Three stolen Moundville artifacts recovered

November 14th, 2018

It’s been almost 40 years since thieves broke into the Erskine Ramsey Archaeological Repository at the Moundville Archaeological Site near Tuscaloosa, Alabama, and made off with 264 Native American artifacts, a fifth of the total number of artifacts excavated at the site and an agonizing 70% of the museum-quality pieces. Clay vessels exemplifying eight centuries of Mississippian artistry and craftsmanship were gone without a trace.

Thirty-eight years passed. Not a single one of hundreds of stolen objects was found in all that time. An FBI investigation turned up nothing and ended in the late 1980s. This May, a private organization of archaeologists and other donors decided to heat up this long-cold case by offering a reward for information leading to the recovery of any of the stolen artifacts. The Associates for the Return of Moundville Artifacts ultimately raised enough money for a $25,000 reward and established a confidential tip line (still active at 205-348-2800) for would-be informants to call. Nobody expected it to work.

It worked. Less than three months after the reward was announced, three clay pottery vessels stolen from the Erskine Ramsey Archaeological Repository in 1980 were returned to the Moundville Archaeological Park.

“We were all thinking we’d go to our graves without anything turning up from this burglary,” said Jim Knight, curator emeritus of American Archaeology for the Alabama Museum of Natural History at UA, at a press conference held to announce the find Monday. “This is one of the most exciting things that has happened during my archaeological career.” […]

“I didn’t have a whole lot of hope for actual recovery,” said John Abbott, director of Museum Research and Collections for the Alabama Museum of Natural History. “In fact, I was stunned when there were some that turned up.”

As the investigation is ongoing, authorities are not commenting on the how and why of the vessels’ recovery. All they’ll say is that nobody has claimed the $25,000 reward.

The pots were made for ceremonial use and are in impeccable condition. Whatever adventures they’ve experienced over the past four decades have not damaged them in any way. There are no chips, fractures or scratches. The original museum marks are still on them.

All three vessels depict religiously significant iconography. One features a skull, skeletal forearms and hands with crosses inside. Two are incised with images of a winged serpent, a combination creature like a sphinx or chimera with the tail of a rattlesnake, the antlers of a deer and bird wings. In the Mississippian culture at Moundville, the snake god was the lord of the underworld.

Bill Bomar, executive director for University of Alabama Museums, noted the advances in research into iconography, symbols and art that have taken place since the theft nearly four decades ago. UA faculty and students will also be able to study whether the vessels originated or were traded here.

“All of this has advanced in the last 40 years, and we haven’t had these artifacts to do those kinds of studies on,” he said. “Hopefully with these, and any additional ones that are recovered, our information about Moundville is going to increase greatly.”

The pieces will go on display at Moundville Archaeological Park shortly.


Chariot race intaglio gem found in Turkey

November 13th, 2018

A Roman intaglio gemstone depicting a rare chariot racing scene has been discovered near Demre in the Antalya Province of southwestern Turkey. Archaeologists discovered the piece in an excavation of the ancient Greek town of Myra, one of the leading cities of the Lycian league in the 1st century B.C. Just one centimeter in diameter, the red Jasper stone is engraved with tiny detailed scenes of horse racing in a stadium. The work is of unusual high quality for the area, the epitome of craftsmanship available in Lycia when it was made 1,800 years ago.

A team from Akdeniz University has been excavating Myra for nine seasons in a row. This season’s exploration of a Roman-era necropolis unearthed a number of graves with significant funerary artifacts. The gemstone, originally part of a ring, was found in one of those graves.

The engraving depicts quadrigas, chariots drawn by four horses, racing in a hippodrome complete with monuments. The chariots race in the bottom half of the stone, while the top half is engraved with the architecture of the hippodrome itself. The two sections are divided by a horizontal bar representing the spina, the strip down the center of a circus which during the empire was adorned with elaborate architecture — columns, obelisks, monumental water basins or fountains, statues, lap counters, even whole temples.

[Akdeniz University archaeology professor Nevzat] Çevik said the finding was an unprecedented one, with a ring depicting a horse race scene being seen for the first time in excavations at the Lycian Union site. “We have never seen such a thing before. This ring stone is the culmination of a fine art. It is not just a random figure but it is the whole scene fitted in a one-centimeter stone. This is really fascinating,” he added.

Çevik said the ring’s stone was found among many pieces in the grave. “We think that the ring’s stone belongs to a high-status figure from what is called Demre today. It most probably belonged to a jockey or a racehorse raiser, because there are figures of horses on it.”

There is visible wear and tear around the entire oval of the gemstone that has resulted in loss of some of the details of the quadrigas and stadium architecture. The Walters Art Museum in Baltimore has a very similar piece that is just a hair larger and in impeccable condition so you can get a sense of what the Myra intaglio looked like before the wear on the edges. It too features a quadriga race in a hippodrome engraved on red Jasper. There is no find spot recorded (it was acquired in 1942 when “Roman Empire” was deemed sufficient information) but the Walters’ intaglio dates to around the same time, 2nd-4th century.


Oldest known footprints in Grand Canyon found

November 12th, 2018

A set of 28 tiny footprints have been found on a boulder in the Grand Canyon. They were left by a reptile-like animal 310 million years ago, making them the oldest known footprints ever discovered at the Grand Canyon National Park. They are among the oldest tracks discovered on earth, period, impressed on the rock when the supercontinent Pangaea was still in the process of forming.

They were found in spring of 2016 by a paleontologist and a group of students who were hiking up the the Bright Angel Trail. The boulder had been part of a cliff above the trail. When the cliff collapsed, the boulder fell onto the trail and cracked open. It broke apart along an inner seam revealing a naturally molded trackway more than three feet long.

The paleontologist alerted park officials and his friend and colleague University of Nevada, Las Vegas geologist Steve Rowland. Park crews moved the rock to the side of the trail where Rowland first checked it out a year later. In March of this year, he returned with San Diego State University geologist Mario Caputo to study the footprints in more depth.

“My first impression was that it looked very bizarre because of the sideways motion,” Rowland said. “It appeared that two animals were walking side-by-side. But you wouldn’t expect two lizard-like animals to be walking side-by-side. It didn’t make any sense.”

When he arrived home, he made detailed drawings and began hypothesizing about the “peculiar, line-dancing gait” left behind by the creature.

“One reason I’ve proposed is that the animal was walking in a very strong wind, and the wind was blowing it sideways,” he said.

Another possibility is that the slope was too steep, and the animal sidestepped as it climbed the sand dune. Or, Rowland said, the animal was fighting with another creature, or engaged in a mating ritual.

Caputo and Rowland continue to study the trackway and hope to learn more about the animal. Caputo is focusing on the sandstone itself in the hopes of discovering the topography of the sand dune that captured the prints and became a boulder. It’s possible the rock will have indications of whether it was the crest of a dune or a valley between them, information that would be key to understanding the reptile’s gait.

It’s also possible that the creature who left the tracks is a previously undiscovered reptilian species. At this time, the tracks cannot be identified as belonging to a specific animal.

The boulder is still on the trail. Rowland, who will publish the find in January 2019, hopes the trackway will be removed to the protection of the geology museum at the Grand Canyon National Park where it will be kept safe from the elements and predatory humans as well as be easily accessible to researchers.


Cat, cobra, scarab mummies found in Saqqara

November 11th, 2018

More than 200 mummies of cats and another 200-plus mummies of scarabs have been discovered in tombs at the King Userkaf pyramid complex in the necropolis of Saqqara. An Egyptian archaeological mission has been excavating the site at the stony edge of the pyramid since April of this year and has unearthed three New Kingdom and four Old Kingdom tombs. The New Kingdom tombs had been reused in the Late Period as a burial ground for the plethora of cats and scarabs and for several cobras and alligators as well.

The eastern area of the site was previously excavated by a French archaeological mission and they too found Old and New Kingdom tombs with the latter having been recycled in the Late Period to inter cat mummies. That excavation project ended in 2008 and never reached the ramp area. The earlier discoveries spurred this year’s team. The prospect of discovering Old Kingdom tombs is what drew the team to excavate that area around the ramp of the Userkaf pyramid complex, as the location had a high probability of having been used during the Old Kingdom as a prestigious site for the tombs of important individuals.

Indeed, the four tombs found belonged to elite people. Decorated stone reliefs and the remains of false doors were discovered in the tomb of Ankh Mahur, an Old Kingdom vizier. The names of two women were found carved on other false doors: Subek Sekt and Mafy. The most archaeologically significant of the four was the tomb of Khufu-Imhat, overseer of buildings in the royal palace. Khufu-Imhat’s tomb dates to the late Fifth Dynasty (2,500-2,350 B.C.). It is so important because it is still sealed, its false doors intact. The team do plan to open it in the future and hope to find undisturbed contents.

The scarab mummies in the New Kingdom tombs are the first to be discovered at Saqqara. Two large specimens were found inside a rectangular limestone sarcophagus with a vaulted lid. Three scarabs were painted in black on the lid. They were wrapped in linen and are in excellent condition. A second, smaller limestone sarcophagus decorated with a single scarab painted in black on the side was found to contain hundreds of scarab mummies.

The cat mummies were linen-wrapped, some of them with surviving paint depicting the features of the cats. Small painted wood sarcophagi decorated with coiled cobras on the lid contained cobra mummies, and crocodile-shaped sarcophagi contained, you guessed it, crocodiles. In the tombs with the animal mummies archaeologists also unearthed more than 100 gilded wood statues of cats and a bronze one of the cat goddess Bastet. Other gilded wood statues found include a lion, cow and a falcon.

The tombs were filled with soil and debris. More than 12,000 cubic feet of soil had to be removed and sifted through. The mission painstakingly unearthed about 1,000 faience amulets depicting many of the deities in the traditional Egyptian pantheon — Horus, Isis, Anubis, the Apis bull — plus icons like the Udjat eye, the white and red crowns of Upper and Lower Egypt, and the Wadjat column. Also found in the fill were three alabaster canopic jars, ink pots, pens and papyri written in Demotic and Heretic. Other archaeological treasures include a collection of papyrus baskets and ropes in exceptional condition, 30 clay pots and, inside a wood sarcophagus, an alabaster head rest and bronze jars.


If these gilded Chippendale torchères could talk…

November 10th, 2018

A pair of five-foot torchères made by iconic cabinetmaker Thomas Chippendale that witnessed some of the juiciest scandals of the Georgian era have entered the collection of the Cleveland Museum of Art and are now on display there. The museum acquired the candle-holders for $640,000 in a July sale of Thomas Chippendale works at Christie’s London. The seller was Washington D.C. collector S. Jon Gerstenfeld who had owned them since 1995. In the 220 years before then, the giltwood torchères illuminated the sexy goings-on at Brocket Hall in Hertforshire.

Of columnar form with finely carved acanthus leaves, swags, fluting, and oval masks depicting the Roman goddess Diana, these remarkable works exhibit Chippendale’s masterful understanding of neoclassical proportion, scale, and ornament. Monumental in size, they were designed in 1773 for the grand drawing room of Brocket Hall in Hertfordshire, England, the county seat of Sir Peniston Lamb.

Thomas Chippendale is perhaps best known for his landmark book of furniture designs, The Gentleman and Cabinet-Maker’s Director (first published in 1754), which was highly admired and widely used as a source of inspiration by cabinetmakers and architects in both Europe and America. As such, Chippendale is most often associated with the many works in mahogany or walnut that follow his designs. These torchères are among the very few pieces made by the master himself and are therefore considered exceedingly rare.

Originally part of a set of four (the other pair were sold separately in 1994), the candle holders adorned a room that was already replete with Chippendale furnishings. The estate of Brocket Hall was purchased in 1746 by Matthew Lamb, a wealthy barrister and Member of Parliament who would be enobled nine years later and created 1st Baronet of Brocket Hall. In 1760 he built the stately neoclassical mansion that stands today. The Grand Saloon, a banquet hall built sparing no expense to make it fine enough to receive royalty, was filled with furniture custom-made by Thomas Chippendale. This room alone cost £1,500, the price to construct an entire mansion at that time.

When his father died in 1768, Peniston Lamb acceded to the baronetcy and became the master of Brocket Hall. He married Elizabeth Milbanke in April of 1769 and significantly boosted by her beauty, charm and facility for making friends and lovers at the highest levels of English society, Lord and Lady Melbourne quickly advanced socially and politically. The fact that less than a year after their marriage Lord Melbourne was already cavorting with an actress better known for her private performances posed no obstacle.

The actress in question, Sophia Baddeley, wrote in her memoirs (published under the pseudonym Elizabeth Steele in the voice of a faux roommate following “as told to” convention) about Lord Melbourne’s pursuit of her.

This gentleman was about twenty-one years of age, and had been married about ten months to a very amiable woman. For a length of time, he used every means to engage her [Sophia’s] attention at Ranelagh, but finding that an improper place for an interview, at least such a one as he wished, he applied to a friend, in confidence, to make her, in his name, an offer of share in his fortune, in exchange for the possession of her heart. This friend brought her a letter, including a bill for 300£. which he very politely pressed her acceptance of, as a bagatelle, and to consider it only as a proof of his esteem, and that liberality which his affection for her would study to convince her of.

Sophia of course nobly declined this offer on the grounds that Lamb should pay all this attention and consideration to his lovely wife, not her. He redoubled his efforts and next thing you know, they were found together “drinking tea,” her memoirs would have it. Melbourne “threw up the parlour window, and precipitately leaped out.” My, such a guilty reaction for someone caught in the innocuous act of sipping tea. Oh and, just out sheer politeness, I’m sure, “as an atonement for his intrusion,” Melbourne “left bank notes on the parlous table, to the amount of two hundred pounds.”

Lady Melbourne was no slouch in the extramarital activities department. She caught the eye of the Prince of Wales, the future King George IV, when she was in her early 30s, had been married for a decade and was in an active relationship with George Wyndham, 3rd Earl of Egremont, widely believed to be the father of her second son William, the future Lord Melbourne, who would find himself notoriously cuckholded when his wife, Lady Caroline Lamb, had a scandalous affair with Lord Byron. She famously had (Lady Melbourne hated her daughter-in-law but was a friend and confidant to Byron even during the intensely public affair that so humiliated her son. Byron would later marry her niece.)

MP and historian Sir Nathaniel Wraxall wrote about her in his posthumous memoirs:

“A commanding figure, exceeding the middle height, full of grace and dignity, an animated countenance, intelligent features, captivating manners and conversation; all these, and many other attractions, enlived by coquetry, met in Lady Melbourne. Her husband had been principally known by the distinguished place that he occupies in the annals of meretricious pleasure, the memoirs of Mrs. Bellamy or Mrs. Baddeley, the syrens and courtesans of a former age.

The annals of meretricious pleasure were surely illuminated by the Chippendale torchères. The Prince of Wales was a frequent vision to Brocket Hall where he enjoyed the liberal hospitality of the lady of the house without complaint from its lord. And what did have to complain about when there was so much benefit to be had from his wife’s liaisons with the highest aristocracy in the land? Melbourne’s irrelevance in Parliament and penchant for ladies of ill-repute were no barrier to advancement. In 1770, he was made an Irish Baron. In 1781 he got bumped up to Viscount (also Irish) and in 1784 he was appointed Gentleman of the Bedchamber to his Royal Highness, who was (not coincidentally) entertaining Lady Melbourne in that bedchamber at the time. In 1815, during the Regency of the Prince, Melbourne got the boost all the way up the Peerage ladder when he was created Baron of the United Kingdom.


A gallon of 2,000-year-old wine found in tomb

November 9th, 2018

Almost a full gallon of ancient wine has been discovered in a tomb in the city of Luoyang, Henan province, central China. The tomb dates to the Western Han Dynasty (202 B.C.- 8 A.D.) and excavations have unearthed a large quantity of jade, clay and bronze artifacts in the tomb. The copious grave goods were found in excellent condition, among them a pot-bellied bronze vessel that was found to contain a pale yellow liquid. Archaeologists haven’t explain whether or how the pot was sealed, but the lid must have been decently attached or else the contents would have evaporated. Instead, researchers were able to pour a full 3.5 liters of liquid into a beaker. Laboratory tests still need to be done on the fluid to confirm the identification, but it looks and smells like wine, specifically wine made from rice or another grain.

Similar-aged rice wine had earlier been found in other tombs dating back to the Western Han period. Liquor made from rice or sorghum grains were a major part of ceremonies and ritual sacrifices in ancient China. It was often contained with elaborate bronze cast vessels.

Shi said the bronze pot containing the liquid is one of the two big bronze items unearthed from the tomb. The other is a lamp in the shape of a wild goose, which was the first of its kind found in the city of Luoyang, capital of 13 dynasties, with a history of 3,000 years.

The tomb was constructed of hollow bricks, a technique that was common in the Western Han period for upper class tombs. The clay bricks were more expensive but more durable than wood. They were made in molds and stamped with relief designs before being fully cured. At 2260 square feet in area with six chambers and a corridor, this tomb held the remains of an important individual. The skeletal remains of said individual, an adult male, were found in the main chamber.

The main chamber also contained the lion’s share of the artifacts. In addition to the large bronze vessels and the bronze goose lamp, archaeologists unearthed bronze mirrors and cups. In the north chamber were painted pottery vessels, copper plates, copper pots, copper stoves and other funerary offerings.

It’s likely that the wine was an offering as well. Rice wine played an important role in celebrations, ceremonies, religious rituals and funerary rites.


9th century coin hoard found in bog

November 8th, 2018

Archaeologists have discovered an exceptional group of more than 250 9th century coins in a bog near Ribe, Denmark. A metal detector hobbyist found the first coin earlier this year, an extremely rare piece known as a face/deer coin after the stylized face design on the obverse and the deer going nose-to-nose with a snake on the reverse. Only 11 face/deer coins were known to exist before this summer. The Museum of Southwest Jutland got wind of it on August 14th and contacted the finder the next day. That’s when they discovered there wasn’t just one more face/deer coin, but a whole bunch more, likely deposited in the wetland as a ritual sacrifice.

Obverse of the face/deer coin with a stylized face in the center. Photo courtesy Southwest Jutland Museums.With the help of the finder, museum archaeologists surveyed the site using metal detectors and precision GPS to document every discovery. Over two days, they found 174 coins, 172 of them face/deer coins, the last two with Viking ships adorned with shields on the obverse and deer on the reverse. The coins were spread over an elongated oval about 165 by 50 feet in area, a distribution typical of coin deposits that have been scattered by repeated passes with plows. The way they were spread out suggests they were not buried in the bog, but rather placed on the ground in a single deposit, likely in a bag that was torn apart and destroyed over the centuries.

The team returned to the site in late October to excavate it. This time they found another 78 coins, 77 face/deer, 1 ship/deer. The condition of all of the coins is excellent. They were in such great shape that many of them shone like new through the clods of peat when they were recovered by the archaeologists.

“This is an exceptional find that means a quantum leap in our understanding of minting. They are Danish coins and clearly minted for the purpose of being implemented in Ribe,” [Museum of Southwest Jutland’s Claus] Feveile told DR Nyheder.

“This completely shifts our understanding of how we used to mint and the process of coin production.”

With no loops, perforations or clippings, it’s clear the coins were part of a money economy before their ritual deposition. The question of how much of a real monetary economy early Viking cities employed as opposed to a precious metal weight economy is a fraught one in the scholarship, and finding so many coins deposited in one place and preserved in perfect condition will give numismatic experts the unique opportunity to determine how many of these coins were minted and circulated. Initial examinations have already revealed that many different stamps were used to strike the coins, indicating a significant output that was in no way imaginable based solely on the two handfuls of coins known before this summer.

When these coins were struck in the first half of the 9th century, Gudfred and later his sons ruled as kings of the Danes. Gudfred is the first Danish king we have decently reliable evidence of in contemporary chronicles. He fought against Charlemagne and the Franks. His son Horik I (the only son whose name is recorded but not the only one to rule) carried on his father’s legacy by raiding the Carolingian Empire of Charlemagne’s son Louis the Pious. We know little about Gudfred and his sons’ monetary policies or really much of anything about their reigns beyond their interactions with the Franks. The hoard may shed a whole new light on an obscure historical period.

The coins unearthed thus far were briefly on display at the Museum of Southwest Jutland for a week until November 4th before being removed for further study. The excavation at the find site continued through October 25th. Between August and now, a total of 252 coins have been recovered. Archaeologists don’t think there are many, or even any, left to find.


17th c. wood palisade found in Québec City

November 7th, 2018

Archaeologists have discovered the remains of a 17th century defensive fortification in Québec City that was the first reinforced wood palisade in North America. The structure was unearthed by archaeological contractors during the renovations of a building on Sainte-Ursule Street in Old Québec. A construction worker spotted a small piece of wood sticking out of the sand below street level. From that small fragment excavation revealed a tract more than 65 feet long of a thick wooden structure. The remains of the palisades are in extraordinary condition. The waterlogged clay soil preserved the organic remains for 325 years.

The rempart de Beaucours was built in 1693 to protect Québec City from artillery attack. It replaced a wood stockade built in 1690, the first landward defenses to encircle the city. The stockade ran between 11 small masonry redoubts for gun batteries and artillery defense. It was built under pressure of an invasion from England’s Massachusetts Bay Colony and given its limitations, it would perform admirably during the Battle of Quebec in October of that year. It withstood a six-day siege leaving the English forces soundly spanked.

That victory was at least in part due to good luck, however — English commander Sir William Phips made a bunch of unforced errors — and as a consequence of the close call Governor-General Louis de Buade de Frontenac commissioned Ingénieur du Roi Josué Berthelot de Beaucours to build a rampart strong enough to withstand a frontal assault from full English cannon, strength that Phips had not deployed. Construction began in summer of 1693 and 500 men (the city’s population was between 2,000 and 3,000 at that time) built two wooden walls 13 feet high. The walls were anchored in a trench and the space between them filled with sand. That’s what allowed them to absorb the impact of heavy artillery. The tops where fitted with pointed wooden stakes.

The palisade was replaced during another period of high tension with Britain. In 1745, the city got new defensive walls, these ones made of stone. The masonry walls still encircle the Old City today, part of the most complete set of city colonial fortifications preserved in North America. There are elements ranging in date from the founding of Quebec in 1608 until the British garrison’s departure in 1871. Beaucours’ palisades were known from maps and historical accounts, but no remains of them have been found before. The discovery fills an extremely significant gap in the evolution of the city’s defenses.

Teams are now working to extract the artifacts as quickly as possible before temperatures plummet and jeopardize the site.

Several pieces of wood have already been dug out and carefully brought indoors, where they will be dried out over a two-year period.

A large central beam will likely have to be hauled out with a crane, said [archeologist Jean-Yves] Pintal.

Once the wood has been dried and stabilized, the reconstructed palisade will go on display at a location yet to be determined.


Farmer plows up Archaic kouros

November 6th, 2018

Archaeologists have discovered four Archaic era kouros statues in Atalanti, central Greece. The first of the sculptures was discovered by the property owner when he was plowing a field. He unearthed the limestone torso of a nude male youth 2’9″ high and immediately alerted the regional archaeological authority to his find. The kouros was recovered and transferred to the Archaeological Museum of Atalanti.

The Ephorate of Antiquities of Fthiotida and Evritania dispatched an archaeological team to conduct a thorough field excavation of the find site and environs. They have been digging there since mid-October and have found another three life-sized kouroi. In a test trench on the north section of the site, the team found a limestone kouros four feet high. It is intact from head to the thighs and depicts a bearded man with his left leg forward. Next to it was the lower torso of a male 2’8″ long extending from the lower back to the tibia. The plinth that runs along the back surface is intact. The third kouros was found last Friday (November 2nd). It is 3’1″ from throat to thighs and the left leg is extended. A trihedral block found right next to it is likely a fragment of the base of the third statue.

It’s a remarkable haul for such a short excavation of a small portion of a field which has seen such recent agricultural activity, but the Archaic sculptures aren’t the only archaeologically significant remains discovered at the site. In deeper layers than the ones where the kouroi were located, archaeologists unearthed seven graves dating from the 5th century B.C. through the second. The grave goods are reportedly impressive although no details are forthcoming yet. This was not a random group of burials. Their arrangement and location near the modern city Atalanti indicates they were part of an organized cemetery of the ancient Mycenaean city of Opus, founded in the Late Helladic period (1600–1100 B.C.) and well-populated until the Gothic invasions of the 4th century.


Bag that may have held Walter Raleigh’s head found in attic

November 5th, 2018

A red silk velvet bag found in the attic of West Horsley Place in Surrey may have been used to carry an illustriously gory cargo: the embalmed head of Sir Walter Raleigh. It’s a long shot. There is no organic residue visible to the naked eye that suggests the bag was used to hold the decapitated head of a man executed for treason and the soft, elegant bag is not the type that would have been used to place the head immediately after the execution.

Raleigh’s head had an extensive history continuing long after it was separated from his neck. Sir Walter was arrested in July 1603, less than four months after the death of Queen Elizabeth, for conspiring to overthrow King James I. At his trial that November, Raleigh denied vociferously having plotted against the king. The only evidence was the written confession of his alleged co-conspirator who was not allowed to testify and be cross-examined at trial.

Nonetheless, Raleigh was convicted. His death sentence was commuted by King James and he remained imprisoned in the Tower of London until 1617 when the king pardoned him so he could go on yet another epic voyage of discovery, this time seeking out the mythical city of El Dorado in Venezuela. James had ended two decades of war with Spain when he signed the Treaty of London with King Philip III in 1604, so part of the deal with the pardon was that Raleigh wouldn’t resume his old pirating ways and interfere with Spanish colonies or shipping.

When Raleigh’s men disregarded that stricture and raided the settlement of Santo Tomé de Guayana, Raleigh lost his son Walter and sealed his own fate. Upon his return to England in June 1618, he was arrested for the 1603 treason conviction, his pardon now invalidated by the violence against the Spanish colony. He was in poor health and was escorted to London very slowly. A couple of months and a couple of failed escape attempts later, Sir Walter Raleigh was back in the Tower of London where he would spend his last days.

The Royal Warrant for the execution dated October 28th, 1618, specified Raleigh would not be drawn, hanged and quartered, the usual execution method for traitors, but rather the king’s “pleasure is to have the head only of the said Sir Walter Raleigh cut off at or within our palace of Westminster.” The king’s pleasure would not have to wait long, likely driven by his desire to clear the diplomatic slate of the Raleigh imbroglio so he could get back to the business of arranging his son’s marriage to the Spanish Infanta. The next morning, October 29th, 1618, Raleigh was taken to the Old Palace Yard at Westminster Palace where he was beheaded.

The body was buried in St. Margaret’s Church, Westminster, out of sheer expediency. It was the closest to the palace, and this whole business was done in haste in the hopes of avoiding angry crowds. Raleigh was a national hero; popular sentiment was very much on his side. Shipping his headless body to Beddington where Raleigh and his wife had planned to be buried together would have run the risk of drawing far too much attention.

According to the earliest known published account of the execution, Sir Walter’s head “was shewed on each side of the Scaffold, and then put into a red leather bag and his wrought velvet gowne throwne over it, which was afterwards conveyed away in a mourning coach of his Ladyes.” Lady Raleigh had the head embalmed and kept it with her for the remaining 29 years of her life. One source, 18th century antiquarian William Oldys, reported that she preserved the head “in a case.”

Carew Raleigh, the only son of Sir Walter to survive his father, inherited West Horsley Place upon the death of his maternal uncle Sir Nicholas Carew in 1643. He lived there with his mother until her death in 1647. Sir Walter Raleigh’s head lived with them too. After Bess’ death, the head passed to Carew. He told Elias Ashmole (the man the Oxford University’s Ashmolean Museum is named after) that he still had his father’s skull in the 1660s.

Carew sold West Horsley Place to Sir E Nicholas in 1665 and moved to London where he died the next year. He was buried with his father’s body at St. Margaret’s Church, but it was his two eldest sons Walter and Carew who would go to their eternal rest with Sir Walter Raleigh’s head at St Mary’s Church in West Horsley.

Beheadings are something of a recurring motif in the history of West Horsley Place. Nobody that we know of was actually executed there, but several of its owners have met the slicing side of the headsman’s axe and last year conservators assessing the condition of the building discovered an actual executioner’s axe.





November 2018
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