Late pharaonic necroplis found in Minya, Egypt

February 24th, 2018

Archaeologists have discovered a previously unknown necropolis from the late pharaonic and early Ptolemaic periods in Minya, 150 miles south of Cairo. Burial grounds have been found in the area before. Late last year, archaeologists embarked on an excavation with the aim of discovering the rest of the necropoli at Minya, and soon struck paydirt. They unearthed tombs of priests of Thoth, inventor of writing, god of wisdom and the patron deity of the 15th nome (province) of Upper Egypt, known as Khmno, and of its capital city Ashmounin. They also found burials of the priests’ family members.

Canopic jar. Andalou Agency.One of the tombs belonged to a priest identified in the hieroglyphics on his canopic jars as Djehuty-Irdy-Es, a Haras Sa Aissa, meaning one of the Great Five, a title reserved the senior priests of Thoth. The four alabaster canopic jars, all in excellent condition, still contain the remains of the deceased’s mummified organs. Their lids represent the heads of the sons of Horus. The priest’s mummy was found wearing a gilded bronze collar depicting the winged sky goddess Nut.

Mostafa Waziri, secretary general of the Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA) and leader of the excavation describes the mummy thus:

The mummy is decorated having a collection of blue and red beads as well as bronze gilded sheets, two eyes carved in bronze and ornamented with ivory and crystal beads.

“It is seen stretching her wings to protect the deceased, according to an ancient Egyptian belief,” Waziri said, adding that four amulets of semi-precious stones were also found decorated with engraved hieroglyphic texts, one phrase says, “Happy New Year.”

That amulet, a scarab, was discovered on New Year’s Eve in what is either a fortuitous coincidence or a sign that the ancient gods aren’t quite dead yet. The mummy is in a relatively good state of preservation but has suffered some moisture damage.

A large group of people, likely the priest’s family, was buried close by. The sarcophagi of 40 family members were found in the tombs. These are very high quality, expensive limestone coffins, many of them anthropoid and engraved with hieroglyphics that include the owners’ names.

All told, so far the team has explored 13 burials. In these other tombs archaeologists have found more sarcophagi, statuettes, pottery and other funerary artifacts, including more than a thousand intact faience ushapti figurines plus hundreds more broken into pieces and the excavation is far from over. According to Antiquities Minister Khaled al-Anani, the density of finds is so significant that it will take at least five years to fully excavate the necropolis.

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Oldest known cave art painted by Neanderthals

February 23rd, 2018

An international team of researchers have dated painted art found on the walls and inside four caves in Spain and discovered that the oldest known art in the world long predates behaviorally modern humans. Previously believed to be solely the province of Homo sapiens, the painted walls and marine shells are indisputably the work of Neanderthals.


La Pasiega, section C. Cave wall with paintings. The scalariform (ladder shape) composed of red horizontal and vertical lines (centre left) dates to older than 64,000 years and was made by Neanderthals. (Credit: P. Saura)

The paint is made of mineral pigment, not charcoal, so it’s not possible to use radiocarbon dating to figure out how old they are. Instead, researchers turned to the calcium carbonate crusts that formed on top of the paintings when water dropped down the wall. The art has to be older than the calcite, ergo, dating the calcite gives a minimum age of the paintings.


Calcite crust on top of the red scalariform sign. The U-Th method dates the formation of the crust which gives a minimum age for the underlying painting.
(Credit: J. Zilhão)

The technology used, Uranium-Thorium dating, requires a very small sample and returns more precise dates going back further in time than radiocarbon dating based on the radioactive decay of Uranium into Thorium. Researchers tested more than 60 carbonate samples from cave paintings in three Spanish sites, La Pasiega, in Cantabria, north-eastern Spain, Maltravieso in Cáceres, western Spain, and Ardales in Andalusia, southern Spain.


Dirk Hoffmann and Alistair Pike sampling calcite from a calcite crust on top of the red scalariform sign in La Pasiega. (Credit: J. Zilhão)

The results found that the paintings are at least 64,000 years old. In La Pasiega, the ladder with animal shapes in the interior rectangles and dots on the inside is a minimum of 64,800 years old. The red-painted speleothems in the Ardales cave are more than 65,500 years old. A hand stencil in Maltravieso is more than 66,700 years old. All of them long predate Homo sapiens‘ arrival in Spain who only moved to the area 40,000 years ago. The results of the testing have been published in the journal Science and can be read here.

Panel 3 in Maltravieso Cave showing 3 hand stencils (centre right, centre top and top left). One has been dated to at least 66,000 years ago and must have been made by a Neanderthal. (Credit: H. Collado) Panel 3 in Maltravieso Cave showing 3 hand stencils (centre right, centre top and top left). One has been dated to at least 66,000 years ago and must have been made by a Neanderthal (colour enhanced). (Credit: H. Collado)

Left: Panel 3 in Maltravieso Cave showing 3 hand stencils (centre right, centre top and top left). One has been dated to at least 66,000 years ago and must have been made by a Neanderthal. (Credit: H. Collado) Right: Color enhanced version of Panel 3. (Credit: H. Collado)

Samples from all three caves from the north, center and south of the peninsula date to the time when Neanderthals were the only human species in the area, which means these paintings aren’t random or some one-off fluke, but rather a conscious, well-developed cultural approach with specific symbolic meaning and thoughtful application. The locations, all of them in the depths of caves where they did not live, light sources and pigments were chosen with careful deliberation to make their artistic and spiritual visions come to life.


Left: Cave wall in Maltravieso with Neanderthal hand stencil, almost completely covered with calcite. It is older than 66,000 years. (Credit: H. Collado) Center: Color enhanced version of stencil. (Credit: H. Collado) Right: Detail of stencil, color enhanced. (Credit: H. Collado)

Even older examples of the Neanderthal ability to convert abstractions into art have been found in southeast Spain in the Cueva de los Aviones. Marine shells discovered there are pigmented with red and yellow and perforated. Again using Uranium-Thorium dating, the team has dated the flowstone covering the shells to an astonishing 115,000 to 120,000 years old. Homo sapiens produced similar pieces but the earliest of them date to between 20,000 and 40,000 years ago.


Left: A shell with remnants of pigments found in sediments in Cueva de los Aviones. It dates to between 115,000 and 120,000 years. (Credit: J. Zilhão) Right: Perforated shells found in sediments in Cueva de los Aviones and date to between 115,000 and 120,000 years. (Credit: J. Zilhão)

The results of the shell dating study have been published separately in Science Advances and can be read here.

“Neanderthals created meaningful symbols in meaningful places”, says Paul Pettitt from University of Durham, also a team member and cave art specialist. In the Cueva Ardales, where excavations are currently being conducted by a German-Spanish team, the presence of Neanderthals has also been proven from analysing occupation layers. “This is certainly just the beginning of a new chapter in the study of ice age rock art”, says Gerd-Christian Weniger of the Foundation Neanderthal Museum Mettmann, one of the leaders of the Ardales excavations. […]

“According to our new data Neanderthals and modern humans shared symbolic thinking and must have been cognitively indistinguishable”, concludes João Zilhão, team member from the Catalan Institution for Research and Advanced Studies in Barcelona and involved in both studies. “On our search for the origins of language and advanced human cognition we must therefore look much farther back in time, more than half a million years ago, to the common ancestor of Neanderthals and modern humans.”

When the fossilized remains of Neanderthals were first discovered in the 19th century, one of the proposed names for the hominid species was Homo stupidus. They were held to be apelike and unintelligent, incapable of abstract or symbolic thought. The confirmation that they were not only capable of symbolism but also pretty freaking phenomenal artists puts to rest those old prejudices once and for all. Neanderthals were just as cognitively capable as modern humans.


Cueva de los Aviones, seen from the breakwater of Cartagena harbour. (Credit: J. Zilhão)

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Inscription found on medieval spindle whorl in Poland

February 22nd, 2018

The small, purplish spindle whorl was unearthed by archaeologists in Czermno, Poland, in 1952. What the people who found it didn’t realize is that the biconical slate piece was inscribed, making it a unique find in the Polish archaeological record. It was Iwona Florkiewicz from the Institute of Archeology of the University of Rzeszów who discovered how precious this little piece really during an inventory project of materials discovered at Czermno over the course of decades.

Palaeographic research (on the form of writing) carried out by Dr. Adrian Jusupović, historian from the Institute of History PAS in Warsaw, shows that the inscription was made in the second half of the 12th century or in the 13th century.

The spindle whorl bears an inscription composed of 6 letters in Cyrillic, which can be transcribed as Hoten\’. It is a masculine name that means a lover, volunteer or master. It is also possible that the inscription was a toponym. In that case it should be associated with the name of a town or village. But researchers find this second possibility is less likely.

It is the only spindle whorl with a text inscription from this period ever discovered in Poland. It’s likely not of Polish origin, in fact. The slate itself is a non-native material. It is Volhynian slate, recognizable from its characteristic shades of pink to purple, found in the Ukraine. From the 11th century through the mid-13th, craftsmen in the nearby town of Owrucz produced inexpensive spindle whorls from the slate that were sold throughout the Kievan Rus and in what is now Poland. This trade came to an abrupt end in the 1240s when the invading Mongols destroyed the spindle whorl workshops.

While it’s possible the spindle was an import that was then inscribed in Poland, the lettering and indeed the inscription itself suggest it came to Poland with the inscription already done. Not only is it written in Cyrillic, but a number of inscribed spindle whorls have been found in the former territory of the Kievan Rus (Ukraine, Russia and Belarus), whereas this the first found in Poland.

As Czermno was a border town, it was yanked and forth between Poland and the Kievan Rus for centuries. The Kievans took it in the 10th century. Bolesław the Brave of Poland’s Piast dynasty took it back in 1018. After his death in 1025, Czermno’s fortunes shifted again and Yaroslav the Wise, Grand Prince of Rus, reconquered the town and region in 1031. There it stayed until the 14th century when Casimir III the Great reclaimed it for Poland. So at the time this spindle whorl was made, Czermno was firmly in the ambit of the Kievan Rus.

“We are not sure whether the spindle whorl was used for its original purpose – spinning – or had a secondary function as an amulet. The latter possibility should not be ruled out” – Florkiewicz believes. She adds that according to the researchers, similar inscriptions could be signs of ownership. There are known spindle whorls that bear the names of women and men. “It is also possible that in this case it is the name of the object’s maker” – she concludes.

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Only known Roman boxing gloves found at Vindolanda

February 21st, 2018

The Roman fort of Vindolanda just south of Hadrian’s Wall in Northumberland continues to reap the blessings of its anaerobic, waterlogged soil. Last summer’s dig season was replete with important finds including a cache of 25 writing tablets, but the greatest find was a pre-Hadrianic cavalry barracks from around 105 A.D. in which were found all kinds of utility items from daily life — ink writing tablets, styluses, combs, pottery, wooden spoons, bowls, leather shoes, small wooden swords that were likely children’s toys — as well as an extraordinary group of cavalry weapons, armor and harness fittings. Two swords, one complete with wooden pommel, its edge still sharp inside an intact wooden scabbard, were particularly exciting finds.

Among the treasures discovered in the remains of the cavalry barracks were two leather pieces unlike anything else found at the fort. Thousands of leather shoes have been unearthed at Vindolanda. These definitely weren’t shoes. They are elliptical bands which archaeologists and Roman experts have identified as boxing gloves. Dating to around 120 A.D., they are the only known surviving boxing gloves from the Roman era.

Unlike the modern boxing glove these ancient examples have the appearance of a protective guard, designed to fit snugly over the knuckles protecting them from impact. The larger of the two gloves is cut from a single piece of leather and was folded into a pouch configuration, the extending leather at each side were slotted into one another forming a complete oval shape creating an inner hole into which a hand could still easily be inserted. The glove was packed with natural material acting as a shock absorber. This larger glove has extreme wear on the contact edge and it had also undergone repair with a tear covered by a circular patch. The slightly smaller glove was uncovered in near perfect condition with the same construction but filled with a tight coil of hard twisted leather.

The two gloves can still fit comfortably on a modern hand. They have been skilfully made, with the smaller glove retaining the impression of the wearer’s knuckles. It is likely that the gloves functioned as sparring or practice caestu each has a stiffened contact edge being a softer representation of the of the more lethal metal inserts used in ‘professional’ ancient boxing bouts. It is thought that the larger glove may have been unfit for purpose due to prolonged use and may have survived alongside the ‘newer’ model resulting from a personal attachment given to it by the owner.

Boxing was a popular sport in Classical antiquity. It was used to hone and improve combat skills in the Roman army, as well as for general fitness. In addition to regular sparring, boxing matches and tournaments between soldiers were arranged as spectator sports attended by civilians.

As of yesterday, the gloves are now on display in the Vindolanda museum. They’ve been fitted onto a pair of mannequin hands and mounted in front of a large image of The Boxer at Rest, a Hellenistic bronze statue posed with begloved hands on his knees in front of him. The mannequin hands are placed in front of the boxer’s so they look almost like extensions of his own. It’s a little… disconcerting, but ultimately I think it’s a good idea to convey how they were worn in antiquity.

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Hieroglyphic inscription identifies statue of Kushite king

February 20th, 2018

The head from a statue of a Kushite ruler discovered in 2008 at the site of the Temple of Amun in, Dangeil, Sudan, has been identified as that of Aspelta, the king of Kush who reigned from 593 B.C. to 568 B.C. Archaeologists thought the head might be that of Aspelta based solely on a comparison between its features and those of other statues known to depict the Kushite king, but his identity could only be confirmed when fragments of the statue containing a hieroglyphic inscription were discovered during the 2016 and 2017 dig seasons. The inscription, now puzzled back together, describes Aspelta as “King of Upper and Lower Egypt,” “Beloved of Re’-Harakhty” (a Kushite version of the Egyptian sun god “Re”) and as having been “given all life, stability and dominion forever.”

He was not, incidentally, king of Upper and Lower Egypt or any other part of it, for that matter. Some of his distant predecessors were, but by the time Aspelta took the throne, the Kushite monarchs no longer ruled Egypt. The last Kushite king of Egypt was Tanwetamani who ruled ca. 664–653 B.C. and lost control of the ancient land to the north more than 50 years before Aspelta’s reign. The title is vestigial, a carryover of former glory rather than any stubborn claim to the throne of Egypt.

The Temple of Amun where the statue pieces were found is about 2,000 years old. The statue of Aspelta is believed to have been carved during his lifetime circa 2,600 years ago. It was displayed in the temple long after his death for religious reasons.

“Statues might be displayed in temples, particularly the forecourts of temples, after the reigns of the kings, as they may have served as intermediaries between the people and the gods in popular religion,” [excavation co-director Julie] Anderson told Live Science.

The temple remained in active use until the early 4th century. Kush collapsed shortly thereafter and that was the end of the temple’s ancient prominence. It retained enough significance, however, that in the Middle Ages the ruined temple was repurposed for use as a burial ground for wealthy people, even though the area was firmly Christian by then. The last two field seasons have discovered eight graves dating to between the late 11th and early 13th centuries containing skeletal remains of adult women and one juvenile. The tombs were rich with grave goods, among them elaborate bead necklaces, bead belts, rings, bracelets and anklets. More than 18,500 beads and 70 copper bracelets in total were found in the eight graves.

There are no indicators of who these people might have been. The jewelry suggests they were rich, members of the elite, but there are no names or any other information that might explain who they were or why they buried in the remains of an ancient temple dedicated to a sun god.

Meanwhile, the statue of Aspelta is still being pieced together. The Berber-Abidiya Project team, a collaborative effort of archaeologists from the British Museum and the Sudanese National Corporation for Antiquities and Museums (NCAM) are hoping to discover more fragments to aid in the reconstruction. Once more of the work is done, they’ll be able to tell how large a statue it was. Right now it looks to be about half life-size.

Named after the region, the Berber-Abidiya Project aims to conserve the temple and its artifacts in situ so it can be converted into a museum and archaeological park. This will bring much-needed tourist attention to an area where cultural patrimony is in danger from development, road construction, agriculture and irrigation installations.

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Lock of George Washington’s hair found in college library

February 19th, 2018

A lock of George Washington’s hair has been discovered in an 18th century almanac in the library of Union College in Schenectady, New York. Archivist Daniel Michelson found a red leather-bound volume of the Gaines Universal Register or American and British Kalendar for the year 1793 nestled in the stacks on the third floor of the library and gave it to librarian John Myers to catalogue. The almanac is inscribed “Philip Schuyler’s a present from his friend Mr. Philip Ten Eycke New York April 20, 1793.”

Schuyler was a member of a very prominent New York family that figured largely in the Revolutionary era and beyond, so the fact that the book belonged to him made it an important object. Myers carefully turned each pages of the book and found annotations from Philip Jeremiah Schuyler including instructions on how to “preserve beef for summer’s use.” Then, inside an envelope stuffed into the accordion folder affixed to the book’s cover, Myers discovered strands of grey hair bound in a single white thread. The envelope was labelled “Washington’s hair, L.S.S. & (scratched out) GBS from James A. Hamilton given him by his mother, Aug. 10, 1871.”

Philip Jeremiah Schuyler was the son of General Philip John Schuyler who fought in the Revolutionary War and was elected to the Continental Congress, the New York State Senate and the Senate of the United States. He is considered one of the founders of Union College. General Schuyler was a personal friend of George Washington’s and served under him in the Revolutionary War. His daughter, Philip Jeremiah’s sister, Eliza was married to Alexander Hamilton. The James A. Hamilton who wrote the note on the envelope identifying the hair as George Washington’s was their third son.

Alexander and Eliza were close friends of George and Martha Washington. It’s likely that Martha gave them the lock of hair after George’s death in 1799 as a memento, a common practice at the time, all the more so for prominent citizens mourned by many friends and indeed the whole country.

“In an era when people frequently exchanged hair as a keepsake, it’s quite probable that Martha had given Eliza some of George’s hair, which in turn was given to their son, James, who later distributed it, strand by strand, as a precious memento to close friends and family members,” said Susan Holloway Scott, an independent scholar and author of the recent historical novel “I Eliza Hamilton.”

Officials with the Schuyler Mansion, a state historic site in Albany, believe that James Hamilton gave the lock of Washington’s hair to his granddaughters, Louisa Lee Schuyler and Georgina Schuyler, whose initials are on the envelope discovered at Union. The mansion displays another few strands of Washington’s hair in a locket kept under glass.

A lack of documentation on clear custody of the material found in Union’s archives or DNA testing makes it difficult to verify that the strands of hair are Washington’s. The handwriting believed to be James Hamilton’s on the envelope is similar to Hamilton’s handwriting that accompanies strands of Washington’s hair held by the Massachusetts Historical Society.

DNA testing is not possible as the hairs have been exposed to too many hands and potential contaminants to allow for accurate results. They’re also cut, not pulled from the root as Martha was not a monster. Union College has no record of the book entering its collection, so there’s no clear line of ownership history that could help solidify the claim. However, the Schuylers had such a strong connection to the college and the hair itself is very similar to other strands that are confirmed to have been George Washington’s.

India Spartz, head of Union College library’s Special Collections and Archives, is currently conserving the hair bundle, the almanac and an 1804 letter to 1804 Philip Jeremiah Schuyler that was also found inside the accordion folder. The group will be exhibited at an undetermined point in the future.

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Purloined Klimt drawing found in secretary’s closet

February 18th, 2018


A mystery almost 70 years in the making was solved when a lost drawing by Gustav Klimt was returned to the Lentos Museum in Linz, Austria, after the death of a former secretary who turns out to have stolen it decades ago. The sensual drawing of two women, Zwei Liegende (“Two Reclining Figures”), was one of four loaned to the museum (then the Neue Galerie der Stadt Linz) by Linz-born artist Olga Jäger in 1951. The other three were pieces by Egon Schiele. In 1964 it was loaned to the Albertina Museum in Vienna and returned without incident. That is the last mention of the four loaned works on the historical record.

Olga Jäger died in 1965 and it seemed the disappearance of the drawing might fly under the radar forever, but in 1990 Olga’s niece-in-law, wife of nephew Kurt Jäger, sent the museum a letter asking that the loaned works be returned. Museum staff looked for the art in their own stores and in other city and regional collections, but came up empty. The niece’s sons pressed the case in 2006 and again a thorough search was fruitless.

In 2011, the Jäger descendants sued the City of Linz and were awarded damages in the amount of €100,000 ($124,000) for the loss of one of the Schiele works (“Paar”). Damages got even more damaging in 2017, when the Linz Regional Court ordered the city to pay the Jägers €8.21 million (about $10 million) for the other three. The Klimt drawing was the least costly of them, assessed at €100,000.

This January, the Klimt was returned to the museum out of the blue. It was delivered by a lawyer who explained his client, said former secretary, has died in December and left explicit instructions in her will to recover the work from her closet and give it back to the city.

But how did the Klimt drawing end up in a closet? According to [Julius Stieber, the director of culture and education for the City of Linz], the secretary’s will said that in 1964, she noticed some irregularities with the documentation of the Schiele pictures after a loan to the Albertina Museum in Vienna, and notified the Neue Galerie’s then-director, Walter Kasten.

Mr. Kasten told her to keep the irregularities quiet and gave her the Klimt drawing as “hush art,” Mr. Steiber said, further describing the will’s account of the events. “For years the Klimt hung in her apartment, but when the Jäger case became public, she hid it in her wardrobe,” Mr. Stieber said.

“It’s like a thriller,” Klaus Luger, the mayor of Linz, said in a news conference on Tuesday.

The secretary has not been named for legal reasons. The three Schiele pieces are still missing and there is no evidence she was involved in their loss. Was Kasten handing out art like candy to cover his tracks? The police investigation is ongoing.

Meanwhile, the discovery of the 1990 letter, which had also fallen through the museum’s cracks, has led to a reopening of the court case. It could be pivotal in determining whether the heirs waited too long to pursue their case. The statute of limitations may have run out.

The drawing is now on display in the 1918 – Klimt – Moser – Schiele exhibition at the Lentos Museum. It runs through May 21st, 2018. After it closes, the drawing will be returned to the Jäger family as long as they repay the €100,000 the museum paid them for it.

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Ugly Sweater-wearing idiot steals thumb of terracotta warrior

February 17th, 2018

An individual who can only be described as a complete dumbass has been busted by the FBI for breaking the thumb off a Terracotta Warrior on display at the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia and hiding it in his desk drawer. It’s incalculably sad that this 24-year-old loser who still lives at home with Mommy and Daddy was at the museum on the evening of December 21st just to attend an Ugly Sweater Party. He was able to access the room where 10 priceless terracotta warriors, among them the Cavalryman standing next to a horse, were on display simply by walking through a door carelessly left unlocked by (Keystone) rent-a-cops and stepping over the black rope capable of cordoning off nothing and nobody.

He got a couple of his friends to join him, but they quickly left because they’re not complete dumbasses. He lingered a bit, looking at the statues with light from his cell, putting his arm around the Cavalryman and taking a selfie like an idiot. Then he deliberately with malice aforethought snapped off one of the statue’s thumbs and slipped it in his pocket before decamping.

We know all this now because the FBI’s crack Art Crime squad reviewed security tape footage and saw it all go down. The museum staff only noticed the damage to the Cavalryman on January 8th, more than two weeks after it was looted. That’s when the FBI stepped in. FBI Special Agent Jacob Archer compared the surveillance footage to credit card receipts for the night and identified the thief as Michael Rohana of Bear, Delaware.

When the agent showed up at the Rohana household, Michael folded like an origami crane.

In front of his father, Rohana admitted it that he had stashed the thumb in his desk drawer.

A U.S. attorney has decided to charge him with theft of a major artwork from a museum, concealment of major artwork stolen from a museum, and interstate transportation of stolen property.

He was arrested and released on a 15,000-USD bail, on the condition that he hand over his passport, consent to drug testing, and refrain from leaving the country before trail.

Meanwhile, the museum has reviewed its security systems and procedures in the wake of this debacle.

The actions of one jackhole and the failure to follow any number of responsible security protocols shouldn’t irredeemably taint the exhibition. This particular group of warriors and artifacts have only been shown in two museums in the US. The first was the Pacific Science Center in Seattle, from which they all survived unscathed. The Franklin is the second and therefore the only one on the East Coast. It’s the first time in 30 years that the City of Brotherly Love has had any Terracotta Warriors come stay for a while and given the colossal miscarriage of stewardship, it may be more than 30 years before they come back. Plus, they’ve created a nifty Augmented Reality app that allows visitors the chance to see the warriors in virtual close-up and to view them with digital versions of the original weapons and accessories that have long since been destroyed or lost. The Cavalryman would likely have held his horse’s reins in one hand and a spear in the other. The digital view includes those long-gone accoutrements.

Terracotta Warriors of the First Emperor runs through March 4th of this year.

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Medieval carved Gonzo demon found in Lincolnshire

February 16th, 2018

Archaeologists excavating the route of the Lincoln Eastern Bypass highway in Washingborough, just outside of Lincoln city, Lincolnshire, have discovered a stone sculpture of the Muppet Gonzo that dates to the Middle Ages. Technically it’s a corbel, carved in the shape of a grotesque of the beakhead type, terminology that I’m sure is deeply offensive to members of the Gonzo species, whatever that might be.

The Romanesque style dates it to the middle of the 12th century when it was probably used to adorn a church or chapel. The bug eyes, long, downward-facing beak or nose, not to say the human face between its jaws, were intended to strike fear in the heart of the congregants, to avoidance of sin and failing that, repentance so as to avoid being devoured by beaked demons from Hell.

Beakhead corbels were particularly in vogue in the century or so after the conquest of Britain by the Norman French in 1066.

Before then, most village churches were simple wooden buildings, but William the Conqueror’s invasion force and their descendants set about rebuilding in stone, driving home the message that they were now the new landowners. Our example is particularly finely sculpted.

The exact source of the Gonzo-faced corbel is unclear. It’s possible that there was a carving workshop there instead and our cruelly and unfairly maligned Muppet friend was made on site but intended for another destination. The Network Archaeology team has found evidence there was an extensive medieval monastic grange nearby that was active from the Norman Conquest until the Dissolution of the Monasteries. It was sure to have had a chapel and the corbel could have come from the grange’s early years.

The contract archaeology firm has been digging along the bypass route since September 2016 and they have unearthed an unprecedented wealth of artifacts and human remains from every major time period — Mesolithic, Neolithic, Bronze Age, Iron Age, Roman, Anglo-Saxon, Medieval, Post-Medieval. The team has recovered 40,000 objects and pieces of archaeological material, including flint weapons and tools going back as far as 12,000 years ago, Bronze Age barrows, pottery, intact and in fragments, the foundations of several stone buildings, lime kilns, pottery kilns and wells from the Roman period, and more than 150 skeletons dating to the Middle-Saxon period (700-900 A.D.) given a Christian burial.

The Lincolnshire County Council has a big photo album of the discoveries on their Facebook page.

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Sea monsters and murder scandal in one dress

February 15th, 2018

The Yale Center for British Art recently acquired a portrait of a young lady by renowned Jacobean painter William Larkin. The panel painting is believed to be a depiction of Lady Jane Thornhaugh, wife of Sir Francis Thornhaugh, because its ownership history can be traced back through family inheritance to an 18th century Thornhaugh. The inscription provides a date for the portrait — 1617 — and the age of the subject as 17. Assuming on solid grounds that the sitter was a Thornhaugh, only Lady Jane could fit the date and age.

William Larkin’s portraits of early 17th century aristocracy and nobility capture more than just the individuals’ looks. They are invaluable records of the fashions, textiles, accessories, furnishings and styles of the most rarified denizens of James I’s court. Lady Thornhaugh’s gown in this portrait provides a glimpse into the playful motifs popular in Jacobean times, and is even a little scandalous, and I don’t mean the more than generous décolleté.

She is wearing a masque costume with a pale yellow lace collar and a silk gown embroidered with fantastical flora and fauna, including insects, birds and numerous sea monsters diving in and out of the embroidery. As if that weren’t cool enough (and it is), the yellow color of her lace collar and cuff is a nod to a huge scandal that rocked high society shortly before the portrait was painting.

It all started with a poem in praise of the ideal wife. The poet was Sir Thomas Overbury, one of King James I’s favored courtiers. He introduced his bestie Robert Carr to court and Carr quickly rose in the ranks of the king’s retinues, soon becoming his favorite and among the most powerful men in England. Overbury was seen as Carr’s puppetmaster, largely because he was. When Carr began an affair with Frances Howard, Countess of Essex, Overbury protested that it would harm his standing at court as she was notoriously unchaste. Carr ratted him out to Frances Howard, so when Overbury wrote and circulated A Wife, she was sure that was a direct hit on her as the embodiment of none of those wifely virtues.

The Countess schemed to take Overbury down, spreading malicious gossip about him and then convincing the King to offer him an ambassadorship to Russia which Overbury would turn down, offending James. Overbury got thrown in the Tower of London for that offense, and was dead within months.

Two months after Overbury’s death, Frances Howard had successfully secured an annulment from her husband and remarried to none other than Robert Carr. That’s when the rumors started that there was some kind of shenanigan afoot. Overbury had died too conveniently and too quickly. Could Frances Howard have had a hand in it?

It took two years for anyone to look into it, but when King James I reluctantly agreed to an investigation, famed jurist Edward Coke and philosopher and statesman Sir Francis Bacon were selected to lead it. The trial in 1616 revealed that Frances Howard had definitely had a hand way up in it. She had replaced the Lord Lieutenant of the Tower with one of her minions and got a new gaoler appointed to tend to Overbury. The gaoler, Richard Weston, poisoned Overbury with sulfuric acid. He was aided in this by Anne Turner, another minion of Frances Howard’s who was well-known for her skills as a yellow starcher who produced the pale yellow collar and cuffs so favored by the fashionable set at court and so sharply detailed in Larkin’s portrait.

Frances Howard and Robert Carr were convicted of the murder, but quickly pardoned by King James. Anne Turner was hanged from her neck until dead, a neck adorned, as poetic justic would have it, with a yellow starched ruff.

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