Remains of Celtic settlement found in Lucerne

October 17th, 2018

An archaeological survey at the site of a housing development in Egolzwil, Switzerland, has discovered rare remains of a Celtic settlement. Canton archaeologists excavating the site about 20 miles northwest of Lucerne unearthed evidence of a Celtic-era street and dwelling, the first traces of an actual Celtic settlement discovered in the canton. Before this discovery, the only material evidence of Celts having lived in the area were sacrificial remains found at what used to be the Wauwilersee lakeshore.

Wauwilersee, a glacier lake that was drained in the mid-19th century to reclaim the boggy land for agricultural purposes, was the site of one of the earliest human settlements in Switzerland. Remains have been found going back to the late Paleolithic (ca. 12,000 B.C.) and Neolithic pile dwelling settlements have been declared UNESCO World Heritage Sites. It’s this rich density of material culture dating back thousands of years that spurred the survey before construction of three semi-detaches houses on the Egolzwil-Baumgarten rail line.

The settlement remains were found on a hill overlooking the former Wauwilersee shore. The dig found a pathway about 13 feet wide made of small, compacted pebbles and the remains of a house that had burned down. It’s not known whether the path was a road linking locations within the settlement or if it was a stretch of a larger road that connected Egolzwil to the nearby town of Schötz. Most of the archaeological material unearthed consists of potsherds, small stones from the pathway, larger round stones used in construction of the dwelling and scorched fragments of the house’s clay walls. One stand-out artifact is a bronze fibula, a large pin used to secure garments together. It is of a type commonly dating to the 1st century B.C.

Very little is known about the Celtic period (ca. 800-15 B.C.) in the canton of Lucerne which is why this dig, so small in surface area, is so large in historical significance. That the house was burned down in the 1st century B.C. is particularly intriguing because of the potential connection to the events recorded by Julius Caesar in the opening of Gallic War. It all starts with Orgetorix, the richest and most powerful leader of the Helvetii (the varied, loose confederation of Celtic peoples in the Swiss Plateau) who in 61 B.C. persuades other leaders to head for larger and greener pastures by invading Gaul. Orgetorix never did his dream of war come true because his compatriots turned on him, afraid he would make himself king. He died (possibly by suicide) while on trial. That didn’t stop them from going through with the whole Gaul plan, though. In 58 B.C., they lit the match on the tinderbox that became the Gallic War.

When they thought that they were at length prepared for this undertaking, they set fire to all their towns, in number about twelve-to their villages about four hundred-and to the private dwellings that remained; they burn up all the corn, except what they intend to carry with them; that after destroying the hope of a return home, they might be the more ready for undergoing all dangers. They order every one to carry forth from home for himself provisions for three months, ready ground. They persuade the Rauraci, and the Tulingi, and the Latobrigi, their neighbors, to adopt the same plan, and after burning down their towns and villages, to set out with them: and they admit to their party and unite to themselves as confederates the Boii, who had dwelt on the other side of the Rhine, and had crossed over into the Norican territory, and assaulted Noreia.

Noricum, believed to be in modern-day Austria, was a long-time Roman ally, provider of a great deal of the army’s weapons and tools. In return, Roman forces had defended it against Germanic incursions since the early 2nd century B.C. The Helvetian invasion triggered Caesar’s response, and the rest, as they say, is history.

So, there is a general possibility that the Celtic house was burned down when the Helvetii arsoned themselves out of a homeland to ensure there would be no going back, but there’s no evidence of this fire having been part of the exodus. It could simply have been an accidental house fire like any other. More investigation will have to be done.

The excavation will only continue through the end of the month. With no time and no money to extend the dig, the site will be infilled for now for its own protection. Archaeologists plan to return when they have the wherewithal to excavate the site further.

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October 79 AD date found on Pompeii wall

October 16th, 2018

A charcoal date scribbled on the wall of a villa in Pompeii that was undergoing renovations when it was buried by the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 A.D. is the most precise contemporary evidence yet that the traditional date of the destruction of Pompeii, August 24th, is off by months. The note is dated the 16th day before the Kalends of November (November 1st), which would have been October 17th. There is no year, but the inscription wasn’t meant to be permanent. It was written in charcoal on a white wall that was probably going to be frescoed over as part of a renovation of the home and even if it hadn’t been painted, the charcoal would have quickly faded. That’s why archaeologists are so sure it was left in 79 A.D.

The source of the August date for the eruption is Pliny the Younger. It’s found in a letter written to his friend the historian Tacitus three decades after he witnessed Vesuvius’ fury destroy Pompeii, but the date has been questioned since the early days of Pompeiian archaeology. The discovery of organic remains of autumnal produce like pomegranates, chestnuts, grapes and of heating braziers in homes suggested the city had not been destroyed in the sweltering heat of a southern Italian August. One silver coin also provided strong evidence of a fall date. Minted by the Emperor Titus in 79 A.D., the coin is inscribed with a list of the emperor’s titles one of which notes he was acclaimed imperator 15 times. Titus’ 15th acclamation as emperor took place on September 8th.

So if the eruption took place in October, how to explain Pliny’s letter to Tacitus describing it as having happened in August? He barely escaped a cataclysm that destroyed multiple cities and claimed his uncle’s life. It’s not the sort of thing you’re likely to get so wrong, even 30 years after the event. The answer is transcription errors. Pliny’s original correspondence has not survived, obviously. The text has come down to us in various states of completion from copyists and, like a game of telephone, mistakes get transmitted and even amplified over the centuries. It’s easy to see how scribes might have confused September (the ninth month of the Julian calendar) with November (the ninth month in the ancient Roman 10-month calendar as indicated by the prefix “nov”).

Ancient sources are never as cut and dried as we might wish. There are inconsistencies with the archaeological record and even among the extant manuscripts. The August date comes from the most complete surviving copy of the letter which refers to the “nonum kal. septembres” (nine days before kalends of Septembe), not from all of them. Other copies of Pliny’s letters, including one now in the Girolamini Library in Naples, refer to the kalends of November, three days before the kalends of November and nine days before the kalends (month missing but was probably also November).

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Farmer finds 1,500-year-old farming tools

October 15th, 2018


A set of 1,500-year-old agricultural and carpentry tools have been discovered in the ancient Green city of Alexandria Troas on the Aegean coast of northwestern Turkey. The cache was discovered by accident by a farmer. He found earthenware pithos, a massive storage vessel, dating to the 5th-6th century A.D., in a field he owns that includes part of the ancient city wall.

A pithos alone would have been an exciting artifact. It proved to be geometrically more exciting when it was found to contain iron and bronze tools used for agriculture, carpentry and the making of other tools. The objects include sickles, soil scrapers, weed cutters, soil tampers, plows, long nails, and hand tools like saws, grinders, drills and spatula scrapers. The tools date to the late Roman, early Byzantine era, the 5th century A.D., and were stored in the pithos for centuries.

Founded around 306 B.C. as Antigonia Troas, the city was renamed after Alexander of Macedon in 301 B.C. and rose to become a prosperous port town under the Roman Republic and Empire. It had a population of around 100,000 at its peak and was a major port for trade and transportation between Asia Minor and Europe. Paul of Tarsus used it as a departure and arrival point on his travels to Europe and back. Its importance faded under the Byzantine Empire as the harbour silted up, but it was significant enough to remain the see of a bishopric until its abandonment some time in the Middle Ages.

[Ankara University archaeology professor and excavation leader Dr. Erhan] Oztepe said it is the most interesting finding of 2018. “Iron and Bronze [Age] agricultural and carpentry tools show us the economy of the ancient city and farming activities in the Alexandria Troas and nearby regions of the Early Byzantine period,” he said.

Kemal Dokuz, the head of Provincial Directorate of Culture and Tourism, highlighted the importance of the ancient site for tourism. “St. Paul stayed in this city and this place is as important as Ephesus to the Christian world. The Ministry of Culture and Tourism has spent $1 million [$170,165] on Alexandria Troas excavations within the last 5 years,” he added.

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New ritual objects found in ancient Santorini public building

October 14th, 2018

Excavation of a prehistoric structure in the Bronze Age city Akrotiri on the Greek Cycladic island of Santorini has unearthed new evidence of ritual activity. The building, known as the House of Thrania, was an important place in its day. In 1999 a golden goat was found there inside a clay urn accompanied by a number of horns, a deposit that suggests a ritual purpose. Archaeologists believe the House of Thrrani was not a personal dwelling, but rather a public building and the most recent discoveries support that hypothesis.

The excavation of the northwest corner of the space revealed, in successive chronological layers from oldest to most recent, first a group of clay amphorae and then rectangular clay shrines covered with clay lids. After careful investigation of one of the rectangles, archaeologists found a marble protocycladic female figurine placed diagonally across the bottom of the shrine.

In the southeast corner of the room, the team unearthed three more rectangular clay shrines. The two smaller ones contained a mass of clay in an oval configuration. The largest contained four vessels, two pre-Cycladic marble vases placed upside down, one marble vase placed right-side up and one made of alabaster also placed right-side up.

The ongoing research in Akrotiri on Santorini gradually has revealed a place of rituals, very close to Xesti 3, an important public building with rich fresco decorations on the southern boundary of the settlement.

According to archaeologists, the excavation finds are undoubtedly related to the perceptions and beliefs of the ancient society of Thera — as is the official name of Santorini — and generate essential questions about the ideology and possibly the religion of that prehistoric Aegean society.

Akotiri’s Bronze Age society was a Minoan colony, the best preserved Minoan city outside of Crete. It was destroyed and preserved in one fell swoop by the eruption of Thera in the mid-second millennium B.C., one of the most cataclysmic volcanic events in the history of the earth. It was that world-shattering eruption that kept Xesti 3’s frescoes in such vibrant color and that kept all the ritual clay vessels and their contents largely intact underneath the destruction layer.

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Child “vampire burial” found in Roman cemetery

October 13th, 2018

An international team of archaeologists has unearthed the skeletal remains of a child with a rock inserted into its mouth in a 5th century cemetery in the central Italian region of Umbria. Led by University of Arizona archaeologist David Soren who has been excavating the cemetery in the municipality of Lugnano since 1987, archaeologists from Stanford University and Italy discovered the unusual burial this summer. The body was found inhumed in a sort of lean-to grave created by propping two large roof tiles against a wall, a style characteristic of Roman Italy. The articulated skeleton had been placed on its side and its jaw was wide open. It could not have fallen open like that naturally when the body was on its side, and the stone had teeth marks on the surface indicating it was intentionally placed between the jaws during burial.

Stones deliberately the placed in the mouth are believed to be ritual gestures meant to contain the danger posed by a corpse from the spread of infectious disease or from the dead themselves rising from the grave to plague (literally and metaphorically) the living. That’s why they’re known as “vampire burials” even when they bear no specific connection to the vampire legends per se.

A deadly outbreak of malaria swept the area in the mid-5th century. Children and infants were especially hard hit, and the cemetery was likely dedicated to the interral of the young victims. Because of its sadly vulnerable population, it is called “La Necropoli dei Bambini” (the Necropolis of the Children). It was the site of a 1st century B.C. Roman villa, an elite country home that had long since been abandoned by the time malaria struck in the 5th century claiming the lives of so many children. DNA testing of several of the bones unearthed in the cemetery confirms the presence of malaria. The ten-year-old’s bones have not been DNA-tested yet, but he or she did have an abscess in one tooth, a common side-effect of malaria.

Until now, archaeologists believed the cemetery was designated specifically for infants, toddlers and unborn fetuses; in previous excavations of more than 50 burials, a 3-year-old girl was the oldest child found.

The discovery of the 10-year-old, whose age was determined based on dental development but whose sex is unknown, suggests that the cemetery may have been used for older children as well, said bioarcheologist Jordan Wilson, a UA doctoral student in anthropology who analyzed the skeletal remains in Italy.

“There are still sections of the cemetery that we haven’t excavated yet, so we don’t know if we’ll find other older kids,” Wilson said.

Excavation director David Pickel, who has a master’s degree in classical archaeology from the UA and is now a doctoral student at Stanford, said the discovery has the potential to tell researchers much more about the devastating malaria epidemic that hit Umbria nearly 1,500 years ago, as well as the community’s response to it.

“Given the age of this child and its unique deposition, with the stone placed within his or her mouth, it represents, at the moment, an anomaly within an already abnormal cemetery,” Pickel said. “This just further highlights how unique the infant — or now, rather, child — cemetery at Lugnano is.”

There is other evidence in the cemetery that the survivors enlisted magical ritual to counter the child-killing epidemic. Infants and toddlers were buried with talismans like raven talons, toad bones and bronze cauldrons containing the burned remains of sacrificed puppies. The three-year-old girl, the oldest child found in the cemetery before the most recent discovery, was buried with stones weighing down her hands and feet, another practice meant to keep the dead from rising.

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Prehistoric cave art revealed by water level drop in Turkey

October 12th, 2018

Fishermen have discovered ancient rock art on the shore of the Atatürk reservoir near Adıyaman, southeastern Turkey. Water levels in the reservoir have dropped around 10-15 meters (32-49 feet), exposing the low part of a cliff face that has been underwater since at least 1990 when the dam was completed.

The art spotted is an expansive tableau of carved drawings more than eight meters (26 feet) long and two feet wide. The carvings, created using an etching method, include human and animal figures underscored by linear motifs believed to represent a settlement on a slope. Animals depicted include mountain goats, horses, wolves, foxes, storks and a variety of indeterminate shapes. There are at least two hunting scenes, one including images of people armed with bows and arrows hunting wild goats and another with men on horses chasing a chevrotain, an extremely cute striped ungulate more commonly known as mouse-deer.

The size of the tableau and the richness of the animal and human life depicted are of particular interest to scientists. The carvings are in excellent condition, undiminished by so many years covered by water, which gives researchers the opportunity to learn more about prehistoric life in the area. The location is also significant and it is likely to have held religious meaning to the carvers.

The rock art dates at least to the Paleolithic era, but may be even older. Experts believe they may have been carved as far back as 2.6 million years ago. The carvings will be studied further as long as they are exposed. They will remain in situ even when the water returns to its previous level and covers it. The water didn’t damage it before, indeed, it helped preserve it.

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“Oldest drinkable” champagne not drinkable

October 11th, 2018

In 2010, a shipwreck laden with intact bottles of centuries-old champagne and beer was discovered in the waters off Aaland, an autonomous island province in the southwest of Finland’s archipelago. The exact date the twin-masted schooner sank to a watery grave could not be determined, but the type of ship indicated it was made in the first quarter of the 19th century, closer to 1830 than 1800.

The cold, dark Baltic had preserved the beverages well — one of the beer bottles leaked its contents and it was still foaming — and there was much excitement in Aaland at the possibility that the oldest drinkable champagne had been found off their coast, so much excitement that the drinking started before the oldest title was conclusively established. Two bottles of shipwreck champagne were opened and served to the press a few months after they were recovered. There was no fizz left and it was crazy sweet (a bottle of champers in the late 18th century had 100 grams of sugar vs. nine grams today), but it was technically drinkable.

As the dating of the ship inched closer to the previous record-holder (a bottle of 1825 Perrier-Jouet), the odds of this being the oldest champagne had to be shaved down from gung ho to razor thin. It was still old and rescued from a shipwreck, though, and Aaland was planning on auctioning off most of the bottles, blending some with modern vintages to make it less gross to the modern palate.

Well, those plans will have to be revised because French vinter Veuve-Clicquot, the revered label that bottled three or four of the 168 bottles recovered from the wreck, has analyzed the champagne and judged it undrinkable.

Åland’s culture minister Tony Asumaa visited France last week, to hear about the champagne firm’s analysis. A sample bottle of the shipwreck bubbly was sent to Veuve Clicot last year.

At the time, the champagne treasure discovery made headlines around the world. It also caused local controversy when Finland’s deputy chancellor of justice reprimanded the Åland regional government for recovering the shipwreck cargo before receiving permission from the National Board of Antiquities. In 2011 and 2012 Åland’s government had sold off some of the bottles for record prices at auction and pocketed the considerable proceeds.

“Sure, it was champagne, but not of the quality that we wanted, so it is not worth it. From now own we will classify [the bottles of champagne] as museum pieces, not something to consume,” Asumaa told Aland Radio.

Maybe something that should have been established before the toasting began eight years ago, but okey dokey.

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Twice-stolen Persian bas-relief returns to Iran

October 10th, 2018

An ancient Persian bas-relief that has been stolen twice in two places across the world from each other has returned to Iran. It is a carved slab of limestone eight inches square depicting a curly-bearded “Immortal” (imperial guard) from the Achaemenid dynasty. He was one of a long line of soldier reliefs arrayed in precise formation on a balustrade besides the steps of Persepolis’ main building. They were carved between 510 and 330 B.C.

The bas-relief was discovered in Persepolis in a 1933 excavation of the site by the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago. Contemporary photographs show the relief in situ, part of a line of imperial soldiers. Photographs show it still in place and untouched at least up to 1936. After that it vanished, reappearing 15 years later in the hands of French antiquities dealer and expert in Mediterranean sculpture Paul Mallon. Mallon sold it to Canadian department store heir and collector Frederick Cleveland Morgan for a comparative pittance ($1,000). Morgan donated the relief to the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts in the 1950s. It was on display there for six decades.

It was stolen again in September 2011 when a man wearing jeans, a dark jacket and a baseball cap casually walked into the museum in broad daylight and walked out with the Persian relief and a 1st century Roman marble head of a man. The brazen crime was never solved, but the bas relief was found in January of 2014 in the Edmonton home of a collector who claimed he thought it was a replica when he bought it from “a friend of a friend” for $1400 Canadian.

The Montreal Museum of Fine Arts decided to keep the $950,000 insurance payout it received after the theft and let its insurer, AXA, keep the title to the relief. AXA sold it to British antiquities dealer Rupert Wace. In October 2017, Wace offered the piece for sale for $1.2 million at The European Fine Art Fair (TEFAF). There it was, exposed to some of New York City’s deepest pockets, when the cops and city prosecutors waltzed in and seized it. The vociferous protests of the dealers — apparently the language got a tad bluer than the TEFAF crowd is accustomed to — fell on deaf ears.

Wace and his partner were shocked because the relief had been published and displayed extensively for 80 years, long before the 1970 UNESCO convention cutoff on the illegal export of cultural artifacts, but the Manhattan district attorney’s office was acting on evidence that the relief had been stolen after Persian passed the Cultural Heritage Protection Act in 1930 prohibiting the export of such artifacts.

The Manhattan DA created a full timeline of tracing the location and ownership history of the relief. Their contention was that nobody could own stolen property “in good faith” because there is no valid title to transfer in a sale and because the buyer should do his due diligence in ascertaining the reality of an object’s provenance instead of relying on conjecture. In this case, dealers said they just assumed the bas-relief had been looted from Persepolis in the 19th century. They had no evidence to support that hypothesis nor did they make any effort to determine its veracity.

In July of this year, a New York Supreme Court judge ordered that the relief be repatriated to Iran. After some negotiations, the London dealers agreed to fork it over. As of this week, the relief is back on Persian soil.

“It now belongs to the people who made it in the first place, and who are now going to preserve it, and is part of their identity,” Firouzeh Sepidnameh, director of the ancient history section of the National Museum told AFP on Tuesday.

The limestone relief was handed over to Iran’s representative at the United Nations last month and was personally brought back to Iran by President Hassan Rouhani, returning from the UN General Assembly.

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Titian’s Crucifixion torn in a fall

October 9th, 2018

A painting of the Crucifixion by Old Master Titian was seriously damaged in a fall at the 16th century royal complex of El Escorial near Madrid in central Spain. The 8 x 4.5-foot oil-on-canvas Christ Crucified was discovered by security personnel around 10:00 AM on Wednesday, October 3rd, in the sacristy of the Monastery of San Lorenzo de El Escorial. It had become detached from the wall and struck the 16th/17th century furniture underneath it before bouncing onto the marble floor. The accident caused a considerable horizontal 7-shaped tear in the canvas across the lower portion of the painting.

Experts from Spain’s National Patrimony, the public institution responsible for the management of property of the State that was formerly property of the Crown, were immediately dispatched to examine the masterpiece, assess its condition, come up with a repair plan and determine if possible the cause of the fall. They found that detachment was likely caused by the degradation of the plaster layer on the wall to which the painting had been anchored. Over the years the plaster that held the nails of the mount had gradually crumbled without anybody realizing what was happening. The tipping point came the night of October 2/3 and down came the painting.

Officials are quick to reassure that the figure of Christ himself was not torn. The entire pictorial layer appears to have been spare from any paint loss. The work has been protectively wrapped and packaged for transport to the central National Patrimony workshop in Madrid. There it will be analyzed thoroughly, treated and repaired to ensure its stability. When the restoration is done, the painting will be returned to the Royal Monastery of San Lorenzo, presumably, one hopes, in a new location.

Crucified Christ entered the Escorial collection in 1574, added by King Philip II who was an unabashed Titian fan and commissioned almost all of Titian’s outlay in the last 25 years of his life (from 1550 until his death in 1576). It’s not known exactly when Titian painted it. Stylistically it dates to the beginning of his late period characterized by experimentation with daring chiaroscuro night scenes and flesh tones, probably around 1555. It was already on its way to Philip II in 1556.

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Public conservation of Gainsborough’s Blue Boy begins

October 8th, 2018

The carefully planned conservation of Thomas Gainsborough’s The Blue Boy has begun at The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens. On Sept. 22, 2018, a temporary conservation studio opened under the spot in the grand portrait gallery where the iconic painting usually hangs.

The Blue Boy requires conservation to address both structural and visual concerns. “Earlier conservation treatments mainly have involved adding new layers of varnish as temporary solutions to keep it on view as much as possible,” said Christina O’Connell, The Huntington’s senior paintings conservator working on the painting and co-curator of the exhibition. “The original colors now appear hazy and dull, and many of the details are obscured.” According to O’Connell, there are also several areas where the paint is beginning to lift and flake, making the work vulnerable to paint loss and permanent damage; and the adhesion between the painting and its lining is separating, meaning it does not have adequate support for long-term display.

During three months of preliminary analysis—which was carried out by conservators in 2017, with results reviewed by curators—the painting was examined and documented using a range of imaging techniques that allow O’Connell and Melinda McCurdy, The Huntington’s associate curator for British art and co-curator of the exhibition, to see beyond the surface with wavelengths the human eye can’t see. Infrared reflectography rendered some paints transparent, making it possible to see preparatory lines or changes the artist made. Ultraviolet illumination made it possible to examine and document the previous layers of varnish and old overpaints. New images of the back of the painting were taken to document what appears to be an original stretcher (the wooden support to which the canvas is fastened) as well as old labels and inscriptions that tell more of the painting’s story. And, minute samples from the 2017 technical study and from previous analysis by experts were studied at high magnification (200-400x) with techniques including scanning electron microscopy with which conservators could scrutinize specific layers and pigments within the paint. Armed with information gathered from the 2017 analysis, the co-curators mapped out a course of action for treating the painting and developed a series of questions for which they are eager to find answers. Funding for the restoration and conservation work was made possible through a grant from Bank of America’s Art Conservation Program.

Visitors to The Huntington will see Blue Boy in various stages of treatment. The painting will be laid out on the table when conservators stabilize areas of flaking paint. They will use a surgical microscope to view the paint in high magnification. The microscope will be connected to a display screen so visitors can see the surface of the painting in microscopic detail along with the conservators. It was also be placed on an easel when the many layers of discolored varnishes, which alter not just the original colors but also the spatial relationships of the composition, are removed.

During the imaging research done in preparation for this year-long treatment project, Blue Boy X-rays and infrared reflectography. They revealed the head of a gentleman (at the Boy’s right elbow) and a fluffy white dog (at the boy’s right side) Gainsborough painted over and an 11-inch-long L-shaped tear in the canvas (at the boy’s left shin). The figures had been seen in earlier radiographs. (The portrait wasn’t a commission so Gainsborough simply took a used canvas he had lying around, cut it down, restretched it and painted the young man who would make his reputation.) The tear, however, was a new discovery.

Conservators hope that once they get under the layers of overpaint and varnish to Gainsborough’s original brushstrokes, they’ll find out more about his approach, about when the portrait was painted, when the tear appeared in the canvas, and maybe, just maybe, establish definitely the identity of the sitter.

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