Incredibly rare Roman coin found during highway works

May 18th, 2019

A Roman coin that is only the second example ever discovered in England has been found during construction work on the A14 highway in Cambridgeshire. The bronze coin features the radiate bust of the usurper emperor Ulpius Cornelius Laelianus on the obverse and winged Victory holding a wreath and palm branch on the reverse. It has been hard worn and the edges are scalloped so it’s difficult to read the inscription, but Laelianus only made two versions of this coin so we know it was minted at Mainz, his imperial seat.

Very little is known about Ulpius Cornelius Laelianus. The Ulpii were an important Spanish family — Trajan was an Ulpius — but there’s no evidence he was related to them. The aureus coin he issued had a depiction of a personified Spain on the reverse, which may have meant to suggest a connection to the famous Ulpii. As a usurper who claimed the imperial throne after rebelling against another usurper (his commanding officer Postumus), he would have a good reason to promote himself as related to the legitimate emperor who expanded the Roman empire to its greatest size, even if said connection was entirely fictional.

Laelianus’ “reign,” and I use the term loosely, lasted for two months in the spring of 269 A.D. and covered a snipped of Gaul and Germania. He commanded two legions and successfully repulsed a Germanic assault with them. In the wake of his victory, he declared himself emperor in Mainz. A couple of months later, his capital was besieged by his former commanding officer and he was killed, either by his own men or by Postumus’.

Because he was such a flash in the pan, his coins are extremely rare and very much sought after by collectors. Only one aureus and two bronze antoniniani are known. This bronze antoninianus was found in a ditch of a Roman farmstead excavated in the A14 expansion project.

Julian Bowsher, numismatist at MOLA Headland Infrastructure, added: “Roman emperors were very keen to mint coins. Laelianus reigned for just two months, which is barely enough time to do so. However, coins were struck in Mainz, Germania.

“The fact that one of these coins ever reached the shores of Britain demonstrates remarkable efficiency, and there’s every chance that Laelianus had been killed by the time this coin arrived in Cambridgeshire.”

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Conserved Bacton Altar Cloth goes on display

May 17th, 2019

Bacton Altar Cloth, 16th century silk and embroidery textile believed to have been part of a gown worn by Queen Elizabeth I. ©Historic Royal Palaces/Courtesy of St Faith’s Church, Bacton.

After three years of study and conservation, the Bacton Altar Cloth is going on display at Hampton Court Palace. None of Elizabeth I’s clothing has survived, although a number of accessories have, so this cross-shaped piece is uniquely rare.

The embroidered silk textile was donated to  St Faith’s Church in Bacton, Herefordshire, by Blanche Parry who was one of Elizabeth’s most loyal and dedicated ladies. She served the future queen starting during the reign of Henry VIII when Princess Elizabeth was a young girl and continued uninterrupted for 57 years, reached the exalted rank of Chief Gentlewoman of Queen Elizabeth’s most honourable Privy Chamber and Keeper of Her Majesty’s jewels. The queen is known to have given Blanche clothes she longer wanted.

While there is no specific record of this particular textile being a royal hand-me-down, its materials and manufacture are so exquisite that it would have been literally illegal for a non-royal to wear such a garment. A monarchical provenance would also explain why Blanche considered the piece important enough to donate to her hometown church where her heart is also buried.

The altar cloth’s connection to Elizabeth I has been rumored for centuries. Recognizing its importance, in 1909, the church took it off the altar and placed it in a glass display case. In 2016, St. Faith’s asked Historic Royal Palaces to study the altar cloth.

On examining the textile, [Historic Royal Palaces curator Eleri] Lynn – an expert in Tudor court dress – was able to identify previously unseen features, studying the seams of the fabric to confirm it had once formed part of a skirt.

Following the exciting discovery, Historic Royal Palaces – the independent charity that cares for Hampton Court Palace – agreed to commence a conservation programme to stabilise the fragile fabric in the palace’s world-class textile studio. Further examination of the cloth by experts has added weight to Lynn’s theory that it might once have belonged to the Tudor Queen. Its creation from high-status silver chamblet silk, use of professional embroidery including real gold and silver thread, and distinct evidence of pattern-cutting all suggest that the item could have formed part of Elizabeth’s lavish wardrobe. The conservation team were also able to test the dyes within the fabric, discovering that it contained expensive Indigo and red dye sourced from Mexico – the kind of materials only available to a person a very high status.

The embroidery is truly spectacular, a profusion of flora (columbines, daffodils, roses, honeysuckle, oak leaves, acorns, mistletoe) and fauna (peacocks, other birds, frogs, dragonflies, butterflies, caterpillars, fish, dogs, dear, squirrels, a crocodile, a bear). There are also small wooden boats being rowed by tiny embroidered people.

Detail of the embroidery of the Bacton Altar Cloth from the back: the bear. ©Historic Royal Palaces/Courtesy of St Faith’s Church, Bacton.

The exhibition will delve further into the use of these motifs in the Tudor era. One of the most important works on display, and one of the most significant pieces of circumstantial evidence for the altar cloth having been part of one of Elizabeth’s gowns, is the Rainbow Portrait (c. 1600 – 02), attributed to Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger. It depicts Elizabeth in an embroidered silk gown with very similar imagery. It is being loaned from Hatfield House for the exhibition and this is the first time it will be on display at Hampton Court Palace.

Accompanying the painting will be a selection of rare domestic print books dating from the Tudor period, which would have provided inspiration for many of the embroidered motifs fashionable during Elizabeth’s reign – including those found on the Bacton Altar Cloth – brought together for the first time with other stunning embroidery work from the period.

The Bacton Altar Cloth will be on display from October 12, 2019, until February 23, 2020.

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Giorgione masterpiece loaned to Wadsworth

May 16th, 2019

An extremely rare masterpiece by the Venetian Renaissance painter Giorgione has gone on display at the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art in Hartford, Connecticut, from May 15 to August 4, 2019. La Vecchia (The Old Lady), is an unusual portrait of an elderly woman who stares open-mouthed at the viewer, reminding them that they too, if they’re lucky enough to live, will share her fate. It is being loaned to the Wadsworth by the Gallerie dell’Accademia in Venice.

La Vecchia is Giorgione’s poetic response to the natural phenomenon of aging,” says Oliver Tostmann, Susan Morse Hilles Curator of European Art of the Wadsworth. “It is a milestone in European portraiture in which Giorgione shows old age with implacable explicitness. It prompts us to confront our own mortality and the inevitable truth of growing old.”

The hyperrealistic portrayal of a haggard woman looking directly at us both attracts and repels at the same time. With her lips open as if about to speak, she gestures to herself. In her hand is a slip of paper inscribed with the words col tempo, “with time.” Painted more than 500 years ago, the unsparing naturalism and representation of the effects of aging
are unexpected, a striking departure from the more familiar, idealized portraits of the time. A recent conservation treatment, funded by [the Foundation for Italian Art and Culture], has removed discoloration and breathed new life into La Vecchia.

What little biographical information we have about Giorgione comes primarily from Vasari’s  Lives of the Most Eminent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects. Vasari first introduces him in his chapter on Sebastiano del Piombo who began as a student of Giovanni Bellini but switched to Giorgione because the latter had “brought into Venice the newer manner, with its superior harmony and increased vividness of colouring.” Giorgione, who had himself had studied under Bellini, had such a profound influence on del Piombo’s style, Vasari states, that Sebastiano’s works were sometimes mistakenly believed to have been painted by Giorgione.

According to Vasari, Giorgione was born in 1477 (the date may or not be accurate) in Castelfranco Veneto, a small medieval town about 25 miles from Venice. Though of humble origins, Giorgione had fine manners, a love of literature and music (he was an excellent lute player) and was so dedicated to capturing nature that he always painted from life. He was inspired by Leonardo da Vinci’s keen grasp of anatomical realism coupled with the softness of color and shadows of his sfumato. Vasari compares Giorgione’s grasp of proportion, design and naturalism to Leonardo’s, saying his works “approached very closely to the excellence of his model.” His portraits were so life-like, Vasari says, that “the face appears to be real rather than painted.”

Giorgione’s talent was widely recognized in Renaissance Venice. He received multiple commissions for portraits, altarpieces and frescoes from the wealthiest and most important families. Sadly, his brilliant career was cut short. He was in his 30s when he died of plague in 1510. He died of plague, which Vasari says he caught from his inamorata.

Today only six paintings are indisputably attributed to him. Several of the ones Vasari mentioned are now known to have been painted by contemporaries like Titian and Sebastiano del Piombo. The only one in the United States, the Adoration of the Shepherds at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., is of disputed authorship. The competing view is that it is an early work of Titian’s, and it’s a much more formal, less naturalistic scene than the portrait of La Vecchia. That’s why the Wadsworth exhibition is such a unique opportunity for people Stateside to view Giorgione’s work.

After experiencing Giorgione’ La Vecchia visitors will be invited to view the Wadsworth’s collection of Italian works of art including important Venetian Renaissance paintings by artists such as Sebastiano del Piombo, Tintoretto, and Jacopo Bassano. A group of deluxe books designed for and published by the famed Aldus Manutius—Venice’s leading purveyor of ancient and modern texts, known for their elegant design—are on view adjacent the Giorgione, as is the museum’s Andrea Previtali, Madonna and Child with a Donor in a landscape (c. 1504–05).

“Rarely do we have such a prime opportunity to reconnect with our shared humanity and with the Renaissance,” says Thomas J. Loughman, Director and CEO of the Wadsworth. “La Vecchia is without parallel in America as a major allegorical portrait by Giorgione, and this recent conservation provides the perfect occasion to learn and appreciate the
ideas behind the painting afresh.”

Giorgione (c. 1477/78–c. 1510), La Vecchia, 1502–08. Oil on canvas, 26 3/4 x 23 1/4 in. (68 x 59 cm), Gallerie dell’Accademia, cat. 272, © G.A. VE Photo Archive, Courtesy of the Ministry of Cultural Heritage and Activities—Gallerie dell’Accademia, Venice.

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Farmer discovers Sarmatian warrior tomb

May 15th, 2019

A farmer stumbled on a rare Sarmatian burial while working his land near the village of Nikolskoye in the Astrakhan region of southern Russia this winter. Rustam Mudayev was digging a pit when his bulldozer made an unusual sound. It was the sound of a mechanical digger meeting an ancient bronze pot. He took the vessel to the Astrakhan Museum-Reserve for examination and it was identified as Iron Age artifact.

When the snow melted, a team of archaeologists surveyed the find site. The discovered that the bronze pot had emerged from an ancient burial mound. The mound is noted on topographic maps, labeled “Praying Sands,” but had not been archaeologically excavated before.  Digging into the mound the team discovered the remains of an adult male buried with weapons, rich adornments and the head of his horse. 

He was tall, just under six feet, and elderly.  He had been buried in a closed coffin, his horse’s head in a silver and bronze harness placed on top of it. Inside the coffin archaeologists found a group of gold plaques that are believed to have decorated a pillow on which his head was resting. They also found knives with gold and turquoise decoration, a gold and turquoise belt buckle, a mirror and several pots. A tiny but exquisite gold and turquoise horse head figurine was found between his legs. The objects date to around the 2nd century A.D.

This was an elaborate burial for a nomadic people, an indication of the high status this individual held in his community. The weapons and the horse burial would have been reserved for a warrior and the wealth of the grave goods suggest he was a leader, a chieftain or nobleman.

Initially the mound was dated to the Iron Age (4th century B.C. – 4th century A.D.) based on the artifacts, but additional discoveries point to the mound having been used repeatedly starting in the Bronze Age. The team has been digging for less than two weeks and they’ve found two more burials — a woman buried with a bronze mirror and a whole sacrificed lamb and the skeletal remains of a young man with an egg-shaped skull. Deliberate cranial deformation was a common practice in the region at the time (actually in pretty much every inhabited region on the globe at various times). 

The mound has been looted in the past, but thankfully the looters did a shoddy job of it, only digging up the top Iron Age layer and not even clearing everything out. Archaeologists found small pieces of gold fittings or plaques left behind by the tomb raiders. They haven’t gotten to the central burial yet and excavations will continue for another week in the hopes they will reach the original Bronze Age burial that could date back to the third millennium B.C. Once the project is complete, the artifacts will be recovered, conserved and exhibited at the museum.

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Sarsen core returns to Stonehenge after US sojourn

May 14th, 2019

A core drilled out of one of Stonehenge’s massive sarsen stones has been returned to its homeland after decades in the US. It wasn’t smuggled out or looted; it was legitimately removed and nobody even remembered it existed other than the person who had it.

In 1958, archaeologists working at Stonehenge endeavored to raise a fallen trilithon. When cracks were found in one of the vertical stones, Basingstoke diamond cutting firm Van Moppes was brought in to drill out three cores so that metal rods could be inserted to reinforce the post and allow it to bear the weight of the lintel.

Roger Phillips was one of the Van Moppes employees who bored three horizontal holes through the stone using an annular drilling machine. The three cores removed were 25mm (approximately one inch) in diameter and one meter, the full thickness of the stone, long. After the metal reinforcements were installed, the openings were plugged with fragments of sarsen stones unearthed in excavations. It was a highly effective intervention and today the repairs are all but invisible.

The cores were considered waste material and there are no known records documenting their fate. As it turns out, Phillips kept one of them. For years he displayed the 108cm (3’6″) long cylinder in a protective acrylic sleeve in his Basingstoke office.  Robert Phillips left Van Moppes in 1976 and moved to the US. He crossed the country, living in Rochester, New York, Chicago, Illinois, Ventura, California and lastly Aventura, Florida, carrying his trusty sarsen core with him on every move.

Last year, at the age of 90, Phillips decided his beloved piece of Stonehenge should go home. He asked his sons Robin and Lewis, both of whom live in England, to return it to English Heritage, and so they did. In a repatriation ceremony at Stonehenge, The Phillipses handed over the cylinder to English Heritage curator Heather Sebire.

The core is an invaluable source of information on the source of the sarsen stones. Modern technology makes it possible to analyze their origin in a way that wasn’t even a glint in anyone’s eye back in 1958.

This recently returned piece of Stonehenge, which looks incongruously pristine next to the weathered stone from where it came, may now help locate the original location of the sarsen stones. Stonehenge’s smaller bluestones were famously brought from the Preseli Hills in south-west Wales but the precise origin of the much larger sarsens is unknown. A British Academy and Leverhulme Trust project, led by Professor David Nash of the University of Brighton, is investigating the chemical composition of the sarsen stones at Stonehenge in order to pinpoint their source. The project team have already used a handheld portable spectrometer to investigate the chemistry of the sarsen stones at Stonehenge using x-ray fluorescence, a non-destructive technique. The core presents the team with a unique opportunity to analyse the unweathered interior of a stone. […]

Professor David Nash, Brighton University, said: “Archaeologists and geologists have been debating where the stones used to build Stonehenge came from for years. The bluestones have attracted a lot of attention recently, but in contrast little has been done to look at the sources of the larger sarsen stones. Conventional wisdom suggests that they all came from the relatively nearby Marlborough Downs but initial results from our analysis suggest that in fact the sarsens may come from more than one location.  Our geochemical fingerprinting of the sarsens in situ at Stonehenge, and of the core itself, when compared with samples from areas across southern England will hopefully tell us where the different stones came from.”

English Heritage would love to get their mitts on the other two cores, if they still exist out there. Anybody with any information about the Stonehenge cores should email stonehenge.core@english-heritage.org.uk.

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Getty acquires gems of ancient intaglio collection

May 13th, 2019

Intaglios are gems, miniature designs intricately carved on gemstones, but the 17 acquired by the Getty Museum at auction two weeks ago are gems among gems. That’s why those 17 pieces, many of them not even an inch long, cost the Getty just shy of $8 million, $7,939,250, to be precise.

The entire sale of 40 Roman, Greek, Etruscan and Greco-Persian intaglio and cameo gemstones at Christie’s on April 29th raked in $10,640,500. Obviously the Getty with its bottomless pit of cash picked the choicest ones, but they weren’t the only players in this game because the hammer prices went far beyond pre-sale estimates. A Greek Mottled Yellow Jasper Scaraboid with a Grasshopper from the Classical Period (ca. late 5th century B.C.), for example, was estimated to sell for $30,000-50,000. It sold for $519,000. A Roman Amethyst Ringstone with a Portrait of Demosthenes signed by Dioskourides, gem engraver to the Emperor Augustus, was estimated to sell for $200,000-300,000. The Getty dropped $1,575,000 on it.

The tradition of ancient carved gems was born from the seals and cylinders of Mesopotamia 5,000 years ago. They were sigils, used to make imprints into wet clay to sign official documents. From there they spread throughout Greece, Egypt and Persia and the Levant. Over the centuries they came to hold religious significance as well, carved with images of deities and mythological heroes, worn as amulets and consecrated to temples as votive offerings.

In the Greek Classical Period, the engraving became finer wrought and more detailed. The quality and variety of available stones took a great leap forward during the 3rd century B.C. thanks to Alexander the Great’s conquests. (You’d think, therefore, that there would be more than one gemstone carved with a bust of Alexander, but only one is known to survive.) While still used to create impressions, carved gemstones became primarily fashionable adornments at this time, jewels of high craftsmanship and expensive materials.

Intaglios, in which the designs are cut into the surface of a stone, are the direct descendants of the signet tradition. The other form of ancient gem engraving, cameo, is its positive, a relief created by carving away the stone around it, the stone version of the clay bullae stamped from seals. Most of them were mounted onto rings in settings of precious metals. Larger pieces were used as pendants or perhaps brooches.

Romans continued the Hellenistic tradition of carved gemstones, introducing a new material: glass, from which cameos could be cut with advanced knowledge of what layers of color would emerge, unlike the beautiful crapshoot of carving agates and chalcedonies.

The craft declined and fell along with the empire, but the beauty of the stones ensured they were prized whenever they were discovered. In the Middle Ages they were mounted on religious objects, an inadvertent return to one of their more ancient functions. The revival of Classical art in the Renaissance drove a new interest in ancient intaglios and cameos. The wealthy collected them, sometimes remounting them into new pieces of jewelry. Come the Grand Tour in the 17th century, portable, glamorous engraved gemstones became de rigeur features of the most elegant and aristocratic cabinets of curiosities.

As an art dealer to European royalty and English Grand Tourist aristocrats, Count Antonio Maria Zanetti, amassed a great collection of carved gemstones, ancient and modern, and published a thorough catalogue of his pieces. His most beloved stone was a portrait of Antinous. Mirroring Hadrian’s fiery affection for his favorite, Zanetti pursued this one black chalcedony intaglio with unmatched passion. For 23 years he tried to get his hands on it. He said he would have sold his house to buy it. By 1740, he had succeeded (and kept his house). He sold it shortly before his death in 1767 to George Spencer, 4th Duke of Marlborough, who assembled a great collection of 780 engraved gemstones during his lifetime.

In this century, Roman art dealer Giorgio Sangiorgi acquired some of the finest ancient carved gemstones known, including the Marlborough Antinous. He carefully curated his collection, selecting exceptional examples from earlier dispersed collections like George Spencer’s. Most of them he bought before World War II, and while the collection has been in Switzerland since the 1950s, has never been on public view and wasn’t published until last year, the ownership history of every gem is beyond impeccable, stretching back centuries.

Little wonder the Getty jumped on these tiny masterpieces to the tune of eight million dollars.

“The acquisition of these gems brings into the Getty’s collection some of the greatest and most famous of all classical gems, most notably the portraits of Antinous and Demosthenes,” explains Timothy Potts, director of the J. Paul Getty Museum. “But the group also includes many lesser-known works of exceptional skill and beauty that together raise the status of our collection to a new level. Two such are the image of three swans on a Bronze Age seal from Crete, which has an elegance and charm transcending its early date (c. 1600 B.C.); and the image of the semi-divine Perseus, a marvel of minute naturalism that cannot fail to enthrall. This acquisition represents the most important enhancement to the Getty Villa’s collection in over a decade.”

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Breton village offers reward to decipher mysterious stone inscription

May 12th, 2019

The village of Plougastel-Daoulas in Brittany is sending out an appeal to linguists, cryptographers, students, scholars and puzzlers of all stripes to decipher a mysterious inscription carved onto a boulder centuries ago, and they’re willing to put money on it.

The inscription begins “grocar drear diozeevbio” and more text follows — “roc ar b,” “dre ar grio se eveloh ar viriones baoavel,” “r i obbiie:brisbvilar” — none of it in any recognized language.

“This inscription is a mystery and it is for this that we are launching the appeal,” said Veronique Martin, who is spearheading the search for a code-cracker.

The rock, which is around the size of a person, is accessed via a path from the hamlet of Illien ar Gwenn just to the north of Corbeau point.

The inscription fills the entirety of one of its sides and is mainly in capital letters but there are also pictures including a sailing boat. There are two dates, 1786 and 1787.

“These dates correspond more or less to the years that various artillery batteries that protected Brest and notably Corbeau Fort which is right next to it,” she said.

The rock is bathed by the sea. The image of the sailboat is so close to the foot of the rock that the waters touch it at high tide.

The only known part of the inscription is a relatively recent addition: the date 1920, engraved by a Russian soldier garrisoned there during World War I. Just in case there might be a link between this and the rest of the inscription, linguists in Russia were contacted but to no avail. It’s not a Cyrillic language/dialect and Russian does not appear to have anything to do with it.

The Champollion Mystery of Plougastel-Daoulas, named after the French Egyptologist Jean-Francois Champollion who translated the hieroglyphic inscription on the Rosetta Stone, runs through the end of November 2019. All submissions, analyses and research reports, will be analyzed by a jury of academics and a representative from Brittany’s archaeology department. The most plausible entry will receive a €2,000 award.

The municipality has already received more than a thousand emails. If you’d like to try your hand at solving this riddle, email veronique.martin@mairie-plougastel.fr .

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Largest 4th c. coin hoard in Britain found in Lincolnshire

May 11th, 2019

Metal detector enthusiasts discovered a hoard of Roman copper coins near the village of Rauceby in Lincolnshire in July of 2017. They had searched the area for years with only a few minor finds to show for it. This time when their detectors signaled the presence of metal, when they dug they found a massive quantity of Roman coins.

They alerted the authorities and a full excavation of the site ensued. Lincolnshire County Council archaeologist Adam Daubney and Sam Bromage from the University of Sheffield unearthed the ceramic pot that the coin hoard was buried in and  small separate hoard of 10 coins. All told, more than 3000 copper-alloy  were found. It is the largest coin hoard from the 4th century ever found in Britain.

Dr Daubney commented: “The coins were found in a ceramic pot, which was buried in the centre of a large oval pit – lined with quarried limestone. What we found during the excavation suggests to me that the hoard was not put in the ground in secret, but rather was perhaps a ceremonial or votive offering. The Rauceby hoard is giving us further evidence for so-called ‘ritual’ hoarding in Roman Britain.”

Dr Eleanor Ghey, Curator of Iron Age and Roman Coin Hoards at the British Museum, commented: “At the time of the burial of the hoard around AD 307, the Roman Empire was increasingly decentralised and Britain was once again in the spotlight following the death of the emperor Constantius in York. Roman coins had begun to be minted in London for the first time. As the largest fully recorded find of this date from Britain, it has great importance for the study of this coinage and the archaeology of Lincolnshire.”

The coins were officially declared treasure under the terms of the 1996 Treasure Act by the Lincoln Coroner’s Court on May 9th. The hoard is in the British Museum right now for assessment by the valuation committee. Once fair market value is assessed, local museums will be given first crack at acquiring the hoard by paying the assessed value in compensation to be split 50/50 by the finders and landowner. In this case the value will likely be in the tens of thousands of pounds.

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Rare sea croc fossil found in Denmark

May 10th, 2019

The white chalk cliffs of Stevns Klint on the Danish island of Zealand are geological marvels, one of the best exposed Cretaceous-Tertiary boundaries in the world, complete with a visible record of the ash cloud created when the Chicxulub meteorite crashed off the coast of the Yucatán Peninsula 65 million years ago and caused the greatest mass extinction of all time. A thin grey line of clay divides the white chalk at the bottom from the line above it; it is a literal boundary line marking the end of the Cretaceous.

The cliffs are replete with fossils documenting plant and animal life before the meteorite and their recovery afterwards. Many are embedded in the cliff face and the constant erosion makes it a very productive site for fossil hunters.

Amateur geologist Peter Bennicke has made several important finds there, most recently two teeth and two armour plates from a 66-million-year-old crocodilian. The plates, also known as osteoderms, are sheets of bone under the skin of crocodiles that are coated with horn-like material. They’re what give crocodiles that armor-like plating down their back and sides.

“The patterns in the armour plates vary among different types of crocodiles, but along with the two long and slender teeth we can confidently deduce that the crocodile is of the Thoracosaurus genus, which was the most prevalent sea crocodile of the time – just about the end of the Cretaceous period and the beginning of the Tertiary period,” said Jesper Milan, a museum curator with Geomuseum Faxe.

Thoracosaurus survived the mass extinction rather well, living long into the Danian era. They had long, slender jaws with curved teeth which worked with deadly efficiency at catching fish. Their fossils have been found far from the coastlines of their era, indicating that they were strong swimmers who hunted their prey far from land.

Jesper Milan notes that only a few loose Thoracosaurus teeth from the end of the Cretaceous have been found in Denmark before. The discovery of teeth and plates from a specimen on the other side of the boundary is of greater importance than their modest dimensions might suggest because they fill an important gap in the fossil record.

The fossils will go on display at the Geomuseum Faxe later this year.

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Prittlewell burial keeps some secrets, tells others

May 9th, 2019

In the fall of 2003, archaeologists surveying the site of future road widening project near Prittlewell, south Essex, spotted a piece of bronze sticking up out of the ground. The ensuing excavation found that the bit of bronze marked the spot of an Anglo-Saxon chamber burial of exceptional wealth and historical significance. While the skeletal remains were gone, devoured by the acidic soil that had made its way into the wooden sides of the tomb, more than 60 objects were found, among them an iron folding stool, several bronze vessels, drinking cups made of wood (some surviving) and gold, blue glass jars, a gold buckle, gold foil crosses, traces of a wood lyre, a sword and shield. The chamber was in such good condition that copper-alloy bowls were found still hanging from hooks in the walls. All of the grave’s many furnishings were in the original position they’d been placed in on the day of the burial.

The richness of the grave goods and the size of the burial chamber (13 feet square and five feet high) strongly suggested the deceased was someone of great importance, likely royalty. The placement of the gold foil crosses pointed to them having been laid on the body, perhaps the eyes, or stitched to a shroud that covered it. Archaeologists hypothesized that the deceased was an Anglo-Saxon king on the cusp of the transition from paganism to Christianity. The crosses were symbols of his new religion, but the plethora of grave goods were a nod to traditional funerary practices which furnished graves with objects of use to the deceased in the afterlife and ones symbolizing his rank.

There was some speculation about which king this might have been, and there weren’t a lot of options so the likeliest candidates were Saebert,  King of Essex (converted to Christianity in 604, died in 616), or Sigeberht II,  King of the East Saxons (converted in 653, died ca. 661).

A meticulous excavation followed by years of analysis by Museum of London Archaeology (MOLA) of the archaeological material from the Prittlewell burial has put the kibosh on both those possibilities. Researchers were able to get radiocarbon dates from the sparse organic remains, wood fragments attached to metal decorations on a drinking horn and wooden cup, using accelerator mass spectroscopy which only requires a miniscule sample of material and yields high-precision results. The Prittlewell burial took place 575 and 605 A.D., excluding both of the candidates believed to have been the first East Saxon kings to convert to Christianity.

The radiocarbon date range can be narrowed down a little further from stylistic analysis of the grave goods and coins which point to the burial dating to the last two decades of the 6th century. If true, it could even predate the dawn of Christianity in Essex. St. Augustine of Canterbury arrived to convert the East Saxons in 597. Not that there couldn’t have been less direct avenues to conversion before then. The Britons had been converted to Christianity during Roman rule and while they were completely walled off from the Roman Church by the Anglo-Saxon invasions, they were still there and still Christian. Also, Aethelbert, King of Kent, married a Frankish princess who was not only a Christian but the great-grandaughter of a saint. She brought a bishop with her when they married in 580 A.D. to ensure she could practice her religion and is believed to exerted a great deal of influence on the spread of Christianity in Britain long before the arrival of St. Augustine. Aethelbert’s sister married Saebert’s father.

The person’s identity will remain unknown unless some future technology makes it possible to solve the mystery. All that remains of the body are tiny fragments of tooth enamel. The type of buckles and the weapons in the grave suggest the deceased was male, and judging from the placement of the belt buckle, garter buckles and the crosses over his eyes, he was about 5’8″.

Even more extraordinary finds were made in the soil of the grave which was lifted en bloc so it could be micro-excavated in the lab. A few scraps of wood from a decayed object thought to be a box lid revealed themselves to be the only known surviving example of early Anglo-Saxon painted woodwork. The maple wood is decorated with a yellow border in a ladder pattern and two ovals, one white, one red, filled with a cross-hatch.

There weren’t even scraps of wood left of another one-of-a-kind discovery: an Anglo-Saxon lyre. All that was left of it was a stain in the soil containing tiny bits of wood and two copper discs inlaid with garnets that had riveted the yoke of the lyre to the arm, still in their original positions. The wood of the lyre was maple with a hollow sound box and the tuning pegs were made from ash wood. Raman spectroscopy identified the garnets in the center of the metal fittings as having originated in India or Sri Lanka. There was also a copper vessel from Syria and two gold coins from Merovingian France, so clearly the young man had access to the finest, most expensive imports money could buy.

Artifacts found in the Prittlewell burial will go on display at Southend Central Museum starting Saturday, May 11th. To learn more about the burial and its unique treasures, check out the excellent dedicated website MOLA has created.

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