the early stages, but the Ministry is hoping to make this a traveling exhibition. After the Roman show, the treasures of the Torlonia collection will go to top museums in Europe and the United States. Eventually a permanent place will be found for it back home in Rome.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Gardener finds Denmark’s oldest figure of Christ

Wed, 2016-03-16 23:43

Landscape gardener Dennis Fabricius Holm picked up his first metal detector just two and a half months ago. It was his son’s, a Christmas present he’d gotten years before and never used. Holm fished it out of the basement and took it to the empty field next door to his home in the village of Aunslev on the Danish island of Funen to do a few hours of scanning every Friday afternoon. He found some buttons and small coins, nothing to write home about.

Last Friday, March 11th, Holm found something to write history books about. In an area of the field he hadn’t scanned before, his machine alerted him to a metallic object not made of iron. A mere four inches under the surface he found a little gold pendant 3.5 centimeters (1.4 inches) wide and 4 centimeters (1.6 inches) high, weighing 14 grams. The artifact’s fine filigree showed through the caked dirt. Excited about his find, Holm posted pictures of it on a Facebook page for Danish metal detector enthusiasts and was quickly deluged with congratulations.

He contacted Malene Refshauge Beck, an archaeologist and curator at the East Funen Museums, who identified it as a crucifix from the first half of the 10th century. That makes it the oldest figure of Christ ever discovered in Denmark. Before this find, the Christ figure engraved on the largest Jelling Stone, a massive runestone raised by Harald Bluetooth in around 965 A.D., was the oldest known in Denmark. It was a fitting record for a stone whose runic inscription reads: “King Harald bade this monument be made in memory of Gorm his father and Thyra his mother, that Harald who won for himself all Denmark and Norway and made the Danes Christians.”

The pendant could be dated with such precision because it is almost identical to a pendant found in Sweden. The first crucifix of this design was unearthed in 1879 from grave 660 in a Viking cemetery at Birka, an 8th century town about 20 miles west of Stockholm. The earliest Christian missionaries who went to Sweden in the 9th century were centered in Birka. The town was destroyed in the 10th century and never rebuilt. Its ruins were rediscovered by an entomologist, Hjalmar Stolpe, who was there to study ancient insects trapped in amber. When he found large quantities of non-native amber on the island, he realized it must have once been an important trading center and so began archaeological excavations that would continue for almost 25 years, from 1871 through 1895.

A fragmentary second crucifix of the Birka type has survived. Their designs are so similar that archaeologists believe they were made by the same craftsman. East Funen Museums archaeologists will now contact their counterparts at the Swedish History Museum in Stockholm, where the original Birka crucifix is kept. The two crosses will be compared to determine whether they were made by the same hand.

The Aunslev crucifix is the most precious of the three. The first Birka crucifix is gilded silver with much of the gilding worn off. The fragmentary second one is silver. Holm’s find is solid gold. The goldsmith shaped a thin gold wire in parallel lines and small balls called granulation. It would have been a very expensive piece, likely worn by a woman.

Christianity was introduced to Denmark via the elite so this pendant probably belonged to someone wealthy and influential. Whether that person was Christian is impossible to know since the piece was found in a field, not in a grave like the others. Wearing a crucifix could be advantageous when dealing with the already Christianized peoples south of Denmark, and even if the wearer did espouse Christian beliefs, at this stage the new faith often coexisted with the traditional one of Thor and Odin. Indeed, Christ’s expression on the crucifix is not the one of a suffering man near death, but rather of a fearless warrior akin to the Norse heroes and deities.

The pendant is now at the Viking Museum in Ladby where it will be cleaned and conserved. It will be put on display this summer.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Shipwreck from Vasco da Gama’s 2nd voyage to India found

Tue, 2016-03-15 23:00

A rare early shipwreck from Vasco da Gama’s second voyage to India (1502-1503) has been discovered off the coast of Oman. It is the earliest Age of Discovery ship ever found and thanks to its remote location, archaeologists got there first.

Portugal sent ships on an annual journey to India, the Carreira da India, since Vasco de Gama discovered the sea route in 1498. It was a long, arduous, and very dangerous journey in the open ocean down the full length of west Africa, across the Cape of Good Hope, north up the east coast to Mombasa, modern-day Kenya, then across the Indian Ocean to Calicut (Kozhikode) in southern India. Many ships and men were lost on the India Route — one study found 219 ships were wrecked between 1498 and 1650 — and yet, very few shipwrecks have been discovered, and the few that have been were stripped bare by looters before archaeologists had a chance to explore them.

Without their contents, ships area difficult to date. The earliest Carreira da India wreck that could be conclusively dated is the São João which sank in 1552. The lack of an archaeological record for those first 54 years have left a large gap in our understanding of the early Portuguese trade to and from India. Hoping to find a wreck from that 54-year gap, researchers scoured archives looking for the possible location of two ships — the Esmeralda and São Pedro — that sank during Vasco da Gama’s second voyage to India in 1503. The two ships were captained by Vicente and Brás Sodré, brothers and da Gama’s maternal uncles, and led an independent squadron in the fleet that had separate military orders directly from Portuguese King Dom Manuel I to “make war against the ships of Meca” on the Malabar coast and corner the spice trade.

In 1503, after da Gama had returned to Portugal with the bulk of the fleet, the Sodrés went above and beyond their orders, leaving the Indian Ocean for the Gulf of Aden where they attacked and pillaged Arab ships of their cargoes of spices, prized textiles, sugar and rice. When one of the lead ships needed repairs, the squadron was moored off an island now known as Al Hallaniyah, 28 miles from the south coast of Oman. A violent storm broke them to pieces. Everyone on the Esmeralda died, including commander Vicente Sodré. Brás Sodré and most of his crew survived the wreck of the São Pedro, although Brás died a short time later of unknown causes.

The Sodré squadron’s special status, military adventurism/piracy and the demise of the lead ships made for an especially rich documentary record with multiple extant accounts of the voyage and wrecks, including an eye-witness report from the captain of another ship in the squadron. The research determined that the island where the ships had wrecked was likely Al Hallaniyah. Based on the findings, a 1998 expedition searched the area and found dozens of round stone shot and lead-iron shot typical of 16th century heavily armed ships.

The remoteness of the location made a full investigation difficult. It wasn’t until 2013 that shipwreck recovery experts Bluewater Recoveries Ltd. partnered with the Oman Ministry of Heritage and Culture to excavate the site. A geophysical survey was followed by an extremely complex excavation and artifact recovery project which ultimately retrieved 1911 objects. The ship itself is gone. The hull and masts were torn apart by the storm, and the squadron crew burned the ships after salvaging whatever they could.

Between 2013 and 2015, excavators found Portuguese, Chinese, Persian and West African ceramics which roughly dated the ship to between 1450 and 1550, a large quantity of ordnance, including 19 copper-alloy and one iron breech chambers, three handgun barrels, 91 handmade stone shot, a copper-alloy disc with the Portuguese royal coat of arms and the armillary sphere that was Don Manuel I’s personal shield from before he was king, and coins, including 12 gold Portuguese cruzados, 11 from the reign of Dom Manuel I and one from the reign of his predecessor Dom João II. One of the coins was instrumental in narrowing down the date of the wreck . It’s a silver índio, a type of coin first struck in 1499 and discontinued by 1504. They were explicitly produced for the Portuguese trade in India and because they were minted for such a short time, they are extremely rare. This is only the second one known to exist.

Another great archaeological jackpot was the discovery the ship’s bell. CT scanning found the letter M and the numbers 498 on the bell. The numbers are what’s left of the date — 1498 — of the ship’s construction and the M was the key clue to identifying the ship as likely being the Esmeralda. This is the oldest ship’s bell ever found. Here it is being excavated:

Here’s a CT scan of it:

Here it is all cleaned up and conserved:

There are more videos and information on the website dedicated to the shipwreck of the Esmeralda. The full interim report on the find can be read here.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

First ancient wood caissons found in Corinth harbour

Mon, 2016-03-14 23:18

The ancient Greek city-state of Corinth was fortuitously located on the well-traveled isthmus that connects the Peloponnese peninsula to mainland Greece, but it was three miles inland. To take advantage of its central position on the narrow isthmus, Corinth built two ports: Lechaion to the north for maritime trade headed west towards Italy and Kenchreai to the south for maritime trade headed east towards Asia Minor and Egypt. Corinth’s control of the isthmus ensured it remained a dominant economic and military power in the region from classical Greece through the Byzantine period.

The harbour town of Lechaion on the Gulf of Corinth, therefore, was a prosperous hub of Mediterranean maritime trade for more than 1,000 years, in continuous use from the 6th century B.C. to the 6th century A.D. The remains of the ancient harbour are underwater now and until recently were barely explored. The Lechaion Harbour Project (LHP), an international collaboration between the Greek Ephorate of Underwater Antiquities, the University of Copenhagen and the Danish Institute at Athens, seeks to remedy this oversight. Their marine archaeologists have been exploring the ruins of Lechaion for the past two years, while geologists use the latest technology to do a geophysical survey of the seabed. The newly developed 3D parametric sub-bottom profiler will allow them to capture 3D images of structures hidden underneath the sand.

Last year, the LHP team discovered massive squared blocks that were once part of two monumental piers, a smaller pier, a breakwater, the stone-lined entrance canal into the inner harbor basins and most remarkably, the remains of six wooden caissons. The Lechaion caissons were large wooden barges laden with concrete which were floated out to a specific area and deliberately sunk together to create a breakwater to protect moored ships and their cargoes from wind and surf. All together the surviving caissons are 57 meters (187 feet) long.

Roman imperial engineers employed a similar technology on a large scale at Caesarea Maritima in Israel in the late first century BC, but these are the first of their kind ever discovered in Greece with their wooden elements still preserved. A preliminary C-14 carbon date places the caissons in the time frame of the Leonidas Basilica, the largest Christian church of its time. Construction of the basilica began in the middle of the 5th century AD. It was 180 meters long – about the same size as the first building phase of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. Scholars generally assume that harbour facilities in the Mediterranean were built in the Greek and Roman period, then simply repaired and maintained during the Byzantine period. The discovery of the mole constructed of wooden caissons challenges this picture.

Through no fault of its own, the newly discovered Byzantine construction was not long-lived. Lechaion was destroyed in the late 6th or early 7th century A.D. It’s an archaeological miracle that any part of the caissons survived. The warm water and high salt concentration of the Mediterranean make it a paradise for woodworm. They can devour wood and other organic materials in a matter of months. Before this discovery, only traces of the presence of caissons have been found, the wood itself having long since decayed.

Danish archaeologist Bjorn Lovén of the University of Copenhagen first spotted the caissons on a dive.

“I swam in full diving equipment and suddenly saw lots of planks and poles on the sea bed, and my heart skipped a beat. First I was skeptical, because it was almost too good to be true. But deep down I knew, that it had to be antique wood for building, since no one [built] harbours that way later on. Still I was in doubt, until we got it confirmed.”

The wood is in shockingly good condition, which gives the archaeologists hope they’ll find more organic material in the inner and outer harbour, maybe even one of the Holy Grails of maritime archaeology: the trireme, a warship with three banks of oars which was instrumental in Greece’s victory in the Greco-Persian Wars of the 5th century B.C. Ancient sources like Thucydides, Pliny and Diodorus Siculus claim triremes were invented in Corinth. Thucydides notes in The History of the Peloponnesian War that the Corinthian shipbuilder Ameinokles made four of them for the Samians in the 8th century B.C. The ruins of trireme shipsheds have been found at the ancient Athenian harbour of Piraeus, but not the ships themselves. The discovery of so much surviving wood from the caissons makes it a possibility, albeit a very remote one, that the LHP team might one day find the remains of a trireme.

There are some great views of the wood caissons in this video:

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

London Stone will finally gets it due again

Sun, 2016-03-13 23:55

London Stone doesn’t look like much. It’s an irregular chunk of oolitic limestone hidden behind a grate on the footing of a 1960s building on Cannon Street. A bronze plaque above the grating is the only hint that it’s worth peering through penumbra to the object within. To actually see the stone, you had to go inside whatever business was occupying the storefront — at various times a Bank of China branch, a sporting goods store and most recently a WH Smith — and look into a knee-high glass case. The case wasn’t even visible when it was in a WH Smith because it was blocked by a magazine rack.

Yet, this unpreposessing rock has an illustrious history. Its origins are unknown, and that mystery has birthed uncounted legends, rumors and myths, most of them invented in the past 150 years. It’s been said to be the stone from which Arthur drew the sword that made him king, a druidic altar, a piece of the palace of the Roman governor of Londinium, the plinth for the Palladium brought to the city by Brutus of Troy, legendary founder of London, and a fetish stone installed by the first prehistoric settlers of what would become London. A slightly more realistic theory is that it was the milliarium of Roman London, the stone marker in the precise center of the city from which all the miles in Britain were counted.

There’s no more evidence for the plausible theories than for the fantastical ones. The stone appears on the historical record in the Middle Ages. It was installed on the south side of what was then known as Candlewick Street (Cannon Street isn’t about the weapon; it’s just the end-product of centuries of usage alterations from the original Candelwrichstrete), held to the ground with large iron clamps. Most of it was below the surface.

A gospel given by Æthelstan (924–939), the first king to rule of all of England including the Viking north, to Christ Church, Canterbury, has a reference to a piece of land belonging to the church that is “neer unto London Stone.” That suggests London Stone was famous enough already in the 10th century to be used as an identifying landmark, and it continued to be a key geographical reference for centuries. A document from the reign of Stephen (1135-1154) records a fire starting at a house “neere unto London Stone.” It is repeatedly mentioned in official records to describe the locations of buildings. It was also a popular moniker for people who lived in the neighborhood (a certain John de Londenston stabbed his wife Agnes in 1241) and for drinking and eating establishments. There was an Old London Stone Coffee House, a London Stone Tavern and a London Stone Eating House which was said to be the first house built after the 1666 Great Fire of London.

It wasn’t just a convenient marker; it was held in high esteem. A house on the north side of St Swithin’s church, the home of London’s first Mayor Henry Fitz Aylwin and the seat of government from 1189 to 1212, was considered highly prestigious because it was near the stone. Jack Cade, leader of a popular rebellion against King Henry VI in 1450, entered London on July 3rd and made a point of going to London Stone where he struck it with his sword and declared himself lord of the city. Shakespeare describes it colorfully in Henry VI, Part 2:

[Enter JACK CADE and the rest, and strikes his staff on London-stone.]
CADE: “Now is Mortimer lord of this city. And here, sitting upon London-stone, I charge and command that, of the city’s cost, the conduit run nothing but claret wine this first year of our reign.

(Cade claimed descendance from the powerful Mortimer family.)

After the Great Fire leveled much of the city, the stone’s foundations were exposed for the first time in hundreds of years. Its large dimensions suggested London Stone must have been part of a monumental feature of some kind. The fire may also have damaged it, cracking it apart. Five years after the fire, the Worshipful Company of Spectacle Makers was compelled by court order to destroy a faulty batch of 264 pairs of eyeglasses by dashing them against London Stone. The guild’s records say they were broken “on the remayning parte of London Stone.”

By 1742 the stone was obstructing traffic in what was then a narrow lane, so it was moved to the north end of the street and installed in the wall next to the door of St. Swithin’s church. In A Journey from Birmingham to London (1785) by W. Hutton, the author observes that the residents pay little attention to the stone.

The small information received from history and the smaller from tradition, prove its great antiquity. This curiosity is as little regarded as known. The numerous crowd of passengers take less notice of this stone than of those upon which they tread. My enquiries were answered with a supercilious smile, and all the intelligence I could gain was, “It is a place of rest for the porters burden.” [...]

This Stone appears of a marble texture near four feet high, two broad, and one thick. An ornament at the top is broken off. In the front is an oval aperture or recess two feet long, at the bottom of which is a broken fragment which has supported perhaps an image or urn, expressive of the original design. Time seems to have destroyed the lower part of the oval, and art has supplied the place with a patch.

In 1798, the stone was moved again to the east side of St. Swithin’s south wall and in 1820 it was set into an alcove in the center of the south wall. It rested there for 120 years, a much-visited tourist attraction. Then came World War II and the Blitz. St. Swithin’s was destroyed, but the walls, and the stone embedded in one of them, still stood. The ruins of the church were finally demolished in 1962 and the current building was erected with the sad, gloomy little grilled out alcove as the ignominious dwelling for the former celebrity stone.

Now that building too is slated for demolition, only this time London Stone will be treated with the respect due.

Planning permission has been granted for the demolition of the building and the erection of new premises on the site, to include a special raised plinth so that the artefact can be viewed by the public. During the building works, it is hoped that London Stone will be displayed in the Museum of London for about 20 months from late spring. [...]

While it is at the museum, research will be carried out in an attempt to define its geology, which may help to explain its origin and purpose. But the likelihood is it will remain, to paraphrase [author Iain] Sinclair, an object that everyone agrees is significant, even if no one quite knows why.

And perhaps that is the way it should be. According to [the Museum of London's John] Clark: “It is a mysterious and mystic object. I’m not sure if we want to know what it really was; in the end, that would spoil it.”

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Cannabis plaster lasts 1,500 years in cave shrines

Sun, 2016-03-13 00:14

The Ellora Caves are monumental rock-cut cave monasteries about 20 miles to the northwest of Aurangabad city, Maharashtra, India. Carved from the 6th to the 11th century, there are caves dedicated to India’s three main religions: 12 Buddhist, six Jain and 17 Brahmanical. They are elaborate, multi-story structures carved into the mountain face that have living facilities for the monks — kitchens, bedrooms, living rooms — as well as shrines with sculptures of Buddha, bodhisattvas, Hindu deities and more. Frescoes decorate some of the walls and ceilings.

The Buddhist caves were built between 630 and 700 A.D.; Caves 11 and 12 were the last ones made. Cave no. 12 is a three-story structure with a shrine inside. A sculpture of Buddha on a lotus throne surrounded by attendants presides over the shrine, while on the third floor is a small shrine to a goddess (goddess imagery was popular during the heyday of Esoteric Buddhism) with surviving polychrome paint on her face, body and in the background. The ceilings and walls are painted with floral and geometric designs. There has been some fading and paint loss caused by candle soot and the weather because the caves have been open to the elements for close to 1,500 years, but considering their age and the extremes of heat and moisture they’ve been subject to, it’s amazing the wall paintings survive at all. It’s largely due to the durability of the clay plaster underpinning the art.

Manager Rajdeo Singh, of the Archaeological Survey of India’s science branch and M. M. Sardesai, botany professor at Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar Marathwada University, teamed up to study the composition of the clay plaster inside Cave no. 12. They took samples from walls and studied them using a scanning electron microscope (SEM), a light microscope, a stereomicroscope and Fourier transform infrared spectroscopy (FTIR). They found Cannabis sativa fibers, pounded shoots, leaf fragments and even one bud. The plaster is composed of about 10% cannabis.

Hemp cultivation in India goes back to 5,000-4,000 B.C. Its stem fibers were used to make rope, its seeds to make oils, its resinous buds for medical and religious purposes and for fun. Ancient texts recommended it for the treatment of phlegm, flatulence, memory loss, gonorrhea and appetite loss. Cannabis was also used in construction. A combination of hemp hurds, lime and clay make a concrete-like substance known as hempcrete. Hemp fibers are acid free, resistant to insects, rodents, fungi and weeds. The long, durable fibers of Cannabis sativa are ideal for industrial use. They provide a great deal of strength in very little weight and density. Hempcrete is thermally stable, fire resistant, dampens sound and resistant to UV rays.

Studies in Europe have found that hempcrete walls have an estimated lifespan of 600-800 years before the fibers begin to deteriorate, but the Ellora plaster has more than doubled the low estimate even though environmental conditions are so adverse to the preservation of clay plaster and organic material. It’s hot in the summer and deluged with moisture during the rainy season, unlike the Mogao Caves in China which have been so well preserved by the desert climate.

The Ellora study recorded the temperature and relative humidity inside and outside Cave 12. The researchers found that the temperature inside the cave is stable between 78F and 81F while outside the temperature fluctuates between 64F and 90F. The stability inside the cave is due to hempcrete’s outstanding insulating abilities. Relative humidity, on the other hand, fluctuates less on the inside than the outside, but has a much wider range than the temperature: 27% to 45% inside, 25% to 55% outside. That’s why the plaster and paint still flakes on the inside. Even hempcrete can’t defeat the rainy season in Maharashtra.

There’s an example of what might have happened to the Ellora caves had their builders not used hempcrete. The Ajanta caves are 30 rock-cut structures dating from the 2nd century B.C. to the 5th or 7th century A.D. also in the Maharashtra region. Insects have had a field day with the paintings on the walls of the Ajanta caves. Fully a quarter of them have been devoured. The cannabis in the plaster at Ellora saved the caves from sharing Ajanta’s fate.

The study has been published in the March 10th issue of the journal Current Science and can be read here (pdf).

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Unusable bronze Iron Age weapons found in Oman

Sat, 2016-03-12 00:42

A team from the French Archaeological Mission excavating an Iron Age settlement near the town of Adam in northeastern Oman has discovered a cache of bronze weapons that were not usable as actual weapons. These are the first non-utilitarian weapons ever discovered in the Arabian Peninsula.

On the edge of the last oasis before the desert of Rub ‘al-Khali, the Adam area was virtually untouched by archaeologists until 2007 when the French Archaeological Mission first began to explore it. The mission’s fieldwork has unearthed a long human presence in the area: Lower and Middle Paleolithic occupation, a Neolithic settlement, two Bronze Age burial grounds and a group of Iron Age buildings at the foot of the Jabal Mudhmar mountain.

Dubbed Mudhmar East, the Iron Age site was discovered in 2009. It has two large buildings and several smaller ones. The larger of the two main buildings, about 50 feet long, is made of sandstone blocks and mudbricks and is divided into multiple rooms. One small room mid-way through the building on the side is entirely enclosed, with no doorway to the interior or exterior. It was in that room that archaeologists discovered a cache of bronze weapons during the 2015 excavation season. The objects date to the Iron Age II period (900-600 B.C.). The placement of the artifacts indicate they were not originally on the floor, but rather fell from shelves or possibly the walls.

Within this collection of objects, two especially remarkable groups stand out. The first one consists of two small quivers entirely made of bronze, including the six arrows contained in each of them. Given their size (35 cm) [14 inches], these were small-scale models imitating the original objects made of perishable materials (leather), which are not usually found in archaeological excavations. The fact that they are made of metal implies that they were non-functional. Quivers of this kind have never been found in the Arabian Peninsula, and are extremely rare elsewhere.

The second group comprises metal weapons, which were mostly non-utilitarian (given their slightly reduced size, material and/or unfinished state). They consist of five battle-axes, five daggers with crescent-shaped pommels (characteristic of the Iron Age II), around fifty arrowheads, and five complete bows. The bows are made up of a flat, curved bowstave bent at both ends, which are connected by a string made of bronze. The size of the bows (70 cm [28 inches] on average), and above all the material used, shows that they were imitations of bows made of perishable materials (wood and tendons). Objects of this type have never been found before: bows made of metal were totally unknown in the Arabian Peninsula and the Middle East until now.

Since we know so little about the site and the weapons are unique, the French Archaeological Mission experts are not sure what their purpose was. The discovery of fragments of incense burners and snake figurines in the second large building suggest it may have been used for religious purposes. If so, the weapons may have been offerings to a war deity. Alternatively, they may have had some other function in this Iron Age society that archaeologists have yet to understand.

Meanwhile, the bronze weapons reveal much we don’t know about utilitarian Iron Age weaponry. They’re made out of different material, but the designs and types are the same as the kind of weapons people used in battle and the hunt. They were fabricated during a period when metallurgy in the eastern Arabian Peninsula was on the rise. The development of the craft paralleled a growth in societal complexity, reflected in the construction of monumental, fortified structures in Iron Age settlements.

Excavations at Mudhmar East are ongoing. Archaeologists are hopeful they will reveal more about Iron Age societies in the Arabian peninsula, the nature of the site and what role the non-utilitarian weapons played.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Only play with section believed to be in Shakespeare’s hand on display

Fri, 2016-03-11 00:19

A folio of a play thought to be written in Shakespeare’s own hand has gone on display at the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C., alongside 50 other of the most important manuscripts and printed books related to the Bard. The Shakespeare, Life of an Icon exhibition displays pieces from the Folger’s collection plus loans from the University of Oxford’s Bodleian Library, the British Library, the Kings, Heralds, and Pursuivants of Arms, the London Metropolitan Archives, the UK’s National Archives, the University of Edinburgh, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust and The Worshipful Company of Stationers and Newspaper Makers. Many of these exhibits have never been shown in the United States before. Some haven’t been shown anywhere ever.

It’s a fascinating combination of the literary and mundane which reveal Shakespeare the man, actor and playwright. There’s Shakespeare’s copy of the contract to buy New Place, his last home in Stratford-upon-Avon, diary entries from people in the audience at his plays, the 1623 First Folio of his collected works, the only surviving letter written to Shakespeare and the only surviving copy of the first edition of Titus Andronicus which was the first Shakespeare play printed.

The only known account of Shakespeare’s death in on display as well. It’s a diary entry by John Ward, physician and vicar of Stratford-upon-Avon, written in the early 1660s, almost 50 years after the Bard’s death. He wrote: “Shakespeare, Drayton, and Ben Jonson had a merry meeting and it seems drank too hard for Shakespeare died of a fever there contracted.” Shakespeare was friends with playwright Ben Jonson and although we have no explicit records of a friendship with poet Michael Drayton, they traveled very much in the same circles and would almost certainly have known each other. No contemporary accounts of how Shakespeare died and of what have survived.

The play with Shakespeare’s handwriting wasn’t actually written by him alone. The Booke of Thomas More was the collaborative effort of several writers. Its main author was Anthony Munday who wrote it between 1596 and 1601. He submitted this copy (the original draft is lost) to Edmund Tilney who had the Spuds McKenzie title of Master of the Revels but the distinctly unrevelrous job of crossing out politically sensitive material. Once he was done marking the whole thing up in red pen, Munday brought in some help to rework the script. Henry Chettle is believed to have contributed first, possibly followed by Thomas Dekker, Thomas Heywood and William Shakespeare.

Despite all the changes, the play about Henry VIII’s Catholic Lord Chancellor who was executed for refusing to acknowledge the king was the head of the church was never printed. There are no surviving records that indicate it was ever performed. Most of the time there are no such records, so there’s no reason to assume the play was shut up in a drawer and forgotten about. It was probably staged and just not remarked up, like the vast majority of other plays from the period. The British Library’s manuscript on loan to the Folder is the only surviving copy of the play in the world.

The portion of the play thought to have been written by William Shakespeare is a three-page revision of a (fictional) speech delivered by Thomas More to anti-immigrant rioters during the Evil May Day Riots of 1517. Tilney objected to the scenes of the riots because economic hardship and potentially violent hostility to foreigners were again major issues when he wielded the censor’s pen and he didn’t want to angry up the blood, to quote Abe Simpson. In Shakespeare’s revision, therefore, the focus of Sir Thomas More’s speech was keeping the peace.

You can read a transcript of the pages here. (Scroll down to the Semi-diplomatic transcription and click Expand.) The original spelling and the formatting might make it a tad hard to read. Thimble summary: More decries the rioters’ violence, appeals to them to empathize with the foreigners, notes that their violence might beget more violence and chaos and lastly invokes the divine authority of the King which makes all violations of the King’s laws a sin against God himself.

The oratory matches the playwright’s poetic style. Because only six signatures of Shakespeare’s on four legal documents and no other writing have survived, authenticating the revision as written by Shakespeare is a challenge. With only his signed name to go on, the sample size is so small letter-by-letter comparisons can’t be definitive so the attribution is disputed by some scholars, but it’s been generally accepted since the mid-20th century. Scholars have named the contributor of the passages believed to be by Shakespeare “Hand D.”

The complete manuscript is currently being digitized. A version was published in 1911 that had photographs of some of the manuscript, but they’re blurry and not really readable. It Harley MS 7368 will be available to peruse in high resolution next month in the British Library’s Virtual Books gallery.

Shakespeare, Life of an Icon runs through March 27th at the Folger, after which the documents will move to the British Library where they will be on display as part of its Shakespeare in Ten Acts exhibition.

Here’s a timelapse video of the installation of the exhibition at the Folger. I like how they project elements onto the ceiling to give an immersive feel.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Frozen cave lion cubs studied and sampled

Thu, 2016-03-10 00:21

Last summer, two cave lion cubs were found in the permafrost on the bank of the Uyandina River in Yakutia, Siberia. The water levels of the river had risen with the warmth of the summer. When the waters retracted, cracks appeared in the banks. Yakov Androsov, a contractor with the Academy of Sciences of the Republic of Sakha (Yakutia) who was in the area collecting mammoth tusks, spied some ice with something inside it in one of the cracks. Upon closer inspection, he recognized the remains of prehistoric felines in the ice. He quickly placed them in a glacier to preserve them.

When the remains were recovered and examined by experts from the Academy of Sciences, they were identified as two very young Pleistocene cave lion cubs in exceptional condition. The cubs have been named Uyan and Dina after the river where they were found. Both are almost complete, Uyan more so than Dina, with body parts intact. Fur, legs, ears, eyes, tails, soft tissue, even their whiskers were preserved by the deep freeze. The lions were very young when they died, no more than two weeks old. Their eyes weren’t open and all of their baby teeth hadn’t grown in yet. They are about the size of plump house cats.

These are by far the most complete remains of cave lions ever found. Worldwide, only bones, partial skeletons and carcass fragments of cave lions have been found before this discovery. In Yakutia, it was only a few skulls, teeth and individual bones. Those limited remains and Stone Age cave art were the sole sources of information scientists had what cave lions looked like. The preservation of the cubs will answer a great many questions about the species.

Scientist Dr Gennady Boeskorov said: “The main complexity of our task is that here we have not adult lions, but cubs, so we are searching for the specialists experienced in the research of cubs. It’s interesting to see the adaptive mechanisms, which helped them to survive in the cold. They definitely differed from the modern lions, and we think there should be something that allowed them to adapt to the climate.”

Dr Protopopov said: “We suppose that the cave lioness behaved like the modern lioness in pride,” he said. “It seems like she gave birth to the cubs and hid them in cave or hole to protect from the hungry lion. Then the landslide covered it and they remained surrounded in permafrost. Also the air intake was blocked, and this helped their preservation.”

Cave lions went extinct about 10,000 years ago, so the cubs are at least that old. The remains will be radiocarbon tested for a more precise date range. Scientists from all over the world will contribute to the study of these little guys in the hope we can learn more about how they lived and died, their familial relations and what they ate.

Earlier this month, Dina, the less preserved of the cubs, was partially thawed and had samples taken at the Mammoth Museum in Yakutsk so tissues could be studied under the microscope. Also present was controversial South Korean cloning expert Professor Woo Hwang Sok who wanted samples of his own for a potential cave lion cloning project. He’s taken mammoth samples before, but there is a big difference between a mammoth carcass and a lion cub and the Yakutian Academy of Sciences refused to let him take a piece of the cub large enough to satisfy him.

The Korean professor wanted a large section, such as part of the skull or a leg but this was opposed by the local experts who are anyway withholding one of the cubs from any research – the better preserved of the pair, called Uyan – confident that more advanced techniques in future years will ensure more is gleaned from it than if research is done now.

[Dr. Protopopov] revealed: “The dispute arose from the fact that the researchers, as always, want to be completely sure and take more tissue, and I can understand them. But the lion is not fully preserved and there are not so many tissues. We have planned other studies, so it is important to preserve the original morphology of the remains. Such disputes are normal in all studies, and in the end we came to a compromise.”

Director of the Mammoth Museum Semyon Grigoriev defended the decision to limit the sample available to the cloning guru. “The Koreans are sceptical and unhappy with the samples,” he said. “They expected to take more, as they did with the mammoth previously. But it will not work with these little kittens.”

Besides, I have yet to see any results from these ancient cloning studies. The institute Woo Hwang Sok leads, Sooam Biotech Research Foundation, does have a lot of material on its website about cloning your dead dog, though.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

The glorious Mogao cave temples and the earliest printed book

Wed, 2016-03-09 00:47

Legend holds that in 366 A.D., a Buddhist monk named Yuezun saw a vision of a thousand Buddhas on the face of a cliff near the town of Dunhuang in the Gobi Desert of northwest China. He began digging caves into the cliff face to make his vision a reality. Who knows if there was a Yuezun who had a vision, but it’s undeniable that in the 4th century, Buddhist monks began to dig grottoes into the cliffs and they didn’t stop for a thousand years.

From the 4th to the 14th century, the monks, sponsored by politicians and wealthy donors who wished to express their religious devotion, dug 492 caves and decorated them with exquisite wall paintings, tile work and more than 2,000 clay sculptures of Buddhas, bodhisattvas and other figures. The largest sculpture is a Buddha about 116 feet high, the third largest Buddha sculpture in China, which was made during the Tang Dynasty (618–907 A.D.). In total, there are almost 500,000 square feet of painted walls and ceilings depicting Buddhist stories, sutras, donors, abstract ornament and scenes of daily life.

The enormity of the Mogao Caves (Mogao means “peerless”) complex is a testament not just to the religious dedication of the monks, but to its location along the Silk Road. The evidence of the rich cultural exchange brought to the site by the Silk Road is evident in the mixed influences of the art, and it was the demise of the Road which led to the abandonment of the caves in the 15th century. They were all but forgotten, the painstakingly carved and painted grottoes sealed with sand from the Gobi Desert.

Hundreds of years would pass before someone embraced the ancient complex again. A Daoist monk named Wang Yuanlu took it upon himself to care for the caves in around 1892. Entirely alone and unsupported, he began to clean the sand choking the temples and repair the wooden elements. In 1900, he opened a cave that had been sealed in about 1000 A.D. and discovered a massive cache of documents without parallel in human history.

Cave 17, which for obvious reasons became known as the Library Cave, held almost 50,000 manuscripts, printed texts, paintings on silk and paper, intricate embroidered silks and other textiles. The dry air of the Gobi had preserved them in exceptional condition. The documents provide a unique view of life in medieval China. There are financial ledgers, calendars, legal papers, property sale contracts, dictionaries, medical books, artworks that capture the music, dancing and games of the period. The are Confucian, Daoist and Christian texts are written in Chinese, Sanskrit, Tibetan, Hebrew, Tangut, Old Turkish and other languages spoken along the Silk Road.

The stand-out document amidst the vast archival treasure discovered in the cave is the Diamond Sutra, the world’s earliest printed dated book. A copy of an ancient Indian Buddhist text, this Chinese translation of the Diamond Sutra was made in 868 A.D., and we know this because the maker noted it in the colophon: “Reverently made for universal free distribution by Wang Jie on behalf of his two parents, 11 May 868.” While there are extant woodblock printed art works on silk from the 3rd century, the earliest fragments of printing on paper date to the mid-7th century. Woodblock printing was established by the 8th century, but the Diamond Sutra is the first complete book that we have a precise date for known to survive. It is a scroll more than 15 feet long made from seven panels of paper pasted together.

Keen to preserve this great collection, Wang showed some of the texts to local government officials but they showed zero interest. In 1904, the governor order the Library Cave be resealed. Word of the find got out to archaeologists and explorers and in 1907 British archaeologist Sir Marc Aurel Stein offered to buy thousands of the manuscripts and artworks. This is Stein’s description of Cave 17:

“The sight of the small room disclosed was one to make my eyes open wide. Heaped up in layers, but without perfect order, there appeared in the dim light of the priest’s little lamp a solid mass of manuscript bundles rising to a height of nearly ten feet, and filling, as subsequent measurement showed, close on 500 cubic feet. The area left clear within the room was just sufficient for two people to stand in.”

Wang wanted to build a Daoist temple but he had no money and since the government had told him to shove it in regards to conserving the Library Cave’s library, he went ahead and sold the documents to Stein for a pittance. The next year explorer French Paul Pelliot bought more than 10,000 pieces from Cave 17. Then came the Germans, Russians and Japanese. The collection was thoroughly picked over by the time the sales stopped with the beginning of World War I. Finally resurgent nationalism in the 1920s woke the Chinese government up and the remaining documents were moved to the National Library of China in Beijing.

The Diamond Sutra was acquired in 1907 by Stein and is now in the British Library along with more than 400 other pieces from Dunhuang. (The BL, incidentally, has spearheaded the International Dunhuang Project, an initiative to digitize images of texts, art and textiles found at Dunhuang and other archaeological sites of the Eastern Silk Road. There are almost a million images in the database as of now, and they’re not done yet.)

The Diamond Sutra hasn’t left Britain in more than a century, but that’s about to change. It will be the star of the Cave Temples of Dunhuang: Buddhist Art on China’s Silk Road exhibition at the Getty Center in Los Angeles. The Getty Conservation Institute has been working closing with the Dunhuang Academy since 1989 to conserve the paintings on the walls of the Mogao Grottoes. To give visitors a truly immersive experience, the Getty has constructed exact replicas of three of the caves. These aren’t Hollywood sets made to look like the grottoes. The replicas are precise duplicates in shape, size and decoration. The replica paintings were done using the same pigments originally used in Dunhuang. The Getty even imported the actual clay used to sculpt the Buddhas and bodhisattvas that inhabit the caves.

The exhibition runs from May 7th through September 4th, 2016. For those four months, Los Angeles may be the closest you can get to the Gobi Desert and the Caves of the Thousand Buddhas.



Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Civil War steamer wreck found off North Carolina coast

Tue, 2016-03-08 00:54

The wreck of an iron-hulled Civil War steamer has been discovered off the coast of North Carolina near Oak Island. It was found on Saturday, February 27th, by researchers from the Underwater Archaeology Branch of the North Carolina Office of State Archaeology who were scanning the area with sonar. So far the complete hull of the 225-foot ship has been recorded and the study is ongoing.

The identity of the vessel has yet to be determined, but experts believe it is a blockade runner used to smuggle supplies and saleable goods through the Union naval cordon blocking the port of Wilmington. The wreck is 27 miles away from Wilmington near Fort Caswell which guarded the mouth of the Cape Fear River and played a key role, along with the blockade runners and Fort Fisher (which guarded the other inlet to the river), in keeping the port of Wilmington open longer than any other port in the Confederacy. It was open for virtually the entire war, in fact, until the Fort Fisher fell to a massive Union assault on January 15th, 1865.

The three likeliest candidates are blockade runners Agnes E. Fry, Spunkie and Georgianna McCaw, all of which were lost in the area. Agnes E. Fry is the front-runner because she was the largest of the three and her measurements come closest to matching those of the wreck. The Fry was built in Scotland in 1864 and renamed after the captain’s wife. Like all blockade runners, it was equipped with the fastest engines money could buy, fast enough to dodge Union ships on its way to and from the Caribbean. Havana, Cuba, was a frequent port of call for the Agnes E. Fry, and it may also have stopped at neutral ports in the British colonies of Bermuda and the Bahamas.

It’s been decades since a Civil War wreck has been found in the Oak Island area and researchers are particularly excited about this wreck because it appears to be in significantly better condition than past finds. The Cape Fear Civil War Shipwreck District covers 27 known wartime wrecks, blockade runners, Confederate ironclads and Union vessels, the greatest assemblage of Civil War ships known. However, the Atlantic off the coast of North Carolina is a very high-energy environment with a great deal of waves and sediment movement, so most shipwrecks are broken in pieces. Judging from the sonar image, this shipwreck looks almost intact.

As for why the wreck is in such good shape, Morris said the change in dune patterns means that sand has helped prevent the vessel from wearing down over the decades.

“She was sanded over for most of the time she’s been laying on the bottom,” [deputy state archaeologist Ray] Morris said. “Now, the sand’s been scoured free.”

Even though the risk of blockade running was high — the Union captured 1,100 blockade runners and either destroyed and forced aground another 355 — profits were so huge companies were willing to take the chance. A single successful run could pay for the ship and then some. The Fry ran itself aground to avoid capture. The engines, paddle wheels and other useable part of the ship were salvaged at the time.

A dive team will be exploring the wreck starting Wednesday. Researchers are optimistic that they’ll be able to confirm which ship it is once they explore it in person. Any surviving cargo, artifacts or ship parts will only be disturbed if they are needed to answer questions about the vessel. It’s illegal for people to remove anything from these protected vessels, but tourist divers are welcome to explore with their eyes as long as they keep their hands to themselves.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Descendants of Rollo, Viking founder of Normandy, exhumed

Mon, 2016-03-07 00:27

Scandinavian researchers have exhumed the bones of two direct descendants of Rollo, the 10th century Viking founder of the Duchy of Normandy, in an attempt to answer the long-debated question of whether Rollo was Danish or Norwegian.

Historians have differed on the matter of Rollo’s national origins since at least the 11th century. Norman historian Dudo of Saint-Quentin (ca. 965-1043) said in his Historia Normannorum that Rollo was the son of a “Danish” king who was exiled and made his way to France, but at the time Dudo was in the employ of Richard II of Normandy who was allied to the Danish king Sweyn Forkbeard. He had a dog in the hunt, as it were, and cannot be considered reliable on this question. Goffredo Malaterra, a monk in Sicily writing in the late 11th century, said Rollo hailed from Norway. In the 13th Norwegian-Icelandic sagas Heimskringla and Orkneyinga, Rollo appears as Ganger-Hrólf, the son of Rognvald Eysteinsson, yarl of Møre in western Norway. (Rollo is a Latinization of Hrólf.)

With these conflicting and vague sources, historians have argued the point for centuries. It matters because of how important Rollo was to European history. His raids along the Seine so bedevilled Charles III, aka Charles the Simple, King of Western Francia, that he finally bought Rollo off with huge tracts of land between the city of Rouen and the mouth of the Seine in exchange for him switching from raider to protector. He appears in only one primary source: a charter from 918 which mentions the lands ceded to Rollo and his “Northmen on the Seine.” It seems Rollo ruled those lands as Count of Rouen until at least 927 after which his son William I Longsword acceded to what would become known during his rule as the Dukedom of Normandy, after the Norsemen who founded it. William Longsword’s son was Richard I of Normandy. Richard I’s son was Richard II. Richard II’s son Robert I was the father of William the Conqueror.

This January, French government and church authorities granted the research team permission to open the tomb of Rollo’s grandson Richard I and great-grandson Richard II. This is only the second time a French king’s tomb has been opened since World War II. On Monday, February 29th, Per Holck, Professor Emeritus at the University of Oslo, and University of Copenhagen geneticist Andaine Seguin Orlando, opened the two small ossuary coffins buried under the floor southern transept of the gothic church of Fécamp Abbey. Inside one of them were the skeletal remains of Richard II, known as Richard the Good, including a lower jaw with eight teeth.

They were hoping to find teeth because extracting ancient DNA is tricky and the genetic material inside teeth is well-protected by the outer layers. Holck and Orlando retrieved five of the teeth. They will be tested at the University of Oslo and the Centre for GeoGenetics at the University of Copenhagen. If all goes well, the research team and French authorities will announce the results in the autumn.

The remains of the Richards have been moved before. Richard I, who rebuilt the church after it was destroyed in Viking raids, and Richard II, who made it a Benedictine monastery, were initially buried outside the church. Richard II’s great-great-great-grandson Henry II of England had his ancestors’ bones reburied inside the church. Remains that are not in their original location can be problematic to authenticate. I don’t know if this study plans to do anything specific to confirm first and foremost that they really are the bones of Richard II. Also, if the bones were treated at any point — boiled to remove the flesh and make them a clean fit for a small coffin — DNA extraction will be even more challenging, albeit not impossible. Teeth are the Fort Knox of the body.

Spoiler Alert!

If you’ve been watching Vikings on the basic cable station formerly known as the History Channel, Ragnar’s brother Rollo is very loosely based on the historical Count of Rouen. They had to conflate sagas and mess with the timeline to make them brothers, so who knows if he’ll wind up in Normandy on the series, but he’s in France and married to Charles the Simple’s daughter, who may or may not have existed and if she existed, may or may not have survived to adulthood, but is mentioned as Rollo’s wife in William of Jumièges 11th century chronicle Gesta Normannorum Ducum and in Dudo’s history which relied heavily on Jumièges’.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Tiny hands in ancient rock art aren’t human

Sun, 2016-03-06 00:48

The 8,000-year-old rock art painted on a walls of the Wadi Sūra II in the Sahara Desert is replete with handprints. It’s a common theme in ancient rock art. Artists used their hands as stencils and painted or blew pigment around them leaving a negative handprint. The cave was discovered in 2002 about six miles from the famous Cave of Swimmers which featured prominently in that endless bore of a movie, The English Patient. It’s 66 feet long and 26 feet deep and there are about 900 stencil paintings on the wall. In addition to the hands, artists used arms, feet, circular objects and sticks as stencils and red, yellow, orange and brown pigments. There are also drawings of headless people and a variety of wildlife which inspired the nickname Cave of the Beasts.

Among the hundreds of adult human handprints are 13 tiny hands. While children’s handprints have been found in ancient rock art from Argentina to Australia, they’ve never been found before in the Sahara. When anthropologist Emmanuelle Honoré of the McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research first saw the small handprints in Wadi Sura II in 2006, she was shocked. They looked too tiny to be the hands of babies even a very small baby wouldn’t have the long, thin fingers of the prints on the cave wall.

Honoré took precise measurements of the handprints and set out to compare them to the hands of newborns and, because the prints are so small, to premature babies as well. Since she couldn’t very well just march into a maternity ward and demand to measure the hands of premies and full-term neonates, Honoré teamed up with doctors from the perinatal department of the Lille University School of Medicine, the largest medical school in France. They collected hand measurements from infants of 37 to 41 weeks gestational age and premature babies from 26 to 36 weeks gestational age. The parents of the babies, incidentally, were excited that their newborns would start off life contributing to a scientific study.

Just as Honoré suspected, the proportions were way off. She considered whether the stencils might have been wooden or clay molds, but the finger and hand positions were too irregular for that. Honoré then looked to other animals. Monkeys seemed likely candidates, but again the proportions didn’t work.

While doing research at a crocodile farm in Zambia, it occurred to Honoré that a reptile hand was a possibility. Reptiles like young crocodiles and desert monitor lizards leave handprints that at first glance look surprisingly like baby human hands. Crocodiles didn’t live there 8,000 years ago and would have had to have been transported to the Wadi Sura II area, or at least the feet would have. The desert monitor lizard, on the other hand, was native to the region, and its forefeet are tiny with long fingers, just like the stencils. Even today the desert monitor lizard lives in the area and is considered a protective force to the nomadic tribes who share their ecosystem.

Other prehistoric cultures used animals as stencils for their rock art. For example, the Aboriginal people used emu foot stencils in the Carnarvon Gorge and Tent Shelter in Australia, and choike/nandu (birds in the genus Rhea) stencils are in the rock art at La Cueva de las Manos in Argentina, the researchers wrote in the study.

It’s unclear why the ancient people at Wadi Sūra II used reptile hands as stencils, but Honoré said she’s working on a new study that analyzes possible reasons.

“I think we have to remain a bit prudent,” she said. “We have to explore all of the hypotheses without taking anything for granted.”

She’s also prudently avoiding speculation on whether the animal’s foot was severed before it was used as an artist’s stencil or whether the artists actually pressed the wee foot of a living lizard up to the wall.

This is the first time non-human five-fingered hand stencils have been discovered in rock art anywhere in the world. The study has been published in the latest issue of the Journal of Archaeological Science.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

14 men convicted in massive museum theft ring

Sat, 2016-03-05 00:14

Remember the bumbling idiots who stole two Chinese Qing Dynasty artifacts worth $3 million from the Durham University Oriental Museum in April of 2012? It turns out they were just the stupid tip of a large and dangerous organized crime iceberg. Fourteen of them have been found guilty of stealing and plotting to steal Chinese antiquities and rhino horns from multiple museums and auction houses. Four masterminds were convicted on Monday, which allowed the Durham police to release the news about the full scope the plot and the connection between all these cases.

This is the culmination of a four-year investigation named Operation Griffin that began with the April 2012 thefts at Durham University, but the Oriental Museum was first targeted in January of that year. An Irishman tried to use decorators’ tools to steal a Ming Dynasty ceramic sculpture from a cabinet. The glass broke and the would-be thief was caught in the attempt to flee. In February four men tried to steal a rhino head from the Norwich Castle Museum. The head was so heavy they dropped it and ran. These four were later arrested and convicted. In March another bunch of crappy criminals tried to steal a rhino libation cup from Gorringes auction house in Lewes. They got confused and took a much cheaper bamboo bowl instead and were overpowered and arrested outside the building.

This pathetic litany of failure seemed to come to an end with the April 5th theft of the two Chinese jade pieces from the Durham Oriental Museum. At least they managed to cut a hole in the wall, take the objects they meant to take and get out before the police arrived. The dumbassness kicked in when they hid the loot on wasteland next to Harle Street on the outskirts of Durham. They neglected to note the exact spot and when the team of people dispatched to retrieve the artifacts arrived 16 hours later, they were unable to find them.

We owe this marvelous failure to a local resident who, after trimming his Leylandii hedge, threw the branches over his fence, unwittingly covering up a few million dollars worth of jade. Many frantic phone calls between the thieves and their bosses ensued. The police dubbed this “Panic Day” and it was key to their understanding that these thefts were part of a major criminal conspiracy.

The two dimwits were caught by the police so the gang wrote the loot off and quickly planned to replace the stolen goods with new stolen goods. On Friday the 13th of April, four thieves broke into the Fitzwilliam Museum and stole 18 very valuable pieces of Chinese jade. After so many failures, this was the motherlode. The thefts from Durham and Cambridge combined were worth about £17 million ($24,197,000) on the legal market, but on the Far East black market they were worth far more. Police estimate they could have gone for as much as £57 million ($81,131,000). Deep-pocketed Chinese collectors have been spending millions for heritage pieces at auctions and from dealers. Many have no particular concern about how the objects were acquired and are willing to pay whatever price no questions asked.

Another succesful raid took place a year later on April 17th, 2013, when three men broke in the National Museum of Ireland Archives and stole four 100-year-old rhino heads to sell their horns on the Chinese market. Rhino horn is used in traditional Chinese medicine, and with so few rhinos left in the wild, the price of their horns is astronomical. Those eight horns on the rhino heads in the museum’s storage facility were worth an estimated £428,000 ($610,000).

Six of the men convicted for this conspiracy are connected by family or business to a community of Irish Travellers in Rathkeale, County Limerick. That’s why the gang is known as the Rathkeale Rovers. The four convicted Monday — Daniel “Turkey” O’Brien, John “Kerry” O’Brien, Richard “Kerry” O’Brien Jr. and Michael Hegarty — are all family or friends. They didn’t sully their hands doing any of the burglaries. They just coordinated things from the safety of the Traveller camps. Instead, petty criminals were hired to do their dirty work, which is why so many of these thefts ended in ridiculousness, and why a slow 15-year-old boy who had never been to secondary school was arrested for the Fitzwilliam thefts, convicted and ultimately sentenced to four months.

Police believe at least one of the artifacts stolen from the Fitzwillian was deliberately chosen as a replacement for the jade bowl lost in Durham, which means this may well have been a commissioned theft, something often bandied about after important art and artifacts are stolen, but almost never really happens. One of the 14 convicted in the plot is Chi Chong Donald Wong, an antique-watch dealer and property owner in London and Hong Kong who acted as fence and middle-man between the Rathkeale leaders and buyers in Hong Kong. Police busted him twice with plastic bags stuffed full of thousands of pounds in cash.

The police investigation found that the conspiracy reaches far beyond the borders of the UK. The gang has been stealing and smuggling rhino horn all over the world for years.

The robberies in Britain were part of a much wider picture of criminality across Europe. A year before Supt Green’s team started work, the European policing agency Europol released details of its own assessment of an organised crime group stealing rhino horn across Europe.

Europol charted dozens of robberies of rhino horn and had identified an organised crime group Irish Travellers – dubbed by the media as the Rathkeale Rovers or the Dead Zoo gang – as being behind them. A single rhino horn – valued for its (ineffective) medicinal qualities in China and the Far East – could reach €200,000 (£156,000), it said. The group was active in North and South America, South Africa, China and Australia.

For years, the gang had been targeting museums, but because there were only a few raids in each country, nobody had joined up the dots. The criminals reinvested the proceeds in property and luxury cars – much of it back in Rathkeale in Co Limerick – while continuing to live in their caravans. All of the key players were still in circulation.

The British team fed their information about telephone numbers, suspects, car number plates into the intelligence pool gathered by Europol. “It lit up their database like a Christmas tree,” a police source told The Independent.

Since the arrests, there have been no new thefts of Chinese artifacts or rhino horns in the UK. Unfortunately none of the artifacts stolen from the Fitzwilliam have been found. Police think they were quickly shifted overseas for sale to Chinese buyers and are likely gone forever.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History