Archive for the ‘Ancient’ Category

I fell for a “Swiss Private Collection” lie, dammit

Saturday, February 16th, 2019

My only excuse, and it’s a terrible one that you should throw back in my face in disgust, is that the Metropolitan Museum of Art fell for it too. Had they accepted a fraudulent ownership record starring a Swiss private collector a few years back I would have laughed mirthlessly at the very idea of it, but the sensitivity to potentially looted artifacts is so much higher now that museums and auction houses have been dragged kicking and screaming into giving a damn by source countries creating legal and PR nightmares for them. That such a recent, high-profile, much-publicized sale could be a looted artifact with phony papers is an ugly testament to how deep the rot runs in the antiquities market.

In September 2017, the Met announced the acquisition of what is without question the most beautiful, perfectly-preserved and uniquely rich cartonnage coffin I’ve ever seen. Made from layers of linen, gesso and resin, covered in gilding front and back and lined with sheets of silver foil inside the lid, the mummiform coffin was the final resting place of Late Ptolemaic official Nedjemankh, a priest of Heryshef in Heracleopolis Magna.

The gilded coffin of Nedjemankh went on display immediately in the museum’s Egyptian Art gallery, and soon got a dedicated exhibition that ran from July 2018 until Tuesday, February 12th. Or at least it was meant to. There was supposed to be an exhibition tour beginning on February 22nd. No longer. I don’t know exactly which day, but the coffin was taken off display this week.

On Friday the museum announced that it was returning the coffin to Egypt because the Manhattan’s DA Office had found evidence that the Swiss private collection and legal export document from 1971 were nothing but happy horseshit conjured up by traffickers in looted antiquities. Not only was it not legally exported in 1971, it didn’t leave Egypt until 2011 and I don’t need to tell you the circumstances were very, very far from legal.

Notwithstanding the representations that the coffin had been exported from Egypt in 1971, recent evidence suggests it was looted from Egypt in 2011. Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance said, “Stewards of the world’s most important artifacts have a duty to hold their acquisitions to the highest level of scrutiny. Following my Office’s investigation, this beautiful piece of ancient Egyptian history will soon be returned to its rightful place. Our Antiquities Trafficking Unit will continue to root out stolen antiquities in our fight to stop the looting of historic sites and the trade of stolen artifacts around the world.”

The seller was a Paris dealer named Christophe Kunicki. The Met is less than pleased with him having paid 3.5 million euros (just under $4 million) for the coffin in July of 2017, just six years after it was stolen from Egypt. This character has yet to comment on the fraudulent sale and the Met plans to consider “all means,” according to spokesman Kenneth Weine, for the recovery of the $4 million they were conned out of. There is no word on any criminal action that might be taken against him, and there probably won’t be.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art announced today it will review and revise its acquisitions process. Max Hollein, Director of The Met, said, “Our museum must be a leader among our peers in the respect for cultural property and in the rigor and transparency of the policy and practices that we follow. We will learn from this event—specifically I will be leading a review of our acquisitions program—to understand what more can be done to prevent such events in the future.”

Here’s one revision to any museum or collector’s acquisition policy that needs to be carved in stone from now on: buy nothing purporting to come from Swiss private collections. It’s a scam every damn time. The Met apologized to Egypt profusely and abjectly, as well it should, and I do the same to you, as well I should. I can’t believe I was so thoroughly duped by the oldest lie in the book, one I have mocked and excoriated ad nauseum in this very blog a million times before.

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Narcissus fresco found in Leda fresco house

Friday, February 15th, 2019

Another high-quality fresco has been discovered in the house where the fresco depicting the myth of Leda and the Swan was discovered last November in Pompeii. This one was found in the atrium and depicts the myth of Narcissus. The vain hunter is depicted staring at his handsome visage reflected in the pool of water beneath him. He is entranced and cannot be budged despite his hunting dog’s tugging desperately at his robe. Behind them is a winged youth, likely a representation of Eros, son and frequent messenger of Aphrodite who in her guise as Nemesis punished the love-rejecting Narcissus by making him falling in love with his own image.

When Leda was discovered in a bedroom of the villa late last year, archaeologists were concerned that the structure would be endangered by further excavation. The original intent of the dig was consolidation of the excavation fronts along Via Vesuvio in the Regio V neighborhood of the ancient city which has proved an archaeological gold mine beyond even the stratospherically high standards of Pompeii. The slopes of the dig along the 1.8 mile front of Via Vesuvio had put pressure on the already unearthed structures.

The exceptional quality and preservation of the frescoes of Leda and Priapus found in the home motivated the team to remodel of the slopes of the excavation fronts and stabilize the ancient structures. They were then able to proceed with the excavation of the villa and the fresco of Leda. On the other side of the bedroom they unearthed floor-to-ceiling frescoes of intense color, deep red and ochre backdrops to elaborate border decorations and the central panel of Narcissus.

Love and the sweetness of the senses, in all of their varied forms, ooze from the rooms of this elegant dwelling that, even in the entrance hall, welcomed guests with the vigorous and auspicious image of Priapus, which was also documented some months ago and is comparable to the image in the nearby House of the Vettii.

The entire Leda room is characterised by sophisticated Fourth Style decorations, with delicate floral embellishments, interspersed by griffins with cornucopia, winged cupids, still lifes and scenes of combat between animals. The harmony of these exquisite designs even extended to the ceiling, which completely collapsed under the weight of the lapilli, and whose fragments were recovered by restorers and used to reconstruct the story.

Of particular note in the atrium of Narcissus is the still visible trace of the stairs which lead to the upper floor, but above all the rediscovery of a dozen glass containers, eight amphorae and a bronze funnel in the space under the stairs, which was used for storage. A bronze situla (a liquid container) was also found next to the impluvium.

Pompeii Superintendent Massimo Osanna notes that the decorative motifs appear to be thematically connected so that beauty, sensuality and the pleasures of life would accompany the residents and visitors from room to room. The dramatic height of the first floor walls and the frescoes covering them attest to what a luxurious home this was. The colors are so vibrant that it was likely constructed shortly before Pompeii’s sudden cataclysmic demise.

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Decorated Roman lead coffins found in quarry

Monday, February 11th, 2019

Archaeologists excavating a quarry in Surrey have unearthed two Roman-era lead coffins. Lead coffins are rare — only a few hundred have ever been discovered in Britain — and these are even rarer that usual because they are decorated.

The coffins formed part of a group of burials that lay within a small L-shaped cemetery enclosure. Aligned east to west, the caskets were each of similar size, measuring 1.9m long by 0.45m wide and 0.36m high [6’3″ x 1’6″ x 1’2″]. Staining of the soil within the grave fill suggests that they may have originally been encased in larger wooden coffins – something that ongoing scientific analysis is hoped to confirm.

Both coffins were made from soldered sheets of cast lead, and their lids were decorated with images of scallop shells set within triangles and rectangles formed from beaded straps. Scallop motifs are common decorations on the lids of Roman lead coffins, particularly on those found in the Thames Valley area. It is believed that they were associated with the Roman idea of the journey to the underworld, but in the Romano-Celtic culture, it may also refer to fertility and rebirth.

The remains they contain are not in good condition. The coffins’ lids collapsed over time and sand filled the space. The skeletal remains that have survived indicate one of the coffins contained an adult and an infant less than six months old. The other coffin contained an adult.

The Wessex Archaeology team has discovered four more burials in the quarry. They didn’t have lead coffins, but they did have wood ones. Some remnants of the wood from the coffins were found in three of the four graves. Iron nails survive from the fourth coffin which has disintegrated.

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Prehistoric musical instrument found in Scottish crannog

Saturday, February 9th, 2019

It’s a small piece — a couple of inches of notched wood — but of great significance because it is believed to be a surviving fragment of one of the earliest musical instruments ever discovered in western Europe. It was found last week in the village of Fearnan on the north shore of Loch Tay in Perthshire, central Scotland. An underwater excavation of the banks discovered the object, thought to be the bridge of a plucked string instrument. It dates to around 500 B.C.

Crannogs were dwellings built above the water in lakes as early as 3000 B.C. Some of them were used for centuries, often continuously occupied, repaired and expanded upon until they formed elaborate artificial islands. The waterlogged environment can be a boon for the preservation of organic material

The Scottish Crannog Centre has received a grant from the National Lottery to investigate the bridge and its origins. Founded in 1997 and granted official accredited status by the Museums Galleries Scotland in late 2017, the Centre plans to use the instrument to launch a study of the role music played in Iron Age settlements in the area. A wood of the bridge has been crafted with 3D printing technology by Marco Gilardi of the University of the West of Scotland.

The Centre is a living museum that attracts 25,000 visitors a year, renown locally and abroad for its replica roundhouse built on stilts on the shallow lakeside just as they were in the Iron Age, and participate in period activities using accurate replica artifacts, including weaving, cooking, grinding grain and making fire. Rowing a replica longboat is one for the bucket list. As the museum’s mission is in exploring the daily life of Crannog communities, so having an artifact that exemplifies their music is a unique opportunity to study cultural aspects that rarely appear in the archaeological record.

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Tomb with 50 mummies is Egypt’s 1st find of 2019

Tuesday, February 5th, 2019

Egypt’s first archaeological finding of 2019 is a tomb containing 50 mummies from the Ptolemaic era (323-30 B.C.). A joint mission of the Research Centre for Archaeological Studies of Minya University and the Ministry of Antiquities unearthed the tomb at the Tuna El-Gebel necropolis in Minya province, about 210 miles south of Cairo.

The mummies were found in a series of rock-cut burial chambers 30 feet deep. It’s believed to be a large family grave and the mummification methods suggest they were members of the upper middle class. They are of different ages (12 of them children) and genders and in a relatively good state of preservation. Some were wrapped in linen and buried in the sand or inside niches. Others were placed in limestone coffins, still others in decorated wooden sarcophagi. Only fragments of painted cartonnage that once covered several of mummified bodies were discovered.

There are no names or hieroglyphic inscriptions in the tomb that might identify any of the deceased. Demotic handwriting was found on some of the linen wrappings; it has yet to be translated.

The preliminary dating of the tombs to the Ptolemaic era comes from ostraca and papyrus fragments found in the tomb. That needs to be confirmed, however, as it’s also possible that some of the burials date to the early Roman period.

While this is the most significant finding yet, the team began excavating at Tuna El-Gebel in February of 2018 and discovered a single rectangular chamber at the bottom of a sloping staircase containing multiple burials. On the west side was a chamber containing mummies and stone sarcophagi. On the north side was another burial chamber with stone sarcophagi placed in niches. These burials predated the most recent find. The style was typical of late New Kingdom and early New Intermediate Period tombs found at Tuna El-Gebel when it was the official necropolis of Upper Egypt’s 15th nome.

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Three graves of Moche elite found in Peru

Sunday, February 3rd, 2019

An excavation in Chiclayo, northern Peru, has unearthed three richly outfitted tombs of elite members of the Moche culture. Archaeologists from the Tumbas Reales de Sipan Museum discovered the tombs in Huaca of El Pueblo de Ucupe, the archaeological complex where the tomb of a high-ranking individual dubbed the Lord of Ucupe was discovered in 2009. The team returned to the site in December to do a follow-up dig.

The tombs are made of adobe brick and are different sizes. They date to the middle Moche period, around 600 to 700 A.D., and were later modifications to an earlier religious complex.

The first burial chamber was damaged by a sequence of heavy rain events that destroyed part of the funerary complex. The skeletons of one adult, probably female, and one child were found inside, their burial bundles covered with cinnabar which had ritual significance for the Moche. Grave goods include copper crowns, head/hairbands and breastplates and several ceramic objects, most notably three highly sculptural pottery vessels. One of them depicts a snail, another a man sitting on a throne, the third an explicit erotic scene.

From the early period of Moche civilization in the 2nd century, pottery production was exceptionally varied. There were practical forms and decorative ones which depicted a wide panoply of people, animals, activities and aspects daily life. Preferred motifs included crafts, war and sex. Of the sex acts captured in Moche ceramics, heterosexual anal sex is the most frequently depicted.

The second tomb was created by dismantling an early period Mochica wall to build a funerary enclosure 6.5 feet long by five feet wide. One person, an adult male, was buried in this tomb alongside a camelid believed to have been a llama. There were a great many grave goods buried with him. He was garbed in copper plate with copper crowns and headbands and more than 50 pottery vessels with very finely worked and decorated sculptural bottles.

The third tomb is a large chamber with adobe walls. It had a roof made of wooden beams which has disintegrated over time. In the space underneath the roof, archaeologists initially found a human skull and one ceramic vessel. When the team reached the level where the funerary bundle was placed, they found more than 150 pottery vessels arranged in three groups and the remains of another camelid. The body of the deceased was placed on a wooden platform supported by bricks. The platform has rotted away, but his splendid adornments — a crown, two headbands, a plate dress, two earplugs, a nosepiece, two clubs, two banners and a funerary mask similar to the one found in the Lord of Ucupe’s tomb — survive.

The two burials with full sets of copper attire and accessories indicate these were individuals of high status and they were laid to rest with the emblems and regalia of their rank and command.

“These findings will allow us to establish the origins, development and links of the Mochicas in the Zaña Valley, with Sipán in the Lambayeque Valley and with the development of this town in the Jequetepeque Valley. The style of the archaeological assets seems to present a certain sequential order within the stage known as Moche Medio,” explained the project director, Walter Alva Alva.

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Grave of important Christian Roman woman found in Ljubljana

Monday, January 28th, 2019

A burial ground centered around the grave of an elite Christian Roman woman has been discovered in Ljubljana, the capital of Slovenia. Modern-day Ljubljana began in 1st century B.C. as a castrum, a Roman fort, that developed an associated civilian settlement. Historians believe the city of Emona was built by imperial decree in 14 A.D. after the legion departed. Located on the Ljubljanica river, it was an important center of trade between the Adriatic and the Danube area and was the seat of a bishopric in the Early Christian era. It was destroyed by Attila the Hun in the 5th century. The city of Ljubljana grew on the site in the Early Middle Ages.

Archaeologists began excavating the site on Gosposvetska Street in August of 2017 in advance of construction. Roman graves had been found nearby before and experts expected they might find more. They did indeed, more in quantity and higher in quality than expected. The cemetery, about 2000 feet away from the northern walls of the Roman city, dates to the second half of the 4th century A.D. and contains more than 350 burials. Many of them are simple inhumation graves. Others include expensive sarcophagi that were made out of limestone quarried from Moravče, 20 miles east of the city. The remains of a six-year-old girl were found interred in one of these pricey sarcophagi. She was buried with a lovely set of jewelry — one solid gold bracelet, one dark glass bracelet, a necklace of gold rings and glass beads and a gold finger ring with a green stone.

The stand-out is a burial chapel or mausoleum that contains the remains of one 30 to 40-year-old woman who must have been a very important member of the community.

The most stunning artifact recovered beneath Gosposvetska Street was a transparent blue glass bowl found next to the woman’s body. The 1,700-year old vessel is decorated on the outside with grapes, and vine leafs and tendrils. A Greek inscription on the inside of the bowl instructs the owner to “Drink to live forever, for many years!”

This exquisite drinking bowl could have been used in both regular daily life as well as for burial ceremonies, and an analysis of its chemical composition points to its manufacture somewhere in the eastern Mediterranean region. The grapevine decorations have their role in the Christian Eucharist and Communion, but have their origins in motifs associated with Dionysus, the pagan god of wine and ecstasy.

Archaeologists are also interested in how the woman’s tomb developed over time. It seems that possibly within a decade of her burial, her square chapel was demolished and a larger (30-by-40-foot) structure was built to enclose her tomb. Around the new structure and inside it, Emona’s Christian community began to practice a burial practice known as ad sanctos, in which the deceased are interred near the tombs of saints and other remains considered holy.

If she was the first or very early burial, her grave’s location at the center of a cemetery that grew up around her would identify the woman not just a person of high social status, but also someone of religious significance the Christian community that flourished in the city after the last of the persecutions under Diocletian in the early 4th century.

Her skeletal remains will be studied in the hope that some of the questions about her status in the community, the date of her death and her origins might be answered. A selection of the most exceptional artifacts discovered in the graves have gone on display in the treasury of the City Museum of Ljubljana.

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Roman cemetery found under Lisbon restaurant

Sunday, January 27th, 2019

Lisbon is a city with thousands of years of human habitation behind it, so whenever there is construction in the heart of that involves foundation or basement work, the site must be archaeologically surveyed first. So in 2016 when one its most famous restaurants, Solar dos Presuntos, a culinary icon of the city renown for its traditional Portuguese fare, decided to expand its kitchen and build a school attached to the restaurant, archaeologists got first crack at the site. Contractor archaeology company Neoepica was hired to work on this project, beginning with a preliminary study, diagnostic and test pits.

Lisbon has a rich history going back to the Neolithic and there were Phoenicians living in what would become Lisbon since at least 1200 B.C. Rome established a foothill in what they called Olissipo after the defeat of Carthage by Scipio Africanus in 206 B.C. The city was an important and prosperous trade center, thanks to its location on the Atlantic Ocean and Tagus river. Lisbon’s main square, the Praça da Figueira, is located over a major Roman cemetery in use from the 1st through the 4th century.

With all this density of history in the city center, archaeologists expected to make some discoveries where the restaurant was planning its addition, but because later construction often makes mincemeat of ancient remains, they weren’t expecting to hit a motherlode of Roman material. First they discovered 16th and 15th century artifacts, primarily pottery — dishes, cups, vessels — in very good condition. Then the bones began to appear.

Twenty feet under the surface, the team unearthed 28 skeletons from inhumation burials and urns containing the ashes of multiple individuals. Altogether, the remains of 60 people were found in the cemetery. Several of the inhumations included grave goods and funerary offerings left at the time of burial. These include typical Roman offerings like lamps, which illuminated the way to the underworld, and coins to secure the deceased would have the wherewithal to pay their way. There’s also a highly unusual object that is still in the process of being studied and evaluated, but appears to be a doctor’s case containing surgical instruments.

The finds are mostly in excellent condition. Neoepica archaeologist Paulo Rebelo described it as “possibly the best-preserved Roman necropolis found in recent times.” The remains have not been radiocarbon dated yet, but based on the objects found, the cemetery dates to the 2nd or 3rd century.

The borders of the cemetery have not been pinpointed by this excavation. The team dug a little further afield and found additional traces of the necropolis in several directions. The archaeological material in the planned construction area has been salvaged, so the expansion of the restaurant will now be allowed to proceed. The finds have been transferred to Neoepica’s research laboratory. When the study is complete, the remains will be given to the city council which will determine where they will go on display.

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Conservation of Tutankhamen’s tomb complete

Thursday, January 24th, 2019

Ten years after it began, the conservation of the tomb of Tutankhamen in Egypt’s Valley of the Kings is complete. Egypt’s Ministry of Antiquities and the Getty Conservation Institute worked together to make a thorough study of the site, assess its long-term conservation needs and train a new generation of conservators even as they cleaned and stabilized the elaborate wall paintings in the inner chamber. They also created a new entrance space and viewing platform that will allow visitors to see the most famous pharaonic tomb ever discovered while protecting it from the barrage of damage that inevitably accompanies human intrusion.

Discovered in 1922 by Howard Carter, the tomb of 18th Dynasty pharaoh Tutankhamen was tiny but mighty. It is one of the smallest in the Valley of the Kings and of the four rooms, only the burial chamber was painted, but the small space was crammed to the gills with treasure. A fluke of nature had protected it since the king’s premature death around age 19 in 1323 B.C.: debris from a flood blocked the entrance shortly after the tomb was sealed. Grave robbers made several attempts to break into the tomb, but were thwarted by the blockage and soon the short-lived king was forgotten.

The discovery of so immense a treasure in the small tomb of a so inconsequential a king caused a cultural sensation that is still ongoing. It took a decade to remove and document all the riches of his tomb. In the 1930s, it was opened to a public hungry to see the find site and for decades the tiny space was filled with thousands of dirty, moist, carbon dioxide-exhaling mammals.

Humidity and CO2 feed microorganisms that can damage the paint, and fluctuating moisture levels can cause flaking and bubbling. There were also areas of physical damage to the paint, scratches and scrapes caused by tourists and accidental contact from film equipment squeezed into the tight space. Abrasive dust brought it by countless feet coated the walls, dimming the colors of the paint and putting it at risk of even more loss.

Concerned about the delicate condition of the tomb — particularly the brown spots on the paintings known to be microbial growths — in 2009 the Ministry of Antiquities requested the assistance of the Getty Conservation Institute in developing a program of conservation and management.

The GCI-Egyptian project went on to carry out the most thorough study of the tomb’s condition since Carter’s time. The team of experts included an Egyptologist to conduct background research; environmental engineers to investigate the tomb’s microclimatic conditions; microbiologists to study the brown spots; documentation specialists, architects, and designers to upgrade the tomb’s infrastructure; scientists to study the original materials of the wall paintings; and conservators to carry out condition recording and treatment.

“As in all of our collaborative projects, the GCI has taken the long view, with the intent to provide sustainable conservation and site management outcomes,” says Neville Agnew, senior principal project specialist at the Getty Conservation Institute. “This involves systematic planning, documentation, scientific investigation, personnel training and a sensitive approach to treatment.”

The project team found the wall paintings to be in relatively stable condition, apart from localized flaking and loss of paint that was caused by both inconsistencies in the materials used and their application, as well as damage caused by visitors. Newly designed barriers now restrict visitor access in these areas to reduce the risk of future damage. The paintings were stabilized through dust removal and reduction of coatings from previous treatments, and condition monitoring was also established to better evaluate future changes.

Also addressed were the mysterious brown spots on the wall paintings. They were already present when Carter first entered the tomb, and a comparison of the spots with historic photographs from the mid-1920s showed no new growth. To confirm this finding, DNA and chemical analysis were undertaken and confirmed the spots to be microbiological in origin but dead and thus no longer a threat. Because the spots have penetrated into the paint layer, they have not been removed since this would harm the wall paintings.

Restored, stabilized and with new lighting, ventilation and information panels, the tomb of Tutankhamen offers a much improved experience for visitors as well as more secure, controlled conditions to preserve the priceless archaeological material. That includes a few important pieces on display as well as the tomb itself: Tutankhamen’s mummy on view in an oxygen-free display case, the stone sarcophagus and the outermost coffin made of gilded wood.

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Giant buffalo skull found in Fens quarry

Sunday, 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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