History Blog

Syndicate content
Updated: 1 min 55 sec ago

Last chance to see Royal Armoury arms in America

Mon, 2014-10-27 22:41

For the past decade, the Frazier History Museum in Louisville, Kentucky, has had the unique distinction of being the only place outside of the UK to have a permanent exhibition of weapons and armour from Britain’s Royal Armouries. In fact, it was the first time any British national museum entered into a long-term collaboration with an institution outside of national borders. This arrangement was so special it literally required an act of Parliament to allow the artifacts to leave the country and create a Royal Armouries annex in America.

An assortment of more than 400 pieces of armature from the 11th century to the beginning of the 20th century have been on display on the third floor of the Frazier History Museum. While most of the artifacts are English, the Royal Armoury has amassed a collection of military and sporting weapons and armour from Spain, Italy, Germany, Japan, China, India and more. The Frazier exhibition features selections from all over Europe.

The items — on loan from the National Museum of Arms and Armour — have been displayed at the Frazier since its 2004 opening in downtown Louisville. The Royal Armouries collection was a prize catch for Louisville philanthropist and businessman Owsley Brown Frazier, who founded the museum.

The formal agreement creating the collaboration was signed at the Tower of London in 2003.

Both sides said Friday the partnership has been a success, and said they looked forward to working together again.

“This pioneering arrangement has brought hundreds of our best objects, vivid exposure to English history, and aspects of our common story, to a U.S. audience,” Dr. Edward Impey, director general and master of the Royal Armouries, said in a statement.

The loan and the exhibition will end on January 4th, 2015. The Royal Armouries collection will return home and artifacts will be split between the Tower of London and the Royal Armouries Museum in Leeds. Ten years ago they didn’t have the room to show the objects — that was one of the reasons the loan was beneficial to both parties — but recent renovations have increased the space at the Royal Armouries museums.

The Frazier has also undergone renovations and will be reconfiguring the third floor exhibition space in keeping with a shift in its thematic focus from weaponry to history, particularly the history of Kentucky and Louisville. The Royal Armouries display will be replaced with artifacts from the museum’s expanding permanent collection, including objects from the personal collection of museum founder Owsley Frazier.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

La Belle exhibit opens at Austin’s Bullock Museum

Sun, 2014-10-26 22:12

The wreck of La Belle, one of explorer Rene-Robert Cavelier Sieur de La Salle’s supply ships, is on view to the public now, 328 years after it sank in Matagorda Bay and 17 years after it was recovered from the sea floor.

When the 54-1/2-foot frigate went down in a storm in the Gulf of Mexico in 1686, it was packed with supplies to support a French colony at the mouth of the Mississippi and a planned military expedition into Mexico. Neither of those two aims were achieved. When the wreck was found by Texas Historical Commission archaeologists in 1995, the bottom third of the ship’s oak hull was completely intact. To keep this marvel of preservation together, the recovery team built a cofferdam around the wreck, pumped out all the water and excavated the hull from six feet of mud. After two years, the excavation retrieved the remains of the ship and more than 1.6 million artifacts including 21,500 pounds of gunpowder, cannons, muskets, cooking vessels and navigational tools. Whole crates were found full of an enormous quantity of trade goods, including 1,571 brass Jesuit rings, 17,000 brass pins, 664 axe heads, and 618,000 glass beads strung together by color.

The ship’s hull was sent to the Conservation Research Laboratory at Texas A&M where it was soaked in polyethylene glycol (PEG), a polymer that replaces water in wood and keeps it from drying out or warping. After 15 years in PEG, the timbers were moved to a custom-built freeze dryer 40 feet long and eight feet wide where the process of drying them out without damage could be accomplished faster and cheaper.

This summer the timbers were transported from Texas A&M to the Bullock Texas State History Museum in Austin. On October 25th, reassembly of the hull began in full public view at the museum. Visitors can watch La Belle rise again and interact with the archaeologists, asking questions as they work.

More than 100 artifacts and a live-action reassembly tell a story that was lost at sea for 300 years. Discover what items 17th century French settlers thought were important enough to transport across the ocean to establish a new North American colony. Artifacts such as brass kettles, cooking utensils, and carpentry and farming tools shed light on both European domestic culture and future colony planning. Colored beads and other trade goods perhaps speak to strategies for interacting with American Indians. An iconic La Belle artifact, the bronze cannon, tells more than a military story. It was the carved dolphin handles, along with other cannon insignia, that helped historians determine that the wreckage they had discovered was indeed La Belle. A replica of the ship pinpoints where the artifacts were found during excavation. For a once-in-a-lifetime experience, watch up-close inside the gallery as the ultimate artifact of the exhibition, the ship itself, rises again as experts reassemble the vessel, timber by timber.

Assembly is expected to be completed by May of next year, so you have seven months to see the ship come together before the hull is encased in a glass structure that will allow people to walk on the ship and experience the feeling of being on deck looking down into the cargo hold.


Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

13-angled stone found in Inca hydraulic system

Sat, 2014-10-25 22:39

Archaeologists exploring a stretch of the Inca trail network of Qhapaq Ñan that passes through the archaeological site of Incahuasi have discovered a stone cut with 13 angles. The trail is vast, covering 30,000 kilometers and crossing six countries. It was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site this June, which has drawn new attention to the network from researchers, including the section in Incahuasi. While investigating the trail, the archaeological team found a hydraulic system with two masonry fountains connected to canals carved out of the mountain rock. It was one of those fountains that has a large 13-angled cut stone in the center.

Inca masonry is famous for its finely hewn polygonal stones that fit together without mortar like intricate jigsaw puzzles. Even today, half a millennium after they were constructed, many of these dry walls are still joined so perfectly you can’t pass a piece of paper between stones. The variety of shapes and precision cutting provided exceptional seismic resistance, hence their longevity even in earthquake-prone areas.

One particular polygonal stone has become a Peruvian icon: the 12-angled stone in a wall on Hatun Rumiyoc Street in Cusco. The wall is all that remains of the palace of Inca Roca, sixth Sapa Inca (ruler) of the Kingdom of Cusco, and the Stone of Twelve Angles has become a hugely popular tourist attraction. Its unique shape features in logos from beer to railroads.

The fame of the Hatun Rumiyoc stone lends a special cachet to the discovery of a stone with 13 angles. The city of Incahuasi was built in the mid-15th century by Túpac Yupanqui, the 10th Sapa Inca, to serve as a military and administrative center of the empire he expanded south along the coast. He called it New Cusco and deliberately evoked the power and glamour of the great Inca capital by building a smaller version of its monumental structures and planned grid of streets and squares.

The dry, subtropical desert climate required the construction of extensive canal and irrigation systems for agricultural purposes. Incahuasi is 3,800 meters (12,467 feet) above sea level and was strategically located next to the Viscacha River, the water source for irrigation of the whole valley. Two mountain springs fed the fountains. The water then traveled through the canal system carved from the mountain rock in zig-zag, straight sections and waterfalls that slowed down the flow of water on its descent to the Viscacha.

Archaeologists believe the water systems had more than just a practical use. They also held ritual significance. In Andean cultures, bodies of water were considered sacred places of origin. The Incas promoted this notion, emphasizing the symbolic importance of water management as a defining standard for community membership. In Incahuasi, the canal system invoked multiple sacred origins: the mountain springs feeding the fountains, the departure point of the Viscacha to water the valley, which, once the river descends to the coast, becomes an important tributary of the Pisco River.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Restoration on unique Medusa mosaic almost finished

Fri, 2014-10-24 22:46

The only known surviving opus sectile mosaic of Medusa is finally being restored five years after its discovery in the ancient Odeon theater of Kibyra, in southwest Turkey’s Burdur Province. The 1,800-year-old masterpiece of the mosaic arts was unearthed during an archaeological excavation in 2009, but on the advice of Culture and Tourism Ministry experts was quickly covered with five layers of sand and gravel to preserve from the elements it until proper treatment could be arranged.

At 36 feet in diameter and 14 feet at the widest point, it’s the largest mosaic still in situ in Anatolia. It is almost entirely intact, with an estimate 95% of its thin marble tiles still in place. Authorities are keen to keep it in its original context so visitors can enjoy the rare pleasure of seeing it the same way the ancients did rather than removed from its orchestra pit semi-circle and placed in a museum. The Kibyra Odeon could seat 3,600 people and was used for musical and theatrical events as well as serving as legal court and legislative chamber during the cold months when its roof made it the most comfortable structure in town suitable for public use.

Last year the Medusa mosaic was uncovered for the first time since its discovery to allow conservators to perform a detailed feasibility study. This year, the Culture and Tourism Ministry funded the restoration based on the recommendations in last year’s report. Regional archaeologists are working with an Istanbul conservation company to restore the mosaic. They’ve been working on it for two months and expect to continue for another month.

According to Düzgün Tarkan from the archaeology department of Mehmet Akif Ersoy University in Burdur, the mosaic has survived some very hard times.

He said they believed that the mosaic had suffered from a large fire in the ancient era. “In its original, it was covered with a wooden roof. This is why we believe that the timbers that fell during the fire burned the mosaic for days. The marble pieces that form the mosaic received great damage. Now we are merging them and the broken pieces are being attached to the mosaic.”

You can see in the images from last year’s study that there are areas where the opus sectile marble veneers are in fragments. That’s apparently the result of this devastating days-long fire that took down the wooden roof that once covered the Odeon. Some of the marble plaques that characterize the opus sectile style (as opposed to the small, regular squares of the opus tessellatum style) are just a single millimeter thick. It defies belief that all those shards remained in place so archaeologists could painstakingly piece them back together and reinstall them on site. Clearly Medusa’s petrifying visage really did protect her.

Once the mosaic is stabilized, it will be covered with a layer of glass (or a transparent material of some kind) to protect it from grubby tourist feet and hands, bad weather and all manner of other potential damage sources. That way visitors to the Odeon will be able to walk on Medusa’s face without hurting her.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Replica of Vasa bronze cannon shot

Thu, 2014-10-23 22:23

In late 2012, the Vasa Museum in Stockholm, home of the beautiful but unstable flagship of the Swedish fleet that sank a mile from the shore on its maiden voyage in 1628, put together a team to recreate one of the ship’s 24-pounder bronze cannons. Although Vasa went down in ignominy before it had a chance to make a name for itself, the light cannon that became known as the Vasa gun would be adopted all branches of the Swedish military as the standard artillery piece during the Thirty Years’ War. Sweden was the world’s largest exporter of cannon in the 17th century, and other European countries developed their own versions of the Vasa gun, so learning more about this particular weapon illuminates a far broader stage than just the ship or Swedish naval warfare.

The aim of the project was to make an accurate copy of the cannon and its accessories (mount, ammunition, powder, etc) and then fire it on range. The experiment would be documented with film, audio recordings, doppler radar and pressure monitoring to provide a wide range of data on the ballistic and tactical capabilities of the Vasa gun. Because Vasa was recovered in such excellent condition thanks to the cold, woodworm-inhospitable waters of the Baltic Sea, it was possible for the team to recreate every element of the weapon system, not just the barrel which is the only part that usually survives.

It took almost two years for the project to get to the firing stage. Designing and building the molds and fittings, testing the pour with an iron version first, composing the proper alloy, casting and curing the final product, was no small task. No detailed was spared to make it an exact replica, right down to the decorative motifs on the outside of the gun. The bronze 24-pounder was cast in November of last year. It is ten feet long, weighs 1.5 tons and the alloy is made of around 93% copper, 4-5% tin, and trace amounts of zinc and lead.

Here is video of the casting of the cannon at the foundry last November. The gentleman with the impressive beard is Tom Ward, a Boston sculptor and Fulbright scholar who has been documenting the creation of the replica in an outstanding blog on the Vasa Museum website which I highly recommend reading last page to first so you can see the insane amounts of work that went into this ambitious project:

It took another 11 months after that to get the cannon in proper firing order. On October 2nd, 2014, a Vasa gun fired for the first time in nearly four centuries. In this proofing run, the cannon shot four rounds, the largest of which used 3.3 kilos of powder to generate 10,400 psi of breech pressure and a muzzle velocity of 399 meters per second or mach 1.17. The ball doesn’t beat the speed of sound for long, however. Exponential drag slows it down very quickly.

On Wednesday, October 22nd, the official trials began, witnessed by 200 journalists, museum staff and members of the armed forces.

In this Swedish language video, you can see the cannon being muzzle loaded, details of the replica section of the side of Vasa‘s hull used for target practice, a nice glimpse of the gun and recoil after firing before the entire scene is obscured with smoke, and a close view of the hole left in the target. It’s quite a small hole, really, but it goes all the way through.

Here is film of the cannon being fired at different frame rates:

And here is the proverbial money shot, a detailed view of the cannon being fired at the target, a close-up of the hit, and the impact of the ball on the wood recorded on high speed film so when it’s played back you see every shard and splinter create almost a loose tornado effect. So, so cool.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Lost Louvre portrait of Henry III found at auction

Wed, 2014-10-22 22:33

A late 16th portrait of King Henry III of France that has been missing from the Louvre since World War II was discovered about to go up for auction in Paris. A small work at eight by five inches, the painting was valued by the Ader-Nordmann auction house at only €400-€600 ($505-$758). One week before the October 17th auction, Pierre-Gilles Girault, assistant curator of the Royal Château de Blois, found out about the sale from a Henry III keyword alert he’d set up on a public auction search site.

The Château de Blois played a dramatic role in the bloody intrigues of Henry’s turbulent reign, and in 2010 the museum held an exhibition dedicated to the period, Renaissance celebrations and crimes, the Court of Henry III. When Girault saw the painting for sale, he recognized its rare iconography of Henry on his knees at the foot of the Cross and its unusual medium — oil on paper mounted on panel — as a work he had seen in a 1930s-era catalogue of the Louvre collection. The size was slightly different, however, so he thought it might be a contemporary copy. The museum was still interested in acquiring it to expand its Henry III materials. Even a copy of a realistic portrait of a king, whose life and reign were mired in Wars of Religion, depicted in such a heavy-handedly devout posture could well be worth the small purchase price. There are very few extant realistic portraits of Henry III, and they’re standard court paintings. This one ties Henry directly into the defining issue of his reign and of 16th century France.

Although as Duke of Anjou the Catholic Henry had played a major role fighting the Protestants in the French Wars of Religion — he was the leader of the army, defeating Hugenots forces in several battles and besieging the Hugenot city of La Rochelle — when he became king after the death of his older brother Charles IX, he took a more practical approach. With the Protestant army led by his younger brother François, formerly Duke of Alençon and now Duke of Anjou, besieging Paris, in 1576 Henry signed he Edict of Beaulieu which granted the Hugenots freedom of religion and major political concessions.

Henry I, Duke of Guise, didn’t take kindly to that. He formed the Catholic League, a coalition of French Catholic societies supported by the Pope and Philip II of Spain, to apply military and political pressure in favor of the eradication of the Hugenots. His efforts were very successful. Henry III was forced to fight both Protestants and Catholics arrayed against him, and he just didn’t have the wherewithal to pull it off. He was forced to roll back the concessions in the Edict of Beaulieu and Peace of La Rochelle and give the League everything it asked for, including that the king pay its troops. From the Treaty of Nemours in 1585 through the end of 1588, Henry was king in name only. For a short while the Duke of Guise even took Paris, forcing Henry III to flee to the royal palace at Blois in May of 1588.

With his marriage childless, Anjou dead and his presumptive heir now the Protestant Henry, King of Navarre, Henry III had good reason to fear not just for his throne, but for his life. It was the defeat of the Spanish Armada in August of 1588 that weakened the Catholic League and emboldened Henry III. In September, Henry called a meeting of the Estates General at the Château de Blois. In December, he invited the Duke of Guise and his brother Louis II, Cardinal of Guise, to the council chamber. The Duke was directed to join Henry III in the adjoining bed chamber where he was set promptly set upon by Henry’s loyal bodyguards, the Forty-five, who stabbed him to death at the foot of the king’s bed. The next day, the Cardinal of Guise met a similar fate in the castle’s dungeon. Henry’s formidable mother Catherine de’ Medici, horrified at the assassinations, died two weeks later and was buried at Blois since Paris was still held by Guise’s men. (Her body was later moved to St. Denis and would ultimately suffer the fate of all the monarchs of France buried there when in 1793 a revolutionary mob looted the cathedral and threw all the royal remains in an unmarked mass grave.)

This is why the painting of Henry III that embeds him, monarchical ermines and all, praying on the ground with human bones in the center of the apex of Catholic iconography, the Crucifixion, held such interest for the Château de Blois museum. Chief curator Elisabeth Latrémolière, in accordance with standard museum acquisition protocols, sought out expert opinions on the piece. Girault emailed the Louvre’s 16th century art curator and received an immediate response even though it was Sunday. The Louvre sent its people to examine the painting in person, and on October 14th, they verified by comparing it to the sole known pre-loss photograph of the painting taken in 1925 that it was the original work, gone missing more than 70 years ago under mysterious circumstances.

Ader Nordmann immediately withdrew the work as soon as the Louvre experts authenticated it. It was being sold as part of the estate of an elderly woman; nobody had any idea how she had acquired it or what winding road took it from the Louvre to the auction. The painting will be returned to the Louvre posthaste, but Elisabeth Latrémollière hopes the museum will throw them a bone and lend them the portrait for display at the Château de Blois. After all, if it weren’t for the Blois curators, the painting would still be lost, an unknown budget purchase in someone’s private collection.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Missing head of Amphipolis sphinx found

Tue, 2014-10-21 22:56

The hits just keep on coming at the Amphipolis tomb excavation. Archaeologists have crossed from the second chamber with the Persephone mosaic floor over the threshold into the third chamber. Lying just six inches on the other side of the marble threshold they found the decapitated head of one of the sphinxes that stands guard in the tomb’s entryway. There is some damage to the nose and lips, but otherwise the head is remarkably intact.

The head is about 24 inches high and depicts the serene visage of a beautiful woman. Her hair is long and wavy, falling over the left shoulder and tied around the head with a white band. Traces of red paint are visible to the naked eye in her hair. She has a column or pillar on her head, a shorter version of the architectural support the caryatids in chamber two sport on their heads, that would have abutted the stone arch at the entry. It’s a tight fit. At a glance, I’m not entirely persuaded that the head really does fit the sphinx — if you look at a photomontage the proportions seem off — but it’s impossible to draw any conclusions from images alone, so I’ll defer to the archaeologists on the ground.

The entire neck is still there, including the join area where it was ostensibly broken off the sphinx’s body. It could match the breaking point on the trunk of the eastern sphinx. Additional fragments of the wings of the sphinxes were also discovered around the head. How these pieces got inside the tomb especially in such great condition is a mystery. It seems too preservative to be vandalism, and why would a looter bother to move a head and wing fragments to the comparative safety of the interior?

Besides the head, archaeologists discovered the northern section of the marble threshold which is seven feet long and more than five wide. Dug into the marble are two deep curved depressions that experts believe once held metal rails that facilitated the movement of the heavy marble doors. The western wing of the door was also found, broken in two pieces. Limestone flooring is extant on both sides of the threshold. On the east side the wall intersecting with the floor appears to have collapsed. The west side of the floor has been damaged by falling blocks of limestone.

Those blocks will be removed over the next few days, clearing the way for archaeologists to continue the excavation of the third chamber, shoring up the roof and walls as they go, as they head towards the entry to the fourth chamber.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Dr. Livingstone’s beetles, I presume?

Mon, 2014-10-20 22:34

First Darwin’s barnacles turned up in the University of Copenhagen’s Natural History Museum. Now the Natural History Museum in London has discovered a collection of previously unknown beetle specimens gathered by Dr. David Livingstone during his Zambezi expedition of 1858–64. These are the only known surviving specimens collected by Livingstone on the chaotic history-making expedition to open up the Zambezi River to English trade and resource exploitation. Impassable rapids and waterfalls ensured his utter failure on that score, but the expedition was the first to reach and explore Lake Malawi.

The specimens were discovered by Max Barclay, the Natural History Museum’s Collections Manager of Coleoptera and Hymenoptera. He was doing a check of the museum’s vast stores as part of an effort to catalog some of the collection online when he found a wooden box containing 20 pinned beetles neatly labeled “Zambezi coll. by Dr. Livingstone.”

Max Barclay comments, “The Natural History Museum holds one of the largest, oldest and most comprehensive collections of its kind, consulted every year by hundreds of scientists from all over the world. The beetle collection alone includes almost 10 million specimens, assembled over centuries. To study them all will take a lifetime. I have worked here for more than 10 years and it was a complete surprise and incredibly exciting to find these well preserved beetles, brought back from Africa 150 years ago almost to the day. These specimens are still valuable to science. Museum researchers use historical specimens to study the effect of changing environments on plants and animals around the world.”

The beetles were a bequest by Edward Young Western, a lawyer and dedicated amateur entomologist who left a large collection of 15,000 insect specimens to the Natural History Museum after his death in 1924. Museum researchers believe he acquired the box of beetles from one of the members of Livingstone’s expedition, perhaps Livingstone’s own brother Charles. The expedition had been funded by the government and David Livingstone considered all material collected to be government property, so the sale of these specimens had to be done on the quiet. Experts believe they were sold at a natural history auction in the 1860s.

They were easier to dispose of quietly because the specimens were never published. Although the Zambezi Expedition was considered an abject failure due to its escalating costs, high body count (David’s wife Mary died of malaria shortly after she joined her husband at Lake Malawi in 1862), prodigious rate of personnel being fired or quitting and, most importantly to the government, its failure to find a navigable river route to the interior, the scientific exploration was very successful. Physician and naturalist John Kirk (left the expedition in 1863), physician and botanist Charles James Meller and geologist Richard Thornton (fired by Livingstone) collected a great many specimens for study.

In David and Charles Livingstone’s Narrative of an Expedition to the Zambesi, published in 1866, two years after the expedition was recalled, they laud John Kirk’s collecting work in particular, noting that he’s not listed as a co-author solely because they hope he will publish his own record.

He [Dr. Kirk] collected above four thousand species of plants, specimens of most of the valuable woods, of the different native manufactures, of the articles of food, and of the different kinds of cotton from every spot we visited, and a great variety of birds and insects, besides making meteorological observations, and affording, as our instructions required, medical assistance to the natives in every case where he could be of any use.

Charles Livingstone was also fully occupied in his duties in following out the general objects of our mission, in encouraging the culture of cotton, in making many magnetic and meteorological observations, in photographing so long as the materials would serve, and in collecting a large number of birds, insects, and other objects of interest The collections, being government property, have been forwarded to the British Museum and to the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew; and, should Dr. Kirk undertake their description, three or four years will be required for the purpose.

Many of the new mammal, reptile and avian species found on the expedition were published in scientific journals and were very well received, but for some reason, the insects were neglected, leaving a hole through which 20 beetles could slip through into Edward Young Western’s hands. Because the Natural History Museum has such a massive insect collection, Livingstone’s beetles joined the teeming masses without anybody noticing.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Staffordshire Hoard reveals Anglo-Saxon technique to make impure gold look pure

Sun, 2014-10-19 22:27

In the five years since the discovery of the Staffordshire Hoard, the more than 4,000 pieces of the hoard have been cleaned, cataloged and grouped by physical and stylistic similarities. Five hundred more objects and fragments were found hidden in the soil clumped on the pieces and in a follow-up 2012 excavation. About 1,000 new joins have been discovered, allowing conservators to puzzle together objects that have never been seen before, including previously unknown types of sword fittings and mounts. More than 1,500 pieces have been identified as fragments of a single helmet. The hoard has also been officially dated to the late 6th, early 7th century, an important transitional period between the decline of traditional Anglo-Saxon polytheism and the advent of Christianity.

Researchers have now turned to analysis of the composition of the alloys. Minute scrapings taken from the surface of about 200 gold objects were viewed through a scanning electron microscope exposing an ingenious system of making gold with a high silver content look as shiny as pure as the real thing.

The technique was not written down in Anglo-Saxon times, and had never been detected in metalwork from the period, but a similar technique was known from Roman accounts. It must have been spoken about by the brilliant Anglo-Saxon metal workers, and involved taking gold which was alloyed with up to 25% silver, and heating it in an acid solution – made from iron rich minerals such as brick dust – so that at the surface the silver leached out and could be burnished off. The surface would then appear to be the highest quality gold, but just below the surface there was inferior metal.

“They knew what they were doing,” said Eleanor Blakelock, the scientist who discovered their secret. “This wasn’t something which could possibly have happened by accident.”

The technique left the surface with more than 90% gold while just underneath it was 70 to 75% gold. The shiny surfaces could be enhanced with contrasting decoration like wire filigree made from darker, less pure gold. The objects intended for males — belt buckles, weapon fittings — appear to have a higher gold content than jewelry worn by women. Experts don’t believe it was done as a deception to pass off a cheaper alloy as gold. It was just a way to make the best of the materials at hand.

The discovery has also revealed new information about some of the objects. The five hilt fittings from a seax, a single-edged knife, for example, have an odd man out. Four of the pieces have similar alloy composition and were given the acid solution surface treatment. The fifth piece, the pommel cap, has a different alloy composition and was not given any surface treatment. That suggests it was a replacement piece or a later addition to the seax.

Other analytical methods archaeologists used to test the metal content of the surface are not able to detect this technique, which means 1,400 year-old Anglo-Saxon metalworkers have done an impressive number on 21st century technology. Archaeologists now know they can’t trust standard surface analysis to determine the gold content of an artifact, Anglo-Saxon or otherwise.

In related news, the Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery, co-owner of the hoard along with the Potteries Museum & Art Gallery, opened its new permanent Staffordshire Hoard Gallery on Friday. About 300 pieces are on display in an exhibition that covers how the objects were made, how they were used before being broken up and buried, the tools conservators employed to clean the hoard. There’s even a Mead Hall to give visitors a glimpse into the life of the kind of Anglo-Saxon lord who would have owned such expensive weapons.

History West Midlands has a wonderful collection of videos uploaded this year about the conservation of the Staffordshire Hoard and overviews of eight featured artifacts (subscribe to the YouTube channel for future videos) I dare you to watch just one.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Remains of 1923 DeMille sphinx recovered from dunes

Sat, 2014-10-18 22:25

The remains of a large plaster sphinx made for Cecil B. DeMille’s 1923 silent epic The Ten Commandments have been recovered from the sands of Guadalupe-Nipomo Dunes near Pismo Beach, California. It is one of 21 hollow plaster sphinxes, each 12 feet tall and weighing five tons, used to line the boulevard leading to the main gates of “The City of the Pharaoh,” an imposing visual borrowed from the Boulevard of Sphinxes at Luxor Temple.

An excavation in 2012 recovered the head of one of the boulevard sphinxes, but the team didn’t have the time to recover the body at that time. They buried the body in sand hoping to protect it until they returned, but the elements were unmerciful and when they returned this year the body was in pieces. They found another body nearby, however, that was in much better condition, but keeping it that way once it was exposed to the air was a challenge.

The archaeologists planned to protect the sphinx for removal using the same technique that preserves artifacts excavated in the Middle East — coating them with epoxy and a layer of cheese cloth.

But the humidity from a persistent marine layer prevented the epoxy from adhering, Jenzen said, and the crew had to come up with another plan. [..]

The protective process they came up with was to place a sheet of thin plastic over the plaster, then coat it with expanding foam insulation that hardens to protect the fragile pieces while they’re moved.

The improvised system worked and the sphinx was successfully removed for conservation at the Guadalupe-Nipomo Dunes Center.

DeMille spared no expense making the set for this Moses vs. Pharaoh epic. He wanted it to look big so he made the biggest set in movie history. The City of the Pharoah set was 720 feet wide, 110 feet tall flanked by four 40-ton statues of Rameses II. The total weight in statuary for the entire movie was 500 tons, which is a particularly astounding weight when you consider that each statue was made of plaster of Paris pieces that could be transported from Los Angeles 175 miles up the coast to the dunes and put together on site. Designed by Art Deco master Paul Iribe, the set took 1,600 craftsmen to build using 500,000 board-feet of lumber, 25,000 pounds of nails, 75 miles of reinforcing cable. There were 2,500 human extras and 3,000 animals. It cost $1.4 million and made $4 million, a record box office for Paramount that would stand for 22 years until DeMille’s remake of the movie shattered it.

Among the extras were 250 Orthodox Jews who DeMille specifically sought out to give the Exodus scenes authenticity and it was by all accounts an incredibly moving experience.

“These Jews streamed out of the great gates with tears running down their cheeks, and then without prompting or rehearsal, they began singing in Hebrew the old chants of their race, which have been sung in synagogues for thousands of years,” wrote Los Angeles Times reporter Hallett Abend.

According to syndicated Hollywood columnist Jack Jungmeyer, the Jews chanted “Father of Mercy” and “Hear O Israel.” He heard one of the older Jews say to a crew member, “We know this script – our fathers studied it long before there were movies. This is the tale of our beginnings. It is deep in our hearts.”

An elderly woman, overcome with emotion, fell to her knees and shook a fist at the gates of Pharaoh, weeping and casting sand on her head.

Legend has it that when the shooting was over, DeMille had his glorious set dynamited so no budget production could run over to the Guadalupe-Nipomo Dunes and reuse his masterpiece, but archaeologists have found no evidence of wholesale destruction. The set was dismantled and buried in the sand and now nearly a hundred years later, it has been eroded away by sun, sand and rain. For 60 years the exact location of the set was lost until in 1983 filmmaker Peter Brosnan found the “Lost City of Cecil B. DeMille,” as it had become known, going on a clue in DeMille’s posthumous autobiography and tips from extras on the film who were still living.

In 1998, Brosnan’s organization, Friends of the Lost City, began to collaborate with the Guadalupe-Nipomo Dunes Center, then the Nature Conservancy, to excavate and preserve the set. The found pieces of the set as well as artifacts left behind by the cast and crew, putting them on display in what is today the Dunes Center.

The sphinx head recovered in 2012 has been conserved as is now part the star of the Dunes Center Lost City exhibition. Once the newly recovered sphinx body has been reconstructed next year, it will go on display with the head of its companion.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Amphipolis mosaic is abduction of Persephone

Fri, 2014-10-17 22:50

The east side of the mosaic in the second chamber of the 4th century B.C. tomb in Amphipolis has been uncovered revealing the red robe of the laureate figure and a young woman behind him wearing a white tunic tied under the bust with a red ribbon. She looks backwards, her red hair flowing, her left arm raised, hand open as in a wave. She wears handsome jewelry, a bracelet on her left wrist and a necklace of red beads around her neck. The red robe of the charioteer and the newly unearthed figure identifies the scene as the abduction of Persephone by Hades.

The laureate figure is the god of the Underworld, not, as was first posited before the entire mosaic was revealed, as the soul of the man interred in the tomb. Hermes leads the chariot in his role as psychopompos, guide of souls, as he is traditionally depicted on other artistic presentations of the Persephone myth. Her looking back in anguish with raised arm is also a characteristic posture, see for instance the Persephone krater in Berlin’s Altes Museum, an Apulian red-figure volute-krater made in 340 B.C., within a few decades of the estimated date of the tomb. This is the first time a figural floor mosaic has been found in a Macedonian tomb.

The scene, complete with Hermes running before the chariot and a red-haired Hades carrying away an equally red-haired Persephone as she reaches behind her for help, is also depicted in the royal tomb of King Philip II of Macedon at Aigai (Vergina). It is a mural, not a mosaic, a very rare instance of surviving Greek wall painting. Archaeologists suspect the duplicated theme is not a coincidence, that it may be an intentional reference to the art work in Philip’s tomb.

General Secretary of the Ministry of Culture Lina Mendoni described the potential connection in a press conference on the find:

“The scenes are linked with the cults of the Underworld, with the Orphic cult – the descent in Hades – and the Dionysian rites. The Head of the house of Macedon was the archpriest of these cults. I remind you of the recent research of the National Center of Scientific Research “Demokritos” in the residues of the mask found in the remains of bones of Philip. According to experts was the mask, which he wore Philip in Orphic rites. Therefore, the scene in our case has symbolic importance, which may indicate a relationship of the “occupier” of the tomb with the Macedonian House. The political symbolism is very strong in all periods.”

Connected to the rulers of Macedon or not, whoever was buried in this tomb was someone of great wealth and importance. That was clear from the sphinxes in the entrance, confirmed by the caryatids and ultra-super underscored by this mosaic of exceptional quality.

The mosaic covers the entire floor of the room and is 4.5 by 3 meters (14’9″ x 9’10″). In order to preserve the work as excavation continues, workers have placed a layer of styrofoam over it and wood paneling over the styrofoam. A false floor will be built 15 inches above the protective layers so that archaeologists can start the slow process of unblocking the door to chamber three on the north edge of the mosaic.

Here’s a neato 3D rendering of the tomb highlights as rteal.orged this far from Greek Toys:

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Build your own 17th c. oak beam tithe barn

Thu, 2014-10-16 22:25

Is Ikea just not a challenge for you anymore? Have you long since mastered the Billy bookcase, dominated the Fjell bed frame and left the Hemnes TV storage combination with glass doors cowed and trembling in your wake every time you breeze by? Well have I got the deal for you: the Acton Hall farm barn, 121 feet long, 28 feet wide and 25 feet six inches high at its central ridge and completely dismantled into its component oak beams. The beams, all individually numbered and complete with plans, will be offered for sale at Summers Place Auctions in Billingshurst, West Sussex, on October 22nd.

Almost entirely in its original condition and dismantled more than 25 years ago. The barn would have originally have had a thatched roof and walls of wattle and daub over the oak aisled wall frames. There are two main threshing bays, each with large double doors. Ten main bays (of approx. 12ft) formed by very substantial jowled oak posts connected to the arcade plate and tie beams by main mortise and tenon, subsidiary teazle tenon and lapped dovetail joints. Aisle wall frames of substantial oak studs. The main tie beams and arcade plates are supported and braced by mainly heavy curved braces, with a few replaced in the 19th century with solid knee braces.

Here is what it looked like before dismantling:


Images courtesy Summer Place Auctions.

Here is what it looks like now:


Images courtesy www.investmentphotography.co.uk.

The structure began its long as storied life as a tithe barn (technically a barn in which the yearly tithe in kind of farmers were stored upon payment to the church, but the term is used loosely to encompass old barns even when they weren’t used for collecting the 10% due local ecclesiastical authorities) on the Suffolk estate of Acton Hall in the mid-17th century. It was later converted into a home. In the late 1980s, the property owners decided to dismantle it to make way for new construction. They were going to sell the timbers piecemeal, but historic barn expert John Langdon, who has a trove of historic barns he reconstructs for buyers like Steven Spielberg and John Kerry, bought the entire structure and numbered each beam so it could be rebuilt elsewhere.

A brewery bought the dismantled barn, planning to use it as a space for special events, but they never found the right location for it and after 25 years of the beams languishing in storage, the brewery sold them back to Langdon. He is now hoping to find a buyer who will pay the £100,000 he estimates the structure is worth as well as another £100,000 for Langdon’s team to re-erect it.

It’s not at all unreasonable, really. You’d pay more than that for a new house of these dimensions. It’s recycled, ecofriendly and those bleached oak beams have more than stood the test of time so you know you’re working with quality materials. A modern imitation couldn’t possibly be as cool no matter how much it tried to reproduce the look of that fabulous oak skeleton so characteristic of centuries of English barn construction. Although its walls and roof were different, the interior of the Acton Hall barn is very much like the glorious buttressed cathedral interior of the Harmondsworth Great Barn, built more than 200 years earlier in 1426. Even the Lacock tithe barn, built a hundred years before that with masonry walls, has similar roof and ceiling architecture.

Just in case you’d like to take a crack at it yourself, here are plans of how the beams come back together:




Images courtesy Summer Place Auctions.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Largest Viking hoard since 1891 found in Scotland

Wed, 2014-10-15 22:58

Retired businessman Derek McLennan was sick and really didn’t feel like dragging his carcass and his metal detector to a Church of Scotland field near Castle Douglas in Dumfries and Galloway, Scotland, last month. He didn’t want to disappoint his detecting buddies the Reverend David Bartholomew and Mike Smith, pastor of Elim Pentecostal Church, however, so he pulled it together and off they went. After an hour of searching, McLennan found a piece of silver buried two feet under the surface. At first he thought it was a spoon, but when he wiped some of the dirt off it, he saw a saltire (X marks the spot) design and realized he’d unearthed Viking treasure.

McLennan reported the find to Scotland’s Treasure Trove Unit and soon Galloway Council archaeologist Andrew Nicholson was on the scene excavating dozens of silver ingots, decorated arm rings and a solid silver cross with enamel decoration from the find spot. When the artifacts were fully excavated, McLennan ran his machine over the hole again and again got a signal. More digging unearthed a second layer of treasure, including a silver Carolingian pot complete with its lid that is one of only three of its kind ever found in Britain.

All told, the hoard proved to include more than a 100 individual pieces. It’s the largest Viking treasure found in Scotland since 1891, and there’s the possibility of more to come when the silver pot is opened and its contents excavated in the lab. The array of artifacts — stamp-decorated bracelets from Ireland, glass beads from Scandinavia, a beautifully graceful gold bird-shaped pin or hair ornament, silver ingots marked with runic inscriptions, even textile fragments still attached to the Carolingian pot — make this a find of international importance.

Describing the find as “historically significant”, Stuart Campbell, head of Scotland’s treasure trove unit, said one of the most exciting objects was an intact Carolingian (western European) pot with its lid still in place, a rare vessel likely to have been an heirloom held by the family that buried the hoard. Campbell described the examination of the pot, which has yet to be emptied, as “an excavation in microcosm”.

He added: “What makes this find so significant is the range of material from different countries and cultures. This was material that was buried for safekeeping, almost like a safety deposit box that was never claimed.”

Campbell said that a find like this could also influence the way Scots viewed their historic relationship with the Vikings. “We have the idea of Vikings as foreigners who carried out raids on Scotland, but this was a Viking area where they settled and traded, and the people who lived there were culturally and linguistically Norse.”

The hoard was buried in the 9th or 10th century. The silver cross dates to around that time. Its unusual enamel decoration is figural, possibly depictions of the four evangelists on each arm of the cross. The pot was already at least a hundred years old when it was buried, hence archaeologists’ belief that it may have been a family heirloom. Researchers hope the contents might reveal more information about who buried the treasure under what circumstances.

The discovery is governed by the Scottish law of treasure trove which claims the artifacts for the public trust, while rewarding the finder and landowner with a sum equivalent to fair market value of the finds. In this case, early estimates put the value at £1 million, but that could change once the artifacts are examined more closely and the contents of the pot assessed. The landowners, the Church of Scotland General Trustees, and Derek McLennan have already come to an agreement on sharing the reward equally. The Church’s portion will be dedicated to the local parish.

This Reuters story has some beautiful close-ups of highly decorated gold and silver pieces. I’d embed it but it has an unkillable autoplay.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Iron Age Celtic chariot fittings found in hillfort dig

Tue, 2014-10-14 22:58

Archaeologist from the University of Leicester have found a hoard of rare bronze fittings from a Celtic chariot while excavating the site of an Iron Age hillfort on Burrough Hill near Melton Mowbray in Leicestershire. The fittings date to the 2nd or 3rd century B.C. and were deliberately buried as a religious offering.

The hillfort has been excavated by the University’s School of Archaeology and Ancient History since 2010 as part of a five-year project to give students a chance to gain hands-on field experience while exploring the Iron Age occupation of the fort and the transition into the Roman period. In fact it was a group of four students who found the treasure. The first piece was unearthed in a deep pit they dug near the remains of a house. The rest were discovered nearby.

The fittings were put in a box and placed on a bed of cereal chaff with iron tools laid around it. The box was then burned, with the chaff possibly providing kindling as well as a cushion for the sacrifice. Once the fire was out, the offering was covered in a layer of burnt cinder and slag. Archaeologists think it could have been part of a religious ceremony marking the change of a season, or perhaps something related to the construction of the nearby house.

These are incredibly rare and highly prized objects, a matched set of chariot fittings that could only have belonged to someone of very high status, a lord or warrior. Cleaning revealed intricate decoration on the bronze pieces, including a triskele motif of three interlocked spirals popular in Celtic art.

It’s unclear what the purpose of the iron tools was. Archaeologists suspect they may have had a horse grooming function. One of them has a looped handle and bent end with shallow notches that suggest it may have been the Iron Age equivalent of a curry comb. Two curved blades could have been hoof trimming tools or used in the production of harness parts.

Dr Jeremy Taylor, University of Leicester Landscape Archaeology professor and co-director of the Burrough Hill field project could barely contain his awe at the importance of this find:

“This is the most remarkable discovery of material we made at Burrough Hill in the five years we worked on the site. This is a very rare discovery, and a strong sign of the prestige of the site.

“The atmosphere at the dig on the day was a mix of ‘tremendously excited’ and ‘slightly shell-shocked’. I have been excavating for 25 years and I have never found one of these pieces – let alone a whole set. It is a once-in-a-career discovery.”

The objects have been removed to the University’s School of Archaeology and Ancient History for cleaning, conservation and analysis. They will be put on display briefly at the Melton Carnegie Museum in Melton Mowbray, from Saturday, October 18th through Saturday, December 13th. Once the lab work is done, a permanent display will be arranged.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Killer medieval bladder stone found in Gdańsk

Mon, 2014-10-13 22:51

In 2001, archaeologists with the Gdańsk Archaeological Museum unearthed the largest medieval burial ground ever found in Gdańsk. It was located at the western end of a market town on a busy trade route and had been in active use from the 10th century through the beginning of the 19th. Archaeologists found approximately 1,000 graves buried over 800 years. With limited space and a lot of dead people, bodies were buried on top of each other, often damaging the earlier occupants. Construction of a church, monastery and the Market Hall also wreaked havoc on the burials. A third of the skeletal remains were badly damaged (that’s why the precise number of burials isn’t known), and some graves contained a mish-mash of disarticulated bones.

Grave number 300 was one of the latter, containing the partial remains of four skeletons that date between the mid-10th and mid-14th century: a 20-39-year-old woman, a 40-55-year-old man, a teenager and a fetus of undetermined sex. The grave also contained a kidney-shaped stone with a mottled brown and black surface that less keen eyes might have mistaken for a pebble. Upon closer examination in the laboratory, the 1.5 inch-long stone was found to be a calculus, a stone created from compressed compounds and crystals in urine. It’s not possible to determine which of the bodies interred in grave 300 were host to this painful little rock. The fetus is excluded for obvious reasons, but any of the remaining three could have produced the bladder stone.

Sections of the stone were cut with a diamond blade and polished using diamond abrasive wheels. The section was composed of three concentric layers — an inner layer with a core, a middle layer and an outer one — of yellowish color. X-ray spectrometry of five spots on the section surface found the stone was composed of calcium, ammonium, magnesium, uric acid, oxalate, phosphate, and cystine compounds, a result confirmed by other tests as well. The results indicate that this was a bladder stone.

What’s particularly fascinating about this discovery, other than the general coolness of a medieval bladder stone, is how much it can tell us about the life of the person it inhabited.

High content of phosphate compounds suggests that the diet in this case was rich in phosphate compounds, for example in fish meat. Other animal proteins were present in trace amounts, or not at all. Consistent presence of oxalate compounds in both internal and external layers indicates that the diet, at the beginning and the end of the calculus growth, was rich in highly acidic food (e.g., sorrel plant). On the other hand, complementary EDS analysis suggested that the basic structure consisted of calcium and phosphate. The analysis did not demonstrate a sharp differentiation of Ca in the whole cross-section of the stone from the core to the cortex, and increased value of phosphorus was present in analyses of [section points] II-IV. This confirms the observations of Robertson that urinary stones are often present in societies whose diet is rich in plant products and low in meat and dairy products. It is quite possible that each phase of the stone growth was affected by negative health condition, including prolonged starvation, or other diseases, which resulted in production of alkaline urine. This condition most likely led to ascending infection to the kidneys and/or hydronephrosis with uremia.

That infection may well have killed the stone’s owner. The rough texture of the stone’s outer surface is evidence of a highly aggressive bacterial infection in the final stage of the stone’s development, an infection that was likely the cause of death.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Large mosaic found in Amphipolis tomb

Sun, 2014-10-12 22:06

The excavation of the Kasta Tumulus in Amphipolis has already uncovered two headless sphinxes guarding the entrance, two pilasters underneath the sphinxes with the remains of black and red paint on the capital, a pebbled mosaic floor and in a second chamber beyond the portal, two caryatids. Now the Greek Culture Ministry has announced they also found a large, elaborate, colorful floor mosaic in the second chamber.

While the floor mosaic in the entrance chamber is made of irregularly shaped marble fragments set in red mortar, this piece is a pictorial mosaic of immense skill and artistic merit.

The mosaic, 10 feet long and 15 feet wide, depicts a horseman with a laurel wreath driving a chariot drawn by two horses and preceded by the god Hermes. According to a Culture Ministry announcement on Sunday, Hermes is depicted here as the conductor of souls to the afterlife.

The mosaic is made up of pebbles in many colors: white, black, gray, blue, red and yellow. A circular part, near the center of the mosaic, is missing, but authorities say enough fragments have been found to reconstruct a large part.

Hermes, in his characteristic hat (petasos) and winged sandals, holds a caduceus as he leads the chariot and its noble driver from the east side of the chamber to the west. Around the central scene is a thick decorative frame almost two feet wide with geometric double meanders and squares framed with running spirals above and below.

The mosaic covers the entire floor of the second chamber excavated so far and archaeologists are hopeful that more of it will be revealed as they gradually dig away the soil filling the space to the east and west of it. Progress has been slow because the structure is delicate so the walls and ceilings have to be shored up with retaining walls and wood and steel beams as archaeologists cautiously remove the fill a little at a time.

The mosaic dates to the last quarter of the 4th century B.C., a range in keeping with the speculation that someone connected to Alexander the Great may have been buried in this tomb. As of yet, no names or inscriptions of any kind of found, nor any graves, for that matter.

North of the mosaic is a marble threshold of the door that leads to the third chamber. Archaeologists are still working on removing the soil from the third chamber in small sections, but they have identified another door, which means there is probably a fourth chamber behind it. If there is any burial to be found in this tumulus, it’s likely to be in one of these two chambers. So far archaeologists have found three fragments of a marble door, a hinge and bronze and iron nails in a removed section of the soil in the third chamber. The door fragments are additional evidence that the site is indeed a Macedonian tomb (as opposed to, say, Roman, which at least one archaeologist has posited).

To get a better idea of the floor plan of what’s been uncovered so far, see this page. The whole site is an absolute gem, with clear explanations of past discoveries and regularly updated with new information and photographs from the tomb as excavation progresses.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Flint dagger with bark hilt found in Denmark

Sat, 2014-10-11 22:43

Archaeologists from the Museum Lolland-Falster discovered a flint dagger with a bark-wrapped hilt while surveying a site in southern Zealand that will be a part of the Fehmarn Belt Link, an underwater tunnel connecting Germany and Denmark. The dagger is about 3,000 years old, dating to the Early Bronze Age, a time when bronze was replacing flint as the blade of choice. During this transitional period, bronze was still hard to come by and when it wasn’t available, artisans made daggers with flint blades incorporating the new hilt technology used in bronze pieces.

Examples of this rare combination of Stone and Bronze Age have been discovered before in Germany, but this is the first time one has been found in Denmark. The German ones were found in graves as daggers were valuable and their owners kept them even unto death. The Zealand dagger was found in an ancient seabed. The waterlogged environment preserved the delicate organic material.

“A hilt dagger of this type never before found in Denmark. We know the type, but to find such a magnificent specimen of a hilt is absolutely fantastic. Enthusiasm was enormous, as the dagger suddenly appeared after the excavator had removed the overlying layers. But when we removed it and saw that parts of a bark hilt was preserved almost intact, we thought the excitement never ends,” says a smiling Anders Rosendahl, archaeologist at the Museum Lolland-Falster.

The dagger is about eight inches (20 cm) long and made from a single piece of charcoal grey flint that is in exceptional condition. The hilt is wrapped in layers of birch bark to make it easier (and less dangerous) to hold.

The same day it was found, the dagger was sent to the National Museum in Copenhagen to ensure its conservation. Researchers hope that the conservation and study of the bark will be able to answer some questions about the dagger, like where it was made.

(Yes, that does look way more like obsidian, but every source, including the museum website, calls it flint so I’m going with that.)

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Louvre crowdfunds to buy gorgeous Teschen Table

Fri, 2014-10-10 22:31

It’s a cultural institution throwing a bake sale to secure a national treasure again, this time the Louvre museum in Paris which needs the funding power of the crowd to purchase the Teschen Table, a masterpiece of 18th century goldsmithing, mineralogy and furniture-making that has an illustrious political history to boot. The table is priced at 12.5 million Euros, most of which the Louvre has already raised. The last remaining million ($1.67 million) they hope to raise in donations by January 31st, 2015.

The table was made in 1779 by Johann-Christian Neuber, a goldsmith, jeweler and lapidary at the Dresden court of Frederick Augustus III, Elector of Saxony. Neuber became known for his gold snuff boxes inlaid with hardstones and gemstones. He called them Steinkabinettabatiere (stone cabinet snuffbox) because they were like miniature cabinets of curiosities. Neuber would number every stone and include a booklet with the numbered list identifying each mineral and where it was mined. His work combined the high craftsmanship of the goldsmith with the scientific approach of the geologist, and it was highly sought after by scholars and collectors alike. They weren’t easy to get as Neuber’s pieces weren’t for retail; they were usually given as gifts by the Elector of Saxony.

In 1778, Frederick Augustus became embroiled in the War of the Bavarian Succession. Maximilian III Joseph, Prince-Elector of Bavaria, died childless of smallpox in 1777. A number of high-powered candidates vied to claim his title, among them Charles Theodore of Sulzbach, Prince-Elector and Count Palatine, who was the direct heir, Empress Maria Theresa of Austria, her son and co-ruler Holy Roman Emperor Joseph II, King Frederick II of Prussia and the Elector of Saxony. Negotiations between interested parties proposed various partitions, but nobody could agree on how to slice the Bavarian cake and in July of 1778, Austria and Prussia went to war.

The conflict almost immediately settled into a stalemate. Maria Theresa, who was intimately familiar with how messy wars of succession could be, got Frederick of Prussia and her reluctant son to engage in peace talks brokered by Russia and France. France sent its Ambassador to Vienna, the Baron de Breteuil, to the Austrian Silesian town of Teschen, strategically located between Austria and Prussia, to negotiate a treaty in March of 1779. On May 13th, 1779, the belligerent parties signed the Treaty of Teschen. Charles Theodore would inherit Bavaria, but it and the Palatinate would combine to give him just the one vote in the election of the Holy Roman Emperor, and he would have to cede some territory to Austria. Austria had to recognize Prussia’s claim to the margraviates of Ansbach and Bayreuth. The Elector of Saxony got a sweet payoff of six million guilders.

With six million extra guilders jingling in his pocket, Frederick Augustus was in a generous mood after Teschen. He gave the Russian representative, Prince Nikolai Wasilyevich Repnin, a Meissen porcelain service composed of hundreds of pieces and a large allegorical centerpiece (now lost) with bases made by Neuber. The Baron de Breteuil got Neuber’s masterpiece: a table made in the style of his snuffboxes only far grander, with miles of gilded bronze, stone insets 10 times larger than on the boxes and far more of them. On the tabletop there are 128 stones — including agate, amethyst, onyx, opal, topaz, sardonyx, jasper, petrified wood — all from Saxony. Five Meissen porcelain medallions bearing allegories of peace and art painted in grisaille by Johann Eleazar Zeissig (also known as Schenau), are placed in the center and cardinal points.

As he did with his snuffboxes, Neuber numbered each stone and created a booklet identifying the type and find site of every number. The numbering begins in the center of the table with the small round gemstones then continues clockwise in concentric circles. You can hover over the tabletop insets on this page to see what kind of stones they are and where they came from.

The hovertext can’t possibly do the booklet justice, however. For this very special assignment, Neuber commissioned Dresden artist and engraver Carl Gottfried Nestler to write every entry in the booklet in a hand so beautiful, so clean, so regular that if you didn’t know it was handwritten you wouldn’t believe it. Someone needs to make a Nestler font because that handwriting deserves to be immortalized.

The table became famous in its own time. Historians wrote about it as early as 1782, and it even made a cameo in volume one of Marcel Proust’s Remembrance Of Things Past as a prized piece belonging to the Princesse d’Iéna. In the Swann In Love section, the terribly fashionable Princesse de Laumes laments that her husband wants her to visit the Princesse d’Iéna whom she does not know. She and General de Froberville have this exchange:

“But I must tell you what he’s told me about their house; it’s quite enough. Can you imagine it, all their furniture is ‘Empire’!”
“But, my dear Princess, that’s only natural; it belonged to their grandparents.”
“I don’t quite say it didn’t, but that doesn’t make it any less ugly. I quite understand that people can’t always have nice things, but at least they needn’t have things that are merely grotesque. What do you say? I can think of nothing more devastating, more utterly smug than that hideous style—cabinets covered all over with swans’ heads, like bath-taps!”
“But I believe, all the same, that they’ve got some lovely things; why, they must have that famous mosaic table on which the Treaty of…”
“Oh, I don’t deny, they may have things that are interesting enough from the historic point of view. But things like that can’t, ever, be beautiful … because they’re simply horrible! I’ve got things like that myself, that came to Basin from the Montesquious. Only, they’re up in the attics at Guermantes, where nobody ever sees them.

The Breteuil family did not hide it in the attic. It’s been at the Château de Breteuil about 25 miles southwest of Paris since 1821, leaving only on rare occasions on loan to museums for special exhibitions. In 2010, the family decided to sell the table to raise money to maintain the château and deal with some inheritance issues. They had a foreign buyer lined up and applied to the government for an export license. To block its export, the Teschen Table was declared National Treasure, but the block would expire in 30 months (March 31st, 2013) if the state did not acquire the piece.

In July of last year, the Teschen Table was declared “a work of major patrimonial interest” which granted it another reprieve while funds were raised. The Louvre managed to scrape almost the entire value from its acquisition budget and corporate donors, but needs the aid of the public to reach the final goal. You can donate online here.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Bronze Age palace, burials unearthed in Spain

Thu, 2014-10-09 22:23

A team from the Autonomous University of Barcelona (UAB) excavating the Bronze Age archaeological site on the La Almoloya plateau in the southeastern Spanish municipality of Pliego have unearthed residential and government buildings and 50 tombs. The plateau’s steep slopes made it a highly defensible location that was occupied from 2,200 B.C. to 1,550 B.C. by the El Argar culture. The extensive construction and dense population point to La Almoloya having been an important political center 70 miles northeast of the Argaric capital of El Argar (modern-day Antas, Almeria).

Artifacts found inside the buildings were in excellent condition. Metals, ceramics, stone and bone survived alongside exceptionally rare textiles. The structures and their contents paint a picture of a rich urban environment that is unique in Bronze Age continental Europe.

The excavations indicate that the La Almoloya plateau, of 3,800 metres square, was densely populated and included several residential complexes of some 300 square metres, with eight to twelve rooms in each residence. The buildings’ walls were constructed with stones and argamasa [a kind of lime mortar], and covered with layers of mortar. Some parts contain stucco decorated with geometric and naturalistic motifs, a novelty which represents the discovery of an Argaric artistic style.

Among the discoveries made is a wide hall with high ceilings measuring some 70 square metres, with capacity for 64 people seated on the benches lining the walls. The hall includes a ceremonial fireplace and a podium of symbolic character. This unique building was used for political purposes and archaeologists consider that it must have been used to celebrate hearings or government meetings.

Archaeologists affirm that this is the first time a building specifically dedicated to governing purposes has been discovered in Western Europe, and believe that decisions were taken here which affected many of the region’s other communities.

The ceremonial hall is flanked by adjoining rooms. Because of its political significance and large size, archaeologists categorize this structure as a palace, and a highly advanced one at that, comparable only to near Eastern buildings from this era.

Another reason to deem the building a royal palace is a tomb that was found adjacent to the main wall of the government hall. It holds the skeletal remains of an adult man and woman who were buried with 30 artifacts made of precious metals and gemstones. The woman wore a silver diadem around her head, one of only five Agaric diadems ever discovered and none of the other four remain in Spain. They were found at the El Argar type site by Belgian mine engineers Henri and Louis Siret in the 1880s and are now in the permanent collection of the Royal Museums of Art and History’s Cinquantenaire Museum in Brussels.

The royal couple were also buried with four ear dilators, two of gold, two of silver, plus silver rings, earrings and bracelets. A bronze dagger had silver nails in the handle. These are rare and important examples of the advanced metallurgy of the El Argar culture. Two other pieces are uniquely significant on that score: a ceramic vessel with bands of finely layered silver and a punch with a bronze tip and a silver handle. Both of them are one of a kind objects that demonstrate the high level of Argaric silver craftsmanship.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Head of goddess found at Arbeia Roman fort

Wed, 2014-10-08 22:46

A volunteer with WallQuest, a community archaeology project excavating Arbeia Roman fort in South Shields at the easternmost end of Hadrian’s Wall has discovered a carved stone head of a goddess. The small figure is just over three inches high and is finely carved. She wears a mural crown — a crown in the shape of battlements — that identifies her as a protective goddess. Archaeologists believe she is a representation of Brigantia, the goddess of the northern British tribe of the Brigantes. Indeed, an altar inscribed “Deae Brigantiae sacrum Congenncus (V[otum] S[olvit] L[ibens] M[erito]” (To the sacred goddess Brigantia Congenncus willingly and deservedly fulfilled his vow) was unearthed 100 yards from the head in 1895, and at least one other statue of Brigantia wearing a mural crown has been found.

The find is a small, finely carved female head which is believed to date back to the second century AD and stands at 8cm high. Every part is delicately carved including eyes, nose, mouth and hairstyle with traces of pink paint on the statues face as well as a bit of red on her lips.

The head dates to the 2nd century A.D., early in the life of the fort which was first built overlooking the River Tyne around 160 A.D. and enlarged in 208 A.D. to serve as a maritime supply base the soldiers along Hadrian’s Wall. We know the stone goddess predates that expansion because it was found in an aqueduct channel that was filled so new construction could be done on top of it. The statue of the goddess wouldn’t have been freestanding on its own; given the discovery of her head and the altar found in the 19th century, it’s likely that there was a shrine to Brigantia in Arbeia that was demolished to make room for the enlargement of the fort.

Troop divisions at Arbeia that have been identified thus far include boatmen from the Tigris River in what was then Persia, now Iraq, Gaulish infantry, Spanish cavalry (First Asturian) and Syrian archers. Although locals probably enlisted later on, when the statue was standing, it was these units from all over the empire who were likely responsible for creating the shrine to the local goddess.

Nick Hodgson, WallQuest Project Manager, said:

“The head is a truly wonderful find. Northern Britain was a dangerous place for the Roman army in the second century AD; if the goddess is Brigantia it shows how keen the Romans were to placate the spirits of the region.”

It must have worked, because Arbeia and the civilian settlement that grew in its shadow remained in active use for decades after most of the other fort settlements on Hadrian’s Wall were abandoned or greatly contracted. There was new construction in the Arbeia settlement in the late 3rd century or early 4th. This is attributable to its commercial importance as a maritime fort and market center. The only permanent masonry granaries ever found in Britain were built in Arbeia. The fort and settlement were in use through the end of the Roman occupation in the 5th century.

The head of Brigantia will be conserved over the next few months. In Spring of 2015, it will go on display at the Arbeia Roman Fort & Museum. At the same time the community excavation project at Arbeia will begin again, and volunteers will have the opportunity to look for the rest of the statue.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History