Speaking of looted art from Visigothic Spain…

January 22nd, 2019

Two Visigoth reliefs looted from a church in northern Spain 15 years ago have been found in Britain and returned to Spanish officials. The theft was a total debacle, but the heavy reliefs depicting two evangelists managed to survive intact against the odds.

The 7th century limestone reliefs originally adorned the church of Santa Maria de Lara, one of only a handful of churches from the Visigoth era still remaining on the Iberian peninsula. Built in the 7th or early 8th century, the church was abandoned after the Umayyad conquest and was likely rebuilt after the Spanish Reconquista in the 9th century. It was donated to the neighboring monastery of San Pedro de Arlanza in the 11th century but was not maintained and fell to ruin, eventually being forgotten entirely. The remains were rediscovered by a priest on a walk in 1921. They were obscured by brush and the location was remote so even after the church was found locals still used the ruins as corrals for their livestock.

Its fortunes improved when scholars identified as a Visigoth church in 1927 and it was granted National Monument status two years later. It wasn’t until the custodian and guide built an asphalted road to the nearby town of Quintanilla de las Vinas in the 1970s that the church became a popular tourist draw and brought it enough money to fund the site’s maintenance.

Even with a decent access road and thousands of visitors a year, Santa Maria de Lara was secluded enough that in 2004 thieves were able to use a crane to strip two 110-pound stone reliefs from the church and remove them unimpeded. They thought they had hit the jackpot. Very few Visigoth figural sculptures have survived, so these two pieces would be worth millions. Notice the conditional. They would be worth millions if they weren’t protected cultural patrimony, but they are.

As so often happens, the looters found themselves saddled with artifacts they could not sell for what they were worth. They had to take the hit and sell them off for whatever money they could get. And so in 2010, two priceless Visigoth reliefs were sold in Britain as garden ornaments for maybe 50,000 pounds apiece.

Somebody with a keen eye saw the “garden ornaments” for sale and thought they was much more to them. He alerted the Art Detective, private investigator Arthur Brand who recovers looted cultural material and stars in a TV show in the Netherlands dedicated to his exploits. Brand traveled to England to follow up, only to find that his informant had just died. His wife only knew a man named “Tony” was connected to the stones. All she had was his first name and a description of him.

It took Brand years to track Tony down. When he finally did, the fellow was suffering from dementia. He did remember the reliefs. He had seen them being delivered to London on a truck by a French art dealer and recognized that they might be Visigothic. Eventually he was able to locate photographs of them.

Brand then tracked down the French dealer, who pointed them towards an unnamed British aristocratic family living north of London.

“It ended up in the garden of an English nobleman, who did not know that it was world heritage, where they would stay like 15 years,” he said.

The owners were so shocked when told the truth that “they wanted to throw the artworks into a river and let them disappear forever. Fortunately we managed to convinced them not to,” said Brand.

I hope that was facetious. Destroying cultural heritage out of shame for having bought it through no fault of your own seems … well, nuts. Anyway it’s all good now. The reliefs are on their way back to Burgos and scholars are thrilled at what might be learned from them.

The looted artworks could also be “essential” evidence in a debate raging among scholars about the exact age of the church, said Oxford University researcher David Addison.

Addison said some believed it was a 7th century building while others dated it to the 10th or 11th centuries.

Brand’s return of the artifacts “would be a great service in this regard,” Addison said.

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A tale of Visigothic treasure lost and found

January 21st, 2019

It was August 25th, 1858. The night before had been dark and stormy, but this one was moonlit and clear. Francisco Morales and María Pérez were traveling on the road to Guadamar with their daughter Escolástica and a donkey when they reached the Guarrazar spring six miles outside Toledo. While answering the call of nature, Escolástica spied under the white glimmer of the moonlight a square hole barely covered with two flat stones. In the gap between them something shone gone. That something turned out to be a priceless treasure of gold crosses, goblets and other objects festooned with precious stones, pearls and glass. Francisco, María and Escolástica dug up everything they could find, rinsed the artifacts in the spring and quickly made off with their ill-gotten gains.

They didn’t know it, but they weren’t alone that night. Domingo de la Cruz, a gardener who owned an orchard near Guarrazar spring, had observed them digging up buried treasure. The next night, he went back to the site and did some of his own digging, finding a second, smaller collection of treasure. He too made off with it. Nobody told the authorities.

It was a hideous free-for-all. Within days unusual gold begemmed pieces began cropping up in the shops of Toledo’s famed gold and silversmiths. Many of them were broken up, melted down and reused making them untraceable. It’s said that one smith was so torn over what to do with a unique gold dove that he threw it in the Tagus. Gemstone trader José Navarro took a different approach. He had a yen for archaeology, so he bought numerous fragments and painstakingly pieced them back together, reconstructing the votive crowns commissioned by Visigothic royalty as donations to the Church, royals that can be identified with precision because pendant letters spell out the name of the exalted donors. Navarro did all this work under strictest secrecy. In 1859, his work as complete as he could get it, Navarro sold the crowns, pendants and assorted pieces to to Edmond Du Sommerard, director of the Musée National du Moyen Âge in Cluny, France.

That’s when the news of this exceptional discovery finally broke wide. Cluny published their acquisition in the scientific press and Spain was horrified to discover that incalculably precious cultural patrimony had been found only after it was lost. The Spanish government repeatedly demanded that France return the treasure, but was blown off by Napoleon III and subsequent governments.

José Amador de los Ríos, art historian, archaeologist and a pioneer in recognizing the literary and artistic wealth of Medieval Spain, was enlisted to excavate and document the find site in 1859 after the treasure had made headlines. He found a few loose pearls and gemstones that had fallen off the jewels, graves, some architectural remains and lots of evidence that the site had been thoroughly picked over by local looters who had heard about the treasure through the gossip mill.

It was Ríos who recognized that while the form of the votive crown and the decoration were of Byzantine design, the pieces were manufactured locally. The conventional wisdom among European historians at that time was that Spain was a penurious backwater in the early Middle Ages and that the splendors of the Visigoths which had so astounded the Umayyad conquerors who took Toledo in 712 A.D. had to have been Germanic in origin.

In 1861, a very nervous Domingos de la Cruz went to the Royal Estate of Aranjuez where Queen Isabel II was staying and offered her majesty what was left of the treasure he’d discovered. Much hemming and hawing and hypothetical “if somebody happened to have purloined gold Visigothic treasure a few years back and wanted to hand it in, would he get thrown in the dungeon or paid off?” kind of talk ensued. Queen Isabel agreed to accept the remaining treasure — including the votive crown of King Suintila (r. 621-631) — and give Domingos de la Cruz a fabulous pension of 4,000 reals a year in return. The Suintila crown was stolen in 1921 and has never been found.

Cluny kept Guarrazar’s Visigothic treasure for 80 years until Heinrich Himmler stepped into the picture. In 1941, with France under Nazi occupation, Himmler returned most of the treasure to fellow fascist General Francisco Franco. Six votive crowns, a goblet and crosses are now in the National Archeological Museum in Madrid while the Cluny Museum still holds three of the crowns and a few smaller objects. The Royal Palace in Madrid has one crown left.

With all the loss that has bedeviled Spain’s greatest Visigoth treasure since it was discovered, proper scientific study was long in coming. The first comprehensive study took place in 1995 and revealed that the gemstones traveled great distances. The cabochon sapphires are from Sri Lanka. The emeralds are from the Austrian Tyrol.

The question of why they had been buried in the first place was still open, however. Historians speculated that the priceless religious artifacts had been secreted in consecrated graves to keep them safe from the invasion force of Táriq Ibn Ziyad. Spanish archaeologist Juan Manuel Rojas found this explanation wanting.

With the help of the Guadamur City Hall, Rojas embarked on an investigation that led to the establishment of an archeological site that the public can now visit.

During recent years, the walls of a building more than 30 meters long have been unearthed as well as a basilica, the remains of what appears to have been a palace, a Visigoth graveyard and even a guest house for pilgrims. Rojas’ research has led to the revelation that the place where the treasure was hidden was not a field at all but a religious complex not unlike the one at Lourdes, France, with its own healing water that sprung from the well where Morales cleaned the jewels. So, far from being buried in an ignominious field, the royal treasure had been hidden in a prestigious site whose own ceilings were decked with votive crowns.

When its occupants found out about the unstoppable advance of the Muslim and Berber forces, they sought somewhere to hide the jewels and decided on the graveyard. Raising two tombstones, they removed the bodies, buried the treasure, covered it with cloths and sand and put the corpses back on top. When Escolástica went to relieve herself at the spot more than 1,000 years later, she ducked behind what had once been the wall around the cemetery.

You can see the crown of King Reccesvinth (649-672) in a 3D scan here, another votive crown here and a third here. I regret to inform you that the 360 degree views of the crowns requires Flash to run, but the resolution is great and there are a paucity of good images of the treasure out there, so it’s worth the annoyance to check them out.

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Giant buffalo skull found in Fens quarry

January 20th, 2019

Palaeontologist Jamie Jordan has discovered a rare complete skull of an extinct species of giant buffalo in a Cambridgeshire quarry. Jordan has been excavating the quarry for years and discovered hundreds of bones from the steppe bison (bison priscus), including sections of skull, but this is the first complete skull he’s unearthed.

The bison priscus ranged widely over Europe, Asia and North America 150,000 to around 10,000 years ago. An adult male could reach as high as six-and-a-half feet at the withers and weigh 2,000 pounds, which made them popular subjects by early modern human artists. The cave paintings at Altamira in Spain and Lascaux in France feature steppe bison. We don’t have to rely on contemporary depictions or reconstructions from skeletal remains, because steppe bison mummies have been recovered in exceptional condition from the permafrost, two in Alaska and one in Siberia. Blue Babe, the first one discovered in Alaska which was an international sensation, is on permanent display at the University of Alaska Museum in Fairbanks.

Jamie and his team first discovered some splintered pieces of bone at the site, which cannot be named due to safety reasons, before they uncovered the entire fossil. The skull is currently in several pieces but Jamie said once the skull has been cleaned and dried it will fit together again perfectly.

He added: “We have got all the pieces of the skull. The skull is wider than my chest and will weigh around 30kg-35kg when it is complete.”

The conservation and reconstruction of the skull is expected to take around two months to complete. The process will be done in public view at Fossils Galore in March, the non-profit private museum and educational center Jordan created to house the millions of fossils he has collected since he found his first one on a family vacation when he was four years old. Once the bison skull is complete, it will go on display at the museum.

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The oldest clove in the world

January 19th, 2019

An excavation at the ancient port of Mantai in Sri Lanka has unearthed what is likely to be the oldest clove in the world.

Located on the northwest coast of Sri Lanka, Mantai was a pivotal hub of trade between the Arabian Sea, the Bay of Bengal, the east and west coasts of India and the interior of Sri Lanka from the time it was founded around 200 B.C. Merchant ships stopped at the port in the middle of the Indian Ocean laden with goods from the East (China, southeast Asia islands and mainland) and West (Europe, Africa, Middle East), part of a complex network of trade routes that linked the ancient world for the duration of Sri Lanka’s Anuradhapura Kingdom and beyond, from the middle of the 1st millennium B.C. through the 13th century.

Archaeological exploration of Mantai was still in its infancy when it was brusquely interrupted by civil war in 1983. In the three seasons of excavations, archaeologists had unearthed a rich assortment of ceramics and semi-precious stone beads from India, Arabia, the Mediterranean and China. Much of the context of those finds was lost or damaged during the war, as were the records detailing the stratigraphy of the site.

Excavations resumed in 2009-2010. With so much ground to cover and not much time to cover it, the team of archaeologists from the Sri Lankan Department of Archaeology, the European Research Council-funded Sealinks Project and the University College London Institute of Archaeology focused on an in-depth investigation of the material in a single very deep trench south of the central occupation mound. The trench was 10 x 10 feet wide and a whopping 33 feet deep, reaching middle Holocene layers. The goal was to recover a multitude of small finds from ceramics to organic remains to fossilized particles of plant tissue that would allow the team to establish a series of precise radiocarbon dates to serve as a much-needed baseline for future excavations.

Among the organic remains recovered from the deep trench are spices that were some of the most valuable trade goods that moved across the East-West routes through Sri Lanka, notably cloves and black peppercorns.

Only a handful of cloves have previously been recovered from archaeological sites, including these from France, for example – other archaeological evidence for cloves, such as pollen from cess pits in the Netherlands, only dates from 1500AD onwards – and there are no examples from South Asia.

Earlier finds of clove have been reported from Syria – but these have since largely been discredited as misidentifications. The clove from Mantai was found in a context dating to 900-1100AD, making this not only the oldest clove in Asia – but we think the oldest in the world.

We also found eight grains of black pepper at Mantai, plus a further nine badly preserved grains that we think are probably black pepper too. The earliest are dated to around 600AD, the time when international maritime trade became increasingly large and well established across Asia, Africa and Europe.

Cloves are not native to Sri Lanka. They were grown in the Maluku Islands, more than 4000 miles east of Sri Lanka by sea, and traded to Europe where they were highly prized from Roman times onward. They were used as spices to enhance the flavor of food and drink, but also widely used for medicinal purposes and personal hygiene, like to combat the heartbreak of halitosis. Black pepper was less rare and less distant, but still so desirable that it was known as “black gold” at the apex of the maritime spice trade from the 16th century through the 19th. The peppercorns found at Mantai probably came from the Western Ghats of India.

From the 16th century, Sri Lanka (then known as Ceylon) was colonised by various European powers, from the Portuguese (1500s-1600s) to the Dutch (1600s-late 1700s) to the British (late 1700s-1948). They were all drawn by the island’s profitable trade in spices – although the British turned the fledgling coffee industry there into an incredibly lucrative tea trade which is still important to the island’s economy to this day.

But, whether or not the cloves we unearthed at Mantai turn out to be the oldest in existence, the presence of the spice at this 2,000-year-old site is solid evidence of the ancient spice trade that existed long before these wars of conquest.

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World’s oldest classroom periodic table found at St. Andrews

January 18th, 2019


A classroom periodic table of the elements found at the University of St Andrews in Scotland is the oldest known in the world. It was discovered in 2014 by Dr. Alan Aitken in the storage area of the School of Chemistry. He was cleaning out the clutter of chemicals and equipment that had built up since 1968 when he came across a roll of old teaching charts. Among them was a chart of the period table that was so old the paper flaked to the touch.

Siberian chemist Dmitri Mendeleev first arranged the known elements by their atomic mass after seeing them all fall into place in a dream. He was writing a textbook for the chemistry course he was teaching, and realized elements with similar properties also had similar atomic weights, or weights that increased at a regular rate. He presented his chart and the periodicity of the elements to the Russian Chemical Society in 1869. Other scientists had independently realized that the elements could be organized in periods and created tables in the 1860s, but Mendeleev’s was the simplest and made predictions that would be confirmed accurate with the discovery of more elements.

In 1871, he released a second table correcting a few errors in the first. The chart found at St. Andrews is similar to the 1871 version, but printed some years later.

The table is annotated in German, and an inscription at the bottom left – ‘Verlag v. Lenoir & Forster, Wien’­ – identifies a scientific printer who operated in Vienna between 1875 and 1888. Another inscription – ‘Lith. von Ant. Hartinger & Sohn, Wien’ – identifies the chart’s lithographer, who died in 1890. Working with the University’s Special Collections team, the University sought advice from a series of international experts. Following further investigations, no earlier lecture chart of the table appears to exist. Professor Eric Scerri, an expert on the history of the periodic table based at the University of California, Los Angeles, dated the table to between 1879 and 1886 based on the represented elements. For example, both gallium and scandium, discovered in 1875 and 1879 respectively, are present, while germanium, discovered in 1886, is not. […]

A researcher at the University, M Pilar Gil from Special Collections, found an entry in the financial transaction records in the St Andrews archives recording the purchase of an 1885 table by Thomas Purdie from the German catalogue of C Gerhardt (Bonn) for the sum of 3 Marks in October 1888. This was paid from the Class Account and included in the Chemistry Class Expenses for the session 1888-1889. This entry and evidence of purchase by mail order appears to define the provenance of the St Andrews periodic table. It was produced in Vienna in 1885 and was purchased by Purdie in 1888. Purdie was professor of Chemistry from 1884 until his retirement in 1909. This in itself is not so remarkable, a new professor setting up in a new position would want the latest research and teaching materials. Purdie’s appointment was a step-change in experimental research at St Andrews. The previous incumbents had been mineralogists, whereas Purdie had been influenced by the substantial growth that was taking place in organic chemistry at that time. What is remarkable however is that this table appears to be the only surviving one from this period across Europe. The University is keen to know if there are others out there that are close in age or even predate the St Andrews table.

The years spent rolled up in a chem lab closet have not been kind to this possibly unique artifact of science history. The paper was mounted on a heavy linen backing which exacerbated its fragile condition and an immediate intervention was necessary to conserve it. Experts from the University’s Special Collections secured a grant to treat the chart. Working with private conservator Richard Hawkes, Special Collections conservators cleaned it, separated it from the linen backing, washed it in a neutral solution to remove discoloration, de-acified the paper in an alkaline bath, and repaired areas of loss with Japanese kozo (mulberry bush) paper and wheat starch paste.

The periodic table is now stable and being maintained in climate-controlled conditions in Special Collections’ stores. It is too delicate a piece to go on public display. Thankfully the grant money also made possible the creation of a full-size replica. The facsimile is on display in the School of Chemistry.

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Mummy identified as Ptolemy II’s doctor

January 17th, 2019

After more than two years of study, researchers at the National Archaeological Museum of Spain have discovered the identity of a mummy that has been part of the museum collection since the twenties: Nespamedu, a priest and doctor to Pharaoh Ptolemy II or Ptolemy III.

It is not known where the mummy was unearthed. It was donated to the museum in 1925 from the family of Ignacio Bauer. Bauer had acquired it from the Museum of Cairo at an undetermined time. Current research suggests Nespamedu was buried in the ancient necropolis of Saqqara where elite nobles were still being interred in the Ptolemaic era. In order to find out more about the person inside the bandages, the mummy was transported to Madrid’s Quirónsalud University Hospital in 2016 where it was given extensive computed tomography scans.

The remains date to around 300-200 A.D. and the individual was around 50 years old when he died. His body was carefully mummified and coated in a thick layer of resin to preserve it. It was then wrapped in many feet of linen strips, thinner around the head, thicker in the abdomen, lower back and legs to fill in and even out the body. Resins and oils were applied to the first layer of linen, and numerous amulets nestled in key positions before the body was wrapped in a second layer of linen and then a full-body shroud.

Mummification complete, Nespamedu’s body was covered in expensive gilded cartonnage — linen coated in plaster — which has survived in excellent condition. There are five sections of it, a funerary mask, a collar, a breastplate, a single cover for both legs, and feet covers. The first and last of these entirely encase the head and feet. The cartonnage sections are decorated with paint on the surface and reliefs and appliques of religious iconography and inscriptions were embedded in the plaster.

The inscription on the breastplate names the mummy as Nespamedu, meaning “He who belongs to the scepter,” son of Pasenet his father and the lady of the house Tahutnetcher his mother. Nespamedu’s titles are “Server of Imhotep the Great, son of Ptah,” and “Pharaoh’s doctor.” The former title refers to him having been a priest at the temple of Imhotep. The historical Imhotep was chancellor to Pharaoh Djoser and the builder of the step pyramid, but over the centuries he was deified and associated with Thoth, god of architects and scribes. He was still worshiped under the rule of the Ptolemies, only with a twist: the Greeks associated him with Asklepios, god of medicine.

There were at least three temples dedicated to Imhotep/Asklepios in Egypt, one in Memphis, one in Philae and one in Thebes. The temples were sanitariums, containing pools of sacred water in which the sick would be submerged as they awaited a divine cure. The pharaoh’s doctor was at the top of the temple hierarchy. He was in charge of establishing the standards of education and religious practices. So Nespamedu was not just a priest at the sanctuary of Imhotep/Asklepios, he was the high priest and leader thanks to his second exalted title.

While there is no conclusive evidence of a medical specialty, based on the amulets inserted between the linen layers and clearly seen on the CT scans, researchers think Nespamedu may have been an ancient Egyptian version of an ophthalmologist.

[I]t is the charms and plaques stored within his bandages that are the most revealing. Two groups of eight plaques have shown up on different parts of the mummy in which the four sons of the deity Horus are represented. Another two plaques feature the goddesses Isis and Nephthys, while representations of the mummification of the corpse together with the god Anubis were found at the top of Nespamedu’s legs.

There are also two plaques featuring the god Thoth and the Eye of Horus, symbolizing magic, protection and purification together with a solar symbol that stands for cosmic stability. Thoth is the god of ophthalmologists, as it was he who put Horus’ eye back after he lost it in his battle with Set.

This has led specialists to conclude that Nespamedu chose this god on account of his own profession. “There is nothing casual about the iconography and it is clear that he wanted to register his beliefs and the responsibilities that had elevated him to the upper echelons of society,” states a report published in the last National Archeology Museum’s bulletin. “The fact that he was the pharaoh’s doctor makes us think that part of his life was lived in Alexandria, where Ptolemy had his court.”

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Blue tartar identifies medieval woman illuminator

January 16th, 2019

A team of researchers led by the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History and the University of York have discovered lapis lazuli embedded in the dental tartar of a medieval woman. The presence of this extremely expensive pigment in her teeth indicates that the woman was a manuscript illustrator of the highest caliber.

She was buried around 1100 A.D. in the cemetery of a small monastery in Dalheim, western Germany. The woman’s monastery is in ruins today with only a few architectural remains still surviving. The date of its founding is unknown (it might have been as early as the 10th century) with the earliest written records dating to 1244. It was destroyed by fire in the 14th century, but until then it was home to a small community of just over a dozen religious women.

The skeletal remains of the woman were analyzed as part of a project to study dental calculus that forms on the teeth during life and calcifies. Stable isotope analysis of hardened plaque specimens can identify what people ate. Or ingested, as must have been the case of the woman with blue pigment particles embedded in her plaque.

She was between 45 and 60 years old at the time of her death. There is no sign of an explicit cause of death on her skeleton — no evidence of illness, injury, infection or repetitive motion or stress. Only one unusual feature stood out: the blue stain on her teeth. Spectographic analysis revealed that the blue came from lapis lazuli.

“We examined many scenarios for how this mineral could have become embedded in the calculus on this woman’s teeth,” explains [University of York researcher Anita] Radini. “Based on the distribution of the pigment in her mouth, we concluded that the most likely scenario was that she was herself painting with the pigment and licking the end of the brush while painting,” states co-first author Monica Tromp of the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History.

The use of ultramarine pigment made from lapis lazuli was reserved, along with gold and silver, for the most luxurious manuscripts. “Only scribes and painters of exceptional skill would have been entrusted with its use,” says Alison Beach of Ohio State University, a historian on the project.

The unexpected discovery of such a valuable pigment so early and in the mouth of an 11th century woman in rural Germany is unprecedented. While Germany is known to have been an active center of book production during this period, identifying the contributions of women has been particularly difficult. As a sign of humility, many medieval scribes and painters did not sign their work, a practice that especially applied to women. The low visibility of women’s labor in manuscript production has led many modern scholars to assume that women played little part in it.

The findings of this study not only challenge long-held beliefs in the field, they also uncover an individual life history. The woman’s remains were originally a relatively unremarkable find from a relatively unremarkable place, or so it seemed. But by using these techniques, the researchers were able to uncover a truly remarkable life history. […]

“Here we have direct evidence of a woman, not just painting, but painting with a very rare and expensive pigment, and at a very out-of-the way place,” explains Christina Warinner of the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History, senior author on the paper. “This woman’s story could have remained hidden forever without the use of these techniques. It makes me wonder how many other artists we might find in medieval cemeteries – if we only look.”

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When a cabinet and an automaton love each other very much…

January 15th, 2019

Automata are awesome. Elaborately inlaid cabinets with a million compartments are awesome. When the two come together, the results is a technicolor explosion of awesome.

We have the genius of German cabinet-makers Abraham Roentgen and his son David to thank for this mindboggling combination. In the late 18th century, the Roentgen workshop produced the most expensive, elaborate and highly-prized pieces of furniture in Europe. They were the cabinets of kings, literally. One Roentgen secretary could easily run you the cost of large estate.

The Berlin Secretary Cabinet was their greatest masterpiece and is believed to have been the most expensive piece of furniture made in 18th century Europe. It is huge for a writing desk, topped with a chiming clock and festooned with marquetry panels, secret doors, drawers, counterweight systems and mechanisms that give it life-like complexity. It wasn’t commissioned. The Roentgen’s made it on speculation for King Frederick William II of Prussia. Not being insane, he snapped it up and it was delivered to his court in 1779.

This cabinet is part of the permanent collect of the Kunstgewerbemuseum, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin. In 2012 it moved for the first time since 1779 when it was loaned to the Metropolitan Museum of Art for an exhibition dedicated to the Roentgens’ furniture. The Met put together this video to show off this marvel of carpentry and mechanics.

Funfact of history: one of Ambraham and David’s descendants, physicist Wilhelm Röntgen, invented the X-ray machine.

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Ancient boundary war in 3 cuneiform pieces

January 14th, 2019

A prehistoric axe hoard, a Renaissance teratoma, a long-lost giant dirk, and now Dr. Irving Finkel in full self-deprecating-cuneiform-genius charm mode? I think this week’s news is making up nicely for my having been sidelined by injury.

There’s a new display on right now at the British Museum dedicated to the world’s oldest recorded example of a protracted boundary dispute. As with most “oldest recorded examples” of historical events, business transactions and shopping lists, this was written in cuneiform script more than 4,000 years ago. Three artifacts tell the tale of a border conflict in Mesopotamia, now southern Iraq, featuring the neighboring city states of Lagash and Umma. Both of them claimed a strip called “Edge of the Plain,” and both of them of course claimed the gods were on their side in the conflict.

The earliest artifact to give specifics on this fight is the Lagash Border Pillar, a white stone pillar inscribed by order of King Enmetena of Lagash in 2400 B.C. to mark the boundary line of his territorial claim. When it was installed in the desert, the stone would have reflected the light in brilliant white, catching the eye of any passersby. It is believed to be the earliest written description of a border dispute and is also the first recorded use of the term “no man’s land.”

The pillar has been in the collection of the British Museum for 150 years, but in all that time the inscription has never been fully deciphered. It was dusted off just for the new show and Dr. Irving Finkel, incomparable cuneiform scholar, gamesman and raccounteur, deciphered the text. It is a full account of the border war between Lagash and Umma. The carver used the script to prop of his side and put down the enemy’s by using cuneiform symbol for “god” in the name of Lagash’s protector deity, Ningirsu, while the name of Umma’s god is written in such sloppy script it’s barely legible. That is shade, cuneiform-style.

“You have in one breath the use of writing in a magical way to enhance the power of one deity and then nullify the power of the other. This is unique in cuneiform. It’s the most exciting thing you can imagine,” Finkel tells Pickford at The Financial Times.

Finkel believes the pillar was artificially aged by a scribe to improve Lagash’s historical claim to Gu’edina. It appears the scribe also used an archaic form of cuneiform to make the pillar seem older, which made the modern interpretation effort difficult.

The Ur Plaque, also on display, is slightly older (ca. 2500 B.C.) but it’s not as direct a reference. It shows sacrificial offerings made at border shrines under the keen supervision of the Moon God, the type of rituals Lagash and Umma performed to enlist their deities’ support in boundary conflicts.

The third object in the trifecta is the Umma Mace-Head made for King Gishakidu of Umma, Enmetena’s counterpart and nemesis.

In a bit of serendipity, the curators realised during research for the show that an object they had long assumed was a vase had actually been displayed upside down. They now understand that it is actually the head of a fired-clay mace, or heavy club, made for King Gishakidu of Umma. After comparing the object with a similar one at Yale University, “we realised how daft we’d been”, says Irving Finkel, a co-curator of the show. Now displayed right-side up, the mace head is topped by a painted representation of a net that was used to immobilise enemies for execution.

No Man’s Land is sponsored by the Asahi Shimbun and access to the display is free. It runs through Sunday, February 3rd, but if you’re in London, haul ass to the British Museum for your lunch break because Irving Finkel will be doing a gallery talk introducing the display at 1:15. No need to book a reservation. Just drop in and one of the world’s foremost experts in cuneiform will give you a little tour of a pillar, plaque and non-vase, no big deal.

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Giant Bronze Age dirk emerges from private penumbra

January 13th, 2019

One of my all-time favorite finds is the ceremonial dirk 27 inches long discovered in a field in East Rudham, Norfolk, and used as a doorstop for 13 years until it was identified as an incredible rare Bronze Age artifact and bought by the Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery in 2014. Seeing that dirk in person is high on my bucket list of nerd pilgrimages.

Called the Plougrescant-Ommerschans type after the locations where the first two were found, only five other examples of Middle Bronze Age oversize ceremonial dirks are known in the world. They have an abstract geometric decoration, dull edges and tips and no handles, which is how we know they were meant for ceremonial purposes. All of them are so similar in design and size they are believed to have been produced in the same workshop, very possibly by the same hand. When I was writing the story about the Norwich Castle Museum’s acquisition of the Rudham Dirk, I was able to include photographs of four of the five known examples, all of which are in museums.

The one exception was the Ommerschans Dirk (1500-1350 B.C.), the co-type find which was discovered in late 19th century in a field between Witharen and Ommerschans in Overijssel, east Netherlands. There were no photographs of it because it was found on the Junne estate, one of the largest private estates in the country, then owned by Eduard Lüps and he didn’t exactly broadcast the find far and wide. The details of the discovery are hazy. All we know is that sometime between 1894 and 1900, the Lüps’ forester found the dirk deposited on a birch platform together with a number of artifacts including a Sicilian bronze razor, two metal chisels, a stone chisel, a stone tablet and a whetstone. The forester nailed them all to a wooden board and that’s how they were kept for years.

The news of the discovery gradually spread and in 1927 Jan Hendrik Holwerda, archaeologist and director of the Rijksmuseum van Oudheden (the National Museum of Antiquities) in Leiden examined the dirk. Holwerda was deeply impressed by the artifact, which is saying a lot because he was dubious about the very existence of a Bronze Age. He attempted to buy the dirk and the other objects discovered with it, but Lüps’ price was so astronomical the museum couldn’t afford it. Holwerda had to be satisfied with a single picture and a cast of the dagger.

In the 1930s the Lüps family moved to Bavaria and took the dirk with them. To all intents and purposes, it disappeared. It wasn’t loaned or seen in public. In the 1970s, director of the Rijksmuseum van Oudheden Louwe Kooijmans, an expert in Netherlands prehistory, tried again to acquire the Ommerschans Dirk to no avail. In 2015, the museum’s prehistory curator Luc Amkreutz tried to get the dirk on loan for a great sword exhibition that would have brought all six of the Plougrescant-Ommerschans type blades together for the first time. The family refused. They were apparently concerned that the dirk would be confiscated by the government once in the Netherlands, on what grounds is unclear as the title was clean. The Netherlands’ Culture Minister Jet Bussemaker even wrote a letter assuring them that there was no danger the artifact would be confiscated, but at the last moment the family decided against the loan. The exhibition went on with the 1927 plaster cast in place of the real deal.

Then, at long last, a ray of light: the Lüps descendants were ready to sell the dirk to the museum. The museum made an offer based on the sale price of the Rudham Dirk (£40,970 in 2014) and the Jutphaas Dirk which they had acquired in 2005. They were never told their offer was too low or given a counter price. Instead the owners just put it up for auction at Christie’s London in July 2017 along with the surviving artifacts discovered with it.

That turned out to be a wise choice from a financial perspective at least, because it shattered the previous prices and blew through even Christie’s pre-sale estimate of £80,000-120,000 to sell for £485,000 ($623,000). It was the Rijksmuseum van Oudheden who made the winning bid, 90 years after it first tried to secure the dirk for the nation. It now owns two of the six, and the two that are in the best condition to boot.

The museum’s glorious long-fought win makes a tiny one possible for your faithful blogger. For four years plus it has niggled at me that I almost, ALMOST, got pictures of all of the Plougrescant-Ommerschans dirks except for one of the two in the name. That blemish on my record for photo acquisition is heretofore healed.

Ommerschans Dirk, Middle Bronze Age, ca. 1500-1350 B.C. Photo courtesy the Rijksmuseum van Oudheden.

The dirk is now on display in a special exhibition at the Kröller-Müller Museum in Otterlo. For the Love of Art brings together 80 extraordinary pieces of art and archaeology acquired by forty Dutch museums in the last ten years. The Ommerschans Dirk is the oldest object of the 80.

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