Archive for the ‘Ancient’ Category

Hoard of Roman silver found in The Hague

Tuesday, November 25th, 2014

Archaeologists excavating the future site of the Rotterdamsebaan access road in The Hague announced on Friday that they’ve unearthed a Roman-era pot containing a hoard of coins and jewelry. The contents of the pot were discovered fused together in a large lump of metal. Conservators were able to separate the individual parts of the mass and discovered 107 silver coins, six silver bracelets, a large silver plated fibula (cloak brooch) and some glass beads that were probably on a chain that has now disintegrated. The silver bracelets look the same, but there are small differences between them that indicate they are three matched pairs.

Restorer Johan van der Helm did such a fine job detangling the rusted lump and cleaning the coins that in the end all 107 coins were readable. They are all silver denarii, a very valuable collection at a time when brass coins were far more common in circulation. The oldest coin dates to the reign of the emperor Nero (54-68 A.D.), the youngest to the reign of Marcus Aurelius about a century later (161-180 A.D.). One extremely rare coin was struck under the reign of Emperor Otho who only ruled three months, from January 15th to April 16th 69 A.D., the second in the turbulent Year of the Four Emperors which came to a close with the ascent of Vespasian.

This find doubles the number of Roman coins discovered in The Hague, which in the 2nd century was sparsely populated countryside in Rome’s Germania Inferior province. The area that is now The Hague was just south of the estuary of the Rhine, the empire’s western frontier, so there were fortifications here and there but the regional capital was the nearby town of Forum Hadriani, modern day Voorburg, which was the northernmost Roman city in continental Europe. It was abandoned in the wake of Saxon raids in around 270 A.D.

Earlier this fall, the Rotterdamsebaan excavations uncovered the remains of two Roman houses and several wells close to where the coins were unearthed. It seems to have been a small farming community. Since the hoard was buried all at once rather than deposited over time as savings, it was either an offering to the gods or the earthly goods of an area resident seeking to protect them from marauders.

The hoard is now on display at the Historical Museum of The Hague.

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Norfolk museum acquires Bronze Age dirk used as doorstop

Monday, November 24th, 2014

When a farmer turned up a hunk of bent bronze while ploughing a field in East Rudham, Norfolk, 12 years ago, he had no idea he’d found an archaeological treasure. He used the four-pound object as a doorstop for years. In 2013, the object was reviewed by Andrew Rogerson, Senior Historic Environment Officer of Norfolk’s Identification and Recording Service which is in charge of county’s Portable Antiquities Scheme. He identified it as an extremely rare and important ceremonial dirk from the Middle Bronze Age, around 1,500 B.C. The landowner agreed to sell it to the Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery for £40,970 ($64,272). Thanks to a £38,970 grant from the National Heritage Memorial Fund and a £2,000 donation from the Norfolk and Norwich Archaeological Society, the Norwich Castle Museum is now the proud owner of a 3,500-year-old bronze ceremonial dirk.


Images of Rudham Dirk courtesy of the Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery.

Its large size, deliberately blunt edges and the lack of rivet holes where a handle would be attached are what mark it as having no practical use. Dirks meant for actual stabbing are sharp, pointed and can be wielded easily with one hand. This piece was designed for a ritual purpose, which is why it was found folded. Bending a metal object as a symbolic act of destruction before burial was a common practice in the Bronze Age and later.

Early Bronze Age metal work was done on a small scale for local usage, much like flint knapping or the production of pottery. The Middle Bronze Age saw the development of more specialized metallurgy. Metalworking became the province of increasingly skilled artisans who would have needed workshops and apprentices and imported raw materials to create more elaborate objects. The ceremonial dirks were prestige pieces, the work of the best artisans money could buy. Owning such a heavy, large metal object intended for no practical use was a symbol of power both temporal and, given their ritual purpose, spiritual.

Bronze is composed of 90% copper and 10% tin, and it’s that 10% that was hard to come by in quantities sufficient to make a giant four-pound unusable dagger. In Bronze Age Europe, sources of tin were few and far between. There were in tin mines in the Ore Mountains on the border between Germany and the Czech Republic, on the northwest coast of the Iberian Peninsula, in Brittany in France and in Devon and Cornwall in England. The tin for the Rudham Dirk could have come from the English mines, but the artifact could have been fabricated on the continent.

Only five other ceremonial dirks of this type have been found. Two were discovered in France — the Plougrescant Dirk (1,500–1,300 B.C.), now at the Musée d’Archéologie Nationale in Saint-Germain-en-Laye, and the Beaune Dirk (1,500–1,350 B.C.), now at the British Museum — two in the Netherlands — the co-type find the Ommerschans Dirk (1,500 – 1,100 B.C.) which at last tally was in Bavaria, still in the possession of the family who owned the estate where it was discovered, and the Jutphaas Dirk (1,800-1,500 B.C.), now in the National Museum of Antiquities in Leiden — and one in Oxborough, Norfolk (1,450-1,300 B.C.), which is also in the British Museum.

Their dimensions and details are so similar that all dirks likely came from the same workshop, perhaps even the same hand. They are virtually identical in form, decoration and cross-section. The Beaune and Ommerschans examples are the same length (68 centimeters or just short of 27 inches) as the Rudham Dirk. The Oxborough Dirk is slightly longer at 70 centimeters, while the Jutphaas Dirk is 20 centimeters shorter. If one shop is responsible for all of them, it had an impressive reach through ancient trade networks.

The Norwich Castle Museum’s acquisition of the Rudham Dirk is momentous not just because of the artifact’s immense rarity and archaeological significance. It’s also a homecoming that was denied them the first time a ceremonial dirk was unearthed in the county. The Oxborough Dirk was found in 1988. It was thrust into the peat vertically and erosion had exposed the hilt leaving the finder to literally stumble over it.

The artifact was exhibited at the Norwich Castle Museum in 1989 and the British Museum in 1990 before the owner decided to sell it at a Christie’s auction on July 6th, 1994. It was purchased by high society antiques dealer and notorious loot fencer Robin Symes for £51,000 ($79,076), five times the pre-sale estimate. An export block stopped it from leaving the country and gave the British Museum the time to fundraise so they could buy the dirk from Symes for the price he paid. Thanks to a £20,000 Art Fund grant, the museum was able to acquire the Oxborough Dirk later that year.

So it was saved for the nation, but not so much for Norfolk. The dirk visited its home county three times, twice in exhibits at the Norwich Castle Museum, last winter at the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts in Norwich. This time around, Norfolk’s principal museum gets to keep the rare Middle Bronze Age ceremonial dirk in the county where it was discovered, the only county in the world where two of them have been found.

Dr Tim Pestell, Senior Curator of Archaeology at Norwich Castle said: “We are delighted to have secured such an important and rare find as this, which provides us with insights into the beliefs and contacts of people at the dawn of metalworking. Through its display we hope to bring residents and visitors to Norfolk closer to the remarkable archaeology of our region and stories of our ancient past.”

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Zealand ring fortress dates to 10th century

Tuesday, November 18th, 2014

The remains of a Viking ring fortress discovered on the Vallø Estate on the Danish island of Zealand have been radiocarbon dated and the results confirm the tested area was built in the 10th century. Two samples of charred wood from the northern gate of the structure were tested and produced identical dates: between 895 and 1017 A.D. The samples were taken from the outermost tree rings of the logs and tested at the Department of Physics and Astronomy of Aarhus University in collaboration with Accium BioSciences’ laboratories in Seattle.

The archaeologists from the Danish Castle Centre and Aarhus University who made the find were convinced they had uncovered the first Trelleborg-type fortress in more than 60 years. Only seven of these ringforts built by King Harald Bluetooth in around 980 A.D. probably as part of a defensive network against the Germans have been found in Denmark and southern Sweden. The discovery of a new one was big news, therefore, but since only excavated small sections of the gates and ramparts had actually been unearthed, some archaeologists felt they were jumping the gun in labeling the find a Viking ring fortress.

The excavation wasn’t all they had to go on. The team had done extensive research on the site, performing a detailed laser survey followed by a geomagnetic survey that revealed a structure 475 feet in diameter underneath a mound barely visible to the naked eye. Like the other Trelleborg fortresses, this structure too appeared to be perfectly circular with four gates at the cardinal points of the compass. Armed with the survey data, the team excavated two areas likely to be gates. At the north gate, the team found the large burned oak timbers that were radiocarbon dated.

The oak logs aren’t done testifying to their age. Carbon-14 dating by its nature can’t be narrowed down any further, but tree rings can dated to the individual year. Dendrochronological analysis may give us a precise date. If it’s 980 A.D. or thereabouts, that will be powerful evidence that it’s one of Harald Bluetooth’s Trelleborg fortresses.

The sheer amount of effort required to build this fort, dubbed Borgring, suggests it was meant to convey power. Archaeologists found there was a basin of fresh or brackish water next to one of the walls, an inlet between Køge Bay and the ring fortress. The builders must have had to dig out hundreds of tons of clay from the subsoil into the inlet in order to support the fort. If they had built it a little further inland, none of that extra work would have been necessary. According to Nanna Holm, curator of the Danish Castle Centre, the location was chosen deliberately to signal the power of its owner.

The excavation has also shown that the construction of the fortress is closely related to other Viking fortresses such as Fyrkat near Hobro, Aggersborg near the Limfjord and Trelleborg near Slagelse. These fortresses were undoubtedly built during the reign of Harald Bluetooth, and still more evidence suggests that Borgring, as the fortress has been named, might have belonged to the same building programme.

“There are a lot of similar details in these structures. And it’s been wonderful to see the same things coming to light at Borgring. In addition to the structure of the rampart and the gates, we have also found traces of a street with wood paving running along the inside of the rampart – just like in Fyrkat, Aggersborg and Trelleborg. The most striking thing, however, is the measurements of the fortress. The rampart of Borgring is 10.6 metres wide. That is exactly the same width as the rampart of Fyrkat. So it’s hard to avoid the sense that the same master builder was responsible,” says [Aarhus University medieval archaeology professor Søren] Sindbæk.

Here’s a 3D reconstruction of Borgring based on the excavation with some hypothetical extrapolation:

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5000-year-old human footprints found in Denmark

Monday, November 17th, 2014

The excavations of future construction sites for the Fehmarn Belt Link tunnel continue to strike archaeological gold. Last month it was a 3,000-year-old flint dagger with an intact bark handle. Now Museum Lolland-Falster archaeologists reveal they’ve discovered two sets of Stone Age human footprints left around an extensive system of fixed gillnets, sticks of hazel mounted on stakes to form continuous weirs that trapped fish when the tide came in, on the Danish island of Lolland.

The Stone Age footprints are estimated to date back as far as 5,000 BC to 2,000 BC, to the time when water levels in the Baltic Sea were rising due to melting glaciers in northern Europe, and prehistoric people were able to use the inlets as bountiful fishing grounds. The individuals that made the footprints constructed elaborate fishing fences to catch their prey, and researchers say that the large wooden fences which interconnected to create a single continuous trap, were likely the cause of the footprints.

“What seems to have happened was that at some point they were moving out to the [fish fence], perhaps to recover it before a storm” project manager for the Museum Lolland-Falster, Lars Ewald Jensen says. “At one of the posts, the footprints were found on each side, where someone had been trying to remove it from the sea bottom.”

At least two people were involved in this rescue operation, leaving two sets of footprints of different sizes. They walked onto the wet seabed to pull up what they could of the gillnets and left deep impressions when their feet sank into the ground. Sand and mud then flowed into their prints. Thousands of years later, those prints were still clearly visible to archaeologists, both at the original depth and in dents on the surface.

Up until land reclamation efforts in the late 19th century, the coastal area where the footprints were found was dotted with fjords and streams and subject to regular flooding from the sea. A major Baltic flood in 1872 claimed 80 lives on Lolland. As a result, a vast dyke was built along nearly 40 miles of the island’s south coast. The dyke dried out the fjords. The gillnets bear witness to the constant battle against the incursions of sea water. The wattle had to be repeatedly repaired over the lifetime of the gillnets due in part to flood damage. Museum Lolland-Falster archaeologist Terje Stafseth notes in the museum press release (pdf):

“The investigations have shown that the Stone Age population repeatedly repaired, and actually moved parts of the capture system in order to ensure that it always worked and that it was placed optimally in relation to the coast and currents. We are able to follow the footprints and sense the importance of the capture system, which would have been important for the coastal population to retain a livelihood and therefore worth maintaining.”

These are the second-oldest human footprints found outside of Africa, with the oldest being the 800,000-year-old ones discovered on the rapidly-eroding foreshore of a beach in Happisburgh, Norfolk, in May of 2013. Most Stone Age remains recovered in Denmark are midden piles, broken tools or pottery. Archaeologists have found animal footprints from the period, but these are the first Stone Age human footprints ever found in Denmark.

Footprints and fishing trips weren’t the only discoveries on this ancient beach. Archaeologists also discovered several animal skulls from domestic and wild animals that appear to have been placed there deliberately as part of a ritual offering by farmers who inhabited the area in around 4,000 B.C. Fragments of skulls from assorted animals were placed on the coastal sea floor and then surrounded by crania of cattle and sheep. Axe shafts were placed around the skull sacrifice area which turned out to be quite large at 70 square meters (83 square yards).

The excavation is ongoing but the clock is ticking. This site along with so many others is likely to be destroyed when construction of the tunnel begins in a few months. The footprints and gillnets will be covered by an above-ground facility. All that will be left of the footprints that survived thousands of years will be flat molds taken by the archaeologists.

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Unique remains of Ice Age infants found in Alaska

Thursday, November 13th, 2014

The skeletons of two Ice Age infants discovered at the Upward Sun River archaeological site in central Alaska are the earliest human remains ever found in northern North America. The presence of grave goods is also unprecedented for an infant burial of this era. The remains date to about 11,500 years ago. By analyzing tooth eruption sequences (the stages of the teeth growing out of the jaw), archaeologists were able to determine that one of them is a very young infant, between six and 12 weeks old, while the other was a neonate above 30 gestational weeks, so it was either stillborn or born too premature to live.

These are the youngest individuals from the late Pleistocene to receive a formal burial found anywhere in North America. The only discovery that comes close is the child buried at the Late Clovis Anzick site in Montana around 13,000 years ago, and he was two years old at time of death. It’s rare to find burials of very young infants from highly mobile foraging societies because they didn’t stay in one place for long so there’s no central location like a cemetery and the odds are slim of encountering individual burials even of larger humans. The Upper Sun River site was a residential campsite, not a dedicated burial ground, and yet, three individuals were found buried there within the same feature: the two inhumed infants with grave goods, and a cremated three-year-old with no grave goods. That’s another thing that is unique about this discovery.

Archaeologists found evidence of six different occupations of the site separated by hundreds or thousands of years. All but one of them were short-term camps occupied for no more than a few days while people hunted small game (squirrels, hares, ptarmigan) and fished the plentiful summer salmon in the nearby Tanana River. They’d take their harvest back to the base camp and cook it on hearths. The third occupation is the only one that had a longer-term presence. In addition to 10 cooking hearths, the third occupation features the remains of a dwelling and the burials.

Because of the undisturbed faunal and lithic material excavated from the context of the burials, it seems the two infants were buried at the same time. The cremated remains were buried later (they were found first, in 2010; the infant remains were found last year about 16 inches beneath the cremation) but all three were either buried during the same summer or in subsequent summers. Radiocarbon dating confirms that the lower and upper finds are contemporaneous. Given the consistency of the faunal remains in the ground fill and in the hearth that tops the burial pit, the third occupation base camp was populated by the same people. They could have been the one band or maybe even one family. Archaeologists are optimistic that they’ll be able to retrieve testable samples of nuclear, mitochrondrial and Y-chromosome DNA from the remains which should tell us whether they had a familial relationship.

Since the double infant burial and the toddler cremation were done by the same people around the same time, there is no obvious reason for the differential treatment of the burials. It wasn’t a seasonal accommodation — frozen ground in the winter forcing cremations — because all three burials happened in the summer. There may have been a situational distinction — who was present for the burials, say — or perhaps a religious or cultural one.

The grave goods and funerary customs in the double infant burial are extensive. Archaeologists unearthed four antler rods, foreshafts to which projectile points would have been hafted, decorated along the whole length with geometric abstract incisions. This too is unprecedented. There are some scratchings or possible ownership marks on other paleo-Indian foreshafts, but these are the first ones found with the whole length decorated. Two stone projectiles, dart or spear points, were found placed at the end of two of the rods, exactly where they would have been attached with animal sinew that has now deteriorated. That makes these the earliest hafted shafts discovered in North America, and the first concrete evidence that the foreshafts were topped with stone points.

The entire pit and its contents were covered with ochre, a common element in pre-historic burials most likely due to the association of red with blood and therefore life. The bottom of the pit was lined with ochre, all of the grave goods were coated in it and all of the bones. The articulation of the infant skeletons — knees drawn to the chest, arms folded — suggest they were wrapped in that position before burial. Over time the wrappings disintegrated and the ochre in the pit then covered the bones.

[University of Alaska Fairbanks professor Ben] Potter and his colleagues note that the human remains and associated burial offerings, as well as inferences about the time of year the children died and were buried, could lead to new thinking about how early societies were structured, the stresses they faced as they tried to survive, how they treated the youngest members of their society, and how they viewed death and the importance of rituals associated with it.

“Taken collectively, these burials and cremation reflect complex behaviors related to death among the early inhabitants of North America,” Potter said.

Here is some b-roll of the excavation with great close-ups of the ochre-coated antler rods and a projectile point in situ:

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Human remains found in Amphipolis tomb

Wednesday, November 12th, 2014

Excavation of the third chamber of the Kasta Tumulus in Amphipolis has revealed a limestone cyst grave containing human remains 1.6 meters (5’2″) beneath the surviving floor stones. The grave is 3.23 meters (10’7″) long, 1.56 meters (5’1″) wide and one meter (3’3″) high, but uprights discovered when the cyst was excavated indicate the walls were original at least 1.8 meters (5’10″) high. Two of the limestone slabs that once covered the grave are missing, and bones were found both inside and outside the grave, evidence the tomb was interfered with by looters in antiquity.

When the soil filling the grave was removed, archaeologists found a little ledge going around the bottom inside perimeter. A wooden coffin was originally placed on that ledge. It has long since rotted away, but iron and copper nails from the coffin were found scattered, as were ivory and glass decorations that once adorned it.

The bones have been removed and will be studied in the lab. The hope is that they will be able to tell us something about the identity of the tomb’s owner. It’s going to be a tall order. Even determining sex from disarticulated bone pieces is a challenge that could well be insurmountable.

The always excellent Dorothy King of PhDiva posits that if the remains prove to be male, a likely candidate for the occupant of this tomb is Hephaestion, Alexander’s the Great’s closest friend from childhood who was worshipped as a divine hero after his premature death from a fever in 324 B.C. Alexander was devastated by the loss of Hephaestion, likening their relationship to that of Achilles and Patroclos of Trojan War fame and explicitly modeling his mourning after Achilles’.

Plutarch describes Alexander’s reaction to Hephaestion’s death in Parallel Lives:

Alexander’s grief at this loss knew no bounds. He immediately ordered that the manes and tails of all horses and mules should be shorn in token of mourning, and took away the battlements of the cities round about; he also crucified the wretched physician, and put a stop to the sound of flutes and every kind of music in the camp for a long time, until an oracular response from Ammon came bidding him honour Hephaestion as a hero and sacrifice to him. Moreover, making war a solace for his grief, he went forth to hunt and track down men, as it were, and overwhelmed the nation of the Cossaeans, slaughtering them all from the youth upwards. This was called an offering to the shade of Hephaestion. Upon a tomb and obsequies for his friend, and upon their embellishments, he purposed to spend ten thousand talents, and wished that the ingenuity and novelty of the construction should surpass the expense. He therefore longed for Stasicratesa above all other artists, because in his innovations there was always promise of great magnificence, boldness, and ostentation. This man, indeed, had said to him at a former interview that of all mountains the Thracian Athos could most readily be given the form and shape of a man; if, therefore, Alexander should so order, he would make out of Mount Athos a most enduring and most conspicuous statue of the king, which in its left hand should hold a city of ten thousand inhabitants, and with its right should pour forth a river running with generous current into the sea. This project, it is true, Alexander had declined; but now he was busy devising and contriving with his artists projects far more strange and expensive than this.

So according to Plutarch Alexander had decided against turning all of Mount Athos into a sort of pre-dynamite one-man Mount Rushmore monument to himself, but he planned to make an even more elaborate tomb for his beloved companion, one worthy of a divine hero. Perhaps Alexander’s death in 323 B.C. kept the crazier of the grandiose plans from taking hold or perhaps the ancient sources were exaggerating, as they so often did, but it’s in keeping with Hephaestion’s importance to Alexander and the posthumous honors he received that the largest tomb ever found in Greece would have been built for him.

According to the Greek Culture Ministry, the Kasta Tumulus has to have a public religious purpose like the tomb of a divine hero. The tomb used the greatest amount of marble ever assembled in Macedonia, and the variety and precision of decorative and architectural techniques — the sphinxes, painted architraves, pebble mosaics in the entryway, the Persephone tile mosaic, the caryatids, the lion that was once on top of the tomb — make it a uniquely complex project. Its size and scope was so massive no individual could have mustered the resources to construct it. The archaeological team plans to examine the 430 or so marble elements from the tomb that the Romans stripped from the tomb in the 2nd century A.D. and used to shore up the banks of the river Strymon. Perhaps pieces from inside the tomb, fragments of the grave, for example, might be recovered that will lend additional insight.

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Relief of unknown god found in Turkey

Monday, November 10th, 2014

University of Münster archaeologists excavating the ruins of a medieval monastery near the southeastern Turkish city of Gaziantep have discovered a basalt stele carved with a figure of a previously unknown deity. The monastery of Mar Solomon (Saint Solomon) was built in the early Middle Ages over the remains of the Roman-era temple to Jupiter Dolichenus, a deity who was a syncretized combination of the Greco-Roman thunderer, king of the Olympian gods, and the Hittite sky and storm god Tesub-Hadad. Before the Roman temple there was a sanctuary to Tesub-Hadad on the hill known today as Dülük-Baba Tepesi. The stele was recycled for use as building material in the wall of the monastery.

Archaeologist Blömer described the depiction: “The basalt stele shows a deity growing from a chalice of leaves. Its long stem rises from a cone that is ornamented with astral symbols. From the sides of the cone grow a long horn and a tree, which the deity clasps with his right hand. The pictorial elements suggest that a fertility god is depicted.” There are striking iconographic details such as the composition of the beard or the posture of the arms, which point to Iron Age depictions from the early 1st millennium B.C.

Hundreds of seals from the pre-Roman sanctuary have been found on the site, many of them carved with religious imagery and symbolism that are giving archaeologists new insight into worship practices at the sanctuary in the 1st millennium B.C. The discovery of the fertility god relief is an exciting addition to the archaeological record, and particularly relevant to the team’s investigation of how local cults survived over the millennia and in some cases expanded from their native contexts to widespread religions with adherents all over the Roman empire. Since ancient written sources — usually Roman elites — are unreliable documentation of Near Asian religions, archaeological sources are invaluable.

Excavation director Prof. Dr. Engelbert Winter:

“The image is remarkably well preserved. It provides valuable insights into the beliefs of the Romans and into the continued existence of ancient Near Eastern traditions. However, extensive research is necessary before we will be able to accurately identify the deity.”

Although Doliche was a small town, the empire-spanning prominence of the sanctuary of Jupiter Dolichenus transitioned into the Christian era. It was an episcopal see at least as early as the 4th century, and remains a titular see of the Roman Catholic Church to this day even though there’s nothing there but a glorious wealth of archaeological remains. The monastery of Mar Solomon was in use through the era of the crusades, but it was only known to archaeologists through written sources until the remains were first discovered in 2010.

Now the entire site is being transformed into an archaeological park even as excavations continue. The ruins are being carefully preserved and a trail was put in last year so visitors can view the Jupiter Dolichenus sanctuary and the remains of the monastery.

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Howard Carter the artist

Sunday, November 9th, 2014

Before Howard Carter became the world-famous archaeologist who discovered the tomb of King Tutankhamun in the Valley of the Kings, he was an artist. In fact, it was pretty much all he knew how to do. Howard, the youngest of 11 children of Samuel and Martha Carter, was sick a lot in his youth. The many and varied miasmas of London were considered injurious to his health, so he was sent to live with his aunts in Swaffham, Norfolk, where his father and grandfather had been gamekeepers on the Hamond family estate.

Because of his sickliness he was never enrolled in school. His father, an artist who carved out a successful niche for himself painting portraits of the gentry and their pets, tutored Howard on regular trips to Swaffham, teaching him how to draw and paint. One of Samuel Carter’s patrons was William Amherst Tyssen-Amherst of Didlington Hall, an estate eight miles from Swaffham. As a boy, Howard visited Didlington Hall when his father painted Lord Amherst’s portrait, and this is where he first became exposed to Egyptology.

Amherst was an avid collector of Egyptian antiquities. He, his wife Margaret Mitford (whose father had a passion for all things Egyptian as well) and their seven daughters traveled frequently to Egypt, constantly acquiring new artifacts. A whole wing of Didlington Hall was dedicated to housing his vast collection. Seven statues of the lion-headed warrior goddess Sekhmet guarded the door of the museum, one for each of the Amherst daughters. Those statues are now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The Amherst family didn’t just give Howard Carter the chance to explore Egyptian art through their extensive collection. It was their recommendation and contacts that secured him his first job in Egypt. He was just 17 years old when he was hired as a tracer — someone who copies inscriptions and art work found in excavations onto paper for later study — for the Egyptian Exploration Fund (EEF) in 1891. This was an essential job in the age before color photography. Watercolors were the only accurate recreations of tomb decorations available.

Carter’s first assignment was the Beni Hasan excavation where the princes of Middle Egypt were buried. He immediately distinguished himself with his artistic ability and dedication, often working all day and then spending the night in the tomb. Carter began to learn archaeology on his next assignment at El-Amarna under pioneering Egyptologist Flinders Petrie in 1892. He was still an artist, recording artifacts as they were discovered, but Petrie allowed him to dig too, and Carter made some signficant finds.

In 1894, Carter was appointed Principle Artist of the EEF’s excavation of the Temple of Queen Hatshepsut at Deir el-Bahari. For five years Carter made drawings and watercolors of the wall reliefs in the temple. One of his watercolors from this period, The Temple of Hatshepsut (1899), is going up for auction at Bonhams’ Travel, Exploration and Natural History Sale in London on December 3rd.

Carter also joined in the excavation of the temple and learned restoration techniques as well. He did such a fine job that in 1899 the Egyptian Antiquities Service offered him the job of First Chief Inspector General of Monuments for Upper Egypt. He was 25 years old, had no formal education, and was now the supervisor of all archaeological excavations in the Upper Nile Valley. Carter did great work, installing the first electric lights in six Valley of the Kings tombs and at the temples in Abu Simbel.

His extraordinary run of success came to a halt in 1905 when a group of drunk and belligerent French tourists became violent towards the Egyptian guards at Saqqara. Carter told the guards they could defend themselves. The tourists complained to people in high places and the diplomatic hotshots insisted Carter apologize. He refused. In retaliation, Carter was shipped off to an obscure site with not much in the way of archaeology. Rather than twiddle his thumbs in exile, Carter resigned.

For the next two years, Howard Carter had something of a hard scrabble existence. He sold his watercolors or guided tours to make a living. Then he hit the jackpot. French Egyptologist Gaston Maspero, Director of the Egyptian Antiquities Service who had given Carter the Chief Inspector General job, introduced him to George Herbert, 5th Earl of Carnarvon. Carnarvon had deep pockets and was keen to fund archaeological excavations. He got the necessary licenses and made Carter the Supervisor of Excavations in Thebes.

During this time, Carter painted Under the Protection of the Gods (1908), a composite fantasy that depicts a vulture — representing the goddess Nekhebet, protector of Upper Egypt — above a solar disc wrapped in a cobra — representing the goddess Wadjet, protector of Lower Egypt. It’s likely that the iconography of the watercolor was inspired by some of Carter’s finds in Thebes, including the 18th Dynasty Tomb of Tetaki and a 15th Dynasty tomb with nine coffins.

The Carter-Carnarvon partnership was very successful. By the time World War I began in 1914, Carnarvon had amassed a hugely important collection of Egyptian antiquities. That same year he secured a 15-year license to excavate the Valley of the Kings and Carter got to work. He painted The Valley of the Kings (1914) the first year of excavations. Excavations were disrupted by war, but Carter still managed to dig in 1915 and 1917.

In 1918 excavations restarted in earnest. For the next four years, Carter scoured the Valley of the Kings for the tomb of a previously unknown pharaoh whose name he had discovered. It became something of an obsession with him, but in 1922 when the tomb continued to be elusive, Carnarvon got sick of funding what seemed like a fool’s errand and told Carter that he had one digging season left. Three days after the last excavation began in November of 1922, Carter’s diggers found the top of a staircase. Three weeks later, Carter peered in through a small hole in the doorway and saw the “wonderful things,” that would take the world by storm and make him immortal.

Carter never forgot the people who helped him overcome his humble beginnings. His connection with the Amherst family continued throughout his life. William and Margaret Amherst’s eldest daughter Mary, known as May, wife of Lord William Cecil, took her family’s fascination with Egypt to even greater heights. Between 1901 and 1904, she personally funded and ran excavations at Qubbet el-Hawa in Aswan. Howard Carter was Chief Inspector for Antiquities then, and he helped advise her.

In 1906, the family was left financially devastated when their solicitor and land agent, Charles Cheston, was found to have embezzled hundreds of thousand of pounds to support his gambling habit. Cheston committed suicide. Lord Amherst was forced to sell the collections he had spent decades building into some of the greatest private holdings in the country. His library went first, auctioned by Sotheby’s in 1908 and 1909. William Amherst died two months before the second sale.

May, heir to her father’s estate and title, had no choice but to continue the sell-off. In 1910, the estate itself, home and park, was sold to Colonel Herbert Francis Smith. May refused to sell her father’s Egyptian collection, however. She held on to that resolutely for a decade until her death from breast cancer in 1919. Only after May was gone was the legendary Amherst collection of Egyptian papyri, statues and other artifacts put up for sale at Sotheby’s in 1921. It was Howard Carter who catalogued the collection that had first inspired his great vocation. At the time of the sale, even though some individual objects had been sold piecemeal before then, the Amherst Egyptian collection was the third largest private collection in England.

In 1950, Didlington Hall, broken and neglected after requisition during World War II, was stripped of its last valuables when the interior fittings were sold at auction. The house was demolished and thus what had once been one of Norfolk’s greatest treasures was lost forever.


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Yorkshire Hoards on Google Art Project

Friday, November 7th, 2014

The Google Cultural Institute and the York Museums Trust have joined forces to create an exhibition of hoards discovered in Yorkshire. The Yorkshire Hoards exhibition gives audiences the chance to view buried treasure from the Bronze Age (1000 B.C.) to the Civil War (1650 A.D.). The entries are arranged in chronological order so you can take a virtual trip through Yorkshire history, and descriptions are accompanied by high resolution photographs and video.

Hoards were buried for different reasons in different periods. Bronze Age axe hoards, for example, were buried near bodies of water which suggests there was a ritual purpose behind it. Iron Age and Roman coin hoards are often indicators of unrest, earthly goods buried to keep them safe from danger until the owner could return. Some of them were clearly savings, however, the ancient version of stuffing it in your mattress. Valuables were added to over time, in those cases, instead of being buried in one fell swoop.

Hoards are a great way to explore a region’s history, therefore, because they’re concrete evidence of how people dealt with external threats, their religious practices, the geographic range of their connections, what kind of containers they used, etc. It’s also just cool to be able to zoom in on a great many beautiful artifacts and coins that haven’t previously been photographed in high resolution.

The York Museums Trust is also collaborating with Google to present an online highlight reel of one of their museum’s exhibitions: 1914: When the World Changed Forever, a World War I display currently enjoying great success at the York Castle Museum. Objects include a horse’s gas mask, weapons and an ingenious Zeppalarm device that connected to a home’s gas line and lit a light bulb and sounded an alarm when the gas company turned down the supply to dim the lights and warn of an impending dirigible raid.

The Google exhibitions are just the tip of the iceberg. The York Museum Trust has embraced digitization on a grand scale, placing 160,000 objects in its collections, thousands of which are not on public display, in a freely accessible online database. More than 50,000 of the entries include high resolution images of the objects, all of which are in the public domain so you can download them and use them as you wish. More photographs will be uploaded as they are taken.

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Pharaonic temple found under house in Egypt

Sunday, November 2nd, 2014

The remains of a 3,400-year-old temple from the reign of Tuthmose III (1479-1425 B.C.) have been found underneath a house in the Egyptian town of Badrashin 25 miles south of Cairo. It was discovered two weeks ago under shady circumstances. A group of seven men dug nearly 30 feet (nine meters) under their home, even going so far as to secure wet suits, oxygen tanks and diving masks so they could keep digging after they hit the water table. The Tourism and Antiquities Police heard about the clandestine dig and arrested the men for illegal excavation. They were detained briefly but had to be released because the area where they were digging was not a designated archaeological site.

It is now. The entire Hod Zeleikha neighborhood has been declared an archeological site and is now under the control of the Antiquities Ministry. The unauthorized amateur excavation has been replaced with an official dig by archaeologists from Egypt’s antiquities ministry and workers from the state-owned Arab Contractors Company. After pumping out the groundwater, the team discovered seven large limestone blocks engraved with hieroglyphic inscriptions, the bases of several columns and a piece of a colossal statue. The colossus fragment is 6.2 feet high and carved out of pink granite. It depicts a seated person.

The hieroglyphics date the structure to the New Kingdom period (1539-1075 B.C.) and at least some of the inscriptions date to the reign of the pharaoh Tuthmose III (1490-1436 B.C.). The reign of Tuthmose III is considered a golden age in Egyptian history. The stepson and nephew of pharaoh Hatshepsut, Tuthmose III was technically pharaoh from the age of two, co-ruler with his stepmother. In practise he didn’t rule until Hatshepsut died 22 years after they ascended to the throne. He ruled another 32 years after Hatshepsut’s death. Under his reign, the Egypt empire reached its greatest extent, from northern Syria to the Fourth Cataract of the Nile in Nubia.

The recovered artifacts have been transported to Saqqara for conservation and study. Archaeologists hope the inscriptions and future discoveries will reveal more about the history of Egypt under Tuthmose III. The ministry plans to continue the archaeological survey of the site and excavate more of the temple.

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