Bronze Age hair ring, ingots found in Anglesey

March 1st, 2015

Four Bronze Age artifacts discovered in Wales by a metal detectorist were declared treasure trove at a coroner’s inquest on Wednesday. A gold and silver ring and three fragments of copper ingots were found on farmland in Cwm Cadnant, on the North Wales island of Anglesey, by Philip Cooper in May and June of 2013. Although archaeologists believe the artifacts were buried together as a single hoard, over the centuries they’d been scattered by movements of the earth and farming activities so Cooper found them several meters apart.

The find was reported to Ian Jones, curatorial officer at the Oriel Ynys Môn, an art and history museum in Anglesey, and Roland Flook, curatorial archaeologist at the Gwynedd Archaeological Trust. The artifacts were then examined by archaeologists at the National Museum of Wales who determined that the ring is a piece of Bronze Age jewelry known as a hair ring and that the ingots were a shape know as cake form used as raw material in the making of tools and weapons, typically found buried in Late Bronze Age hoards. That puts the date of the hoard at 1000-800 B.C.

The hair ring is made of a bar of gold that was curved and then had silver strip wrapped around the surface horizontally to give it a handsome two-tone striped look. It’s a pennanular design — an incomplete ring — and the terminals are flat. One side of it is heavily worn from repeated use before it was buried. They are commonly found in England, Ireland and Wales, including Anglesey.

A more simple piece made of sheet gold rather than bar and without the silver stripes was discovered at Trearddur during an excavation in advance of construction conducted by the Gwynedd Archaeological Trust in October of 2007. Although these adornments are thought to have been worn in the hair, they could also have been worn as earrings with the curved gold bar being inserted into a pierced lobe. The image to the right is the Trearddur hair ring at twice life size, so you can see how it could fit in an ear although it would certainly require a largish hole.

Adam Gwilt, principal curator for prehistory at National Museum Wales, said: “This gold hair-ring is finely made and was once worn by a man or woman of some standing within their community.

“It could have been made of gold from Wales or Ireland. The copper ingot fragments are an important association with the ring.

“It would be interesting to know whether they were transported and exchanged over a long distance by sea, or perhaps smelted from local ores mined at Parys Mountain or The Great Orme.”

They may be able to determine the ingots’ geological origin through isotope analysis and by comparing the concentration of trace elements to known sources of Bronze Age copper ore.

Now that they have officially been declared treasure, the artifacts will be assessed for market by experts and local museums given the chance to acquire them by paying the finder and landowner a finder’s fee in the amount assessed.

Thanks to a £349,000 grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund, the National Museum Wales in conjunction with the Portable Antiquities Scheme in Wales (PAS Cymru) and The Federation of Museums and Art Galleries of Wales (The FED) has established the Saving Treasures, Telling Stories program which will fund the acquisition of artifacts by museums in Wales. The program just began in January of this year and will run through December of 2019.

Oriel Ynys Môn will draw on this fund to secure the hair ring and ingots for its collection where they will join the hair ring found at Trearddur in 2007 that was donated to the museum by the landowner.

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Historian finds rare postcard of 1909 shipwreck on eBay

February 28th, 2015

Janet DeVries, local historian and president of the Boynton Beach Historical Society in Palm Beach County, Florida, was browsing eBay on December 19th of last year when she came across a period postcard with a picture of a shipwreck well known to her. It was the wreck of the Norwegian barkentine Coquimbo which ran aground on a reef off Boynton Beach on January 31st, 1909. The postcard had been sent and was postmarked Boynton, August 9th, 1909. The message on the back read:

Boynton Fl. 8/8/09 – Dear Roger. It has ben (sic) a long time since I have heard from you so I wanto (sic) know if you are still living. I have ben (sic) all over hell since I last wrote you but I am home now carpentering. clyde

DeVries clicked the “buy it now” button and acquired the postcard for $10, a bargain considering what a rare testament to the town’s early history it is.

The Coquimbo, an iron-hulled sailing ship with two square-rigged masts forward and schooner rigged mast aft, was carrying a hull full of pine lumber from Gulfport, Mississippi, to Buenos Aires, Argentina, when she hit the reef. The ship’s foghorns awakened guests at the oceanfront Boynton Hotel who hastened to the waterside to see what the commotion was about. The Coquimbo was perched on a sandbar, not sinking, but there were 15 crew members stranded on board, all Scandinavian, including Captain I. Clausen. Locals crossed the canal on a skiff and built a breeches buoy to rescue all 15 men.

The crew couldn’t afford to stay in the hotel so for the next two months they used the ship’s sails to make tents and camped out on the beach while they waited for the steam tugboat that would attempt to dislodge the ship. The tugboat spent days trying to budge the Coquimbo but it wouldn’t move an inch. It was destined to stay where it stood until the ocean waves tore the hull apart.

In 1909 southern Florida was still pioneer country, sparsely populated with limited supplies. The town of Boynton was only 11 years old at the time with a population of less than 700 souls. A ship full of long-leaf pine lumber with beams as long as thirty feet was a figurative gold mine for the settlers. Residents collected the wood that had washed up on the beach, stacking it in piles that reached as high as fifty feet. The lumber, along with the ship’s rigging, tackle, stores and provisions would be sold at auction (scroll down to see the notice) on March 30th, 1909, but the U.S. Marshall who oversaw the sale allowed the Boynton residents to mark the piles they had made and buy them for bargain prices at the auction.

There aren’t many extant photographs of the Coquimbo. DeVries has been actively searching for pictures of the wreck for the past 20 years and this is only the fourth she’s ever found. That it also comes with a reference to the building boom that resulted from the harvesting of the Coquimbo‘s cargo makes it an even rarer historical gem. To flesh out the story behind the postcard, DeVries tried to identify the “Clyde” who had mailed it. From her decades of historical research into the area, she knew that there were only two Clydes in Boynton Beach at that time. One of them was a carpenter who had helped build the hotel, so she thought he was the likely candidate. The dates didn’t pan out, however, so she turned to the second Clyde.

C.O. Miller is best known for creating Boynton’s most enduring and splendid roadside attraction, Rainbow Tropical Gardens. In addition, the master gardener designed the exquisite gardens of the famed Addison Mizner designed Cloister Inn.

Born Clyde O’Brien Miller in 1885, near Logansport, Indiana, Miller worked as a brakeman for the Pennsylvania Railroad before settling in Boynton in 1909.

By following census records, news accounts and government documents, it seems Miller did indeed move about or travel often (as described in his 1909 postcard).

The recipient of the postcard was one Roger C. Middlekauff of Jacksonville, Florida. There’s no further information about him at this time. Keep an eye on the Boynton Beach Historical Society blog for more about Clyde Miller.

The postcard will be added to the documentation of the wreck that DeVries has been compiling for years in order to have the site recognized by the state. What’s left of the Coquimbo was discovered in January of 2013 by free-diver Steve Dennison.

His heart pounded when he saw it: The huge bow of a ghostly ship jutting from the sand as if rising from its watery grave.

The hull that had looked black from the surface was reddish-brown close up, covered with marine organisms. He went down and grabbed the bow, and felt the cold metal underneath the barnacles.

He then saw a metal mast, then another mast, and about 200 feet from the bow he could see the stern and the steering mechanism. The hull was still buried underneath the sand.

It had been exposed by the storm surge of Hurricane Sandy. You can see a slideshow of the wreck here and I’m embedding video of it below. The ship was only visible for a brief three months. When Dennison returned in April it was completely covered in sand again.

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Roman tombstone of “Bodica” found in Cirencester

February 27th, 2015

The excavation of the site of the former Bridges Garage in Cirencester has unearthed a wealth of Roman funerary material from 75 graves, including pottery, jewelry and an extremely great chicken. Now Cotswold Archaeology (CA) has made another rare find: a tombstone with an inscription naming the deceased that may be covering her grave. Roman gravestones are rare — less than 300 inscribed ones have been found in the UK, 10 in Cirencester — but this one is in very fine condition, with the pediment atop the stone unbroken and the inscription is still sharp and complete.

The inscription is five lines long and reads: “DM BODICACIA CONIUNX VIXIT ANNO S XXVII.” DM is an abbreviation for Dis Manibus, literally “to the spirits of the dead,” a frequently used dedication on tombstones, so the full inscription translates to “To the spirits of the dead, Bodica, wife, lived 27 years.” It only fills the top half of the stone and there are horizontal lines on the bottom half that suggest it would be filled in with another inscription at a later date, perhaps when the husband died, but then it never happened. The tomstone is made out of Cotswold limestone and is elaborately decorated and impeccably carved. Bodica’s husband must have been quite well off to be able to afford such an expensive piece.

The Cotswold Archaeology team has been digging since January as a precursor to the construction of an addition to the St James Place Wealth Management structure that was built on the Bridges Garage site. They’ve discovered a total of 55 graves and were almost finished with the excavation when they found the tombstone.

“The problem we had was how to lift the stone without damaging the burial underneath. We could already see the skull and the rest of the body were covered by only a thin layer of soil,” [said Cliff Bateman, the Project Manager.]

“We decided to dig a hole next to the grave and then gently roll the stone over onto a pallet set within the hole. This could then be lifted out by a crane and transported to a secure store.”

Cotswold Archaeology has a short timelapse video of the lifting of the headstone here, and since the BBC filmed the event and broadcast it live, its article has two videos, one of the lifting of the stone, and one interview with CA archaeologist Neil Holbrook after the stone was turned over to reveal the inscription.

What makes this discovery all the more remarkable is that the tombstone survived at all. First it remained intact and virtually undamaged when it fell on top of the grave. Then it had to survive the stone foragers who looted graves and buildings to use as masonry for new construction. Archaeologists think that the headstone fell over relatively soon after it was installed and then was covered by soil so later looters missed it.

Then it had to outwit modern development. Before the Bridges Garage was built in the 1960s, the site was excavated by archaeologist Richard Reece who found 52 burials and an engraved headstone (not connected to any human remains). Then a building was constructed and an area large and deep enough to accommodate two huge underground fuel tanks was dug up, so archaeologists didn’t expect to find much of anything intact when they surveyed the site in 2011 before new construction. Instead they found an extensive burial ground with intact artifacts and human remains. The tombstone and the fragile human remains just under it came within inches of destruction.

CA’s Chief Executive Neil Holbrook said it was amazing the tombstone had survived “When they built the garage in the 1960s they scraped across the top of the stone to put a beam in. If they’d gone a couple of inches lower they’d have smashed it to smithereens.”

The stone dates to 100-200 A.D. It was found on top of adult human remains and next to the remains of three very young children. This could very well be Bodica and her children buried in a family grave. If it does prove to be Bodica’s grave, it will be the only of its kind ever found in Britain. Roman gravestones aren’t often found with associated remains; finding one with a name engraved on it which identifies the remains is the kind of thing you find in exceptional preservation conditions like Pompeii.

Experts will study the tombstone and remains in depth, a process that could take two or so years, in the hopes of answering some of these questions. After that, the stone will be given a permanent home in a museum. The Corinium Museum has been the fortunate recipient of other treasures unearthed at the Bridges Garage excavations — the cockerel is on display there now — so they’re hoping they’ll get Bodica’s headstone as well.

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World’s only woolly rhino calf found in Siberia

February 26th, 2015

Two hunters have discovered the exceptionally well preserved remains of a baby woolly rhinoceros in the Abyysky district of Siberia’s Sakha Republic. The Siberian permafrost is a rich source of pre-historic skeletal and fossil finds, but on rare occasions the deep freeze is found to have preserved the carcasses of fallen Pleistocene animals in such good condition that even soft tissues survive. While bison and mammoths have been found before (female mammoth, two baby mammoths, juvenile mammoth), this is only the second time a woolly rhinoceros has been found frozen rather than mummified or skeletonized, and it’s the first woolly rhinoceros calf that has ever been found in any condition beyond than the occasional bone.

The little fella was first spotted by hunters Alexander “Sasha” Banderov and Simeon Ivanov (the Siberian Times made a rather unfortunate error in translating Ivanov’s first name) when they were sailing on a stream flowing into the Semyulyakh River last summer. They saw some hair hanging from the top of a ravine on the right bank. At first they thought it was the remains of a reindeer, but they couldn’t confirm or deny because the carcass was far out of their reach. When they returned to the spot in September, the ice had thawed and the section of frozen earth containing the remains had thawed enough to break off and fall onto the river bank. Although a section of the carcass sticking out of the ice had been devoured by wild animals (there are visible teeth marks), the head was intact and its two horns immediately identified it as a rhinoceros.

Banderov and Ivanov retrieved the rhino and carried it home to their village where they placed it in a glacier to keep it frozen. Knowing that scientists would want to examine this remarkable find, they contacted Albert Protopopov, head of the Mammoth Fauna Department of the Academy of Sciences of the Republic of Sakha, Yakutia. It took almost six months to get the carcass 1,800 miles away to Yakutia due to the challenges inherent in transporting anything across vast distances in the Siberian winter.

On February 25th, the Academy held a press conference announcing the discovery, its arrival in Yakutia and its name: Sasha, after one of the hunters who found it. Protopopov emphasized what a unique opportunity they have to study a baby woolly rhinoceros. Before now they hadn’t even had the chance to examine a single tooth from a woolly rhino calf, never mind a complete skull and head with a surviving ear, eye, nostrils and mouth. There is also copious surviving wool and two legs with intact hooves. (The parts in the middle were eaten.)

Although it will take several months to get dating results, Sasha has to be at least 10,000 years old because that’s when the woolly rhinoceros became extinct. Scientists estimate the calf was about 18 months old at the time of death which was probably as a result of falling into a pit.

Mr. Protopopov explained: “Even to find a skull of a baby rhino is very lucky indeed. The possible explanation to it is that rhinos bred very slowly. Mothers protected baby rhinos really well, so that cases of successful attacks on them were extremely rare and the mortality rate was very low. Woolly rhinos are less studied than mammoths. We are hoping Sasha the rhino will give us a lot of answers to questions of how they grew and developed, what conditions they lived in, and which of the modern day animals is the closest to them.”

The team will focus first on extracting DNA from the carcass. Because the hunters were so brilliantly conscientious about keeping Sasha frozen, the odds of the scientists being able to extract testable DNA are better than usual. They hope they’ll be able to report on the first test results in a couple of weeks.

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Possible joust casualty found at Hereford Cathedral

February 25th, 2015

In 2009, Hereford Cathedral began an extensive restoration of the cathedral close. As part of the project, the area around the cathedral including a graveyard was excavated. More than 700 skeletons dating from the Norman Conquest through the 19th century were unearthed between September of 2009 and May 2011, their bones providing a treasure trove of information about the lives and deaths of people from all walks of life over the course of nearly 1,000 years.

One of the skeletons may be a unique discovery: the remains of a man with wounds that strongly suggest he was fatally wounded in a joust. If that is indeed the case, this skeleton is the first of its kind that we know of ever unearthed in the United Kingdom. He was found buried in the churchyard very near the east end of the Cathedral, prime spiritual real estate due to its proximity to the high altar.

The skeleton is of a well-built adult man 5’10″ tall which puts him in the top 5% of men of his era in terms of height. He was at least 45 years old when he died sometime in the late 12th, early 13th century. Stable isotope analysis of his teeth found he was raised in Normandy. He was buried in a grave partially lined with stones, a sort of half-cist burial.

His medical history is writ large on his bones. He had a badly fractured right shoulder blade which had fully healed by the time of his death and a serious break in the lower left leg that had also healed. It’s a twisting fracture, possibly the consequence of a blow to the right side of the body (maybe that shoulder hit?) while on horseback. The twisting may have happened when, in reaction to that blow, the body spun around violently while the left foot remained caught in the stirrup.

Recovery from such serious breaks doubtless took a long time. It suggests that he fought in tourneys for years before his eventual death. There is no fatal blow that osteologists could find, but there are injuries potentially connected to one. He sustained at least nine rib fractures on two different occasions. The second occasion was the bad one as the rib fracture only shows signs of several weeks worth of healing. The blow to the ribs wasn’t fatal per se, but it was delivered along with the injuries that shortly thereafter claimed his life.

Why couldn’t these wounds have been inflicted during actual combat, you ask? Good question. They could have been, but there are no blade or arrow injuries to the bone. No sharp-force trauma of any kind is extant, although of course he could have been stabbed, speared, shot a million times in his soft tissues without that showing up on the bones.

[Regional Manager of Headland Archaeology] Andy Boucher said “obviously we can never be sure how people came about their wounds, but in this case there is a considerable amount of evidence suggesting this man was involved in some form of violent activity and the locations of his injuries do match quite closely what might be expected from taking part in mock battles. The fact that he was still doing this after he was 45 suggests he must have been very tough.”

If he did die as a result of tourney combat technically he was not allowed church burial. Jousts and its participants had been sternly condemned in the Second Lateran Council of 1139.

We entirely forbid, moreover, those abominable jousts and tournaments in which knights come together by agreement and rashly engage in showing off their physical prowess and daring, and which often result in human deaths and danger to souls. If any of them dies on these occasions, although penance and viaticum [communion] are not to be denied him when he requests them, he is to be deprived of a church burial.

Perhaps burial just outside the physical structure of the church was the loophole used to see that the Hereford knight got a proper Christian burial in a location near the high altar as would suit a man of status despite his death from abominable jousting. Anyway it’s always easier to ask forgiveness after the transgression than permission before so the church’s prohibition had little effect in practice.

The Normans had introduced tourneys to England after the Conquest as bona fide war games. The use of heavy cavalry armed with lances to charge in formation developed in the second half of the 11th century, and those formation charges required a great deal of practice to work in a combat situation. These early tourneys were mock battles, not one horseback lancer against another Ivanhoe-style, staged on large fields and fought by dozens, sometimes hundreds, of men at arms. They were dangerous, sometimes fatal, and inflicted more injuries on knights than actual battlefield combat did.

There were prizes to be won, however — ransom money, weapons, armour, horses — and there was always a steady supply of younger sons of nobility with skill at arms but no prospect of inheritance willing to fight their way to wealth and status. Richard the Lionheart attempted to regulate tourneys by issuing a charter on August 22nd, 1194, authorizing them in only five locations and requiring participants to pay hefty fees according to their titles (an earl had to pay 20 marks of silver, a baron 10, a landed knight four marks, a landless knight two) before receiving a license to fight in the tournament. This served the king’s purpose in several ways. It dangled the prospect of profit to the knights, keeping them in the country and available to defend the realm while at the same time keeping them from constantly injuring each other in tourney after tourney. It also made the assembly of large numbers of heavy cavalry subject to monarchical approval, a mechanism that would only grow in importance after Richard’s death and the subsequent clashes between crown and barons that famously resulted in Magna Carta. Last but certainly not least, it put significant coin in the king’s pocket.

The charter could not quench the thirst for tournaments which were still held outside of the crown’s rules. One famous joust was held at Chepstow Castle on the Welsh side of the border 35 miles south of Hereford in 1227. The castle (called Striguil Castle by the Normans) had been home to William Marshal, dubbed “the greatest knight that ever lived” by Stephen Langton, Archbishop of Canterbury, in his eulogy for William after his death in 1219. His son, also named William, succeeded his father as Earl of Pembroke and Lord Marshal of England to King Henry III. It was the younger William who hosted the 1227 tourney without permission from the king. Knights attached to eight earls, including the Earl of Hereford, fought in the tournament, and at least one of them, Reimund de Burgh, relative of Hubert de Burgh, Henry’s regent during his minority who the king had just that year made the 1st Earl of Kent, was heavily fined for his participation. Thus the king profited financially even from the illicit tourneys.

Given its proximity to Hereford and the date range of the cathedral’s knight, it’s conceivable that he could have fought in that very tournament. It could even have been the one to fell him, for that matter. I doubt we’ll ever know.

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Two uknown Cézanne sketches found on back of watercolors

February 24th, 2015

Unfinished sketches have been discovered on the back of watercolors by Paul Cézanne in the collection of the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia. The watercolors, previously on display in room 20 of the Collection Gallery, had been out of their frames before, but the backs were hidden behind brown paper. It was that brown paper backing, ironically, that spurred the discovery of what it had been hiding for a century a so.

Brown paper is highly acidic. Over time the acid migrates from the backing into the original paper medium causing it to darken and become brittle. The Barnes Foundation knew that five Cézanne watercolor landscapes needed to have the brown paper backing removed and in January of 2014, all five of them were sent as part of a group of 22 works to the Conservation Center for Art & Historic Artifacts (CCAHA), also in Philadelphia, for treatment.


Photographs © 2015 The Barnes Foundation.

CCAHA paper conservator Gwenanne Edwards was painstakingly removing the backing from the 1885-1886 watercolor entitled The Chaîne de l’Etoile Mountains with a microspatula when she saw swirls of blue and green and some pencil lines. Once the backing was entirely removed, an unfinished sketch of trees done in pencil and then accented with watercolors was revealed. It’s hard to determine exactly what the subject is since the sketch is so incomplete, possibly a path winding through trees with a square well in the center. The bottom right corner has a pencil note on it, an “X” and the word “Non” with what appears to be a question mark after it. This is not the work of the artist; it’s probably a notation from a dealer on whether its saleable.

Behind the backing of the second watercolor, Trees, conservators found a much more detailed graphite-only sketch of a manor house and farmhouse with a mountain in the background. Denis Coutagne, president of the Société Paul Cezanne in Provence, researched the drawing and identified the location as the Pilon du Roi peak in the same Massif de l’Etoile mountain range in Aix-en-Provence, southern France, depicted in the first watercolor. This was one of Cézanne’s favorite locations which he painted and drew many times over.


Photographs © 2015 The Barnes Foundation.

It was not uncommon for Cézanne to work on both sides of the paper in his sketchbooks and on larger, individual sheets such as these, and over the course of his career he produced thousands of drawings, some of which were done in preparation for oil paintings, but most often they were a place to experiment with line and color. “These sketches offer a window into Cezanne’s artistic process, which is truly invaluable,” said Barbara Buckley, Senior Director of Conservation and Chief Conservator of Paintings at the Barnes Foundation.

The five brown paper-backed watercolors were acquired by millionaire chemist and eccentric art collector Albert Barnes in 1921. The seller was Leo Stein, author Gertrude Stein‘s brother, who between 1904 and 1914 had built with his sister an exceptional collection of modernist works in their shared apartment at 27 rue de Fleurus in Paris. Leo Stein was a particular devotee of Cézanne, so much so that when they dissolved their household and split up the collection in 1914, Leo let Gertrude have all the Picassos and most of the Matisses but insisted on keeping Cézanne’s small 4 3⁄4 by 10-inch oil painting Five Apples (now in the collection of Mr. and Mrs. Eugene V. Thaw).

Leo Stein and Albert Barnes had been friends for years at the time of the sale, bonded by their shared love of art. When financial difficulties forced Stein to sell some of his collection, he asked Barnes to arrange the sale of some pieces in the United States. Barnes wrote to Stein that he had been unable to find buyers for the five watercolor landscapes because nobody he had contacted “seems to think they are sufficiently important to want to own them.” We can’t be sure whether that was in fact the case or if Barnes was being economical with the truth in order to score a bargain, but the final result was Barnes acquiring all five for $100 each.

There is no evidence in the correspondence that either Stein or Barnes had any idea there were sketches on the back of two of them. Given the probable dealer pencil markings on one of the sketches, it’s likely that the backs of the watercolors had already been covered with paper before Stein bought them.

The newly discovered sketches will be on display in double-sided frames in the second floor classroom of the Barnes Foundation from April 10th through May 18th, after which they will return to their former one-sided display in Room 20. This is an extremely rare opportunity to see anything at all from the Barnes collection not in its assigned location. Barnes left very strict, very specific instructions on the management of the art in Foundation’s charter. One of the rules is all the works have to be displayed exactly where Barnes chose to display them, never moved, never removed, never sold, never loaned. Even taking down works for conservation purposes requires the permission of the Pennsylvania Attorney General. Barnes arranged his art the way he liked it, a configuration he felt most in keeping with his Deweyite educational principles. The Foundation was to be an educational institution for students of art, not a museum for the general public.

Those rules have since been challenged by the foundation’s board, most notably in the controversial decision to break Albert Barnes’ will and move the entire collection from Barnes’ home in Merion, five miles outside of Philadelphia, to a new, larger facility on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway in metro Philly. The excellent but agonizing 2009 documentary The Art of the Steal (available on Netflix streaming or for rent on Amazon Instant) covered the shenanigans involved. You can read the Barnes Foundation’s rebuttal to the documentary here.

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CT scan reveals mummy inside Buddha statue

February 23rd, 2015

A 11th or 12th century statue of a meditating Buddha with a perfectly posed mummy inside received a revelatory CT scan last September at the Meander Medical Center in Amersfoort, central Netherlands.

The statue arrived in the country as part of the Mummies exhibition at the Drents Museum in Assen, northeastern Netherlands. This was the first time the reliquary was allowed to leave China and it’s the only Chinese Buddhist mummy that has ever been made available for scientific research in the West.

The exhibition ran from May to August, after which the statue was taken to the medical center for CT scanning by Buddhist art expert Erik Brujin. Under the careful supervision of Brujin, radiologist Ben Heggelman ran the statue on its back through the CT scanner and took samples of bone tissue for DNA analysis. Gastrointestinal and liver disease specialist Raynald Vermeijden used an endoscope to sample material of an unknown nature from the mummy’s thoracic and abdominal cavities.

Several news stories have incorrectly described the mummy as a shocking discovery, but it was known to be inside the statue all along. Not to state the obvious, but that’s why it was sent to the Drents Museum in the first place as part of the Mummies exhibition. The research team did make one surprise find: the cavities where the organs once resided are stuffed with pieces of paper that have ancient Chinese characters written on them.

The mummy is believed to be that of the Master Liuquan of the Chinese Meditation School, or Ch’an (known as Zen in Japan) Buddhism. He died around 1100 A.D., which is the source of the date for the statue. The Drents Museum exhibited the statue as an example of self-mummification, a grueling, torturous, years-long process in which Buddhist monks gradually starved, dehydrated and poisoned themselves in the hope of attaining enlightenment and leaving an incorruptible corpse. It required an almost inconceivable degree of self-abnegation. For the first 1,000 days they ate only nuts and seeds gleaned from the area around the temple. The next 1,000 days the diet was whittled down to small portions of pine bark and roots until the end of the period when they began to drink a tea made from the sap of urushi tree. This sap is what lacquer is made of; it is toxic to humans. The tea induced the release of fluids and made the body unappetizing to insects and microorganisms that would otherwise be inclined feast on the corpse.

With no body fat or fluids left and poison in his tissues, the monk would then be walled alive in a room that gave him just enough space to sit lotus style. A tube let air into the tight space and the monk would ring a bell to let people know he was still alive. When the bell stopped ringing, the tube was removed and the space sealed for another three years. When the 1,000 days were up, the tomb would be opened to see if the body was in fact mummified. If it wasn’t, and most of them weren’t, it was buried with due respect for the unbelievable toughness and devotion of the priest who made the attempt. If it was, the deceased would no longer be considered dead but in a state of eternal meditation, removed from the cycle of Samsara. He was elevated to the rank of Buddha, his mummy dressed and decorated and placed on an altar.

The practice as described above was codified by Kuukai of Mount Koya, Japan, founder of the Shingon sect of Buddhism. He is thought to have learned it while studying esoteric Buddhist practices in the T’ang region of China. Most examples of self-mummification have been found in the Yamagata Prefecture in Japan, but there are instances in China and India as well. The thing is, there is no removal of organs in this procedure. If the mummy in the Buddha statue did indeed self-mummify, his organs must have been removed after death, and I can’t see how it could have been done three years later. There’s a different process at work in the Buddha statue mummy.

I hope the scan and tests will get some answers about how he died and was mummified. The results of the research will be published in a monograph at an unscheduled future date. The exhibition is now in the Hungarian Natural History Museum where it will remain until May. After that it will travel to Luxembourg, Germany, Switzerland, Austria, and Sweden concluding in Wales in 2018.

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Objects from 1,500-year-old settlement found in Poland

February 22nd, 2015

Archaeologists excavating near the village of Skomack Wielki in northeastern Poland have unearthed numerous bronze, iron and pottery artifacts from a settlement dating to the 5th or 6th century A.D. Artifacts from this period in this area are rare, and most of the ones that have been found were discovered in cemeteries.

Among the most valuable finds are ornaments, brooches and buckles made of bronze, as well as toiletries (tongs) and knives. In one place, archaeologists discovered cluster of entirely preserved 7 ceramic vessels. They differ in size, finish (some carefully smoothed, some rugged), decoration in the form of plastic strips, ornaments made with fingers or engraved. “The whole deposit gives the impression of a specially selected set, although at this stage of research it is difficult to say what was the purpose of selection and of the pit, in which the vessels had been placed” – commented Dr. [Anna] Bitner-Wróblewska.

Although the population of the area in late antiquity and the early Middle Ages is generally associated with the Sudovian/Yotvingian tribe, archaeologists believe the community in this settlement was a West Baltic tribe called the Galindians who had established connections with peoples to the north, south, west and east of them going back as far as the 2nd century A.D. when Greco-Egyptian astronomer, mathematician, poet and geographer Claudius Ptolemy mentioned them in his Geographia. The range of the ancient tribe was whittled down to a central core in the wake of the upheavals of the late Imperial period. By the 6th/7th century Ptolemy’s Galindians survived as the Old Prussian clan of the Galindis. These artifacts, therefore, are from a significant transitional period in the history of the region.

The pottery vessels, still filled with soil, have been removed to the National Archeological Museum in Warsaw where the contents will be examined under laboratory conditions. The museum is a partner in the Polish-Norwegian Modern Archaeological Conservation Initiative “Archaeology of the Yatvings” which seeks to explore the mutli-period settlements of Baltic tribes (the Yatvings of the title) in the early medieval centers of Szurpiły and Skomack Wielki in Poland’s Warmińsko-Mazurskie region. This is the first archaeological initiative in Poland to prioritize non-invasive methods of investigation like aerial exploration and geophysical surveys to locate and identify archaeological remains and determine how well preserved they are.

The project began last year with non-invasive analysis of the sites followed by targeted excavations. It is scheduled to continue through 2016. The ultimate objective, in addition to learning more about the little-known settlement structures of ancient and early medieval Yatvings, is to develop a usable model of heritage protection coupled with archaeology that will give local communities a fuller understanding of their rich history and a preservation-based approach to cultural tourism.

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Dutch hooligans riot, vandalize Barcaccia fountain

February 21st, 2015

Fans of the Rotterdam soccer team Feyenoord ran riot in Rome’s historic center on Thursday, throwing bottles and flares and causing serious damage to the Barcaccia fountain in Piazza di Spagna. Built by Pietro Bernini, father of famous architect and sculptor Gian Lorenzo Bernini, between 1627 and 1629, the fountain just reopened in September after an extensive 10-month restoration. Now there are more than 110 gouges, scratches and chips on the travertine marble and several large chunks broken off the edge of the central basin.

On Friday morning public works crews sifted through broken glass, bottles and assorted trash to recover all the fragments they could find in the water. City restorers assessed the damage and it does not look good. There are broken pieces as large as 8 by 3.5 centimeters (3 by 1.4 inches). Even if the larger pieces can be reattached cleanly — not an easy feat with the highly porous travertine — the chips and scratches will likely remain. Expert Anna Maria Cerioni says that the damage to the fountain is permanent.

It’s unclear what set this barbarians off other than the usual metric ton of alcohol and whatever idiotic sports rivalry. They rampaged through the beautiful and historic Campo de’ Fiori piazza on Wednesday evening, throwing bottles at riot police and leaving the square covered in garbage. Over the two days of clashes between rioters and police, 10 police officers and three Dutch fans were wounded. A total of 28 were arrested and 19 of them have already been convicted and sentenced to six months in jail or a $50,000 fine.

All of this happened before the actual Europa League match between Feyenoord and Roma on Thursday afternoon. Additional police were dispatched to the Olympic Stadium for the event, in the expectation that violence might break out between the opposing teams’ fans, but nothing happened. The score was tied 1-1, Feyenoord moves on in the bracket and the 6,000 Dutch fans got on planes and headed home with no further trouble.

The mayor of Rome, Ignazio Marino, is incandescent with rage. He said that while several banks and organizations have contacted him offering financial support for the restoration, he thinks the Netherlands or the Feyenoord club should pay for the damage according to the principle of “who breaks it buys it.” The Dutch embassy’s public statements (you can see them on their Facebook page) focus on bringing the responsible parties to justice. “Soccer must be a party where there’s no room for violence. The Italian authorities can count on the total cooperation and committment of the Netherlands to ensure than the culpable are punished.” They also said an investigation has been opened in Holland to identify the perpetrators.

They haven’t excluded paying for it, however. When the mayor told the press after a long conversation with Dutch ambassador Michiel Den Hond that “they don’t feel responsible for the economic outlay to repair Bernini’s fountain,” Aart Heering, the ambassador’s spokesperson, said the mayor’s comment was premature, that before saying the Netherlands doesn’t want to pay for the damage, first the damages have to be quantified and the perpetrators identified.

The Feyenoord club’s general manager Eric Gudde described the rioting as “utterly reprehensible behavior … that fills every normal thinking Dutchman with horror.” There’s a bit of the No True Scotsman fallacy in the club’s reaction. The rioters aren’t real fans, you see, but rather lowlives who unlike the real fans went to Rome with the intent to “misbehave.”

Film of the clashes between rioters and police in Piazza di Spagna on Thursday:

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Ohio museum returns 16th c. astrolabe to Germany

February 20th, 2015

Germany giveth and Germany taketh away. Last month the Toledo Museum of Art (TMA) announced it had acquired Napoleon’s brother’s exquisite spiral chandelier from a Hamburg art dealer. Two days ago the museum announced it would voluntarily return an exquisite 16th century astronomical instrument to the Gotha Museum in Germany after being presented with evidence that the object had been stolen from the museum after World War II.

The instrument is a multi-use device known as an astrological compendium made by Augsburg craftsman Christopher Schissler in 1567.
Schissler was considered the greatest of Augsburg’s instrument makers, crafting pieces of the highest quality from precious materials for the likes of August I, the Elector of Saxony, and Rudolf II, Holy Roman Emperor. Only around 100 instruments made by Christopher Schissler are known to have survived. This particular one was made for the Kunstkammer of Rudolf’s court in Prague. Rudolf was fascinated by mechanical devices and gave Schissler, along with other top instrument makers, access to court astronomers so they could be apprised of the latest research. He supported them financially and encouraged them to develop new designs and mechanisms.

This device is very much a show-off piece, a showcase for its owner’s wealth and scientific knowledge. Made from gilded bronze and enamel, it’s an astrolabe, but it also has a variety of other functions. The outside cover is a sun dial, the inside cover a map of the world from which a plumb-bob can be hung to calculate angle of inclination. Interior compartments include a wind rose, a compass, a lunary (a device to calculate the time based on the moon), a perpetual calendar and a zodiac showing which signs govern which days. It is inscribed along its octagonal edges “CHRISTOPHORUS SCHISSLER FACIEBAT AUGUSTAE VINDELICORUM – ANNO DOMINI 1567″ (Christopher Schissler made this, Augsburg ― Anno Domini 1567).

Image courtesy the Toledo Museum of Art.

The Schissler Compendium remained in Prague Castle until 1620 when it was taken as plunder by the forces of Maximilian I, Elector of Bavaria, after their victory against Frederick I, King of Bohemia, at the Battle of the White Mountain, one of the early clashes of the Thirty Years’ War. It was taken to Munich. Twelve years later, it was plundered again, this time by King Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden who invaded Bavaria and in May of 1632, took Munich. Gustavus Adolphus died in battle later that year and after his ally Bernhard of Saxon-Weimar died in 1639, the spoils from Bavaria were divided among the survivors. The Schissler Compendium went to Bernhard’s brother Ernest I, Duke of Saxe-Gotha, who installed it in his collection at Gotha.

Inventory records from the 19th century indicate the instrument stayed put in the collection of the Dukes of Gotha at Friedenstein Castle for 300 years. When the palace was converted to a museum, the compendium went on display alongside a larger astrolabe by Schissler. Much of the collection was moved during World War II for safekeeping and returned after the war was over. Thuringia was occupied by American forces for a few months after the end of the war, and then the Soviets took over. They took many of the Gotha Museum treasures to the Soviet Union only to return them after the establishment of the German Democratic Republic (East Germany) in 1949. We know that the Schissler Compendium was not among the art and artifacts returned to the museum by the Soviets.

So somewhere in the chaos of wars world and cold, the instrument made its way to New York art dealers and thence to Toledo, Ohio. The Toledo Museum of Art had no knowledge of its checkered past until May of 2013 when Dr. Martin Eberle, director of the Gotha Museum, wrote them a letter about the astrolabe. He included considerable documentary and photographic evidence that Toledo’s Schissler Compendium and the Gotha Museum’s Schissler Compendium were the same piece. After a couple of months spent reviewing the documentation, TMA Director Dr. Brian Kennedy wrote back to Dr. Eberle acknowledging that it seemed their astrolabe was the one stolen from the German museum.

The institutions negotiated for a year after that, planning the repatriation of the object and the loan of artifacts from the Gotha collection to the Toledo Museum of Art in exchange. They still haven’t decided which pieces will be loaned, but they’ll sort that out in due course. Meanwhile, repatriation is nigh, tentatively scheduled for March or April of this year.

Kudos to the TMA for returning the piece. There’s no legal requirement that they do so. The UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property does not apply, nor do the protocols regarding Nazi loot. This was entirely an ethical choice they made because they think it’s the right thing to do.

[U]nlike earlier cases, this is one that involves no government bureaucracy or complications raised by potential thieves or distributors awaiting trial. It is, as Mr. Kennedy noted, simply an agreement between two museums to get a historically valuable piece back to its rightful owner.

“We’ve recognized there’s been a cultural shift in how museums conduct themselves,” Mr. Kennedy said. “There’s much more scrutiny in how museums obtain their objects and transparency now.”

He said the TMA had made it museum policy over the past 10 years to look harder into the ownership history of every piece.

“This was a one-of-a-kind scientific device,” Mr. Kennedy said. “It’s sad to see it go, but it’s not ours.”

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