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Drain digger finds Denmark’s largest Neolithic flint axe

Fri, 2016-04-29 02:15

Tage Pinnerup was digging a new drain on his old friend Henrik Hansen’s property near the village of Kobberup on Denmark’s Jutland peninsula when he saw something sticking up out of the ground. It was a long, smooth almost rectangular piece of flint 50.5 centimeters (20 inches) long. Pinnerup had found a prehistoric axe before, so he recognized it as such, but because of how exceptionally large and finely worked it was, he figured it had to date to the Iron Age. A few days later he and Henrik Hansen found another one, this one 35 centimeters (14 inches) long.

They alerted the authorities to a potential treasure find, and Viborg Museum experts determined that they were not Iron Age, but rather Neolithic flint axes dating to 3800-3500 B.C. Back then the find site was a marshy area next to Tastum Lake, long since drained and converted into arable land. Because they were found in a bog, are a matched pair and so carefully worked, the axes weren’t likely to have been misplaced. Archaeologists believe they were deliberately deposited in the bog as ritual offerings. The 50.5 cm axe is the largest Neolithic flint axe ever discovered in Denmark.

“It’s fascinating that they could master the flint and produce such a perfect axe,” said Mikkel Kieldsen, an archaeologist and curator at Viborg Museum. “A lot of effort has been put into the axes, so the sacrifice must have really meant something.”

Flint is a challenging material to work. Like glass, it breaks easily and requires very careful handling. Judging from modern experiments replicating prehistoric flint tools, Kieldsen estimates it would have taken the craftsmen who produced these axes hundreds of hours to achieve so polished a result. Compare the slender length and cricket bat-like smoothness to this axe from around the same time as the Tastum axes, or these, which are about a thousand years younger and bear the characteristic divots and sheers of knapped flint.

That long, slender polish suggests these were not practical tools. The flint axe was an essential tool to Neolithic farmers who used it to clear wooded land for agriculture. It had to be sturdy, thick through the middle and razor sharp at the end to do the job properly. A narrow, long, thin axe would likely crack at the first blow. It’s connection to the still-new trend of agriculture made the axe a powerful cultural symbol and well as a highly prized piece of property, which is why they have been found in the passage graves and dolmens which were built in grand style at the same time the Tastum axes were made.

Archaeologists excavated the site further to see if their were any other artifacts to be found and came up empty. The axes are treasure trove and will be sent to the National Museum of Denmark for assessment next month. Before that happens, they will be on display at the Viborg Museum for the next three weeks.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Ancient skeleton mosaic found in Turkey

Thu, 2016-04-28 03:52

Turkish archaeologists have discovered an ancient mosaic in the remains of a house from the 3rd century that features a skeleton enjoying a large loaf of bread and pitcher of wine. It was found in 2012 in Turkey’s southernmost state, Hatay Province, in the provincial capital of Antakya, (Antioch in antiquity) during construction of a cable car system.

It is believed to have been the emblema, the elaborate centerpiece of a mosaic floor, in the triclinium (dining room) of an elegant villa. There are three scenes inside a rectangle with a woven guilloche border. On one end is missing a large section but the head and arms of a servant carrying a flame are visible. This represents the heating of the bath. The middle scene is almost intact and depicts two men moving towards a sundial on a column. The leader is a young man who was of some rank in the household, the son of the owner, perhaps, while the his manservant or butler follows. The sundial is set to between 9:00 and 10:00 PM and the text refers to him being late for dinner. The last panel has the recumbent skeleton, holding a drinking cup in one hand, his other arm thrown casually over his head, two loaves of bread and a wine amphora by his side. The motto “Be cheerful and live your life” is written on both sides of his head.

(Writer İlber Ortaylı disputes the eat, drink and be merry interpretation. He reads it as “You get the pleasure of the food you eat hastily with death” and thinks the structure was not a private home of a wealthy person, but a sort of soup kitchen trying to hustle people out the door as quickly as possible.)

There’s some confusion over the date of the mosaic. The first article about the find that I read said it was from the 3rd century, which means A.D., but later stories by the same press outlet date it to the 3rd century B.C. That in turn has been picked up by the international press. Greek was spoken and written by the elites in both periods, so the words are of no particular help.

This one says “Hatay is known for its Roman-era mosaics dating back to the second and third centuries BCE,” but those are not Roman dates. Antioch was founded by Alexander the Great’s general Seleucus I Nicator in 300 B.C. and was ruled by Seleucid monarchs until 64 B.C. when it was absorbed into the Roman Syrian province as a free city.

It doesn’t seem likely to me that this mosaic was created in the early years of the Seleucid monarchy. I think this is a Roman-era mosaic, because of its glass tesserae, the theme, look and quality of the piece. Indeed, Demet Kara, the Hatay Archaeology Museum archaeologist who provides the date in all the articles, compares the Antioch mosaic to other skeleton mosaics in Italy and those are unquestionably Roman.

While the theme of a skeleton or skull representing the inevitability of death was Hellenistic, the Romans developed it further in their art. They were fond of a skeleton partying with them in the dining room. There are several extant drinking, eating and reclining mosaics from the 1st century found at Pompeii and in Rome. The glorious Boscoreale treasure, a silver dining set buried before the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 A.D., has two silver cups embossed with the skeletons of philosophers and engraved with Epicurean sayings like “Enjoy life while you can, for tomorrow is uncertain.” The cups, like the skeleton mosaics, were meant to remind diners of the fleeting nature of life and the importance of enjoying the moment, a relevant message for a room dedicated to the gustatory pleasures.

A large number of mosaics of exceptional quality have been found in Antakya because Antioch was an important city for centuries. In the Early Roman period, it was the third largest city in the world after Rome and Alexandria. The homes of wealthy and influential people were decorated at great expense with the best floor art money could buy. Antioch had its own mosaic schools and workshops that were internationally renown. Roman Antioch was replete with top notch mosaics.

Hatay’s mayor, Lütfi Savaş, has visions of tourism plums dancing in his head. Just this February he helped launch the Mosaic Road Project to promote four cities in the province that are rich in Greek and Roman-era mosaics — Hatay, Gaziantep, Kahramanmaraş and Şanlıurfa — as desirable tourist destinations. The plan is to build an archaeological park in Hatay, scheduled for completion in 2017, and to house the mosaics in a dedicated museum. Ortaylı thinks the skeleton mosaic should remain in situ and a new museum built on the site similar to Israel’s plan for the Lod mosaic.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

More about WWI graffiti in Naours caves

Wed, 2016-04-27 03:40

In July of 2014, archaeologists investigating the man-made caves tunneled into the limestone plateau under Naours, in Picardy, northern France, discovered thousands of graffiti left by soldiers during World War I. The original brief of the exploration was to date the caves more accurately and identify the periods they were in use. Those questions were answered. The epicenter of the network was Roman quarries with tunnels dug starting in the 10th century radiating out from it. Over time, the network of caves covered more than 2,000 meters (1.24 miles), large enough to shelter people and livestock during times of strife, most notably the 16th century Wars of Religion and the Thirty Years’ War in the early 17th century. Local families claimed chambers as their own, engraving their names on the walls.

The entrance to the tunnels was blocked by a cave-in in the early 19th century and the underground city was largely forgotten until December 15th, 1887, when Abbot Ernest Danicourt rediscovered it. He spent years clearing the tunnels to make them accessible and created displays of artifacts he had found there to attract tourism to the area. Abbot Danicourt’s efforts were not vain, and by the early 20th century, the Naours Caves were an internationally known tourist attraction.

When they were reopened in the 1930s, guides claimed the caves had been used by Allied forces in World War I as a military hospital. That story was apocryphal. Other tunnel networks in the region were used as hospitals and living quarters for the troops, but not Naours. And yet, World War I troops certainly left their marks on the walls and then some. The discovery was so momentous that Gilles Prilaux, an archaeologist with the National Institute for Preventive Archaeological Research (INRAP), shifted the focus of his investigations away from the more remote past of the caves to the Great War graffiti.

Two years later, we now know the final tally: there are more than 2,800 individual soldiers’ names. Most of them are accompanied by the person’s nationality and military unit and the date. The troops came from France, Britain, America, Canada, India, New Zealand and Australia. About half of the names belong to Australian soldiers. They were written on the wall with lead pencils which has stood the test of time; most of the graffiti are as dark and legible as they day they were made.

Students from the local college led by an INRAP archaeologists have worked assiduously to document the graffiti and find out all they can about the men who left their names on the wall. They were able to compile biographies of dozens of the soldiers, several of them very well known.

One of the men identified proved to be a rich source of information. “A. Allsop” wrote the date, January 2nd, 1917, and his hometown of Mosman, a Sydney suburb, on one of the most crowded walls. He was William Joseph Allan Allsop, an Australian clerk who kept detailed diaries of his daily life during World War I. Allsop’s diaries are now in the State Library of New South Wales and have been digitized. When the team looked up the diary entry for January 2nd, they found this:

In the afternoon a party of 10 of us went for a trip to the famous caves near Naours where the refugees used to hide in time of invasion. These caves contain about 300 rooms – one cave being ½ mile long. A whole division of troops with horses, artillery and all transport could be put into these caves. The names of John Norton & Eva Pannett are to be seen autographed on the stone erected just inside the entrance.

While we tend to think of World War I soldiers as constantly mired in waterlogged trenches or active slaughter, according to Prilaux in fact most soldiers spent about 20% of their time on the front lines. The other 80% was spent training, getting some R&R or enjoying the local attractions/distractions. A trip to the caves of Naours like the one Allan Allsop and nine of his comrades took the day after New Year’s would have been encouraged by the military command to keep troops’ minds off the war.

The day before Allsop and his pals visited the caves, Lieutenant Leslie Russel Blake left his name, unit and the date on the wall. Blake had made a name for himself as a cartographer, geologist and Antarctic explorer in the years before the war. He mapped Macquarie Island from 1911 to 1913 as part of Sir Douglas Mawson’s expedition to map a large unexplored section of the Antarctic coastline. Blake enlisted in 1915, was quickly promoted and arrived on the Western Front in March of 1916 as a second lieutenant. He was awarded the Military Cross for using his mapping skills under heavy fire to survey the Allied front line during the Battle of the Somme. His accuracy and bravery saved many lives.

He almost made it out of the war alive, but on October 2nd, 1918, Blake was hit by a shell in Hargicourt. The blow took his left leg and killed his horse out from under him. He was treated at a field hospital, his leg amputated above the knee, but it could not save his life. The shell had fractured his skull and peppered his face and body with grievous wounds. He died on October 3rd at 6:10 AM and was buried in the New British Cemetery at Tincourt.

The stories behind the graffiti discovered by the students will be shared with their counterparts at an Australian college in the hopes that descendants and relatives of the men who took a break from mud, blood and horror to visit the caves of Naours might be located.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Viking longship sets sail for North America

Tue, 2016-04-26 06:23

The Draken Harald Hårfagre (Dragon Harald Fairhair, named after the first King of Norway), an ocean-worthy Viking longship, set sail early this morning from Norway on a daring voyage that will retrace the steps of great explorers like Erik the Red and his son Leif Erikson, the first European to cross the Atlantic and set foot on the American continent.

Sponsored by Norwegian businessman Sigurd Aase, construction on the vessel began in 2010 in Haugesund, Norway. It isn’t an exact replica of an extant Viking ship. While replicas of excavated ships have been made, they don’t work very well on the ocean because the originals were burial ships. They could be rowed, but they weren’t meant for the ocean voyages that took the Vikings across half the world. So instead of relying exclusively on archaeological remains, the builders of the Draken Harald Hårfagre combined traditional Norwegian boatbuilding knowledge, a living craft with deep roots going back to the Viking era, with archaeology — the 9th century Gokstad ship was one particular inspiration — and descriptions in the Norse sagas. It is an open clinker-built ship with an oak hull, Douglas fir mast, hemp rigging and a silk sail. At 115 feet long, 27 feet wide with 50 oars and a 3,200-square-foot sail, the Draken Harald Hårfagre is largest Viking ship built in modern times.

The aim from the beginning has been to create an operating Viking ship. That means roughing it in a serious way. There’s no under deck where the crew can rest and take shelter from the elements, just a large tent where 16 people at a time sleep in four hours shifts. The only space underneath the deck is a shallow space just large enough to carry ballast and food. The food is cooked is an open air kitchen on the deck, the ancestor of the galley discovered on the 15th century Dutch cog that was raised earlier this year.

The ship was completed in 2012. The first sea trials were held in the fjords of Norway and after some adjustments were made, it set sail on its maiden overseas voyage in July of 2014 to Wallasey, in Merseyside, northwest England, which has a strong Viking history. The mast broke and the crew had to replace it in Wallasey, but they made it work. After three weeks of repairs, the ship sailed back to Norway via the Isle of Man, the Western Isles, Orkney and Shetland without a hitch.

All of this was essential practice for the big show: the transatlantic voyage to North America. On April 23rd, the epic voyage was inaugurated with a Dragon’s Head Ceremony in which the dragon head so associated with Viking ships was mounted for the first time.

The dragon’s head is traditionally not mounted until departure for longer journeys and its purpose is to protect the ship and the crew from sea monsters, bad weather, evil creatures and unforeseen raids. The ships mythological head is uncovered in the ceremony, and the great adventure of sailing the historical route from Norway to Iceland, Greenland, Canada and the USA will be wished fair winds and following seas.

The ceremony was streamed live on YouTube to the delight of history nerds everywhere.

The America Expedition is mind-bogglingly ambitious. Captain Björn Ahlander and a crew of 32 damn hardy men and women selected from 4,000 applicants have embarked on a voyage of 6,000 miles that will taken them to Iceland, Greenland, through the iceberg fields of the North Atlantic to Newfoundland, then to Quebec City, Toronto and into the US via the Great Lakes. The first US port of call will be Fairport, Ohio, and then on to Tall Ship festivals in Bay City, Michigan, Chicago, Illinois, Green Bay, Wisconsin and Duluth, Minnesota. Then it will head back east again through the Great Lakes, the canals of New York State to the Hudson River. Yes, a Viking longship will be going through canal locks. The sail is coming down for that part, obviously. After a stop in New York City in September, the Draken Harald Hårfagre will winter at the wonderful Mystic Seaport Museum in Mystic, Connecticut.

You can follow the voyage in real time on the expedition’s website and get updates from its Facebook page. If you’re interested in the construction and operation of the ship, check out its fascinating YouTube channel.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Sicily goes to London

Mon, 2016-04-25 03:34

The British Museum has opened a new exhibition, Sicily: Culture and Conquest, which brings together more than 200 artifacts from 4,000 years of Sicilian history, many of which have never been to the UK before. The exhibition focuses on two time periods when Sicily was at the forefront of art and culture: when it settled by Greek colonists in the 7th century and when it was ruled by Norman kings from 1100 to 1250.

Objects on display include pieces from the British Museum’s collection, other institutions in the UK and elsewhere, and some spectacular pieces on loan from Sicily.

A rare and spectacularly well preserved, brightly painted terracotta altar, dating to about 500 BC, is one of the highlights of the loans coming from Sicily. It shows a scene of an animal combat on the upper tier, while below stand three striking fertility goddesses. The British Museum is also fortunate to be receiving on loan a magnificent terracotta architectural sculpture of a Gorgon, the famous Greek monster, that was once perched on the highest point of a building at Gela in south-east Sicily. Terracotta ornaments were frequently used to decorate the upper levels of buildings on Sicily and are amongst the finest that have survived from the ancient world. Another important Sicilian loan is a rare and iconic marble sculpture of a warrior from ancient Akragas, modern Agrigento. Marble statues were likely to have been commissioned, carved and imported into Sicily from overseas or made by local sculptors, trained in the Greek tradition. Such rare statues decorated major temples or were part of sculptural groups, most of which are long gone.

The pieces from the Norman era emphasize what a cultural crossroads it was. The Normans conquered Muslim Sicily in 1072 and the court took full advantage of the rich well of artistic talent from diverse cultures — Greek, Roman, Byzantine, Arabic — who had ruled the island before them. There’s a gold mosaic of the Virgin Mary of Byzantine style which is the sole surviving panel of the mosaics that once adorned Palermo Cathedral (only on display until June 14th), a 16th century copy of a 12th century map made by Arabic cartographer Muhammad al-Idrisi for the Norman King Roger II, and a funerary inscription installed by the Christian priest Grisandus for his mother Anna in 1149. It features the eulogy in four different languages (well, three and a half): on top is Arabic written in Hebrew script, the left in Latin, the right in Greek and Arabic in actual Arabic on the bottom. The multilingual approach was common in Norman Sicily, with public inscriptions often written in several languages.

The exhibition runs through August 14th. If you aren’t likely to make it London in time (or even if you are, really), you’ll enjoy this behind the scenes look at some of the more spectacular objects in the exhibition guided by curators Peter Higgs and Dirk Booms.

And now, an avalanche of beautiful pictures.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Amulet invoking elves and the Trinity found in Denmark

Sun, 2016-04-24 06:02

An archaeological excavation in advance of drainage work in Svendborg, a city on the island of Funen in southeastern Denmark, unearthed a medieval amulet invoking both elves and the Triune God of Christianity. It didn’t look like much at first, a small square piece of metal just two centimeters (.8 inches) long and wide, but that’s because it was folded down the short side five times. Once unfolded, it was 13 centimeters (just over five inches) long.

It was discovered on the Møllergade, one of two main roads encircling Svendborg’s old town. Previous excavations of the Møllergade have unearthed layers going back as far as 1150, but the amulet likely dates to the mid-13th century when the road was expanded northward as the city grew. While amulets of this kind have been found elsewhere in Denmark and other Scandinavian countries, this is the first one found in Svendborg.

Metallurgic analysis found that the amulet had a high silver content. The piece of metal was painstakingly unfolded, without damaging the surface, and National Museum of Denmark curator Lisbeth Imer, an expert in inscriptions, examined the interior surface of the amulet under a microscope. She found five lines written in lower case Latin characters by someone with a sure hand and an eye for minute detail. The letters are between two and four millimeters high and are interspersed with crosses for added amulet value.

The translated inscription reads:

I charge you Gordan, Gordin and Ingordan, elf men and elf wives and all demons by the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit and by all of God’s saints, that you do not harm God’s handmaiden Margareta either the eyes or limbs. Amen. You are great in eternity, Lord.

Gordan, Gordin and Ingordan feature on many wood and metal amulets found in Denmark, Norway and Sweden. Their significance has long been debated by historians, but several medieval manuscripts refer to them as folkloric figures. The Codex Upsaliensis, written in the first quarter of the 14th century, includes the phrase “I invoke you, elves, Gordin and Ingordin.” Carmina Burana, the manuscript of 254 poems and songs of traditional itinerant performers written in 1230, 24 of which would famously be put to music by Carl Orff in 1936, has a song in which Gordan, Ingordin and Ingordan appear as the villains. It’s the 54th piece, known as CB54, and it reads like a warding spell. I’m posting the whole thing because, simply stated, it’s awesome.

Every kind of demon being –
Come hobbling, come squabbling,
Sightless or unseeing —
Mark well my words, my invocation,
My command, my incantation.

Creatures of all phantom company
Who populate the principality
Of that vile dragon creeping
With venom seeping –
Whose high and mighty fundament
Sweeps full one third the stars’ extent –
Gordan, Ingordin and Ingordan:
By the Seal of Solomon,
Magi the Pharaohs call upon,
I now exorcise you
And substantialize you:
By sages three: Caspar,
Melchior and Balthazar:
By David’s playing
For the allaying
Of Saul’s dismaying
And your gainsaying.

I adjure you
And conjure you
By the mandate of the Lord:
Be unkind not,
Hurt mankind not,
Manifest misericord:
Show but once your faces
And retract your traces
With forsaken races
To hell’s hiding places.

I adjure
I conjure
By that awesome
By that fearsome
That gruesome Judgement Day,
When unending punishment
And horror and dismay
And unbounded banishment
Shall drive demonkind
Into damnation
But shrive humankind
Unto salvation.

By that same unnamed, unsaid,
That unutterably dread
Tetragrammaton of God:
Fall to fear and trembling
As to disassembling
I now exorcise
Spectres: demons: ghosts: hobgoblins:
Satyrs: sirens: hamadryads
Nightmares: incubi and
Shades of the departed –
Flee to ruination,
Chaos and damnation,
Lest your foul conflation
Rend Christ’s congregation.

From all our enemies, good Lord, deliver us.

It’s a great example of how Christianity interpreted traditional folk beliefs and ancient religions as a direct threat to the souls and unity of its believers. I imagine Archbishop Gregory II of Agrigento spoke an incantation like this when he cast out the two demons/previous deities from the temple before he converted it into a church, only that was in the late 6th, early 7th century when the corpse of Greco-Roman polytheism was still fresh. Denmark only converted to Christianity in the 10th century, however, so while satyrs, sirens and hamadryads may have been thin on the ground so far up north, elves and trolls were very much in the picture when this song was sung and written down.

Amulets provide fascinating glimpses into the long transition. The practice of invoking elves, demons and other assorted types from folklore like giants and trolls dates back to the Iron Age and is consistent even as the dominant religions change. In runic amulets from the Viking era, these creatures appeared next to the gods Thor and Odin. The wearer asked the gods for protection from disease or misfortune as incarnated by the characters from folklore. Once Christianity was established, the old gods were replaced with the new one and His scriptural support staff, but the structure of the invocation remained the same: a prayer asking a deity to prevent evil from befalling a person by calling out the scoundrel types who would do them harm. If said evil has a name, it can be contained and dispelled. Exorcising by substantializing, as CB54 puts it.

Svendborg was growing rapidly in the 13th century, and large-scale Christian structures were constructed in the burgeoning market town. The Church of Our Lady was built then, as was the Franciscan monastery. The Church of St. Nicholas, originally built of stone in the mid-12th century, was expanded and reconstructed in brick in the 1200s. Institutional growth can’t necessarily speak to the experience of the individual, however. The amulet bridges that gap.

The Svendborg amulet gives a rare insight into how ordinary citizens used Christianity in their daily lives. Long has it been known that the clergy forces were strong in contemporary Svendborg, and now there is also evidence that the faith among ordinary people was strong, says [Svendborg Museum archaeologist] Allan Dørup Knudsen:

“Our knowledge of the townspeople and their daily life in the Middle Ages is unfortunately very limited, but through this amulet we get very close to Margareta and can feel her suffering and prayers for a good and disease free life.”

The amulet has also conferred on Margareta a very cool kind of immortality: she is now the oldest known female resident of Svendborg.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

4,500-year-old burial found in Peru fishing town

Sat, 2016-04-23 04:11

Archaeologists have discovered a 4,500-year-old burial at the archaeological site of Aspero, an ancient preceramic fishing town in northern Peru. Analysis of the bones revealed that the deceased was a woman about 40 to 50 years of age at the time of death. The burial was found in the Huaca of the Idols, one of two monumental platform mounds (earthwork terraced pyramids shored up with quarried stone walls and river rock fill which ranged in size from modest to huge) in the town. Her crouched body was wrapped in three layers, the inner two of cotton, the outer of reeds which was fastened closed with rope. Buried with her was a pottery vessel containing the remains of vegetables and seeds, a bead necklace, a Spondylus pendant and four tupus, bone brooches carved in the shapes of birds and monkeys.

The wrapping of the body, the location of the burial and grave goods indicate the woman was a high rank personage of the Caral civilization, the oldest civilization in the Americas which dominated a network of settlements in the coastal area of north-central Peru from around 3500 B.C. to 1800 B.C. First explored in 1905, Aspero was one of the first Caral sites identified by archaeologists before it was recognized as a civilization. Thorough, extensive archaeological documentation of the sites only began in the 1990s under the leadership of Dr. Ruth Shady (no relation to Slim) who named the civilization after the inland town of Caral which is believed to have been the biggest city and the oldest urban center in the Americas.

Dr. Shady and her team discovered the remains of the woman in Aspero. The combination of coastal and inland animals represented in the tupus is evidence of the close economic and cultural connection between the fishing-rich sites along the coast and the agricultural interior. Other than edible plants, the inland Caral towns appear to have focused on growing cotton which the coastal sites needed for their fishing nets. There’s also some evidence of maize being grown as a grain staple, but it seems fish was the primary source of food for coastal and interior towns.

With the archaeological study of these sites still being in its adolescence if not infancy, the discovery of the burial of a high status woman will provide new insight into Caral society.

Shady noted the importance of this discovery to further understand the dynamics of the oldest social organization in the Americas. [...]

“This find shows evidence of gender equality, that is, both women and men were able to play leading roles and attain high social status more than 1,000 years ago,” Shady underlined.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Dig at Malcolm X’s house finds 18th c. artifacts

Fri, 2016-04-22 04:13

An archaeological excavation at the house Malcolm X lived in during his teens and early 20s has surprisingly unearthed artifacts from the 18th century. Built in 1874, the house at 72 Dale Street in Boston’s Roxbury neighborhood belonged to Ella Little-Collins, Malcolm’s half-sister who was his guardian after his mother was committed to a psychiatric facility in Michigan. (Ella and Malcolm’s father was killed when Malcolm was just six years old.) He lived with her off and on from the age of 14 until he was 21. The house is the last boyhood home of Malcolm X known to survive.

Ella could no longer bear to live in the house after Malcolm’s assassination in 1965, but she owned it until her death in 1996 when it passed to her son Rodnell Collins who is the current owner. Relatives stayed there instead, and when the last of them moved out in the 1970s, the house was left vacant for thirty years. Its condition deteriorated, and even its designation as a historic landmark in 1998 didn’t stop the downward slide. Rodnell moved back in and invested $80,000 in repairs to the house to make it livable.

In June of 2012, the Malcolm X-Ella Little Collins House was named by the National Trust for Historic Preservation one of the country’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places. This brought national attention to the home and its dire circumstances. As a result, Historic Boston, Inc., received several grants which allowed them to do a comprehensive assessment of the structure and stabilize it to prevent further damage.

Now the Collins family plans to fully restore the house with the aim of opening it for tours. Rodnell Collins, 71, will be the guide, which is going to be amazing because he was actually there when Malcolm was. He has so many memories to share. The first step in the restoration is shoring up the foundations. Since the yard is going to be dug up anyway, archaeologists have the opportunity to excavate it first.

The dig began on March 29th. Experts from UMass Boston’s Fiske Center for Archaeological Research surveyed the yard with Ground Penetrating Radar (GPR) to identify anomalous areas of potential interest. Archaeologists, aided by volunteers from the community and Malcolm X’s family, excavated the spots with most potential for revealing artifacts and historical information. They found fragments of porcelain from Ella Little Collins’ dishes, a peach pit from her peach tree, a toy truck Rodnell remembers playing with, even an intact LP record whose label was gone but the serial number indicated was a folk song compilation album from 1959. (You can listen to side one here.)

The Little-era artifacts were expected, as were the pieces of 19th century pottery. The fragments of 18th century ceramic, on the other hand, were decidedly unexpected. According to the municipal archives, the house, indeed the entire street, was built on agricultural land, farmed since the 1600s. The artifacts suggest there may have been an unrecorded building on the site.

Because the Malcolm Little history is so recent and Rodnell Collins is so closely involved in the project, archaeologists have a unique chance to explore history both oral and documentary as well as the material culture of the site. City of Boston archaeologist Joseph Bagley explained the rare confluence in an interview with Radio Boston:

“Normally, on the sites that we’ve been doing, they’ve been a lot older, there’s no way around that…. [We] very rarely have the opportunity as archaeologists to work with people who were alive during the time that we are interested in studying. So it’s almost like we get kind of a behind-the-scenes tour of our own historic sites when we have the family members there. We’re able to take the combination of the oral history from Rodnell and his family, the written records that we have through the census and the deed records and the stuff that we have about Malcolm that’s very widely written, and we can also add the artifacts to that. So we can kind of do a three-part historical view of this house.”

To add to the historical richness, Jack Hallion, son of a man who grew up in the house and whose family sold it to Ella and Kenneth Collins in 1941 unexpectedly visited the dig on March 30th. Nobody contacted him or anything. The excavation was open to the public every day and received a great deal of local press, so he just stopped by to add two more generations of background to the story.

The dig was originally scheduled to run through April 8th, but five inches of snow forced a work stoppage. Excavations will resume on May 16th.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Owner of Texel shipwreck gown identified

Thu, 2016-04-21 06:39

Historians Helmer Helmers from the University of Amsterdam and Nadine Akkerman from Leiden University have identified the owner of the silk gown found in the Wadden Sea off the island of Texel in North Holland. It belonged to Jean Kerr, Countess of Roxburghe, lady-in-waiting to Queen Henrietta Maria. There’s a portrait of her on Adel Foundation’s website that they were able to get from the collection of Floors Castle, seat of the current Duke of Roxburghe and Scotland’s largest inhabited castle. The photo leaves much to be desired, I’m afraid, but she’s wearing a dress that is somewhat reminiscent, albeit more elaborate, of the one wrecked at sea.

There were two key clues to the identity of the gown’s owner: the ship sank in the first half of the 17th century, and the leather book cover stamped with the coat of arms of King Charles I, the second Stuart king of England, Scotland, and Ireland. As soon as Nadine Akkerman was apprised of the find, she remembered a letter she had transcribed in 2006 written by Elizabeth Stuart, sister of Charles I and exiled Queen of Bohemia, to her old friend the diplomat and Member of Parliament Sir Thomas Roe. The letter, dated March 17th, 1642, tells how her sister-in-law Queen Henrietta Maria lost a baggage ship on the voyage from England to Holland. Her two ladies-in-waiting and their maids lost their clothes and accessories; the queen lost some silver vessels from her private chapel. The style and size of the gown strongly indicate it belonged to Jean Kerr.

The Countess of Roxburghe was born around 1585. She was descended through her maternal line from Robert II, the first Stuart King of Scotland, which made her a very high-ranking lady. She was Mistress of the Robes to the court of James I and Queen Anne, both of whom attended her marriage to Robert Kerr, 1st Lord Roxburghe, in 1614. Three years later she was dismissed from Court when her husband tried to finagle a political appointment without the knowledge of the Queen, but in 1631, with a new King, Charles I, and Queen, Henrietta Maria, on the throne, she made her way back to Court and was appointed governess to the infant Princess Mary. She was later made governess to Princess Elizabeth (born 1635) and Prince Henry (born 1640).

This voyage to Holland was an infamous one. The ostensible purpose of the trip was to deliver Charles and Henrietta Maria’s daughter Mary, then ten years old, to her 15-year-old husband William, son and heir of Frederick Henry, Prince of Orange. Their wedding had taken place on May 2nd, 1641, in London. Reuniting the couple was a convenient pretext for Henrietta Maria to leave England and head for the continent where she could drum up support for the Royalist cause.

Her baggage was actually far more significant than her daughter. On February 23rd, 1642, Queen Henrietta Maria set sail from Falmouth with her daughter, her ladies-in-waiting, and the Crown Jewels. She also carried large quantities of silver and jewels that belonged to her and Charles personally, including those vessels from her chapel that were lost in the Texel wreck. The real reason for the trip to Holland was to sell or pawn these treasures, the most valuable of which were the patrimony of Britain, to fund a war against the British. Holland was the biggest market for the trade in high-end jewels and precious metals, so her daughter’s marriage to the heir of Orange was the perfect screen for her real intent.

Henrietta Maria arrived at The Hague on March 11th, 1642, where she was met by Elizabeth Stuart who had moved to The Hague after her exile. The loss of the baggage ship, while inconvenient as losing your luggage still is even now that it’s in airports instead of the bottom of the ocean, didn’t slow her down a bit. Mere days after her arrival, she was already trying to cut deals for the sale/hocking of the valuables that she’d kept with her.

This wasn’t exactly a stealth operation. In 1641 Parliament had officially protested that a plan of hers to take the waters at Spa, in what is now Belgium, for her health was in fact a blatant attempt to “convey great Sums of Money, and other Treasure, beyond the Seas; which will not only impoverish the State, but may be employed to the Fomenting some mischievous Attempts, to the Trouble of the publick Peace.” They were right, of course. Henrietta Maria was an active partner in Charles’ military and political ventures, often an instigator. She was a French Catholic — double trouble to English Protestants — and had an enormous influence on her husband. Her attempt to sell England’s Crown Jewels to fund a war against their (also British) enemies was the kind of machination that confirmed the worst suspicions about her and Charles.

The mission didn’t go well. Potential buyers and lenders were justifiably wary about the Crown Jewels. There was no clear title and the letter signed by Charles I saying he owned them that Henrietta deployed when people raised questions was hardly persuasive. With Parliament very publicly watching her every move, prepared to reclaim any pawned objects, buyers stayed away in droves. She wrote her husband in May that: “The money is not ready, for on your jewels, they will lend nothing. I am forced to pledge all my little ones, for the great ones, nothing can be had here….”

As for Jean Kerr, after she accompanied her young charge Princess Mary to The Hague, she turned around almost immediately, returning to her even younger charges, Elizabeth and Henry. She died just a year later, on October 7th, 1643.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Watch a ghostly animated Titanic sink in real time

Wed, 2016-04-20 02:03

Fair warning: this video is two hours and forty minutes long and there are significant stretches where very little happens. I expected to give up on it 10 minutes in, but much to my amazement, it was weirdly riveting. It starts just before Titanic strikes the iceberg and ends when the last of the ship plunges under the frigid waters. There are some very discreet sound effects — a few spoken orders, water, iron groaning, engines — and captions pop up explaining key moments. I found the notes on the lowering of the lifeboats and collapsibles particularly fascinating. Seeing it happen in real time strikingly conveys what an organization disaster this was, how much time was wasted, how so many more people could have been saved.

What makes the video genuinely eerie is the complete absence of people. It gives it a Mary Celeste ghost ship vibe. There are some voices — you hear some screams at the very end — but without moving figures it’s like Titanic is cursed to relive its slow, inexorable destruction over and over again.

That’s not what the finished product will be like. This animation is one element of an ambitious game called Titanic Honor & Glory and it’s still a work in progress. The ultimate aim is to have a fully explorable ship, accurate down to the smallest detail, with real historical people players can interact with at will. They’ll even have a period 1912 Southampton to wander through before boarding. There will be a story — a mystery to solve — but also a simple browse option if you just want to immerse yourself in the environment.

Judging from the glimpses of the grand staircase slowly filling with water in the sinking video and a video from last year that takes you on a brief tour of the First Class Reception Room, Dining Room, elevators, Turkish baths and the Third Class Dining Room, walking around will be plenty entertaining for those of us of a nerdly persuasion.

Here’s the full sinking video. Set aside three hours and just let it run. It’s not like you have to focus on it exclusively. You can do other things while it’s on in the background, but if you’re anything like me, you might find yourself having a hard time looking away.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

15th c. art stolen from prince by Nazis found

Tue, 2016-04-19 04:45

Three 15th century paintings stolen from the Tuscan villa of the Prince of Luxembourg by the Nazis have been found after 72 years. The artworks were first targeted in 1940, under the extension of what had originally been anti-Semitic Italian Racial Laws instituted by Mussolini to kiss Hitler’s ass in 1938. The laws stripped Italian Jews of assets, including art works. In 1940, that law was widened to cover “enemy nationals.” Neutral Luxembourg was occupied by Nazi Germany that same year, and Prince Felix of Bourbon-Parma, husband of Charlotte, Grand Duchess of Luxembourg, and grandfather of the current Grand Duke, was suspected of colluding with the Allies. Under that pretext, the Bourbon-Parma art collection in the Prince’s Villa Borbone delle Pianore in Camaiore, near Lucca in northwest Italy, was confiscated by the Fascist government.

The Prince had other fish to fry at the time. He and his children fled Luxembourg when Germany invaded, traveling through France and Portugal before sailing to the United States. They spent a few months as the guests of General Foods heiress and then-richest women in the United States, Marjorie Merriweather Post, who had become friends with the ruling family when her husband was appointed US Ambassador to Belgium and Envoy to Luxeumbourg in 1938.

The collection remained in the villa until the spring of 1944 when it was stolen by the 16th SS Panzer Grenadier Division which a few months later would earn even more infamy with massacres of civilians. The SS ultimately planned to transport the loot to Berlin, but first the Bourbon-Parma art and many other works pillaged by the 16th Division were delivered to Dornsberg Castle in the Tyrol, then the residence of Karl Wolff, General of the Waffen-SS and Military Governor of northern Italy. Art looted from all over northern Italy was collected at Dornsberg, and organized and documented with standard Nazi efficiency.

It never got to Germany. In 1945, the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives unit of the U.S. 5th Army, better known today as the Monuments Men, under the leadership of Captain Deane Keller recovered the stolen artworks from Dornsberg Castle. Prince Felix read about the liberation of the looted Bourbon-Parma collection in a news article and claimed ownership of the pieces stolen from him. Many of them were still there and the Prince got them back in 1949.

Around 40 of the works stolen from Villa della Pianore were not in Dornberg, among them marble busts of Bourbon rulers of France and paintings by Canaletto, Dosso Dossi, Paris Bordone and Perugino. Prince Felix filed a damages claim and the Italian government reimbursed him for their value, assessed at the then-astronomical sum of $4 million lire, in 1945. The missing works were never forgotten. Seventy years later, the Carabinieri Art Squad of Monza started digging through archives trying to track down these long-lost pieces. After two years of scouring the documentary and photographic archives of the Cini Foundation in Venice, the Zeri in Bologna, the Siviero and Capitoline Archives in Rome, museum center of Florence and the art library of the Castello Sforzesco in Milan, the Carabinieri discovered one of the lost pieces, a Madonna and Child by Gianni Battista Cima (1460-1518), hanging on the wall of a home in Monza in December of 2014. The family said they had inherited it from a relative who was an art dealer and had no idea of its dirty past. Another of the missing paintings, Holy Trinity by Alessio Baldovinetti (1425-1499), was found in the same home. The third work, Circumcision/Jesus Presented at the Temple by Girolamo dai Libri (1474-1555), was discovered in the home of another family who had inherited it from a collector who died in 1945.

The two families have been charged with receiving stolen goods, but the charges aren’t likely to stick. Meanwhile, the three paintings are at the Pinacoteca di Brera where conservators will give them some much needed love. The works are not in great condition, faded and damaged from their altogether too exciting adventures. The government has yet to decide where the paintings will reside permanently.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

“Unparalleled” Roman villa found in Wiltshire

Mon, 2016-04-18 03:39

In February of 2015, rug designer Luke Irwin was converting a small barn on his southwest Wiltshire property into a ping-pong room for his very lucky children. Not wanting to mar the beautiful landscape with an overhead cable strung from the farmhouse to the bar, Irwin insisted electricians lay the cables for the future game room underground. When they dug the trench, they came across a flat, hard layer 18 inches under the surface. It was a red, white and blue mosaic in a geometric woven pattern known as guilloche.

Irwin took a picture of the mosaic and sent it to the Wiltshire Council. Within 24 hours, council archaeologists were on the spot. They identified the mosaic as a top quality Roman work of the kind you’d see only in the most expensive, important villas in Roman Britain. Geophysical survey of the site found that the mosaic was in the destroyed or collapsed wing of a large Roman villa. The gateway where the mosaic was found leads to the modern farmhouse and outbuildings which obviously cannot be excavated, but archaeologists believe they were built in the center of where the ancient villa once stood. The farmhouse stands on a slab of Purbeck marble that is likely of Roman origin.

In April of 2015, the Wiltshire Archaeology Service, Salisbury Museum and Historic England worked together to dig a few test pits in key areas of the property. They were able to confirm that the villa was built between 175 an 220 A.D. and was regularly renovated through the mid-4th century. It was three storeys high with a footprint of at least 165 feet x 165 feet, and possibly as large as 230 by 230 feet. There’s evidence that it was pillaged in 360 A.D. only to be reoccupied in the 5th century.

Other artifacts discovered underscore how rich and important the owners of the villa were. There are hundreds of discarded oyster and whelk shells which would have been cultivated on the coast and been transported alive to Wiltshire from the coast in barrels of salt water. Archaeologists also found a Roman well in excellent condition, a bath house and, unassuming in the garden where it was used as a geranium planter, the stone coffin of a Roman child. There’s high status pottery, coins, brooches and copious animal bones both domestic and wild which bear the signs of butchering.

Only a few test pits have been dug, but Roberts said it was clear the walls of the villa were probably still more than a metre high, although they are buried under alluvial sediment from a nearby river. In addition, the mosaic has been revealed to be of particularly high quality. “Everything about this villa suggests it was made of the highest-quality materials,” added Roberts. “We have identified bits of stone that have come from at least 13 different British quarries. This was the country house of a powerful, rich Roman. Doubtless he also had a city house in London or Cirencester.”

Intriguingly, the house was not destroyed after the collapse of the Roman empire, said [Historic England archaeologist Dr. David] Roberts. Archaeologists have discovered timber structures erected in the fifth century. Roberts said the remains from this period, between the end of Roman occupation and the completion of Saxon domination of England, could open a window into one of the least understood periods in British history. It could also reveal how people responded to the collapse of the Roman empire, the superpower of the age.

Other than the construction of the labourers’ cottages that would be converted into the current farmhouse, the property has been left alone and undeveloped, used primarily as grazing land, since the villa was last inhabited in the 5th century. This gives archaeologists a unique opportunity to explore one of the largest Roman houses in Britain with little to no interference from later agriculture or construction. Dr. Roberts called the villa “unparalleled in recent years,” a “hugely valuable site in terms of research, with incredible potential,” and one of the best sites he has ever worked on.

And yet, the test pits have all been refilled and there are no current plans to further excavate this momentous find.

[Roberts] added: “Unfortunately, it would cost hundreds of thousands of pounds to fully excavate and the preserve the site, which cannot be done with the current pressures.

“We would very much like to go back and carry out more digs to further our understanding of the site. But it’s a question of raising the money and taking our time, because as with all archaeological work there is the risk of destroying the very thing you seek to uncover.”

The discovery of the villa has inspired Irwin to design a line of rugs with mosaic patterns. They even made rug tesserae, little cubes of hand-woven silk set between wool lines. I like how they’ve distressed the rugs so that have faded and “missing” areas like real ancient mosaics.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Runestone lost for 250 years found in garden patio

Sun, 2016-04-17 04:36

A thousand-year-old runestone missing for 250 years has been found in the garden of a home in the village of Boddum in Thy, northern Jutland, Denmark. It all started in November of 2015 when farmer Ole Kappel called the Museum Thy to report he had a stone with some carved lines on it lying in his garden. He asked for an expert to examine it and tell him what it was. In March, Museum Thy archaeologist Charlotte Boje Andersen and National Museum of Denmark runologist Lisbeth Imer were amazed to find that the stone lying around in Kappel’s garden was the Ydby Runestone, carved between 970 and 1020 A.D. and last seen in 1767.

“It was one of the biggest moments in my time as an archaeologists and a completely one-of-a-kind discovery that highlights how important Thy and the western part of the Limfjord were in the Viking era,” [Andersen] said.

The Ydby Runestone was first documented in 1741 by bishop and antiquarian Erik Pontoppidan in the second volume of his collection of notable Danish inscriptions, Marmora Danica. Pontoppidan reported that the stone was moved from a place known as “Hellesager,” where it had stood upright over a triangular underground tomb surrounded by stones, to the village of Flarup. In 1767, Danish naturalist and illustrator Søren Abildgaard tracked down the runestone near Flarup. He made an accurate drawing of stone and the runes on three of its four sides and recorded its location in his travel diary.

After that, the stone disappeared. We don’t know when it was displaced, but landscape painter RH Kruse looked for it assiduously in 1841 and it was no longer there. None of the residents had any information about the runestone. A local farmer told Kruse that as far as he knew, the stone hadn’t been there for 50 years. A teacher named Nissen who was an avid documenter of runestones wrote to the National Museum in 1898 that he’d learned the stone had been used to build a railway bridge and was probably underwater.

Kruse had the wrong idea, thankfully. Ole Kappel acquired the stone 25 years ago when he bought a farm property and demolished the house. Thankfully he had the presence of mind to salvage what he could, including a pile of old stones from the foundation of the farmhouse. He took some of the stones home and used them in his landscaping. In fact, he told the thrilled experts, there more of the old farmhouse stones in his front yard patio. Andersen and Imer took a look at the pavers and saw two pieces that matched the shape of the runestone. Kappel’s sons Anders and Kristian pried up the two stones and more runes were revealed.

Imer was able to identify the stone because the extant runes matched the one recorded in Abildgaard’s drawings. Translated into English, it reads: “Thorgísl and Leifi’s sons placed/ at this place/ the stone in memory of Leifi.” Based on the parts that are missing, Imer thinks the stone, which was about six feet high and three feet wide when intact, was broken into about eight sections. All together, the rediscovered pieces form about half of the original runestone.

Andersen has checked the records and she thinks the stone was swiped in the 1820s when the farm Kappel bought was built. The farm was just a few hundred meters from the runestone’s last known location. The owner appears to have helped himself to the runestone and used it as raw material to build the foundations of his farmhouse. The Kappels plan to keep looking for the other missing pieces.

The recovered stones went on display at Heltborg Museum for a month so residents of Thy could see their long-lost cultural patrimony. The stone is now in the National Museum of Denmark where experts will assess whether it should be declared treasure trove. (It should be and will be.)

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Tombstone of early priest found in front of Mexico City cathedral

Sat, 2016-04-16 03:52

Engineers with the Trust of the Historic Center of Mexico City were installing one of eight new lampposts to illuminate the facade of the Metropolitan Cathedral when, digging deeper than expected, they came across the tombstone of one of the first Catholic priests in Mexico. They notified the Program of Urban Archaeology (PAU) of the Templo Mayor Museum and their archaeologists excavated the find.

The horizontal slab was found in front of the central door of the cathedral about four feet beneath the current floor. It’s a greenish volcanic stone called chiluca and is engraved around the borders with an epitaph in ancient Castilian recording the name of the priest: Miguel de Palomares. It’s followed by an inscription in Greek which has yet to be translated but could be de Palomares’ birth and death dates. Carved on the middle of the stone is a shield with three fleurs de lys, possibly a reference to the Dominican order whose emblems include fleurs de lys, although they’re usually added to the end of crosses or squeezed together to form a cross.

It’s not known whether Miguel de Palomares was a member of the Dominican order. He was a prominent figure in Mexico City in the first half of the 16th century, a member of the first church council convened in the cathedral. He died in 1542 and was buried near an altar inside the first church which was later demolished to make room for the current cathedral. Archaeologists have not yet lifted the slab and so don’t know whether his remains are still buried beneath it.

Today it’s the largest cathedral in the Americas, but the first church on the site was a more modest affair. It was built in 1524, three years after the Spanish conquest of Tenochtitlan. Hernán Cortés himself laid the first stone at the crossroads of the four cardinal points at the southern boundary of the Sacred Precinct. The stones used to build the church were taken from the destroyed Templo Mayor.

The first bishop of Mexico, Franciscan Juan de Zumárraga, was appointed in 1530. The Archdiocese of Mexico was established in 1546 with Zumárraga as archbishop. The church was now designated a cathedral, but it was deemed too small for the seat of an increasingly important archbishopric. The funding for a new cathedral was sorted out in 1552. Work on the foundations began in 1562 and construction would continue for centuries. The original church was demolished in 1628 when enough of the new cathedral was built to make it usable. It was finally completed in 1813.

The discovery of the slab sheds light on how Cortés didn’t just destroy the Aztec sacred architecture and reuse the materials, but rather integrated structures into the church.

The nearly 2-metre-long slab was sunk into the same level of the stucco floor of what appears to be an Aztec temple. The cathedral was simply built over the temple and apparently used the same floor. The Spaniards apparently gave the floor only a thin coat of lime whitewash before using it for their church.

“The Spaniards, Hernán Cortes and his followers, made use of the pre-Hispanic structures, the temples, the foundations, the floors,” said Raúl Barrera, an archaeologist for the government’s National Institute of Anthropology and History. “They even used the walls, the floors. They couldn’t destroy everything all at once.” [...]

Archaeologists have long known the Spaniards often appeared to prefer to build their churches atop Aztec temples, but it was thought that was for symbolic purposes, to signal the displacement of old Aztec gods by the Christian church. But it may also have been a practical decision, as the pre-Hispanic temples had good foundations, walls and floors that the Spaniards could use, saving them the trouble of building new ones.

Construction of the new cathedral damaged the tombstone. It is perforated with a large hole that likely had a post or cross embedded into it. Chiluca is a delicate stone, and since this one has already been damaged, archaeologists are being very cautious before attempting to raise the slab and transport it to the Templo Mayor Museum.

Other architectural elements from the first church have been unearthed alongside the slab. There are stones next to the slab that archaeologists believe were part of the long-defunct altar. They’ve also found the remains of a perimeter wall from the original church.

It’s very rare for archaeologists to have a chance to study known historical figures, and as Miguel de Palomares was associated with an important transitional period after the conquest, PAU experts hope they’ll find his remains which would give us new information about Catholic burial practices in the first half of the 16th century and the diet of Spanish colonists.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Incredible 17th c. silk gown found in shipwreck

Fri, 2016-04-15 04:52

There are hundreds of shipwrecks buried under the sands of the Wadden Sea near the island of Texel off the coast of North Holland. A natural barrier between the North Sea and Wadden Sea, Texel was an important center of maritime trade. Ships anchored in the Texel roadstead, a sheltered area in the lee of the island, waiting for propitious winds, waiting out bad weather or taking on crew and cargo, only to be wrecked in sudden unexpected storms. Many wrecks are protected by the sand, but as currents shift they can be exposed to the more damaging elements of sea. Divers from the Texel Diving Club keep an eye on the condition of wrecks and recover artifacts that have been unburied and are in danger of destruction.

In August of 2014, divers discovered that artifacts from one known wreck, a well-armed merchant ship buried since it sank in the 17th century, had been exposed. They didn’t know what the objects were at first. It was just a bundle in the sand. It was only when the brought the bundle to the surface that they realized they’d recovered antique textiles. The find was not announced to protect the site from interlopers while conservators examined and stabilized the finds.

Conservators discovered that the bundle included a unique survival in exceptional condition: a silk damask gown of such high quality that it must have belonged to a noblewoman of very high rank, perhaps even royalty. Buried under the seabed for 400 years or so, the delicate silk was spared the ravages of both oxygen and animals. The dress has a bodice with loose-fitting sleeves and sleeve caps and a full pleated skirt open in the front. The neck has an upright collar. The style is of a type seen in paintings from the early 17th century.

The dress is just one element of an extensive wardrobe that includes a jacket, silk knee socks and silk bodices woven with gold and silver thread. All of these pieces are the same size, so archaeologists believe the clothes belonged to one full-figured woman. Only the gown shows signs of significant wear, which suggests it was intended for everyday use, as does the lack of rich silver and gold embroidery seen in the bodices.

The dress has been examined by experts from the Rijksmuseum, the University of Amsterdam and the State Service for Cultural Heritage (RCE), all of whom agree that it is one of the important textile finds ever made in Europe. Professor Emmy de Groot of the University of Amsterdam called it “the Night Watch of the costume world.”

Other artifacts were recovered from the wreck site. There’s Italian pottery, a silver gilt vessel, a red velvet pouch embroidered with silver thread that contained a two-sided lice comb made of cow horn, pomanders (openwork spheres that held sweet-smelling flowers or herbs for elegant people to sniff when the environment was particularly rank), and a number of leather book covers in different sizes, some with locks. One of them is stamped in gold with the coat of arms of King Charles I, which suggests at least part of the cargo was Stuart property. Perhaps the lady with the very fine wardrobe was a member of the Stuart family.

In addition to the passenger belongings, the ship’s cargo was remarkably varied. In addition to the wardrobe and expensive personal belongings, the ship was carrying boxwood — a dense, fine-grained wood widely used for musical instruments, chess sets and decorative carving — mastic from the Greek island of Chios, crates archaeologists believe held frankincense or myrrh, tobacco and aniseed. These objects found at the same time in the same context make the find a priceless historical time capsule that sheds new light on trade, politics and how people lived and worked on ships in the 17th century.

The gown and other treasures are now on display at the Kaap Skil Museum on Texel. The finds belong to the Province of North Holland. After the month-long exhibition ends on May 16th, the artifacts from the wreck will be further studied and conserved at North Holland’s Huis van Hilde archaeology center. Once the research is complete, the Kaap Skil Museum will display the finds in a permanent exhibition.

UPDATE: The likely owner of the gown has been identified.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Viking treasure pokes finder in Denmark

Thu, 2016-04-14 03:45

Søren Bagge had only been metal detecting for a couple of months in August of 2015. With no particular expertise, he picked a field near Lille Karleby on the Hornsherred peninsula of Zealand, Denmark, to scan just because he happened to have grown up nearby and so could easily stop at home for coffee breaks. The first couple of days he found a few Arabic silver coins. The next signal from his metal detector was weak too, but when he dug into the top soil, he found a small silver cup. He’d felt something pointy stabbing him as he was digging up the cup, so he suspected there was more to be found in the spot and rushed to alert the Roskilde Museum.

It was the weekend, though, and nobody was around to pursue his lead. Bagge put the cup back where he found it and reburied it to keep it safe until Monday. On Monday Roskilde Museum archaeologists did a small excavation on the spot. About a foot below the surface they encountered multiple artifacts and realized they had a Viking hoard on their hands. They removed the entire lot in a soil block to excavate it with careful deliberation in laboratory conditions.


Before excavating the soil block, archaeologists took it to Roskilde Hospital where it was CT scanned in the Radiology unit. The scan showed there were a great many artifacts encased in that soil block. It gave archaeologists a blueprint of how to proceed. There is video of the block’s arrival at the hospital and the scan. This video is in Danish, but you don’t have to understand what they’re saying to appreciate the excitement of the CT reveal.

The excavation revealed an exceptional treasure of 392 pieces. The silver cup Bagge found was one of two. There were 53 gilt bronze and silver pendants, more than 300 beads made of glass, amber, rock crystal and silver, 18 Arabic and Western European coins, a braided silver chain, a bracelet or arm ring with five smaller rings attached, elaborately decorated pieces from France, Eastern Europe and Ireland or Scotland. Some of the objects of Scandinavian manufacture were already antiques when they were buried in the second half of the 10th century.

I hesitate to play favorites with so many beautiful and important pieces, but the large ball penannular brooch, also known as a thistle brooch, is breathtaking. Penannular brooches were relatively common in the Viking era, but nothing like this one has been found in Denmark before. It’s Irish or Scottish and was made in the 10th century. It’s called a thistle brooch because it is decorated with three spheres in the shaving brush shape of the thistle bud. The brooch is large — 10 inches long — with a wicked long pin. It was that pin which poked at Søren Bagge when he was digging.

These large brooches were worn by elite men, high-ranking clerics and royal family members, with the pin facing upwards. There was a law on the books in Scotland that provided compensation for people who were accidentally stuck by long-pins. In a little historical irony, the reason the thistle is the national emblem of Scotland is that, according to legend, a barefoot Norse invader stepped on a thistle during an attempted nighttime raid on a Scottish army encampment. His cries of pain warned the Scots that the Vikings were coming and Scottish forces successfully repulsed the attack.

Another impressive import/pillaged piece in the hoard is a trefoil strap mount with acanthus decoration. This was a Frankish design which would later be copied in Scandinavia, only the Norse usually put stylized animal designs or geometric shapes inside the three leaves rather than the French acanthus motif. The French used trefoils as fittings on a sword strap. The Vikings converted them into a jewelry — belt buckles, brooches — and they’re usually discovered in women’s graves where there are no swords or any other weapons, for that matter. The Frankish style dates the piece to between the late 8th century and the 10th century.

Seven hollow silver beads in the hoard are of both Scandinavian and Slavic origin. The six largest, most elaborate beads decorated with rich filigree and showing the remains of gilding were probably manufactured in Poland or West Russia in the 9th or 10th century. They are very rare finds in Scandinavia. The seventh bead, on the other hand, is rounder with a silver spiral applique’ that is more typical of Scandinavian beads.

The bracelet or arm-ring with the rings attached is certainly a Scandinavian piece. The four smaller rings are closed with a knot, and the fifth and smallest ring is threaded through a heavy silver bead. The rings would have clinked together and chimed when the wearer moved her arm. Archaeologists think the design might represent Odin’s dwarf-forged gold ring, Draupnir (“the dripper” in Old Norse), which “dripped” eight rings of equal weight to the original every ninth night. In Norse mythology, it’s a symbol of fertility and prosperity.

As for the silver cup that started all of this, it and its companion are different. One is decorated with triangle designs close to the lip. One is plain. The decorated one is bigger and heavier than the plain one. Both were likely drinking goblets for the upper echelons of Norse society. Other Viking hoards also include silver cups, one larger and more ornamented than the other. Archaeologists think the uneven sets may have been used during important banquets or festivals where the honored guest would get to use the fancier cup and the host would take the plainer one. The style of the cups indicate they were made between 700 and 1000, but since the treasure was buried up to 50 or so years before the latter date, we can shave a few years off of that broad estimate.

The treasure went on display at the Roskilde Museum in December and is now in the National Museum for further study.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Was a lost Caravaggio found in an attic in France?

Wed, 2016-04-13 05:21

A leaky roof may be responsible for the rediscovery of a long-lost Caravaggio masterpiece. In the attempt to reach the leaking roof of a 17th century house outside Toulouse, in April of 2014 the homeowners broke through a door in the attic that they had never noticed was there. Behind the door was an oil painting depicting the Biblical heroine Judith beheading Assyrian general Holofernes while her begoitered maid Abra holds open a bag in which his head will be placed. It was covered in dust but otherwise in excellent condition. The family called in local auctioneer Marc Labarde to assess the painting. He cleaned the white film of grime off the face of the maid with cotton balls and water and identified it as a 17th century painting from the school of Caravaggio.

Labarde called in friend and Old Master expert Eric Turquin to examine it further. Turquin spent two years cleaning, conserving and studying the painting. He had it X-rayed and analyzed with infrared reflectography. He found key elements characteristic of Caravaggio’s work: great speed of execution, bold, secure brushstrokes and, because Caravaggio never made preparatory sketches first, changes done midstream to the positioning of Holofernes’ right hand and Judith’s face. Two Caravaggio experts examined the painting and agreed with Turquin that it was the original work lost almost 400 years ago. Another determined it was a copy, albeit a very good one.

Caravaggio painted an earlier Judith Beheading Holofernes (1598–99) which is now part of the collection of the Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Antica in the Palazzo Barberini in Rome. He made the second in Naples during the first decade of the 17th century. We know of its existence because Frans Pourbus the Younger, a Flemish painter at the Gonzaga court in Mantua, wrote about it in a letter to his boss, Vincenzo Gonzaga, Duke of Mantua. Dated September 15th, 1607, the letter noted that Caravaggio’s Madonna of the Rosary, now in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, was for sale in Naples for 400 ducats. Pourbus also mentioned seeing another Caravaggio painting, a Judith and Holofernes, for sale.

What he didn’t tell Gonzaga was that both works were owned by a good friend of his, Flemish artist Louis Finson. The Duke was unwilling to spend 400 ducats on one Madonna, because a few years later Finson took it to Amsterdam with him. Finson also took Judith Beheading Holofernes to Amsterdam. Both Caravaggio works are listed in his will, but after his death in 1617, the Madonna was acquired by a consortium of artists including Peter Paul Rubens for a church in Antwerp while Judith disappears from the historical record.

Caravaggio was very famous in his lifetime, and while he never had a literal school or workshop with students like other masters did, he had followers who copied his works and painted pieces of their own that were heavily influenced by Caravaggio’s style. Louis Finson was one of the first Flemish Caravaggisti, as the followers were known, as was Rubens. Finson lived in Naples in the early 17th century when Caravaggio was there too. He owned several of Caravaggio’s original works and copied others. The Finson version of Judith Beheading Holofernes was considered a very faithful copy and since the original was lost, for close to 400 years, Finson’s copy was the only extant image of the work. Finson didn’t take it to Amsterdam and it is now on display in the Palazzo Zevallos Stigliano in Naples.

The French government has placed an export ban on the painting which means it cannot leave the country for 30 months. This will give experts plenty of time to study the work in greater detail, and will give French museums the opportunity to tap potential donors for the astronomical sum — something in the $130 million range — required to buy the work should it prove to be an authentic Caravaggio. As a contemporary copy of some quality, Louis Finson’s version will play an important role in the authentication process. One expert believes the newly discovered work is in fact another copy by Finson.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Unique Pictish Stone on display at Elgin Museum

Tue, 2016-04-12 04:27


Three years have passed since Andy Johnstone broke a plough on a 1,500-pound Pictish Symbol Stone in a field in Dandaleith, near Craigellachie in northeastern Scotland. Landowner Mr. Robinson reported the find to the Aberdeenshire Council Archaeology Service (ACAS) and its experts determined the stone is Class I, the earliest type of symbol stone. It dates to the 6th-8th century B.C. and the symbols — an eagle, a crescent, a V-rod, a mirror case symbol, a notch rectangle and Z-rod — are carved on two adjacent sides, a unique configuration so far as we know.

Mr. Robinson allowed the five and a half foot-long pink granite stone to remain on his property for a year before arrangements could be made to remove it for conservation. In 2014, the Dandaleith Stone was transferred to Graciela Ainsworth Sculpture Conservation in Leith, Edinburgh, where Graciela Ainsworth’s team conserved it, documented it and laser scanned it to create a 3D model of the stone.

Meanwhile, the symbol stone was declared a Treasure Trove and the Scottish Archaeological Finds Allocation Panel allocated the find to the Elgin Museum, Scotland’s oldest independent museum (est. 1842), in Elgin, just 15 miles north of Dandaleith. The museum then had to raise the funds to pay the landowner and finder a fee equal to its assessed market value, plus more to pay for transportation, conservation and display. The fundraising was successful, thanks to contributions from the Heritage Lottery Fund, AIM, the Art Fund, the Pilgrim’s Trust, and Aberdeenshire Council Archaeology Service.

On March 1st of this year, the Dandaleith Stone was transported to the Elgin Museum by Graciela Ainsworth. She also brought the carved Pictish and early Medieval stones from the museum’s permanent collection that were conserved at her Edinburgh facility. The next day, the Dandaleith Stone was hoisted into position in the museum’s new display by the Elgin Marble Company which generously donated the equipment, time and manpower necessary to raise the massive stone and install it vertically next to a new row of lit shelves to display the museum’s other, much smaller carved stones.

The new Pictish Stone display opened to the public on Saturday, March 26th. Ploughman and finder Andy Johnstone was invited to cut the ribbon at the exhibition opening.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Rare 13th c. tile floor on display under new shelter

Mon, 2016-04-11 02:15

An extremely rare surviving 13th century tile floor at Cleeve Abbey in Somerset is now back on display under a new, state-of-the-art shelter. The oak shelter will protect the 40 x 16-foot section of pavement from the elements, something its predecessor, a tent, could not do.

Cleeve Abbey was a Cistercian monastery founded by William de Roumare, Earl of Lincoln, in 1198. Populated by only 12 monks in the beginning, by the mid-13th century there was a cruciform church, a cloister, chapter house, sacristy and dormitory. The refectory was constructed in the second half of the 1200s, probably around 1270, and it was paved with expensive polychrome encaustic tiles nine inches square. Each tile is decorated with heraldic designs. The arms of several aristocratic benefactors of the monastery were kiln-baked into the floor tiles, including the chevrons of the earls of Gloucester from the de Clare family, the lion rampant of the earls of Cornwall, the double-headed eagle of Richard of Cornwall, second son of King John of Magna Carta fame, who bribed his way into election as King of the Romans (ie, King of what would become Germany) in 1257, and the three white lions of the Royal Coat of Arms representing monastery patron King Henry III, Richard’s brother. Archaeologists believe they were manufactured by a tilery in Gloucestershire and installed to celebrate the marriage of Edmund, 2nd Earl of Cornwall, to Margaret de Clare in 1272.

In the 15th century, the old refectory was demolished and a new, larger refectory was built just to its north. The old tile floor was not reused elsewhere (the usual practice when dealing with luxurious features like these tiles), but buried, keeping it in situ in its original configuration virtually undamaged for 400 years. Thanks to its hiding place, the floor made it through the Dissolution of the Monasteries unscathed while the abbey church was demolished. Henry VIII sold the abbey property and other structures, stripping any valuable architectural features for individual sale. The abbey became a farm, and most of the buildings are still standing today because of it.

The Cleeve Abbey tiled pavement is the only large example of a decorated medieval refectory floor in Britain. The fact that it survived with its original placement still intact makes it a rarity of international significance. A smaller piece of the 13th century church floor was also discovered at Cleeve Abbey, and while it too is made of colorful encaustic tiles, they have been relain and look like a patchwork quilt now.

The old refectory floor was rediscovered in 1876. To protect it for future generations, the floor was reburied until 1951 when it was again exposed and displayed to the public. It was covered each winter to save it from inclement weather and uncovered during the summer months so tourists could view it.

In the 1990s, tests by English Heritage found that the tiles were dangerous deteriorating from their exposure to the elements. Thermal stress was damaging the protective glaze surface and eroding the detailed patterns in the clay, while microbes and high salt gnawed away the priceless pavement. In an attempt to prevent further damage, English Heritage installed a marquee tent over the floor tiles, which helped keep the sun’s rays from hitting the tiles directly but was only a temporary solution while they worked on a permanent one.

Last year construction began on a new shelter made of louvred oak slats which allow light to enter the space for optimal viewing, but keep direct sunlight from beating down on the tiles. There’s a ventilation system which keeps the temperatures inside the enclosure stable at all times. Visitors can enjoy the floor comfortably from seating and viewing platforms.

The new shelter opened on Good Friday, March 25th, 2016, and will be open daily through October 21st, 2016, which is when Cleeve Abbey closes for the winter. It will open again next spring.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

17th c. treasure hidden during uprising found in Bulgaria

Sun, 2016-04-10 01:20


A treasure of silver jewels buried in the 17th century has been found near the northwestern Bulgarian city of Montana. The hoard was discovered by local residents who very responsibly reported the find to the National Museum of History in Sofia. There’s a tiara, two forehead bands, two ear tabs, connectors between the headpieces and the ear tabs, a pair of earrings and two rings. They are all made of silver and are of very high quality, decorated with expensive, highly skilled techniques including filigree, granulation, niello, gold leaf and a green glass-like mass that is probably enamel. The objects were placed in a leather purse, surviving fragments of which were found at the site.

The jewelry is almost certainly local work. The area was known for its very fine gold and silversmiths. The work of the Chiprovtsi smiths was famous all over Eastern Europe for its complexity and delicacy. They had access to a steady supply of precious raw materials, thanks to local silver ore deposits which were extensively mined in the 16th and 17th centuries.

After the Ottoman conquest of the Second Bulgarian Empire in 1396, some areas were granted the right of Christian self-government, among them the village of Chiprovtsi and neighboring towns. When silver ore was found in the region in the second half of the 15th century, the population of the villages swelled with Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, Albanians and German miners while the old Catholic nobility appears to have ruled virtually undisturbed with only a token Ottoman representation in the municipal government. Chiprovtsi was closely linked to the Catholic ecclesiastical hierarchy as well. The official residence of the Catholic archbishops of Bulgaria was Chiprovtsi’s Monastery of St. Mary.

The mix of peoples, strong Catholic leadership and quasi-autonomy of the region spurred residents to seek to overthrown the Ottoman Yoke. The Chiprovtsi Uprising, a rebellion of Roman Catholic (and some Eastern Orthodox) Bulgarians against Ottoman rule, was precipitated by Austria’s capture of Belgrade from the Turks on September 6th, 1688. Chiprovtsi Catholics had been trying to induce the monarchies of western Europe to take Bulgaria from the Ottomans for more than four decades, coming very close several times to triggering elaborate invasion plans that ultimately fell through. When Belgrade fell to the Austrians, the Chiprovtsi rebels thought that after so many false starts, the moment had finally come. Hopeful that the Austrians would send reinforcements to support the uprising, extend their victory east and ultimately liberate all of Bulgaria from Ottoman rule, the insurrectionists rose up and fought the Ottomans and their Magyar allies.

It did not go well. There was no coordination between Austrian and Bulgarian forces, and the Turks handily won the military encounters. The decisive battle took place near Montana, then called Kutlovitsa, in October of 1688. The Ottomans won decisively. They captured Chiprovtsi on October 18th and razed it to the ground, killing almost everyone and enslaving whoever survived. While a much-reduced guerilla resistance continued for a few months, the Austrians never came and much of the remaining population fled west to the Danube or north to Wallachia. Archbishop Peter Knezevic led the emigration to Wallachia. Few Christians remained in the northwest and the Ottomans ruled directly, stripping the Bulgarian nobility of their old privileges and political power.

The National Museum of History experts believe the cache of silver jewels was a family fortune buried in the turbulent days of the Chiprovtsi Uprising in the fall of 1688. Since almost everyone in the area was killed in battle, executed, enslaved or fled, there was nobody left to dig up the treasure.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History