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Remains of 1,500-year-old domesticated turkeys found in Mexico

Thu, 2016-11-24 11:18

Archaeologists have discovered some of the earliest evidence of turkey domestication during an excavation of the ancient Mitla Fortress in Oaxaca, Mexico. The Field Museum has been exploring the hilltop fort in the Valley of Oaxaca that was inhabited by the Zapotec from the Classic period (200-850 A.D.) until around 1200 A.D. In 2009, the team unearthed a clutch of intact turkey eggs buried under two of the fortress’ households.

“It was very exciting because it’s very rare to find a whole cluster of intact eggs. This was very unexpected,” says [Field Museum archaeologist Gary] Feinman.

“Heather Lapham is an archaeologist who studies animal bones, and she knew immediately that we had found five intact or unhatched eggs that were left as an offering alongside seven newly hatched baby turkeys, of which only their tiny bones survived,” says Feinman. Scanning electron microscope analysis of the eggshells confirmed that they were indeed laid by turkeys.

“The fact that we see a full clutch of unhatched turkey eggs, along with other juvenile and adult turkey bones nearby, tells us that these birds were domesticated,” says Feinman. “It helps to confirm historical information about the use of turkeys in the area.”

The Zapotec made sacrifices to the gods before constructing a new house, and a turkey hatchling was sometimes the blood sacrifice of choice. The animal would be killed, its meat eaten and the remains buried under the floor. To have such a wide range of turkeys at every stage of development — hatched and unhatched eggs, unfertilized, newly fertilized eggs, almost hatched eggs, newly hatched poults, juveniles, adults, hens, including at least one of egg-laying age, and toms — available for ritual use in their home, the Zapotec must have had a breeding operation nearby.

The eggs date to between 400 and 500 A.D., which is the earliest concrete archaeological evidence of domesticated turkeys in southern Mexico. The oldest turkey bone found in southern Mexico dates to 180 A.D., but it’s just a single bone and was found in a cave, so there is no direct evidence that it was domesticated. The oldest confirmed evidence of tamed turkeys in northern Mexico date to 500 A.D., but these are scarce. The preponderance of domesticated turkey remains begin appearing in the archaeological record in 900 A.D.

In addition to the sacrificial turkeys, the team also discovered eggshells and more than 300 bones of juvenile and adult turkeys in household trash pits. A hundred or so more turkey bones were found carved into jewelry or tools.

The research team has DNA tested to the remains to identify which subspecies of native turkey they belong to, but the results have not come in yet. Their findings have been published in the Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports.

Happy You-Know-What Day, all!

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Church, altar of Viking saint king found in Norway

Wed, 2016-11-23 17:43

Archaeologists with the Norwegian Institute for Cultural Heritage Research (NIKU) have discovered the foundations of the church where the Viking king Olaf II is believed to have been buried after he was canonised. King Olaf II Haraldsson, credited with introducing Christian law to Norway, was killed in nebulous circumstances in 1030. The earliest chroniclers reported that he was assassinated either by his own men or in an ambush, but later accounts give him a more glorious death at the Battle of Stiklestad on July 29th, 1030.

He was buried in Nidaros (modern-day Trondheim) and very quickly stories sprang up of miraculous occurrences at his grave site. A year after his death, Bishop Grimkell, one of several English missionary bishops reputedly brought to Norway by Olaf, exhumed his body and found it miraculously uncorrupted. Grinkell declared Olaf a saint and his body was translated to a place of honor above the high altar of St. Clement’s church, a wood stave church Olaf had built a few years before his death. The local canonisation was confirmed by Pope Alexander III in 1164 and Olaf became an official Roman Catholic saint.

Olaf’s body was moved again some decades later to Nidaros Cathedral, a larger and more glamorous site that could accommodate the increasing number of pilgrims dedicated to the cult of Saint Olaf. Over time, St. Clement’s was destroyed and its location forgotten.

Now it seems it has been rediscovered during an excavation on Søndre gate street in Trondheim. The Norwegian Institute for Cultural Heritage Research team discovered the stone foundations of a wooden stave church. Preliminary dating indicates the structure was built in the 11th century.

During its excavation, the archaeologists uncovered a small rectangular stone-built platform at the building’s east end. This is probably the foundation for an altar – probably the very same altar on which St. Olaf’s coffin was placed in 1031! In addition, a small well has been found here which may be a holy well connected with the saint.

In the words of the excavation’s director Anna Petersén:

“This is a unique site in Norwegian history in terms of religion, culture and politics. Much of the Norwegian national identity has been established on the cult of sainthood surrounding St. Olaf, and it was here it all began!”

NIKU has created a series very cool 3D models illustrating the progress of the excavation.

The Søndre gate excavation site 10/01/2016:

Utgravingsområde Søndre gate, Trondheim 1/10 by nikunorway

The Søndre gate excavation site 10/19/2016, the choir begins to take shape:

Utgravningsområde Søndre gate 19/10 by nikunorway

The Søndre gate excavation site 10/29/2016:

Utgravningsområde Søndregata Trondheim den 29/10 by nikunorway

The remains of the church:

Kirke/church at Søndregate 18/10 by nikunorway

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Centuries-old dentures found in Lucca family tomb

Tue, 2016-11-22 17:33

In 2010, archaeologists from the University of Pisa excavated the tomb of the powerful Guinigi family in the San Francesco Monastery at Lucca. Scions of the wealthy family of merchants and bankers had ruled the city of Lucca from 1392 until 1430 as capitani del popolo (captains of the people, ie, dictators), and even after the family was overthrown and the Republic reinstated, the Guinigi remained one of the most prominent families in Lucca for centuries.

In 1358, the Guinigi Chapel was built near the convent of San Francesco. The bodies of family members were buried in the private chapel through the first half of the 17th century. Instead of being interred in separate areas, the remains were laid to rest in two large collective tombs. Over the years the bones were shifted around to make room, so when archaeologists excavated the chambers, the remains of more than 200 people were disarticulated and commingled making it impossible to reconstruct the skeletons of individuals.

Mixed in with the jumbled skeletal remains in the lowest stratigraphic layer of the south tomb, the team discovered a unique archaeological treasure: a centuries-old dental prosthesis. It is made of five human teeth — three central incisors and two lateral canines — joined by a gold band running through the root ends of the teeth. The teeth all came from different, let’s just say, donors. (Shoutout to Fantine from Les Miserables.) Examination under a microscope and CT scans found that the roots of the teeth were cut and abraded to relative evenness. Then the a thin cut was made across the bases of the teeth and a thin gold was inserted into the cuts. Two small holes were cut in each tooth and gold pins inserted to fix the tooth to the band. At each end of the device, the gold was bent into s-shapes and pierced with a hole. These ends were attached to the living teeth, likely with ties, as indicated in illustrations of similar dental prosthetics from the 16th and 18th centuries

Because it was found in the earliest layer, it may date to as early as the 14th century, but it would have been very easy for the dentures to fall through successive layers of bones, so stratigraphy is of no help in dating the piece. This was highly advanced dentistry in Early Modern Europe. The gold band technology was mentioned in period sources from Guy de Chauliac (ca. 1300-1368), the French physician who first recognized there were two kinds of plague, Bubonic and Pneumonic, to Pierre Fauchard (1678–1761), the father of modern dentistry.

Archaeologists were not able to match the dentures to any of the mandibles found in the tomb, but the presence of dental calculus covering the holes indicate the prosthetic was used for many years. Indeed, Fauchard’s description of such appliances emphasizes their longevity. From the 1746 edition of his treatise Le Chirurgien dentiste, ou Traité des dents:

“Teeth and artificial dentures, fastened with posts and gold wire, hold better than all others. They sometimes last 15–20 years and even more without displacement. Common thread and silk, used ordinarily to attach all kinds of teeth or artificial pieces, do not last long.”

The dentures found in the Guinigi predate Fauchard by at least a century, but they are notably more complex than the device he describes. The gold band runs inside the roots of the teeth, fastened with pins and the appliance is anchored to in situ teeth with those s-shaped ends. Fauchard just attaches a band to the lingual and buccal surface of the teeth using strings run through holes drilled into the teeth.

One member of the team, Dr Simona Minozzi, said: “Although there are descriptions of similar objects in texts from the period, there is no known archaeological evidence. The dentures found in the tomb are the first example of dentures from this historical period, and as such are a valuable addition to the history of dentistry.”

The study of the dental appliance has been published in the journal Clinical Implant Dentistry and Related Research. It is not, alas, freely available for perusal, but if you have an institutional subscription or six bucks to spare, you can enjoy some more detailed images of the holes, gold band and dental plaque.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

New scan of crocodile mummies find 47 more

Mon, 2016-11-21 23:36

After 17 months of renovations, the Dutch National Museum of Antiquities in Leiden opened their new Egyptian galleries on November 18th. As part of the remodelling project, the museum installed 3D visualisation stations so visitors can explore mummies in the kind of extreme detail that would be otherwise be impossible. The system uses high resolution CT scans to create composite models of mummies in the collection that museum visitors can virtually unwrap on a touch screen. They can peel back every layer, examine the mummies’ features and the amulets placed in the linen wrappers from every angle. It’s the same principle as the extremely cool virtual autopsy table the British Museum created for Gebelein Man.

During the renovation, the museum worked with Swedish visualization company Interspectral to scan their mummies and create the virtual models. One of the mummies scanned appeared to be that of a giant crocodile, a representation of the crocodile god Sobek that has been in the museum’s collection since 1828. A scan in 1996 had already determined that it wasn’t one huge crocodile, but rather two adolescent crocodiles, one larger, one smaller, positioned tail to snout and then wrapped as one.

Because of the earlier scan, curators weren’t expecting to discover any new information about the mummy, but the high resolution technology revealed that there weren’t just two crocodiles wrapped in linen; there were 49, 47 of them hatchlings. Each of the babies was individually wrapped in linen bandages, placed around the adolescent crocodiles and the whole lot were bound together with palm rope to create the impression of a single 10-foot crocodile mummy. Scans have found baby crocs mummified with adults before — as with this Sobek mummy at the British Museum, for instance — but only one other example of baby crocs wrapped with adults in a palm robe binding is known.

The museum’s Egyptologists suspect that the crocodiles of different ages were mummified together as a reference to the ancient Egyptian belief in rejuvenation and new life after death. Another possibility is that no large crocodiles were available at a time when they were needed as offerings to the gods. The mummy was given the shape of one large crocodile with various kinds of stuffing: bits of wood, wads of linen, plant stems, and rope.

The museum doesn’t know where the crocodile mummy came from. Faiyum is a likely candidate because it was a center for the worship of Sobek and the Nile crocodile. Because the sacred crocodiles were bred and raised specifically for mummification and dedication to the deity as votive offerings, it’s possible the hatchlings were related. Crocodiles lay around 50 eggs at a time, so this may have been a single litter.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

17th c. Danish bishop’s turd identified

Sun, 2016-11-20 21:24

A piece of poo recovered from a latrine in Aalborg, Denmark, has been identified as the likely product of the colon of 17th century bishop Jens Bircherod. It was excavated from the latrine of the Aalborg bishop’s palace when the structure was demolished in 1937 for construction of Budolfi Square in the city center. The stool was of no interest to archaeologists at the time — poop studies have only recently come to be appreciated as the motherlode of information they are — but it was embedded in a broken bottle. The bottle and some Delft porcelain were put in a cardboard box and stored at the Moesgaard Museum. Researchers came across the historic turd while doing research on the thriving immigrant communities of Early Modern (1450-1650) Aalborg, Aarhus, Elsinore and Nya Lödöse.

Cherry pits and one hazelnut were visible with the naked eye, but detailed archaeobotanical analysis of the crap discovered the pooper’s diet was varied and high quality. It was replete with seeds, nuts, cloudberries, blackberries, peppercorns and exotic fruits like figs and grapes. The cloudberry, imported from Norway, is the earliest found in Denmark. The pepper was imported from India and was a luxury good.

The smoking gun was the presence of buckwheat. In late 17th century Denmark, buckwheat was almost exclusively grown on the island of Funen. Bishop Jens Bircherod was born in Odense, Funen’s main city and the site of another most excellent poop discovery, in 1658.

“It all fits nicely with the bishop who lived in that house from 1694 to 1708,” says Jette Linaa, from Moesgaard Museum in the Danish city of Aarhus.

The general diet for the people of Aalborg at that time was gruel, cabbage, pork and beef but buckwheat was particular to the island of Funen, some 200km (125 miles) away.

“He had a typical upper-class diet, he was part of the upper class,” she told the BBC.

Bircherod also refers in his diaries to his “opulent dinners.” As part of the team’s research into the immigrant community of Aalborg, they found a German-owned pharmacy which had the city’s largest stock of pepper and figs and held the monopoly on the sale of herbs and spices. Only the wealthiest people in Aalborg could afford to purchase its wares, the city’s nobles, political office holders and its bishop among them. Other people lived in the bishop’s mansion, of course, including his wife and children, so it’s possible the poop was contributed by someone else in the household, but the buckwheat signature points to the man himself, and the fanciness of the diet likely excludes the servants.

The research team is elated by the feces they’ve found. This one bishop’s turd lends new insight into the international lifestyle of the prosperous residents of the city in the late 1600s. Before, they only had documentary sources to go on. The poop is concrete archaeological evidence of how the products of international trade wound up on the tables of Aalborg’s elites. They plan to study the contents of two other Aalborg latrines to flesh out the picture even further.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Export barred on “Indian Manner” tapestry by mysterious weaver

Sat, 2016-11-19 22:35

John Vanderbank the Elder (his son would become a successful society portrait artist), was born in Paris to a Huguenot family. Religious conflict drove him out of France, first to Holland and then to England where he set up shop as a tapestry weaver. The Vanderbank workshop on Great Queen Street, Covent Garden, was the premier tapestry manufacturer of the late 17th and early 18th century. From 1689 until 1717, he was Yeoman Arras-maker to the Great Wardrobe, meaning he was the official tapestry-maker for the royal family.

Influenced by Indian textiles, Chinese porcelain and Japanese lacquer, tapestries known as “Indian Manner” were all the rage at the time. India didn’t refer to the subcontinent in any literal sense; this was a mish-mash of vaguely Asian elements, plus Turkish and European themes. Indian Manner tapestries were characterized by multiple colorful scenes set against a dark field, with smaller animal and floral motifs at the top and larger scenes approaching the bottom.

Today Vanderbank tapestries are found in some of Britain’s stateliest homes and in museums like the Victoria & Albert, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Yale University Art Gallery. Because Vanderbank’s workshop was so dominant in English Indian Manner tapestries of his time and because he often reused his more popular designs, making changes in size and placement of motifs based on the wishes of his clients, most tapestries in this style have been attributed to him or his workshop.

Then there’s the mysterious Michael Mazarind. There is exactly one known Indian Manner tapestry signed by M. Mazarind, formerly in the collection of Henry McLaren, 2nd Baron Aberconway. Edith Standen noted in her seminal 1981 study (pdf) of Indian Manner tapestries that Mazarind is “a weaver otherwise totally unknown.” She went on to state: “Until more information comes to light about Mazarind (even his name is puzzling), any interpretation of these facts must remain extremely tentative, but he was evidently closely connected with Vanderbank and, like him, was probably not English.”

Despite how very cautiously worded her association of Mazarind with Vanderbank was, it stuck. Enough so that when a buyer recently purchased the tapestry in a private sale, he applied for an export license on the grounds that it did not qualify as a national treasure under the Waverly Criteria because it is not closely connected to Britain’s history, is not of particular aesthetic importance because it’s been altered over time and it is not of outstanding significance for the study of tapestries because there are other Vanderbank tapestries in UK public collections.

The Reviewing Committee on the Export of Works of Art and Objects of Cultural Interest (RCEWA) disagreed. In researching the tapestry to determine whether to recommend the granting of an export license, they found that in fact Michael Mazarind was not Vanderbank’s associate, but rather his competitor. He had a workshop of his own, identified from parish rate-books as occupying a space on Portugal Street (now Piccadilly) between 1696 and 1702. The cartoons he used to make the tapestry were not retreads or copies of Vanderbanks, but entirely original.

RCEWA member Christopher Rowell said:

“This beautiful blue ground tapestry, with an equally unusual border of Chinese inspiration, dates from the late 1600s and is the only one to bear the woven signature of the mysterious Michael Mazarind, who was a rival of the more well-known London tapestry weaver, John Vanderbank. This type of ‘Indian’ tapestry depicting a Chinoiserie fantasy paradise in Cathay, with courtly and hunting scenes, was devised for the court, but soon became more broadly popular. Saving the tapestry for the nation will allow specialists to study it in detail and help to reconstruct Mazarind’s contribution to tapestry production in early-Georgian London.”

Following the RCEWA’s recommendation, Culture minister Matt Hancock has placed a temporary export bar on the tapestry. The bar will give British institutions until January 19th, 2017, to raise the £67,500 purchase price. If there is an indication of a serious effort to raise the money that just needs more time, the bar may be extended until April 19th, 2017.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Pristine cartonnage sarcophagus found in Luxor

Fri, 2016-11-18 20:27

Thutmose III, the 18th Dynasty pharaoh who ruled for 54 years (1479- 1425 B.C., the first 22 years as co-regent with his stepmother Hatchepsut) and whose military conquests greatly expanded Egypt’s empire. Because of his extraordinary successes on the battlefield, he is known as Egypt’s Napoleon. His mortuary temple at Al-Deir Al-Bahari in Luxor on the left bank of the Nile was built above a Middle Kingdom necropolis and there are tombs and structures from multiple periods on the site. As a result, excavations have revealed a fascinating cross-section of architecture, funerary environments, housing and artifacts that provide a unique glimpse into more than a thousand years of life and death in ancient Thebes.

The Temple of Millions of Years of the Pharaoh Thutmose III project is a joint mission of the Egyptian Ministry of Antiquities and the Academy of Fine Arts Santa Isabel of Hungary of Seville, headed by Spanish Egyptologist Dr. Myriam Seco Álvarez. Its ninth field season started this fall and the team excavated a tomb on the exterior of the temple’s southern wall. Inside the tomb archaeologists discovered a cartonnage sarcophagus in pristine condition.

The wooden outer coffin was badly damaged, but the delicate the plaster and linen sarcophagus within is painted in brilliant colors and the decoration is almost entirely intact. Cartonnage is easily destroyed, even in the hot, dry desert environment, often by insects. Other tombs excavated at the temple site had little left of their cartonnage sarcophaguses because termites had feasted upon them. Extensive looting in antiquity also damaged the coffins and mummified human remains in the destructive search for easily saleable artifacts.

Álvarez said out that the cartonnage includes its almost complete polychrome painted decoration and inscriptions with some of the most characteristic symbols and elements of the ancient Egyptian religion.

Among these inscriptions are solar symbols, the protective goddesses Isis and Nephthys with spread wings, hawks and the four sons of Horus, executed in artisanal quality of the highest order.

According to Myriam Seco Álvarez, inscriptions suggest the cartonnage sarcophagus contains the mummy of a royal servant named Amenrenef. It’s not clear what his duties were, just that he was attached to the pharaoh’s household. He must have been a person of high rank and wealth because the painting is the work of the best and most expensive artisans. Preliminary analysis indicates the tomb dates to the Third Intermediate Period (1070-712 BC), so he would not have been a servant of Thutmose III’s. The team hopes to discover what possible connection he made have had with the long-deceased pharaoh that caused him to be buried adjacent to the temple. Since they have his name, they are hoping to find references to him in other documentary or archaeological sources.

The investigation into Amenrenef will begin only after the excavation season closes and the immediate conservation needs of the sarcophagus are met. The coffin will also be scanned to determine the condition of the mummy within, and, fingers crossed, to discover more information about Amenrenf from inscriptions and/or artifacts buried with him. Hopefully they will also find out more about his physical condition — age, health, possible cause of death.

When conservation and the investigation into its owner is complete, the splendid cartonnage sarcophagus will likely go on display at the Luxor Museum.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Renewed Circus Maximus reopens after 6 years

Thu, 2016-11-17 23:35

According to Livy’s account of early Roman history in Ab Urbe Condita, the first iteration of the Circus Maximus was built in the valley between the Palatine and Aventine hills by Lucius Tarquinius Priscus, the legendary fifth king of Rome, in the 6th century B.C.

Then for the first time a space was marked for what is now the “Circus Maximus.” Spots were allotted to the patricians and knights where they could each build for themselves stands – called “ford” – from which to view the Games. These stands were raised on wooden props, branching out at the top, twelve feet high. The contests were horse-racing and boxing, the horses and boxers mostly brought from Etruria. They were at first celebrated on occasions of especial solemnity; subsequently they became an annual fixture, and were called indifferently the “Roman” or the “Great Games.”

There’s no archaeological evidence for this (or for much of an anything else to do with the putative kings of Rome, for that matter). The low-lying area would have been subject to regular flooding and was probably farmland. A drainage system would have made it possible for the field to be used for horse races, but the wooden stands were temporary and rebuilt many times. Permanent wooden seating was built in 329 B.C.; the first stone seating (for senators, of course) was built in the 190s B.C.

It was Julius Caesar’s ambitious building program that developed the Circus Maximus into something more akin to our image of it. He built stands on both sides down the full length of the track, with the trackside seating reserved for senators. Equites (knights) got the next rows and the plebs got the nosebleed seats. There were shops under the galleries where sports fans could get a bite or place a bet. It was all still wood, though, and was seriously damaged by fire in 31 B.C. and the great conflagration of 64 A.D. during which Nero so notoriously strummed the lyre. The stone Circus Maximus as we know it now was built by Trajan in the first years of the 2nd century and commemorated on a bronze sestertius minted from 103 to 111 A.D. At its largest, it was 600 yards long and 140 yards wide and could seat a quarter of a million people.

When I lived in Rome in the 80s, the Circus Maximus was open, but there wasn’t much to see. You could picnic on the grassy slopes which once held stone and wood bleachers, go jogging, walk your dog. At night it was something of a shady place frequented by the demimonde, as it were. More recently it’s been a venue for concerts and other public events. It was basically a large oval field with some bits in the middle and at the ends. In 2009, the city initiated a program of excavation and restoration to create an archaeological park worthy of such a great icon of the Eternal City. While excavations will continue, the newly revived Circus Maximus is now open to visitors.

The excavation has uncovered many artifacts and structures long obscured by the overgrowth. Archaeologists have found more than 1,000 bronze coins, fragments of gold jewelry, and perhaps most excitingly, the bottom of a glass goblet with the image and name of a horse engraved in gold. Named after the legendary king of Alba Longa, descendant of Aeneas of Troy and grandfather of Romulus and Remus, Numitor the horse holds a golden palm branch in his mouth, attribute of the goddess Victory. This is the first time any kind of horse-related artifact has been found at the stadium which held chariot races for 1,000 years. The image of Numitor the lucky horse will be the new logo of the Circus Maximus.

A wealth of architectural remains have been revealed on the Palatine end of the track. Visitors will now be able to walk two stories of galleries: the lower one that senators walked to reach their trackside seats and the upper one the plebs used to reach their bleachers. From there, they can walk along the paved road unearthed during the recent excavations which features a large water trough made of travertine slabs. They can see the latrines used by the same ancient audience members, and the shop fronts, brothels, money changers and betting parlors underneath the galleries.

The Torre della Moletta, the 12th century tower built by the powerful Frangipani family as part of a fortification system that extended up the Palatine, has been restored and a new staircase added to the interior so visitors can climb to the top of the tower and enjoy a spectacular view of the Circus Maximus. In the hemicycle behind the tower, large marble fragments of the ancient structure discovered during the excavations have been tidily arranged in the grassy space: steps, cornices, column capitals, thresholds of shops, marble columns and the architectural elements of the triumphal arch of Titus discovered last year. Some of the bronze letters of the inscription dedicating the arch to Titus’ conquest of Judea — previously known only from a 9th century transcription — were found during the excavation, a wonderful surprise given how much ancient bronze was melted down in the Middle Ages.

Archaeologists plan to continue excavations. They are hopeful that something of the ancient spina, the central strip that in its heyday boasted two Egyptian obelisks, an altar to the gods and the lap counters (first egg-shaped, later dolphins) so memorably portrayed on the screen in Ben Hur, might still slumber under the earth. Maybe the remnants of the original track or drainage system are down there 30 feet underground. Any discovery at all from the archaic era would be a massive archaeological bonanza.

The Circus Maximus will be open to tourists (tickets cost three to five euros) every day from now through December 11th. After that it will be open on weekends only, weekdays by appointment.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Rare early Christian Anglo-Saxon cemetery found

Wed, 2016-11-16 23:53

A rare early Christian Anglo-Saxon cemetery has been discovered in an extraordinary state of preservation in Great Ryburgh in Norfolk. Funded by Historic England, Museum of London Archaeology experts excavated the site in advance of the creation of a conservation lake and flood defense system that will leave it fully submerged. The site is already quite soggy, thanks to the high water table of the river valley, which is why the graves in the cemetery have been so incredibly well-preserved. The alkaline water combined with the acidic sand of the area to create a perfect storm for the survival of organic remains.

There are six plank-lined graves, the earliest known examples in Britain, and an unprecedented 81 treetrunk coffins dating to the 7th-9th century A.D. Early Anglo-Saxon coffins and wood-lined graves very rarely survive. Usually all archaeologists have to go on are the stains left in the soil by the long-decayed wood. The plank-lined graves were lined with finely hewn timbers and the body laid within. More planks were then placed on top to create a coffin-like enclosure.

Middle Saxon burial with wooden coffin by MOLA

While treetrunk coffins have been discovered before, mainly in the 19th century, this is the first time they have been professionally excavated using modern archaeological methods. The coffins were dug out from oak trees cut in half lengthwise. Bodies were placed in the hollowed out center of one half, then the second half of the oak was placed on top to act as a lid. This was a labour-intensive process that would have taken one man an estimated four days to complete. Treetrunk coffins have been found in pre-Christian Anglo-Saxon graves as well, so their presence in this early Christian cemetery may suggest a syncretic combination of old and new religious traditions.

There is considerable evidence pointing to this being a Christian burial ground. The graves each have wooden markers and are aligned from east to west, both Christian traditions that are not seen in pagan burials. They also lack grave goods which were an important part of pre-Christian Anglo-Saxon funerary practices. Archaeologists discovered the remains of a timber structure on the site that they think may have been a church or chapel, an extremely rare find from this period.

When the cemetery was in use, the site was on a busy river crossing in the kingdom of East Anglia. There is virtually no documentary evidence from this period of Anglo-Saxon East Anglia, so such a rich, well-preserved site is an invaluable source of information to archaeologists and historians.

The discovery is shedding light on a previously unknown religious site and the fascinating lives of this early Christian rural community. Continued research and scientific testing, in the form of ancient DNA, stable isotope and dental calculus analysis, will help to develop biographies for the people buried and paint a picture of the people who lived here. Archaeologists hope to be able to say more about where these people came from, whether they were related, and what their diet and health were like, once research is complete.

The timber will be subjected to dendrochronological analysis to give us a more precise date range. Once the remains have been studied and conserved, they will be kept at the Norwich Castle Museum.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Roman pot filled with lamps found in Switzerland

Tue, 2016-11-15 23:56

Archaeologists excavating the site of a Roman fort and civilian settlement in the northern Swiss city of Windisch have unearthed an unusual hoard: a cooking pot filled with lamps, each containing a single bronze coin. What is now the Zürcherstrasse, one of Windisch’s busiest streets, in the first century A.D. was the defensive wall of the Roman legionary camp of Vindonissa. It was established in the province of Germania Superior around 15 A.D. and was occupied by various legions until 101 A.D., after which it was integrated into the civilian settlement. The ancient town was inhabited through the 5th century.

The Aargau Canton archaeology department has been excavating the site south of Zürcherstrasse where a multi-use development with underground garage will be constructed, since 2013. They’ve discovered the remains of defensive earthworks, well-preserved stone buildings, fireplaces, a latrine pit and a deep brick shaft.

It was in the brick shaft that archaeologists found the pot, the kind of quotidian vessel the legionaries at Vindonissa would have used to cook their food, entirely intact and in exceptionally good condition. Inside were 22 oil lamps. They too were implements used by regular people in their daily life. They were filled with oil and lit at the spout end. Produced in enormous quantities and sold all over the empire, the lamps were often decorated on the top side with designs which would glow in the light. The lamps collected inside the pot are decorated with a variety of motifs: a flower, the moon goddess Luna, a winged Cupid, a defeated gladiator, a lion, a peacock, even an erotic scene.

An as, a bronze coin that was lowest value currency in the early Roman Empire, was placed inside each lamp. Almost all of the coins date to 66 and 67 A.D., a range that fits the style of the cooking pot and lamps. Because asses were of such low value, their inclusion in this odd assemblage is likely symbolic.

“What astonished us was the quantity and the combination of coins and lamps,” said Aargau cantonal archaeologist Georg Matter.

“We suspect this is a ritual burial,” he said, but stressed that was only speculation since there haven’t been any other comparable discoveries.

The pot also contained charred fragments of animal bones, ruling it out as a urn for human remains.

“The intentions behind this burial are puzzling at the moment,” added Matter.

The pot has been fully excavated in the laboratory, the lamps catalogued and photographed. Next on the schedule is examination of the coins by numismatic experts and the analysis of the bone fragments.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Portrait of Tsar Nicholas II found behind portrait of Lenin

Mon, 2016-11-14 23:17

In the summer of 2013, the administration of St. Petersburg’s Primary School No. 206 called in the experts at the Stieglitz Art and Industry Academy to restore a portrait of Lenin that had a substantial damage to the canvas. In the larger than life-sized portrait (nine by six feet), Lenin looks pensively off to the side. Behind him is the Peter and Paul Fortress, the citadel and prison built by Peter the Great which became a symbol of Tsarist oppression akin to the Bastille, and the domes and golden spire of the Peter and Paul Cathedral, the church where all the Russian Tsars from Peter the Great on were buried.

There were multiple holes in the bottom left of the portrait. Restorers noticed a piece of boot on the other side of the canvas showing through the tears. When they removed the frame to examine the back, they found a painted over portrait of Tsar Nicholas II by Ilya Galkin Savich, a painter who was a favorite at the Imperial court. He painted Nicholas the year before he ascended the throne, at least twice immediately after he became Tsar Nicholas II, plus his wife the Empress Alexandra Feodorovna and his mother the Dowager Empress Maria Feodorovna. The newly rediscovered portrait was commissioned the year of Nicholas’ coronation to hang in the assembly hall of the Merchant Society’s Petrovsky Trade and Commercial School. Portraits of Peter the Great and Tsar Paul I, later destroyed by the Soviets, also hung in the assembly hall.

After the 1917 Revolution, the Trade School was turned into an elementary school. In 1924, artist Vladislav Izmailovich was commissioned to paint over the portrait of the last Tsar with a new portrait of Lenin. Izmailovich was a classically trained artist who studied at fine arts in St. Petersburg, Rome, Paris and Berlin. He lived in St. Petersburg at the turn of the century where he painted landscapes, genre scenes and was in demand as a portraitist. Izmailovich also painted decorative interiors at private homes of the wealthy and was hired to restore paintings at St. Michael’s Castle, a former royal palace converted into the army’s engineering school, and at the sumptuous Catherine Palace in Tsarskoye Selo.

His work for the moneyed elites, up to and including the royal family, did not harm his artistic career after the October Revolution. Prominent Marxist figures became subjects of his portraits. He made one of the first portraits of Lenin, a pastel in 1918. Other portrait subjects were founder of the German Communist Party Karl Liebknecht in 1918, a year before he became a socialist martyr in the failed Spartacist uprising, Anatoly Lunacharsky, the first Soviet People’s Commissar of Education, in 1920, and national heroes like chemist Dmitri Mendeleev and Leonid Govorov, defender of Leningrad during World War II. Izmailovich also painted historic scenes and landscapes, managing to survive many a purge and vanishing commissar to work until just before his death in 1959 a few months shy of his 87th birthday.

It’s fascinating to think that this survivor secretly saved a portrait of the Tsar, disguising it instead of destroying it. He painted the portrait of Lenin on the reverse side, painted over the Tsar until the portrait of Nicholas was thoroughly hidden. Izmailovich used layers of greyish-white water-soluble paint that not only allowed future restorers to remove it without damaging the original painting, but actually preserved the original work.

The decision to go through with the restoration process was kicked off by an initial X-ray result, in which “we were shocked, almost to the point of humor, to discover Czar Nicholas II’s head nearly exactly the same size and placement as Lenin’s,” confirming their suspicions that there was a completed full-size portrait beneath the water-soluble paint. The restoration experts used baby soap and water to wash the paint off and reveal a “remarkably intact and preserved” portrait of Czar Nicholas II, signed by the Russian artist Ilya Galkin Savich.

Ms. Pozeluyeva and other experts at Stieglitz believe that in 1924, Izmailovich painted over the Czar Nicholas II work — still in its frame — as an urgent act of “protection” and “sympathy for the Imperial era.”

Izmailovich’s secret tsarist leanings created a unique art work: a massive double-sided formal portrait of two leaders of diametrically opposed regimes painted by two different artists at different times.

After three years of restoration, the double portrait is going on display at the end of the month at the Stieglitz Art and Industry Academy. It will be displayed on a stand with no glass case impeding visitors’ full experience of this remarkable canvas.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Curtain Theatre stage, secret passageway revealed

Sun, 2016-11-13 21:41

The remains of the Curtain Theatre, the Elizabethan playhouse in Shoreditch, north London, where Shakespeare’s Henry V and Romeo and Juliet were first staged, were first discovered by Museum of London Archaeology (MOLA) in October 2011 during an exploratory excavation in advance of developement. Built in 1577, the Curtain was the second purpose-built public playhouse in London (The Theatre was the first), and the main staging venue for the plays of Shakespeare between 1597 and 1599. After that it was supplanted by the famous Globe Theatre, and the last recorded play at the Curtain was performed in 1622. Over time the exact location was lost until the MOLA team found it on (or rather under) Hewett Street.

The Curtain was believed to have been dismantled during the Commonwealth — Puritans weren’t keen on the rowdy entertainments of the public theater — but a much wider open-area excavation this year has found that in fact the theater was likely repurposed into a tenement. That has proven a great archaeological boon, because while all that remains today of the Globe and the Rose, two theaters on the South Bank famed for having staged Shakespeare’s plays, are bits and bobs of stonework from the foundations, there’s enough the Curtain left to paint a rich picture of the Elizabeth playhouse, and much of what they’ve found has entirely upended expectations.

Historians previously thought the Curtain was a polygonal structure with a thrust stage, like the more famous theaters that followed it. Archaeologists discovered that in fact it was rectangular building with a rectangular stage. The stage was 14 meters (46 feet) long and five meters (16 feet) deep, a very unusual proportion that may have made it possible to field larger numbers of players for Shakespeare’s busy battle scenes. That means that the prologue of Henry V, which alludes to the theater as a “wooden O,” must have been written after the play’s premier at the Curtain, perhaps for later performances at the Globe. Under the stage archaeologists found the remains of a tunnel that was accessed by doors on either side of the stage. Actors would have used it to exit from one side of the stage and enter from the other side out of view of the audience.

There are remains of brick walls, 1.5 meters (4’9″) at the highest, and even part of the sloping yard made of compacted gravel where the people with the cheapest tickets, known as groundlings, stood in front of the stage. Between the standing room and the more expensive seats in three sides of timber galleries, the theater could accomodate 1,200 people.

Archaeologists have found artifacts like clay pipes, wine bottles, glass beads, a comb, and one tiny broken piece of clay that looks like an egg cup but is the bottom of a bird call, perhaps used for sound effects in plays like Romeo and Juliet where the song a bird interrupts the lovers in their marriage bed. They’ve also found a group of green glazed knobs and a few sherds from money boxes.

Throughout findings, we’ve also been able to tell that The Curtain Theatre is one of earliest Elizabethan playhouses where people actually paid money to see performances and be entertained. We know this because fragments of ceramic money boxes have been found. These fragments are a really exciting find because the pots would have been used to collect the entry fees from theatregoers and then been taken to an office to be smashed and the money counted. This office was known as the ‘box office’, which is actually the origin of the term we still use today!

The Curtain Theatre has been covered now with sand and a protective membrane to keep it secure while the mixed-use development of retail, office space, homes, a park and a performance area is built around it. The new development will be called The Stage, appropriately enough, and has been redesigned in light of the discovery to display the archaeological remains of the Curtain in the new cultural and visitors center.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Conserving The Death of Buddha

Sat, 2016-11-12 23:56

The depiction of the death of the Buddha surrounded by the inconsolable grief of beings, human and animal, who have yet to achieve enlightenment and the detachment from earthly desires, has a long, rich tradition in Asian art. Hanabusa Itchō’s version, painted in 1713 during the Edo period, is done in the animated, dynamic style characteristic of his work. He was known for his keen observation of daily life and for biting parodies, one of which got him exiled for 12 years when he chose the mistress of the shogun as a subject for satire. He returned to Edo in 1710 after the death of shogun he’d offended, and quickly picked up where he’d left off.

His The Death of Buddha was hugely famous during the Edo period. It belonged to a Zen temple in Tokyo which is believed to have displayed it once a year during Nehan-e (Nirvana Day), the Buddhist holiday celebrating the death of the Buddha and his passing into Mahaparinirvana, for more than 150 years. Pilgrims traveled to the temple just to see the painted scroll as viewing it was believed to be good karma.

The ownership history has a gap between 1850 and 1886. At some point before the latter date, it was acquired by Ernest Fenollosa, an American professor at Tokyo Imperial University who was an avid art historian and collector of Japanese art. In 1886, he sold his entire collection to Boston doctor Charles Goddard Weld (former Massachusetts governor William Weld is a scion of the family) conditional on its eventually going to the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston where Fenollosa had attended art school. Weld bequeathed it to the MFA Boston after his death in 1911.

The scroll hasn’t been on view since 1990 for its own protection. A massive piece at six feet wide and 10 feet tall, it’s the largest scroll in the museum collection and conservation for such a large, delicate piece is extremely challenging. Adding to the logistically difficulties, the scroll hasn’t been remounted since 1850 when it was still at the Zen temple in Tokyo. Because scrolls have unique pressures — they’re rolled, mounts regularly fail or being to tug, tear and pull at the painting — they’re usually remounted every century or so.

The museum began planning the complex conservation of The Death of Buddha three years ago. Active conservation began in the spring of this year in the MFA Boston laboratory. Four conservators, two from the MFA Boston and two from the Smithsonian’s Freer Gallery which has an exceptional collection of Asian art and is currently being renovated allowing East Asian painting experts Andrew Hare and Jiro Ueda to join in the conservation of one the great scroll paintings of the Edo period. It is truly a conservation dream team. Three of the four, lead conservator Philip Meredith and both of the Freer experts, did the traditional ten-year apprenticeships at registered conservation studios required by Japanese government regulation for the conservation of Japan’s cultural patrimony. Meredith was only the second westerner to complete the decade-long apprenticeship.

In August, the scroll and conservation team moved to the Asian Painting Gallery to give the public the rare opportunity to watch the painstaking work in progress in an exhibition called Conservation in Action: Preserving Nirvana. The scroll had to be dismantled from mount screws to linings to silk borders. After cleaning, consolidation, crease flattening, removal of old linings, replacement with new linings and the reassembling of every part, the scroll must be stretch dried on a custom karibari drying board 18 feet long.

It’s in the home stretch now, but conservation still proceeds apace. Visitors to the MFA Boston galleries can view the team at work until January 16th, 2017. The rest of us can get a glimpse into this extraordinary labor of love and expertise in the following videos.

A fascinating overview of the conservation process:

Timelapse video of the conservation team applied temporary facing to the painting:

Here the team applies layers of protective paper, humidifying the work and removing the temporary facing. Then they turn it face down and remove old linings from the creases so that they can brush out the creases and re-flatten the painting.

In this last timelapse video, the conservators remove all the old lining paper from the back of the painting, lifting it with bamboo sticks and tweezing off the fibers that remain. They replace the old lining with fresh Mino washi, a traditional Japanese mulberry paper that is on UNESCO’s list of Intangible Cultural Heritage, adhered with wheat starch paste.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Beer recreated from 18th c. shipwreck yeast

Fri, 2016-11-11 23:56

Conservators at the Queen Victoria Museum and Art Gallery in Launceston, Tasmania, Australia’s largest regional museum, have used samples of what is believed to be the world’s oldest surviving beer to create a modern brew from 18th century microorganisms.

The bottles were discovered in the shipwreck of the Sydney Cove, a small merchant vessel carrying alcohol, food, textiles and livestock from Calcutta to Port Jackson (modern-day Sydney) in 1797. On February 9th, the ship was caught in a storm and began to take on water. The captain decided to deliberately ground the Sydney Cove on the shore of Preservation Island, Tasmania. The full crew survived and after stashing all the cargo they could salvage, 17 of them set out for Port Jackson in the ship’s longboat, becoming the first Europeans to cross the Bass Strait between Tasmania and mainland Australia. Their bad luck held, however, and they got into another wreck off Ninety Mile Beach, Victoria, a full 400 miles from their destination. They had to walk the coast all that way to finally reach Port Jackson. By the time they got there in May, only three of the 17 were still alive.

The eighth oldest shipwreck in Australian waters, the Sydney Cove was rediscovered in 1977 and excavated by marine archaeologists from the Tasmanian Parks and Wildlife Service from 1991 to 1994. They recovered 26 glass bottles of beer from the ship’s hold, as well as bottles of wine, brandy and gin. The artifacts were sent to the Queen Victoria Museum and Art Gallery where two samples were drawn from one of the beer bottles and kept in storage.

Museum conservator David Thurrowgood found a forgotten sealed bottle of beer from the shipwreck two years ago. As a chemist, he was intrigued at the prospect of investigating microorganisms that might still be living in the beer. He extracted a sample with a syringe but found no critters alive. The two samples drawn in the 1990s, on the other hand, were more productive. Thurrowgood and a team of experts from Australia, France, Germany and Belgium were able to revive five strains of yeast from the samples, and several different species of bacteria.

DNA testing of the yeast strains found they are related to yeast found in beers brewed in Trappist monasteries. Researchers also plan to analyse the DNA of the other microbes discovered in the samples to discover more about pre-Industrial diets.

“People talk about autoimmune diseases and other issues [relating to] the fact that we have quite a clean diet today, whereas in the past we had a diet full of microbes,” Thurrowgood said. “This is one of the few chances we’ve got to actually test those microbes, and actually see what they were.”

Meanwhile, one of the yeast cultures drawn from the Sydney Cove beer has been used to create a new batch named Preservation Ale after the island where the ship ran ground. They used an English beer recipe from the late 18th century to recreate a brew as close as possible to the original.

“It’s got quite a sweet taste — some people have described it as almost a cider or fresh taste — which has come from the yeast,” said project leader David Thurrowgood….

The researchers also uncovered a historical account of a celebrated English beer from the time that was known for its sweet, cider-like flavor, similar to the beer brewed from the reanimated yeast.

“That was quite a surprise, but having found that reference, and to have that particular taste come out in the beer … it showed that the beer did actually have a distinctive taste at the time that we’re only rediscovering now,” Thurrowgood told Live Science.

Only a few bottles have been brewed for research purposes, so for now there’s no chance of the public getting a sip of this cider-like beer. Several companies have expressed interest in making a brew for wider public consumption, however. Meanwhile, researchers plan to study the wine and other alcohol found on the shipwreck. They will examine the red wine to compare it to modern red wine and to study any microorganisms within.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Supreme Number One imperial musket slays at auction

Thu, 2016-11-10 23:11


An imperial musket custom-made for the Qianlong Emperor (1711-1799) and marked with the unique ranking of “Supreme Grade, Number One” sold at a Sotheby’s London auction on November 9th for a £1,985,000 ($2,638,000). This is the first Chinese firearm with an imperial reign mark to appear at auction, and the bidding was fierce. The winning bid, almost half a million pounds above the high estimate, was made by an Asian private collector.

The Qianlong Emperor was an avid collector of art and had a great interest in Western technology. Western firearms captured his fancy not for waging war, but for hunting. Their great length required a tripod for shooting, which is not the most convenient weaponry for battle. Its firepower was far more effective than a bow and arrow for hunting, however, and the stationary position was fine once the target was acquired.

The Qianlong Emperor, one of the most powerful Sons of Heaven and the longest-lived and de-facto longest-reigning emperor in Chinese history, deeply admired his grandfather, the Kangxi Emperor (r. 1662-1722), and like him, was proud of his Manchu ancestry and at the same time keenly interested in Western technology. Both were intent on keeping in touch with a Manchu life style, organized large-scale training hunts at Rehe (Jehol), Chengde, northeast of Beijing, with soldiers from the Eight Banners, to keep their troops well trained for military campaigns, and prided themselves on their own hunting, riding and shooting skills. Organized hunting trips were also a way of building closer relations with Mongolian princes who usually participated in these hunts. While traditionally, hunting would have been done with bow and arrow, or with spears, the advent of Western firearm technology sparked off the production of muskets also in the imperial workshops.

The emperor’s love of hunting was well known and represented in art. Giuseppe Castiglione, the Italian Jesuit missionary who became a court artist who famously sculpted the 12 animals of the Chinese zodiac for a water clock at the Old Summer Palace that were looted by the British in 1860 and wound up in European collections, depicted the Qianlong Emperor calling deer with a large party in a hilly terrain. One anonymous court painter captures the emperor shooting deer with a musket on a tripod much like the one that sold at auction. There’s an even a poem written by the emperor himself when he was 88 years old about how he could still shoot a deer with perfect aim.

The Supreme Number One matchlock musket was one of very few made by the Manufacture Department of the Imperial Household for the Qianlong Emperor using the most expensive materials. The stock is elm wood. The barrel is cast iron inlaid with gold, silver and copper foliage decoration. The muzzle is also cast iron and is inlaid with the gold mark of the Qianlong Emperor. Behind the breech, visible only if the musket is taken apart, is the inscription “te deng di yi” (Supreme Grade Number One). It comes with its original tripod of rare zitan wood (red sandalwood native to India) with pointy horn-shaped feet made of cast iron.

The Supreme Grade Number One designation is unique among the imperial muskets that have survived. It is likely connected to six imperial muskets now in the collection of Beijing’s Palace Museum. They have individual names that appear on a list of seven in the Qing-era record Collected Statutes of the Qing Dynasty with Illustrations. They were likely given graded as well, although the inscriptions are not extant.

Chinese Actor Wang Gang recites the Qianlong Emperor’s poem on hunting deer with one of his prized muskets:

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Rare Viking toolbox discovered at Borgring

Wed, 2016-11-09 21:10

Excavations of the 10th century Borgring fortress discovered on the Danish island of Zealand in 2014 are still in the early stages. A few test pits were dug in 2014 in areas believed to be, based on initial laser and geomagnetic surveys of the site, the fortress gates. Large oak timbers, blackened by fire, confirmed that there had indeed been gates there and that the fort had had a catastrophic fire shortly after its construction. Few artifacts were found. Only a single axe head was reported, that I could find.

That record has changed dramatically thanks to the discovery of a rare Viking toolkit at the east gate. Volunteer metal detectorists Kent and Knuds scanned the area and got a loud signal from their machines. Archaeologists could tell there was something in the soil there, and since the signal indicated the metal wasn’t in the top layer (where it could easily have been a piece of modern farm equipment) but rather deeper down in the layers of archaeological interest, they decided to remove the whole block of soil encasing whatever had set off the metal detectors.

Wrapped in plastic to keep it together, the entire soil block was transported to the Zealand University Hospital in Køge to get a CT scan. The hospital scanner confirmed that there was a group of iron objects inside that looked like they might be tools including spoon drills (used to drill holes in wood) and a drawplate (used to produce thin wire for jewelry). The pieces appeared to be laid out in careful order, suggesting they weren’t dumped or lost. They were likely kept in a toolbox whose wood has now decayed.

Archaeologists spent two days excavating the soil block and found 14 iron objects. There were pieces that were not visible on the scan because they were too corroded or their iron content was too low to register. The more corroded objects cannot be identified at this time; conservation may help make it clear what their original purpose was, and now that they’ve been removed from the soil block, the objects will be individually X-rayed to get a better idea of their design. Archaeologist Nanna Holm suspects one of the spoon drills may actually be a pair of tweezers or pliers, for example.

This box of tools would have been extremely valuable in the Viking era. Only a few of them have ever been discovered. If a tool was broken or became unusable for any reason, they were melted down and made into something else practical, not thrown out. The discovery of a fully loaded toolbox by the east gate is highly significant within the context of Borgring itself, because it’s the first evidence that people actually lived there.

The craftsmen presumably lived very well, whether he used the east gate as a home or a workshop. It was 30 to 40 square metres of space and had its own fireplace–and of course, the toolbox with the valuable iron tools.

So why did he leave the premises and his toolbox?

Perhaps because at some point, the gate simply collapsed, says Holm.

“We found the tools under the posts, so there’s some evidence that the gate collapsed, and it probably did so because they were rotten, old, and unstable. We only discovered the outline of the posts, suggesting that the rest simply rotted away. Then the tools got buried until we discovered now,” she says.

It seems that the fire that struck the east and north gates did not destroy the fort. It was put out before the gates could collapse and the fire spread to the rest of the fortress. After the fire, two layers of clay were built up inside the gate. There was a fireplace in each layer, and the toolbox was unearthed from the newer of the two clay layers. That means the craftsman who lived or worked at the east gate did so after the fire.

The tools are being studied and conserved now. Next year, conservation should be complete and the toolkit will go on public display.

Timelapse of the excavation of the toolbox:

A journalist joins in the excavation:

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Rare dodgy nickel found in Deadwood

Tue, 2016-11-08 22:28

Coin experts have identified a rare example of an 1883 Racketeer Nickel in a group of coins excavated in the historic Chinatown of Deadwood, South Dakota. The coin was discovered in July of 2001 during one of four excavations of Deadwood’s Chinatown district. It was one of more than 200 coins found over the course of four years, most of them Chinese brass pieces. They were all sent to the South Dakota Archeological Research Center in Rapid City to be catalogued only to return to Deadwood in 2009 when City Hall got a new storage facility and laboratory for historic artifacts.

Nobody realized there was a very special coin in the mix until this year. Deadwood Historic Preservation Office had sent photos of the Chinese coins to numismatists Dr. Margie Akin and her husband Kevin Akin last year. They were able to identify all but 16 of them from the pictures. In September of this year, the Akins went to Deadwood where they were asked to examine the 16 mystery coins in person. That done, City Archivist Mike Runge, who is in charge of the city’s vast college of documentary and archaeological materials, showed them a small group of US coins that had been found during the digs.

“It’s a common joke among archeologists that the best thing you find, the most important discoveries, are made in the last hour of the last day,” Margie Akin said recently from California. “I’ve seen many cases where that has been true.”

And it came true again. [...]

“When we found it, I held it up and said, ‘Margie, look at this. A Racketeer Nickel, oh my God!’” Kevin recalled. “It was a bit of a Eureka moment.”

What makes the 1883 Racketeer Nickel such a treasure is that it looked a lot more expensive than it was. It was close in size to a $5 gold piece, and it was the first base metal coin to have a Liberty-head design. The Mint also muddied the waters by only indicating the coin’s value with the Roman numeral “V.” The word “cents” appeared nowhere.

This was an open invitation to fraudsters they accepted with alacrity. A bit of cheap gold plating on the new nickel, and voila! That’s how you make five dollars out of five cents.

U.S. Treasury officials denied there was a problem. But a local newspaper story at the time told a different tale.

“The new nickel five-cent piece is the subject of much discussion in the treasury department,” the Feb. 22, 1883, Black Hills Daily Times reported. “Treasurer Gilfillan carries one in his vest pocket. One of these coins is plated with gold, and its resemblance on one side to a five-dollar gold piece is quite striking. The broad ‘V’ on the opposite side is unlike the device on any other coin, and of course should be an effectual barrier to its fraudulent use.”

The same newspaper article stated that Mint Director Horatio Burchard, “ridicules the idea of any successful counterfeit of gold being made from the new nickel. He said that a proposition to suspend coinage of the new piece has not been made, and so far as he knows none is contemplated.”

Coinage was not suspended, but less than a month later, the Secretary of the Treasury ordered that the word “cents” be added to the reverse of the 1883 nickels underneath the V. They could no longer be passed off to the unobservant as gold five dollar pieces, but the resourceful grifters of Deadwood found another use for them.

Three months later, the Daily Times reported that well-heeled merchants and miners of Deadwood had found a new use for the Racketeer Nickel.

“A number of the toney young men about town are wearing cuff buttons made of the new nickels,” the newspaper reported. “They are highly plated with gold, and to the uninitiated look for all the world like genuine five-dollar gold pieces.”

The one found at Deadwood has no market value — something like 10 cents at most, the Akins say, because of its very poor condition — but its link to the famously rowdy past of the Black Hills mining town give it great historical worth.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Huge Gallo-Roman villa found in Brittany

Mon, 2016-11-07 23:54

A preventative excavation of a site in the village of Langrolay-sur-Rance near Dinan in Brittany, northwestern France, has unearthed a huge Gallo-Roman villa. Archaeologists from France’s National Institute for Preventative Archaeology (INRAP) began excavating the 2.3 hectare site, the future location of a subdivision, in July 2016. They discovered multiple structures arranged in a u-shape around a central courtyard with colonnaded galleries on three sides. This was the pars urbana (the residential section) of a great villa and this section alone covered 1,500 square meters (16,000 square feet).

The main part of the house was built on a plateau with a beautiful view of the Rance river. The secondary structure faced south and was constantly flooded by sunlight. The third structure may have been used as stable. The courtyard and areas surrounding the buildings were landscaped gardens. Coins found at the villa indicate it was originally constructed in the 1st century A.D., it was altered and expanded over the years and was in use at least through the 4th century.

The most impressive testament to how exceptionally luxurious this villa was is its personal bath complex. At more than 400 square meters (4,300 square feet), it included a shallow foot bath, a warm pool, a cool pool, and a large caldarium, the hottest room in the complex, that had both a hot tub and a sauna. Bathers would start out with the foot bath, then take a dip in the cold and warm pools. Once washed, they’d move on to the caldarium to work up a proper sweat. They’d wash again and get a massage in the warm room and finish with a pore-closing cold bath. The private homes of the rich often had bathing facilities, but such a large, complex one is rare.

Unlike the rest of the villa of which only the foundations and patches of concrete floors have survived, walls and floors of the bath complex are extant, including the tile stacks that raised the floor to allow the hypocaust system to heat the warm rooms. The walls were decorated with frescoes inlaid with shell, a characteristic Armorican style developed beginning in the 3rd century A.D. White, red, green, blue or yellow shells of different species would be embedded in fresh mortar to create intricate designs. Because the mortar had to be wet when the shells were applied, many workers applied themselves to the task at the same time. A few fragments of decorative shell have been found at 23 ancient sites in western France, but only two of those were large enough to make it possible to piece together the pattern of decoration. The remains discovered at Langrolay are unprecedented in their size and quality.

Such a massive villa was likely the country home of a very rich and politically prominent noble family, probably of the Curiosolitae people. The nearby village of Corseul is believed to have been the capital of the Curiosolitae (the naming of the main town after the people was a Gallic convention) and remains of the ancient Roman city of Fanum Martis have been discovered there. The villa would have been an easily accessible half-day’s ride from the city about eight miles away. It could also have been reached by river, a short boat trip up the Rance.

The excavation was originally scheduled to be finished by the end of November, with whatever could be salvaged removed from the site and the rest destroyed to make way for the undoubtedly unworthy subdivision. The discovery caused a sensation, however. When it was opened to the public on September 17th and 18th, more than 6,000 people visited it. The construction plan is going to be revised, as the city council voted to conserve the thermal baths in situ. For now, the site will be reburied for its own protection.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Stolen illuminated manuscript leaf to return to Italy

Sun, 2016-11-06 23:00

A stolen page from a 14th century illuminated manuscript that has been in the Cleveland Museum of Art since the 1950s is now in the hands of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s (ICE) Homeland Security Investigations division in preparation for its return to Italy. Codex D is an antiphonary, a book of chants used by liturgical choirs in the Middle Ages, which was once held by the Church of Saints Ippolito and Biagio in Castelfiorentino, Tuscany, a town about halfway between Florence in Pisa, and is now kept in a Castelfiorentino museum. It’s not certain exactly when, but two illuminated leaves were stolen from the manuscript. One of them was bought by the Cleveland Museum of Art in 1952. It was attributed to a different illuminator at the time and the museum put it on display without realizing there was anything shady about its ownership history.

ICE only got involved recently when the second leaf from Codex D appeared on the art and antiquities Swiss market. That leaf was repatriated to Italy, but the investigation into its theft and recovery led to the leaf in Cleveland.

Working collaboratively with HSI to research the history of the leaf and after evaluating the information provided by the Italian government, the Museum agreed the leaf should be transferred to Italy to be reunited with the Antiphonary.

“Once we were able to substantiate the information provided, we decided that the best place for the leaf was back with the Antiphonary. We feel the leaf has greater significance if it is reunited with the other illuminations in the manuscript. Along with the recovery of a second leaf, the Antiphonary will now be complete” said William Griswold, director of the Cleveland Museum of Art.

The antiphonary was illuminated by one of the greatest artists of the first half of the 14th century. His name has yet to be discovered, but he is known as the Master of the Dominican Effigies. He was given his moniker by art historian Richard Offner after his magnum opus, a panel painting in the Church of Santa Maria Novella, Florence, entitled Christ and the Virgin Mary Enthroned, Attended by Seventeen Dominican Saints and Beati (beatified or blessed ones). His panel paintings were smaller triptychs and tabernacles characterized by complex narratives rendered on a miniature scale. He was one of a group of Florentine artists in the 14th century classified as painters of the “miniaturist tendency” who sought to capture the dynamism and emotion of life in the details of small scenes.

Many of the miniaturists, the Master of the Dominican Effigies prominent among them, were also manuscript illuminators. Indeed, their illumination skills played an important role in the artists’ approach to panel painting. Panels by the Master of Dominican Effigies, for example, have exquisite freeform decorative details created with a stylus rather than the metal rods with patterns on one end, known as punch tools, that were frequently used by Tuscan painters from the early 14th century to stamp decorations onto the work. He did it by hand with what was basically a pen, just like he did in his manuscripts.

The Master was one of the preeminent illuminators of his age and was commissioned by secular and religious patrons to illuminate antiphonaries, hymnals, even copies of Dante’s Divine Comedy. The Laudario of Sant’Agnese, a hymnal he illuminated together with his friend and the other preeminent illuminator of their time, Pacino di Bonaguida, is widely considered one of the most important illuminated manuscripts made in early 14th century Florence. Its pages are scattered in 16 collections in Europe and the United States, four of them in J. Paul Getty Museum.

Because of their rarity and art historical importance, individual pages from manuscripts illuminated by the Master of Dominican Effigies are highly prized and found in a number of top US museums, including the National Gallery of Art as well as the Getty. Even small fragments of his illuminations are considered museum quality and can be found in museums like the Art Institute of Chicago. One of the Getty’s Laudario holdings is a fragment, a cutout of the martyrdom of St. Lawrence by Pacino di Bonaguida.

Only one leaf from of The Laudario of Sant’Agnese is still in Italy, so the return of both stolen leafs from the Codex D antiphonary is a rare and precious thing. ICE and the Italian government are working out the details of the repatriation now.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Vasari’s Last Supper restored after 50 years

Sat, 2016-11-05 10:29

It’s been exactly 50 years since the Arno river in Florence broke its banks and flooded the historic city with 22 feet of toxic sludge. Some of the greatest art in the world, 14,000 artworks and books, were lost forever. Many thousands more pieces of Florence’s immense cultural patrimony spent a day soaked in a dangerous, volatile and destructive mixture of water, mud, gas, sewage and naphtha forced out of underground home fuel tanks by the 40-mile-an-hour floodwaters.

One of the worst hit was the monumental 21-by-8-feet panel painting The Last Supper made in 1546 by painter and art historian Giorgio Vasari. Kept in the Basilica of Santa Croce which is a few blocks from the Arno and at a lower elevation than much of the rest of the city, The Last Supper was completely submerged in filth for more than 12 hours. When the waters receded, they literally pulled the paint and gesso underlay off the five poplar panels which were now the consistency of a sponge.

The Mud Angels, volunteers who flocked to Florence to do everything they could to save its mortally wounded art, waded through the sludge scooping up any tiny fragment of paint they could find. Art conservator Marco Grassi, carpenter Ciro Castelli and others worked together to salvage the moribund panel paining. They affixed sheets of Japanese mulberry paper to the surface with methacrylate resin to keep the blistered and peeling paint from coming off. The painting was then taken apart and its five component panels laid out flat on racks in the conservatory of a lemon orchard. The relatively humid environment, it was hoped, would allow the panels to dry slowly and minimize cracking and warping. It was the best they could do at the time, but the panels dried hard anyway. They lost two centimeters in width and developed cracks. The gesso primer dried poorly too, becoming unstable and crumbly.

The technology to repair the overwhelming amount of damage simply did not exist in 1966. It wouldn’t exist for another 40+ years. The breakthrough happened in 2010, when the Getty Foundation gave a $400,000 grant to the Opificio delle Pietre Dure, the stone mosaic workshop founded in the 16th century which has become one of the world’s leading art restoration institutes, to bring The Last Supper back from the dead and enlist the great expertise and experience of retired or retiring panel-painting conservators to train a new generation.

It was backbreaking labour. Removing the mulberry paper proved a devilish task, with swaths of paint, detached from the brittle gesso layer, coming off with the paper. Fixing the panels themselves was an immense challenge as well. They had to be enlarged to their original size in order to put the curled and lifted paint back into place. Ciro Castelli devised an ingenious method to resolve that conundrum. He cut tiny slits in the back and filled them and the original dowel tracks with jigsaw puzzles of poplar wood filler. This precision system stretched the panels and will also help preserve them going forward since it gives them room to expand and contract naturally.

In 2013, the five panels were put back together for the first time since 1966. In 2014, fashion house Prada donated a big chunk of change for the last phase of restoration. With this extra boost, restorers hoped they’d be able to complete their work in time for the 50th anniversary of the flood and they succeeded. On November 4th, 2016, Giorgio Vasari’s The Last Supper went back on display at the Museo dell’Opera in the old refectory of Santa Croce.

There’s a wonderful article on the flood and restoration of the Vasari painting in The New York Times by Paula Deitz, who was in Florence on the day of the flood November 4th, 1966, in which Marco Grassi talks about his how they worked to save The Last Supper.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History