Is this the skull of the legendary “weasel bear”?

February 21st, 2017

A huge polar bear skull with very different features from modern polar bear skulls has been discovered at an eroding archaeological site in northernmost Alaska. Its massive size and elongated, narrow shape recall an unusual polar bear reported by Inuit hunters but never photographed, filmed or in any other way scientifically verified.

In interview projects documenting the traditional knowledge of the Inuit peoples of northern Alaska and the western Canadian Arctic, hunters report very rare sightings of a bear “that has a longer neck; it’s high and pure white, but looks like a weasel and runs fast like a weasel”. This creature is known as “tiriarnaq” in the Siglitun dialect, “tigiaqpak” in the Kangiryuarmiut dialect, all of them translating to “weasel bear.”

Here’s a description of a weasel bear by a Sachs Harbour hunter from a 2010 interview:

“You get sometimes bears which we call tiriarnat, and they get over 11 foot. They get very big; they’re slim, their necks are way longer than the stubby bears that we get now. I never seen a weasel type bear for years, years and years…. We used to see some north of Storkerson Bay when we travel…. And they’re very big…. Stubby bears get ten [feet] three [inches], ten [feet] four [inches], that sort of thing. But a weasel type bear is 11-foot plus.

There are differences between some of the accounts of the weasel bear — some say they’re fat, not slender, others say they’re all male — but the large, long, narrow head and neck is common to all the stories. The recently discovered skull fits the description.

“It looks different from your average polar bear,” said Anne Jensen, an Utqiaġvik-based archaeologist who has been leading excavation and research programs in the region.

Through radiocarbon dating and subsequent analysis, Jensen and her colleagues estimate that the big bear skull — which appears to be the fourth largest ever found — is from a period between the years 670 and 800. It is possibly the oldest complete polar bear skull found in Alaska, inspiring a name for the departed creature that owned it: The Old One.

Exactly what accounts for its differences is yet to be determined; genetic testing is needed for that, Jensen said. It could have been a member of a subspecies or a member of a different “race” in genetic terms — similar to the varying breeds that are found among dogs — or possibly something else entirely, said Jensen, who works for the science department of the Native village corporation, Ukpeaġvik Iñupiat Corp., or UIC.

The rapid thawing of the permafrost on the Chukchi Sea coast has exposed the archaeological site of Walakpa, 13 miles southwest of Utqiaġvik (the northernmost city in the United States formerly known as Barrow). First excavated by Smithsonian anthropologist Dennis Stanford in the late 1960s when the permafrost was still perma, Walakpa is a settlement from the Birnirk period (600-1300 A.D.). It was widely believed to have been so thoroughly explored by Stanford’s team that there were no archaeological materials of note left to discover.

Climate change proved that consensus wrong in the late summer of 2013 when the face of a bluff sheered off after a storm, exposing the timbers of an ancient house. They could not be fully excavated due to adverse environmental conditions and lack of funding. In 2014, a 90-foot section of soil collapsed. A local discovered the polar bear skull at that time, although exactly where and when is unclear.

Anne Jensen was finally able to raise the funds for a solid three-week dig last summer. The exposed timbers were lost by then, but Jensen’s team unearthed a number of artifacts and remains preserved for centuries in the permafrost and recovered before their decay was accelerated by the warming soil. The sheered-off bluff where the timers were found still harbored a rare treasure: four mummified seals, naturally preserved in what had once been an ice cellar. These are the only mummified seals ever found outside of the McMurdo Dry Valleys of Antarctica. Jensen excavated one of them, a female dubbed Patou dating to the mid-1940s whose body is intact from fur to claws.

Time is running out for this site and many others in Alaska, and funding hasn’t come to close to keeping up with the pace of site deterioration.

The good condition of the artifacts is only temporary. As thaw and erosion occurs, items fall into the sea or, if exposed to the air, are at risk of decay.

Even if they are not exposed to air, artifacts can be vulnerable to below-ground degradation, Jensen said. As soils warm, bacteria are better able to decompose bones and other items. Even worse, warming soils can bring the items to a point where they generate their own heat, speeding the decomposition process.

With open water present up to eight months of the year instead of two and with temperatures rising and shorelines crumbling, the threats to the archaeological sites are increasing exponentially, Jensen said. Sites are eroding at a rate that far outpaces the normal grant process used to secure funding for work, and some new emergency approach is probably warranted, she said.

“It’s like the library is essentially on fire — now,” she said.

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Navy posts Hunley recovery report online

February 20th, 2017

The U.S. Navy has released a comprehensive archaeological report on the recovery of the Confederate submarine H.L. Hunley and it is a total page-turner.

The Hunley sank off of Charleston Harbor on February 17th, 1864, but not before taking down its target, the USS Housatonic, in the first successful torpedoing of a ship by a submarine. Famous for this feat and for its disappearance immediately after the clash, the wreck of the Hunley was much sought by scholars, archaeologists and an adventure novelist. After decades of scholarship and fruitless searches, it was the novelist, Clive Cussler, with a team of exports from the National Underwater and Marine Agency (NUMA), who found the wreck in 1995. It was tilted on its starboard side, embedded in the seabed at a 45 degree angle and buried under feet of silt.

The idea of raising the hand-cranked iron submarine that played such a seminal role in the development of naval technology was a daunting one. It had been protected for 131 years by its silten blanket, and any excavation could endanger the sub. If it survived being dug out, then it would have to be safely raised out of the water, a logistical challenge of massive proportions. But the incentives to take the plunge were strong. Unlike other shipwrecks, Hunley almost certainly had sealed compartments that contained not just untouched artifacts, but the remains of the eight brave crewmen who operated this terrifying contraption. With the news of the discovery making headlines all over the country, the wreck would certainly become the target of looters.

Five years passed from discovery to recovery, five years of assiduous research, planning and problem-solving. You don’t have to be Civil War or naval history buff to find the Navy’s report on the recovery project riveting. It covers so much ground that anyone with an interest in archaeology, conservation, science, engineering, metallurgy, museums, even project management will be fascinated. I’ve read a lot of archaeological reports over the years, but I’ve never read one this thorough. It goes into depth on the historical background of Hunley, including its predecessors, recovery attempts after the war and searches in the 20th century. It’s not just verbiage, either. There is a plethora of pictures, maps and diagrams.

Dr. Michael McCarthy of the Western Australia Museum, who participated in a 1999 symposium of experts convened to discuss the recovery of H.L. Hunley, puts it beautifully in the foreword:

[This report] ably brings to the world the complexity of such a multi-faceted project, its own history, including the search and finding, the engineering problems and solutions, the archaeology, conservation, historical research, public access, and future exhibition plans. Clearly evident is the fact that it has all required perseverance, dedication, and exceptional time management from not only the archaeologists, researchers, and conservators, but those who managed the funding and the enormous resources required to complete the project. What editors Robert Neyland and Heather Brown have brought together and presented in what follows is a fitting and lasting tribute to the project’s many and various constituents and, like H.L. Hunley itself, it is a monument to its builder and to its three brave crews, young men once lost and now known to all.

The 321-page document can be downloaded free of charge in pdf format here.

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How to move a painting the size of football field

February 19th, 2017

For a brief window in the 1870s and 80s, cycloramas were all the rage in the United States. The trend began with large-scale panoramas in the late 18th century. European artists pioneered the form, creating massive works that depicted famous battles, Biblical and mythological scenes, landscapes, famous explorers exploring exotic lands and more. This evolved into cycloramas, 360 degrees paintings installed in purpose-built circular buildings so that viewers on a central platform could have a full-immersion experience of being in the middle of the action.

Cycloramas caught on in the 1870s after the Franco-Prussian War inspired a proliferation of battle depictions. It was European artists who brought their techniques of creating massive 360 degree paintings to the United States. The Battle of Gettysburg, now at the Gettysburg National Military Park and the largest oil painting in the world, opened the cyclorama floodgates. French artist Paul Philippoteaux, who had been painting cycloramas in Europe since 1871, was commissioned to create the massive panorama by a group of Chicago investors in 1879. It took him two years and a couple of dozen of assistants to finish the piece. It went on display in Chicago in 1883 and was a runaway success, so much so that Philippoteaux was commissioned to make another three Battle of Gettysburg cycloramas.

The Gettysburg blockbuster started a trend, and the same year it first went on display, German-born Milwaukee resident William Wehner founded the American Panorama Company. He had little difficulty investors that there would be a market in the United States for massive-scale views of scenes from the Civil War. The Battle of Atlanta, fought on July 22nd, 1864, was the chosen subject for the American Panorama Company’s second and most elaborate work, and little wonder since one of Wehner’s patrons was Illinois senator and Union Major General John “Black Jack” Logan who had commanded the Fifteenth Corps in the Battle of Atlanta.

Wehner recruited a team of 20 artists from Germany, each experts in large-scale painting and specializing in certain areas — landscape, horses, human figures — and researched the battle assiduously. They had access to the sketchbooks and notebooks of Harper’s Weekly Civil War campaign artist Theodore Davis, official government documents and maps, spoke to veterans of the battle from both sides, and traveled to Atlanta so they could scope out the site of the battle with their own eyes. Even though the neighborhood where the battle took place (Edgewood, then an eastern suburb, now intown Atlanta) was completely unrecognizable just 20 years later, the artists were able to view tracks and landscape features by sketching from towers.

The Battle of Atlanta made its debut in February 1887 in Detroit. Senator Logan had died in December of 1886 and the work was advertised as “Logan’s Great Battle” in homage to him. His cavalry charge to reinforce the Union lines was a featured scene in the cyclorama. Believe it or not, this massive painting more than 370 feet wide and just shy of 50 feet high was designed to be moved. After it was shown in Detroit, vast swaths of the canvas were draped on wooden frames and taken on the road where it was shown in Minneapolis and Indianapolis. The Cyclorama opened in Indianapolis in May of 1888 and by then Wehner’s company was in trouble. He sold The Battle of Atlanta to a local exhibitor. In 1890, that company sold it to promoter Paul Atkinson of Madison, Georgia.

Atkinson put it on display in Chattanooga, taking it south of the Mason-Dixon line for the first time. It finally set foot in Atlanta in February 1892, where Atkinson put it on display in a wooden building on Edgewood Avenue, close to the battle site. In Atlanta, Atkinson promoted the one-time “Logan’s Great Battle” as the only painting of a Confederate victory, and he had it altered to make sure it fit the new pro-Southern narrative. A group of cowering Confederate prisoners were changed to retreating Union soldiers, for example.

(It’s true that the Battle of Atlanta ended with the Union’s failure to take the city and the death of Major General James McPherson, one of the highest-ranking Union soldiers to fall in battle during the Civil War. General Sherman had to besiege Atlanta for more than a month before the city finally surrendered on September 2nd, 1864. Still, the one-day Battle of Atlanta was something of a Pyrrhic victory given the 5,500 Confederate casualties they could ill-afford this late in the war, and since the final conclusion of the wider fight for Atlanta was a decisive Union victory that played an important role in revitalizing Northern enthusiasm for the war and in re-electing President Lincoln, Atkinson’s pitch was more than a little disingenuous.)

The days of the great panoramas in the round drawing crowds were over by then, however, and the Edgewood Avenue exhibition was financial failure. A year later, the painting was sold for a comparative pittance to Atlanta business magnate Ernest Woodruff. He quickly resold it to George V. Gress and Charles Northen. They had it repaired and installed in a new building in Grant Park, but again The Battle of Atlanta failed to attract visitors. In 1898, George Cress donated the painting to the City of Atlanta.

The city created a new building to house it in Grant Park in 1921. For some unfathomable reason, instead of just measuring the thing and making proper calculations, the new building which, once more for emphasis, was custom-built to house the painting, could not fit the whole painting. About eight feet of sky and a vertical section of the six feet wide were sliced out to squeeze it into the new Atlanta Cyclorama building.

In 1936, a Works Project Administration team completed a diorama covering the space between the bottom of the painting and the edge of the viewing platform. On a red clay floor evoking Georgia’s characteristic russet heavy soil, landscape features, artillery, railroad tracks and 128 plaster soldiers were added to bring the painted scene into three dimensions. The soldiers ranged in size from 20 to 50 inches high and were placed to ensure they’d be in proper perspective and scale with the painting when viewed from the platform.

Condition issues proliferated over the decades at Grant Park. Twenty years of discussions from the late 1950s until the late 1970s considered a number of solutions to the problems, all of them rejected as too expensive. Finally between 1979 and 1982 the painted and diorama were conserved and the building renovated to include a revolving viewing platform.

Since then, the painting continues to struggle with condition issues. Meanwhile, Zoo Atlanta, which shares space in Grant Park with the Atlanta Cyclorama and draws far, far larger crowds than the painting could ever dream of drawing, is keen to expand. In 2014, Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed announced that the cyclorama would be moved to a new state-of-the-art facility at the Atlanta History Center‘s 33-acre campus in the toney Buckhead neighborhood.

Moving a painting 359 feet wide and 42 feet high that weighs seven tons is not for the faint of heart. It has taken more than two years to plan and prepare the move. Earlier this month, the deed was done, in a painstaking series of steps.

Workers, Mr. McQuigg replied, will spend days rolling the painting, which is appraised at $7.5 million, onto a pair of 6,200-pound spools. A crane will slowly lift the spools — “We’re hoping paint-drying goes faster,” Mr. McQuigg said in an interview — through seven-foot holes cut in the roof of the nearly century-old building. Then, once the shrink-wrapped painting is resting aboard two trucks, the workers will let the clock tick.

“We’re going to wait until everybody goes home and the traffic dies down and there’s no more Atlanta rush hour,” Mr. McQuigg said in the musty room where the cyclorama has hung for generations. “Heck, it might be 3 in the morning.”

That’s pretty much what happened, although the two giant spools were raised on different days. The first scroll did end up being transported in the middle of the night to the new Lloyd and Mary Ann Whitaker Cyclorama Building at the Atlanta History Center. The second was moved during the day.

Now that they’re in the new building, the sections of the painting will be reunited and restored.

The restored painting will finally have the proper perspective: Until now, the painting hung like a shower curtain and there were folds and creases. When the painting reopens next year, the aim is to return the “immersion” effect.

The Battle of Atlanta will be displayed in its original hyperbolic, or hourglass shape. Through proper tension at the top and bottom, the painting’s horizon will appear closer to the viewer, restoring the original 3D illusion.

You’ll be able to see the whole painting: At Grant Park, patrons sat on a carpeted revolving grandstand, which kept them from taking in the entire painting at once. At the AHC, visitors will gaze from a platform 15 feet above ground. The diorama will be rebuilt. The idea is to remove as many obstructions as possible and let the painting make its own statement.

The Battle of Gettysburg is the same height as the Atlanta Cyclorama, but it’s 377 feet wide. When the restoration is complete, The Battle of Atlanta will get a little closer in width and beat it in height. The pieces cut out to squeeze Procrustes the Painting into the 1921 Atlanta Cyclorama building will be readded so that for the first time in almost a century, the complete panorama will be seen as the German painters created it. The restored cyclorama will be 371 feet wide and 49 feet high. The Atlanta Cyclorama will reopen to the public in the fall of 2018.

Here are timelapse videos of the two halves of the painting being scrolled up. The first half was scrolled on December 7th, 2016, the second on January 21st, 2017.

Here is the first scroll raised from a hole in the roof of the old Atlanta Cyclorama building and then being laid on the flatbed truck for transport to the new building.

This news story has film of the cranes lowering the massive scrolls into the new cyclorama building at the Atlanta History Center:

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Who’s a good Rembrandt? You are! Yes you are!

February 18th, 2017

A drawing of a dog in the Herzog Anton Ulrich Museum in Braunschweig, Germany, has been identified as the work of 17th century Dutch master Rembrandt Van Rijn. The chalk sketch of a little terrier, believed to have been drawn around 1637, has been in the museum’s collection since the 1770s, but was mistakenly attributed to German animal painter Johann Melchior Roos. His father, landscape painter and portraitist Johann Heinrich Roos, his brother Philipp Peter Roos, two other brothers and a sister were all known for their drawings of animals. Philipp Peter even kept a mini-zoo at his villa in Tivoli just to have live models for his drawings. The Roos were so strongly associated with animal studies that for centuries if a Dutch/German Baroque animal drawing turned up without a clear attribution, it would by default be categorized as a piece by Roos. The Herzog Anton Ulrich Museum in particular has a large collection of Johann Melchior Roos drawings because he spent the last years of his life in Braunschweig.

The dog study was noticed two years ago by the museum’s head of drawings, Dr. Thomas Döring, when he was going through their collection of 10,000 drawings for the Virtual Kupferstichkabinett, a major digitization initiative virtually reunited the collections of the Herzog Anton Ulrich Museum and the Herzog August Bibliothek in Wolfenbüttel which began life as the private art and book collection of the Dukes of Braunschweig-Wolfenbüttel. The ducal collections were gradually split up between the two institutions between the 18th and early 20th centuries. The Virtual Kupferstichkabinett brings them back together online.

While cataloging the drawings, Döring saw the terrier and suspected there was a more illustrious hand behind the dynamic canine that previously realized.

“It’s been on display for decades under the name of Johann Melchior Roos,” he told CNN, “so the idea that this could be a Rembrandt was never considered before. But the boldness of the strokes, the variations in the shading from very gentle to quite violent and the expressive gaze [of the dog] — these are very typical idiosyncrasies of Rembrandt’s work.”

Doring said his experience cataloging drawings by Rembrandt and his pupils during an earlier project was key to the discovery.

“I was used to looking out for the differences between Rembrandt’s work and drawings by other artists,” he explained.

Two years of research ensued, including microscopic examinations of the drawing and extensive studies of comparable Rembrandts in museums and collections in Amsterdam, Paris and Vienna. Döring then consulted international authorities on Rembrandt for their opinions. Dr. Holm Bevers, Chief Curator for Dutch and Flemish Prints and Drawings at the Kupferstichkabinett of the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin in Berlin was the first to officially attribute the drawing the Rembrandt. Pieter Roelofs, curator of 17th century Dutch painting at the Rijksmuseum, was the second. An Old Master specialist at the British Museum was the third. Dr. Döring published the drawing as an original Rembrandt in the quarterly journal Master Drawings and so far has received unanimously positive responses.

Dogs appear as secondary figures in many of Rembrandt’s paintings, see the little fellow excitedly play-bowing on the bottom right of The Night Watch, and several of his sketches of people have a dog in the scene as well. Other animals he drew — lions, pigs, elephants, camels, cats, horses — as studies for larger Biblical, historical, pastoral and mythological paintings. Not many of his drawing of animals survive. Rembrandt is believed to have collected most of them in a single volume he called “Animals, from life” (“Beesten nae’t leven”) which was listed in a 1656 inventory of his belongings but is now lost.

Rembrandt’s doggie will go on display at the Herzog Anton Ulrich Museum starting April 6th in the Dürer, Cézanne, and Me: How Masters Draw exhibition. It runs through July 7th, 2017.

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Guercino found! Round up the usual suspects.

February 17th, 2017

They already been rounded up, truth be told, but when a stolen 17th century masterpiece is found in Casablanca, the headline pretty much writes itself. The masterpiece in question is Madonna with the Saints John the Evangelist and Gregory Thaumaturgus, an oil on canvas painted made in 1639 by Giovanni Francesco Barbieri, aka Guercino. For the next 375 years, the painting remained safe in the Church of San Vincenzo in Modena. Even a direct hit on the church by an Allied bomb in 1944 left the Guercino unmolested while the presbytery and the frescoed choir were reduced to rubble.

The lucky streak broke in August of 2014 when the painting was stolen from the church, probably the night of August 10th. The theft wasn’t noticed until the morning of the 14th when the priest saw the front door was unlocked. The church is only open on Sunday for mass and the doors are kept locked at all other times. There was no sign of forced entry on the door, so the thieves must have gotten in when the doors were open and hid in the church until the coast was clear. Then they somehow made off with a painting nine and a half feet high and six feet wide still in its huge wooden frame.

Police investigated thoroughly, going full CSI on the church looking for any microscopic speck of evidence that might help track the painting and its kidnappers. They also collected hours of security camera footage from the streets around the church in the hope of finding a van or truck large enough to transport so large and unwieldy an artwork. The investigation enlisted the aid of Interpol and local authorities in countries around the world, but came up empty. There was no trace of the Guercino.

There was the usual speculation by police and in the press you see every time something huge and famous and therefore virtually impossible to resell is stolen that the theft was commissioned by a villainous private collector. And again as it so often seems to be the case, the real explanation is that art thieves are, as a group, terrible at everything but the stealing (and sometimes at the stealing too).

Last week, like a bolt from the blue, Interpol got a call from the Moroccan police alerting them to a large canvas discovered during an investigation, a canvas they believed to be the stolen Madonna with the Saints. A man claiming to be an art dealer had offered the painting for 10 milioni dirham (about $1 million) to a wealthy Moroccan businessman and art collector. He recognized it as a Guercino right away, and since he wasn’t off planet in August 2014, he knew it had to be the painting stolen from Modena. He reported the encounter to the cops. The judicial police of Casablanca’s Hay Hassani prefecture arrested three people, all Moroccan nationals, the ringleader a longtime resident in Italy, for the theft.

Interpol alerted the Italian authorities on the evening of Wednesday, February 15th. On Thursday, February 16th, Lucia Musti, chief prosecutor of Modena, confirmed “with the greatest satisfaction” that the painting recovered in Morocco was indeed Madonna with the Saints John the Evangelist and Gregory Thaumaturgus by Guercino, stolen from the Church of San Vincenzo between the 10th and 13th of August, 2014.

The Italian and Moroccan authorities are working out the details of the repatriation of the painting now. There are no reports yet as to its condition.

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Roman vessel hoard packed with plants found

February 16th, 2017

Metal detectorists discovered eight Roman copper-alloy vessels — an iron-rimmed cauldron, a deep bowl, a shallow bowl, a high-sided pot and four small scale pans — in Wiltshire’s Vale of Pewsey in October, 2014. They dug them out of the ground, unfortunately, but they did have the forethought not to clean them, a decision that ensured the survival of the pots’ incredibly rare contents. What looked like dirt and weeds was in fact ancient plant material packed in the vessel hoard when it was buried.

A hoard of eight Roman pots is already a great rarity. Fewer than 30 copper alloy vessel hoards have been found from late antiquity in Britain. As small as this number is, it’s still more than have been found anywhere else in the Roman world. That the organic remains the vessels contained didn’t decay into dust makes it a unique find. The plants were preserved by the creation of an air-tight pocket inside the carefully nested pots. It was probably a fluke, a result of the way the vessels were stacked and positioned inside each other.

Inside the cauldron, the biggest piece, was placed the shallow bowl (Vessel A). The high-sided pot (Vessel B) with the four little scale pans inside was placed in the shallow bowl, its rounded feet raising it from direct contact with the bottom of the bowl. The deep bowl (Vessel C), of a type known as an Irchester bowl, was flipped upside-down to cover vessel B entirely and cover the rim of Vessel A. The organic remains were almost entirely contained in Vessel B. As the metal corroded over the years, the copper salts were absorbed by plant material, also helping to preserve it. The plants have a powdery consistency now because of the copper salts, but they’re microscopically identical to when they were fresh.

Finds Liaison Officer Richard Henry has led the exciting quest to discover more about the find. He brought in a team to excavate the site of the discovery, led by David Roberts of Historic England and with the Assistant County Archaeologist, members of the Wiltshire Archaeology Field Group and the finders. Richard then brought in more experts, including Dr Ruth Pelling of Historic England and Dr Michael Grant who identified the plant remains and pollen. Peter Marshall, also of Historic England, coordinated the radiocarbon dating of the flowers and undertook analysis of the results. [...]

Richard Henry said “Such discoveries should be left in situ to allow full archaeological study of the find and its context. The finders did not clean or disturb the vessels which has allowed us to undertake detailed further research. If the vessels had been cleaned none of this research would have been possible”

Ruth Pelling commented that “It has been an absolute pleasure to examine this unique assemblage. By combining the plant macro and pollen evidence we have been able to identify the time of year the vessels were buried, the packing material used, the nature of the surrounding vegetation and the likely date of burial.”

Radiocarbon dating of the plants by Historic England found they were buried between 380 and 550 A.D., a turbulent time when the Romans were in retreat or just plain gone (Emperor Honorius pulled the last legions from Britain in 410 A.D.) and the Anglo-Saxons began spreading through England from their strongholds in the south and east.

Hoards from this period are generally thought to have been buried to keep them safe from Saxon raids. Roman copper vessels were relatively common household goods during more prosperous times, but at the remote ends of empire after the collapse of Roman rule they would certainly have been hoardworthy. The plant material packed inside the vessels consists mainly of knapweed flowers (23 knapweed flowers, to be specific, two of them black knapweed) and pinnules and stem fragments of bracken. There are also cowslip, buttercup and sedge seeds. The seeds indicate the hoard was packed and buried in the mid to late summer out of doors in a location with both pasture and farmland.

Why the plant material was included is more mysterious. They could have been simple packing material. There was hay in the mix, too, so the plants may have been the far less annoying 5th century equivalent of styrofoam peanuts. They may also have been a votive offering. It’s notable that the hoard was buried on the boundary between Roman and Angle territory, a dangerous frontier at that time and a hotspot of upheaval during the transition from Roman rule, the kind of place where you would have good reason to appeal to higher powers for protection.

The plants and seeds were donated to the Wiltshire Museum in Devizes where they have been and will continue to be studied and analyzed. Some of the flowers are now on display at the museum. Experts were able to study the vessels, but the metal detectorists have chosen to keep them instead of donating them along with the plant materials. They can make that choice because the 1996 Treasure Act doesn’t define ancient artifacts made of base metals as treasure.

This is the same loophole that allowed the sale of the exceptional Crosby Garrett Helmet to an anonymous private collector. If there are two or more prehistoric artifacts, they count as treasure even if made of base metal. If an artifact is between prehistoric and 300 years old, it has to be composed of at least 10% gold or silver to qualify as treasure. It’s a nonsensical standard, particularly for archaeology where a literal bag of feces can be of inestimable value. Also, the finders can’t possibly be qualified to conserve very delicate ancient metalwork. The cauldron, for instance, is fragmentary, with the base, the little that remains of the body and the rim all in separate pieces.

The plants and bronze vessels have been together for 1500+ years. As a group, they are a great archaeological treasure. I hope the finders have a change of heart and reunite these longtime companions.

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Bronze Age weapons hoard found in Scotland

February 15th, 2017

Archaeologists have discovered a hoard of Bronze Age weapons of international significance in Carnoustie, Angus, eastern Scotland. The property at Newton Farm was bought by the Angus Council last year with the stipulation that it be dedicated to community use. Because an earlier dig in the area in 2004 had found evidence of extensive prehistoric and medieval remains, the council also had to ensure the site was excavated to recover any archaeological remains before construction. GUARD Archaeology were contracted to excavate the site.

In a shallow pit, the team unearthed a bronze spearhead next to a bronze sword, a pin and scabbard fittings. Decorated with gold ornamentation, the bronze spearhead is an incredibly rare object. Only a handful of Bronze Age spears of this type have been found in Britain and Ireland. One of them was discovered in a weapons hoard in 1963 at a farm just miles away from Carnoustie, so that means that out of the few gold-decorated bronze spearheads known, two of them were found in Angus. This suggests the area had a significant a wealthy warrior class around 1000 B.C.

Since the bronze weapons are around 3,000 years old, the metalwork is very fragile. To ensure these delicate artifacts could be excavated with all necessary caution in a protected environment, the soil surrounding the pit was cut out and the entire 175-pound block was removed to the GUARD Archaeology Finds Lab. There conservators analyzed the block to develop an excavation plan that would safely preserve the finds.

These few seconds of video convey how painstaking the process of excavation was:

The en bloc excavation proved even wiser when organic remains were found in the hoard. The leather and wood scabbard, while broken into several fragments, is the best preserved Bronze Age scabbard ever discovered in Britain. Textile fragments were found around the pin and scabbard; fur around the spearhead. These kinds of materials almost never survive outside of waterlogged or arid environments.

Another great archaeological boon to this hoard is that it was unearthed within the confines of a Late Bronze Age settlement. It’s not isolated on the edge of a ploughed field where all we can find about the hoard’s history is in the hoard itself. It’s part of a much wider context. The team unearthed the remains of around 12 roundhouses, probably from the Bronze Age, and other large pits holding what appears to be refuse (broken pottery, lithics). About 650 artifacts were discovered from the Bronze Age settlement. Most of the finds give a date range of between 2200 and 800 B.C. for the Bronze Age occupation of the site.

There were people living there long before the Bronze Age, though. Archaeologists found the remains of two rectilinear structures dating to the Neolithic. The oldest dates to around 4000 B.C., and it too is a testament to the area’s prehistoric prominence. It’s the largest Neolithic hall ever found in Scotland. There is no clear evidence of continuous occupation, so the site could have been inhabited from the Stone Age through the Late Bronze Age, or successive settlements could have been built on the site with gaps of centuries between them.

The site is slated to be converted into two grass soccer fields, as per the community use requirement, and construction will begin at the end of the month. The excavation of the larger site will continue.

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Neolithic “enigma” out of storage and on display

February 14th, 2017

The National Archaeological Museum in Athens, Greece, has taken one of their most curious artifacts out of storage and put it on display. It’s a Neolithic statuette carved out of granite about 7,000 years ago. It is 36 centimeters (14 inches) high and has a pointed, beak-like nose, a rounded torso with a prominent belly and thick, irregularly cylindrical legs. There are no arms, no genitalia or breasts to indicate sex, no facial features other than the pointy nose. I think he looks like the secret illegitimate love child of Sam the Eagle and the Shmoo.

Its design, material, great age and unknown origin make it an intriguing archaeological mystery. Museum curators call the figurine a 7,000-year-old enigma.

“It could depict a human-like figure with a bird-like face, or a bird-like entity which has nothing to do with man but with the ideology and symbolism of the Neolithic society,” Katya Manteli, an archaeologist with the museum, told Reuters.

Experts also cannot be sure of its provenance, as it belongs to a personal collection. They assume only that it is from the northern Greek regions of Thessaly or Macedonia.

Unlike most Neolithic figurines made of soft stone, it is carved out of hard rock even though metal tools were not available at the time.

And while it is too short for a life-size depiction of the human figure, it is bigger than most Neolithic statues, which are rarely found over 35 cm tall.

“Regarding technique and size, it is among the rare and unique works of the Neolithic period in Greece,” Manteli said.

It’s possible that the lack of sex characteristics and detailed features are a practical limitation of having to carve hard granite with stone tools. It could also be incomplete, although the high gloss polish indicates this is a finished piece.

There are more than 200,000 objects kept in permanent storage at the National Archaeological Museum. This charming Neolithic fellow is one of the treasures pulled from the storeroom for The Unseen Museum, an exhibition that gives the bench players a chance to start the game for once. It runs through March 26th of this year.

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Odd animal burials found under Shrewsbury church

February 13th, 2017

An excavation around a medieval church in Sutton Farm, Shrewsbury, has unearthed the remains of a previous Anglo-Saxon church and a series of unusual animal burials that may be pre-Christian. The Church of the Holy Fathers, as it is now known, was bought from the Church of England by the Greek Orthodox Church in 1994. Built in the late 12th, early 13th century, the church had been abandoned in the late 19th century and was being used as a storage shed. The Greek Orthodox Church restored the nearly derelict Grade II-listed building and a congregation has worshipped there ever since.

The field on the west side of the church is slated for development — it will be a parking lot for a 300-home estate — and a team from Baskerville Archaeological Services was contracted to excavate the site before construction began. By the terms of the planning contract, developers Taylor Wimpey funded an archaeological survey of the parking lot site from late summer until November. The Greek Orthodox Church stepped in to fund an extension of the excavation and developers gave the archaeologists more time to explore the site.

They were able to unearth foundations of the current medieval church extending 20 feet from the modern-day walls, indicating that this small church was once much larger. Next to the medieval foundations and between 15 and 18 inches deeper under the soil, archaeologists found the stone foundations of an earlier building which they believe to be an Anglo-Saxon church. Several artifacts were discovered in a rubble pile: three garnet pins, a carved stone of indeterminate age and two coins, one of them a Charles I half farthing minted between 1624 and 1635.

The very last day of the dig on the west side, the team unearthed a 15-section of a wooden post, likely a door post, in the layer believed to be Anglo-Saxon. This was a key discovery, because wood can be radiocarbon dated to confirm or deny whether the earlier structure does date to the Anglo-Saxon period.

On the south side of the church, archaeologists found more foundations of the medieval church. These indicate the church had a transept, the arms on either side of the nave that form the traditional cross shape. They also discovered the medieval graveyard. The remains of three people were unearthed, including an intact skeleton of a woman buried in shroud, but that’s to be expected in a churchyard. Less expected were the elaborate animal burials: the skeletons of a calf and a pig carefully posed together with yin-yang symmetry, a Stone Age flint found between the ribs of the calf, the skeletal remains of a pig laid to rest in a leather-covered wood coffin, the bones of a large female dog that died during whelping found next to the bones of six chickens, a pregnant goat and what appear to be the bones of one more dog and a large bird. Those last two have yet to be fully excavated.

“It was a huge surprise to find these burials in a church graveyard. To find animals buried in consecrated ground is incredibly unusual because it would have been a big no no,” [Janey Green, from Baskerville Archaeological Services,] said. “The bones don’t show any signs of butchery and the animals appear to have been deliberately and carefully laid in the ground.”

“The site is a few hundred metres from known prehistoric human burial mounds so they may be connected. Initially I thought I may have come across a whimsical Victorian burial of a beloved pet. But the Victorians usually left objects in the graves such as a collar, a letter or a posie of flowers and we haven’t found a shred of evidence of anything like that here. Neither is there evidence that the animals were fallen farm stock that were disposed of in modern times.”

Green thinks these are likely pre-Christian burials. The bones will have to be carbon dated before we can know, and it doesn’t look like they have the budget for it at this point. They’re working on it.

The parking lot is still going forward. Taylor Wimpey have agreed to seal the medieval foundations under a geotextile membrane before pouring the asphalt. This will protect them from damage and make them more easily accessible should someone in the future pick the archaeological remains over the parking lot. Meanwhile, the excavations on the south side of the church will continue. The remains, both human and animal, will be reburied at the church in a special funerary service.

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The Legacy of Ancient Palmyra online

February 12th, 2017


Palmyra, the crossroads of civilizations, prosperous center of trade between the Silk Road and Europe from the 3rd century B.C. under the Hellenistic Seleucid kingdom through the 3rd century A.D. under the Roman Empire, is no stranger to wartime destruction. Emperor Aurelian razed the city in 273 when it rebelled against his rule. He pillaged its temples and used their treasures to decorate his temple to the sun god Sol in Rome. Enough survived to make Palmyra’s monumental ruins some of the most extensive and dramatic in the Greco-Roman world, and when European visitors started writing about the spectacular remains starting in 1696 with Abednego Seller’s The Antiquities of Palmyra, Palmyrene structures like the Temple of Bel, the Temple of Baalshamin, the tower tombs and the Great Colonnade became icons of classical architecture and inspired Western artists, poets and architects.

One of those artists was Louis-François Cassas (1756-1827) who made highly detailed drawings of the ruins of Palmyra in 1785. Cassas spent a month in Palmyra, recording all of the ancient ruins he saw. As an architect, Cassas had a keen eye for sculptural features which gave his renderings a precision matched by none of his predecessors in the voyage pittoresque tradition of illustrated travel accounts. His drawings of Palmyra, detailed views of ornamental features, architectural elevations and reconstructions illustrated his own travel account, Voyage Pittoresque de la Syrie, de la Phenicie, de la Palestine, et de la Basse Egypte, published beginning in 1799.

Following in Cassas footprints but using a new medium was Louis Vignes (1831-1896), a French career naval officer and a photographer. In 1863, Vignes was assigned to accompany Honoré Théodore d’Albert, duc de Luynes, on a scientific expedition to Palestine, Syria and Lebanon. Luynes was an avid amateur archaeologist and antiquarian, an expert in Damascus steel and a patron of the arts with a particular taste for commissioning works in the classical style. The year before the expedition, the duke had donated his vast collection of antiquities — coins, Greek vases, medallions, intaglio gemstones — to France’s Cabinet des Médailles, and as an immensely wealthy aristocrat with a passel of big titles, when Luynes demanded that the French government provide him with a naval officer for his voyage, he got what he wanted.

Vignes was a particularly good choice for a mission that would encounter numerous archaeological remains, because he had been trained by pioneering photographer Charles Nègre and could be of as much help to the duke on dry land as he was on the seas. Luynes’ primary objective was to do one of the first scientific explorations of the Dead Sea. From the Dead Sea, the expedition traveled the Jordan River Valley, the mountains of Moab and the full length of the Wadi Arabah to the Gulf of Aqaba. Over the 10 months of the expedition, they also visited Palmyra and Beirut where Vignes took pictures of the ancient ruins.

The scientific report of the expedition, Voyage d’exploration à la mer Morte, à Petra, et sur la rive gauche du Jourdain, wasn’t published until 1875, eight years after Luynes’ death. Vignes photos of the Dead Sea were included in the publication, but by then Vignes had long since cut to the chase. He hooked up with his old mentor Charles Nègre to develop and print the negatives Vignes had taken in Beirut and Palmyra. The albumen prints were given to the duc de Luynes before his death in 1867. The Vignes photographs are the earliest known pictures of the Greco-Roman remains in Palmyra.

They have taken on even more significance in the light of recent events. Palmyra’s ruins have been devastated in the Syrian Civil War, bombed and shelled by everyone, deliberately destroyed by IS ostensibly out of iconoclastic fervor, although their real motivation, I think, is to taunt the world into multiple impotent rage strokes; cultural heritage destruction as a brutal mass troll. The temples of Bel and Baalshamin were blown up, as were three of the best preserved tower tombs, the Arch of Triumph on the east end of the Great Colonnade and, if recent reports bear out, the tetrapylon and part of the Roman theater.

In 2015, with the monstrous savaging of Palmyra’s ancient monuments well underway, the Getty Research Institute acquired an album of 47 of Vignes’ original photos taken in Palmyra and Beirut. That album was digitized — the pictures can be browsed here — as were 58 additional Vignes prints from the duc de Luynes’ personal collection.

Now the Getty Research Institute has enlisted its Vignes photographs, Cassas drawings and other important sources in an online exhibition dedicated to history of Palmyra.

The online exhibition draws heavily from the Getty Research Institute’s collections as well as art in museum and library collections all over the world. The exhibition explores the site’s early history, the far-reaching influence of Palmyra in Western art and culture, and the loss, now tremendous and irrevocable, of the ruins that for centuries stood as a monument to a great city and her people.

“The devastation unleashed in Syria today forces a renewed interpretation of the early prints and photographs of this extraordinary world heritage site.” said Getty Research Institute curator Frances Terpak. “They gain more significance as examples of cultural documents that
can encourage a deeper appreciation of humanity’s past achievements. Understanding Palmyra through these invaluable accounts preserves its memory and connects us with its grandeur and enduring legacy.”

The Legacy of Ancient Palmyra is the Getty Research Institute’s first online exhibition and it’s beautifully curated. I hope it’s the first of many to come.

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