Archive for the ‘Ex Cathedra’ Category

Palaiologos signet ring found in Bulgaria

Thursday, August 15th, 2019

Georgi Palaiologos signet ring, 14th century. Photo courtesy National History Museum.Bulgarian archaeologists have discovered the tomb of a 14th-century aristocrat from the Byzantine Palaiologos imperial dynasty at the Kaliakra Fortress in northern Bulgaria. The tomb’s occupant was identified by a gold signet ring inscribed with his name: Georgi Palaiologos.

The ring is of the Kaloyan type, named after the gold seal ring found in a grave near the Church of the Holy Forty Martyrs in Tarnovo that was associated with the late 12th century Bulgarian Tsar Kaloyan but almost certainly belonged to a 14th century descendant with the same name. Georgi’s ring is much more impressive than Kaloyan’s, larger, heavier with more detailed engraving. The central image is a dove with a cross-hatched background. The inscription encircles it.

In 16 seasons of excavations, numerous burials of Kaliakran aristocracy have been unearthed at the fortress on the coast of the Black Sea. It was the capital of the Despotate of Dobruja in the 14th century, ruled by Balik, followed by his brother Dobrotitsa. They were allied to the Palaiologi. Balik supported Anna of Savoy, widow of Emperor Andronikos III Palaiologos and regent for her minor son John V Palaiologos during the Byzantine civil war (1341–1347). After Balik’s death in 1347, Anna carved out a larger autonomous province for Dobrotitsa to rule and he ended up conquering much of Bulgaria. Dobrotitsa’s daughter (we don’t know her name) married Michael Palaiologos, son of John V. It’s therefore eminently possible Georgi was related to both the despots and the emperors.

In the grave, the archeological team uncovered rich gifts that made it possible to restore the ritual of sending the young dead. The funeral was carried out in the second half of the fourteenth century, with a pit formed on a rock with a stone enclosure. The nobleman was laid in a coffin with well-preserved traces. His face was covered with luxurious fabric, gifts and a glass vessel were placed on his body, in which, according to his beliefs, the tears of the mourners were collected.

Note to self: add a mourners’ tears goblet codicil to my will.

This year’s dig will conclude at the end of the month. Later this year the National History Museum in Sofia will publish the full catalogue of finds from 2018’s star discovery, the clay pot full of coins, jewelry and other valuables dubbed the “Tartar booty.”

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Serpent sideplate found at Michigan colonial fort

Tuesday, August 6th, 2019

The longest ongoing archaeological dig in the United States, the excavation of Fort Michilimackinac in Michigan’s lower peninsula, has unearthed a neat serpent-shaped sideplate from a British trade gun. Just shy five inches long, the sideplate dates to the 1770s. It was discovered in the west wall of the root cellar of House E of the Southeast Rowhouse. Only four gun parts have been found there in 12 years of excavations.

The house was first owned by French-Canadian fur trader Charles Henri Desjardins de Rupallay de Gonneville, who lived and worked in the area between the 1730s and 1750s, and later by an unidentified British trader. The site has proved an archaeological gold mine, with a unique ivory rosary found in 2015, a trade silver triangle pendant and a brass lock in 2017, and the hits just keep coming.

This find continues an amazing streak of discoveries from the past few years in the root cellar, including ceramic vessels, tin-glazed earthenware, creamware plates, Chinese export porcelain, a mostly intact knife, and the handle of a sword, all uncovered during the 2018 season, as well as a large ceramic sherd, a silver trade brooch, a door hinge and a large piece of feather creamware already found in 2019.

In the excavations that have taken place at Fort Michilimackinac every summer since 1959, archaeologists have unearthed more than a million objects and materials, so you wouldn’t think so modest an artifact as a serpent sideplate wouldn’t necessarily rate public comment, but the vast majority of what has been found at the fort are fragments of glass, bones, beads, buttons, literal trash left behind by the soldiers, traders and Native American residents who slowly moved out of the fort in favor of the nearby limestone fort of Mackinac Island. In the two years it took for the fort to be abandoned, all the valuables and every-day items that were still intact or usable in any way were packed up and moved with the people. Refuse is all that’s left, and because archaeology is awesome, what was garbage to the British and French in 1781 is such a rich treasury of information to us today that it has sustained six decades of continuous excavation.

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“I went to Rome and all I got you was this lousy stylus”

Monday, July 29th, 2019

An iron stylus inscribed with a quip reminiscent of many a hokey souvenir t-shirt has been found in central London. One of thousands of exceptional Roman treasures unearthed during the Museum of London Archaeology excavation of Bloomberg’s future European headquarters, the inscription makes this stylus unique. Inscribed Roman styluses are extremely rare finds anywhere in the empire, and the length and wit of this one makes it a stand-out piece.

The pens were used to write on wax-coated wooden tablets, more than 400 of which were discovered at the Bloomberg dig, extremely rare survivals that were preserved in the waterlogged soil of the lost Walbrook river.  MOLA archaeologists also found more than 200 styluses in that same excavation, and only this one had an inscription.

When it was first discovered during the 2010-2014 excavation, corrosion obscured the inscription making it illegible. The fact that it could be recovered at all is a tribute to the Walbrook’s powers of preservation. For years MOLA conservators have worked painstakingly to bring its clever wording back. Epigrapher Dr. Roger Tomlin was able to decipher and translate the tiny lettering:

‘ab urbe v[e]n[i] munus tibi gratum adf(e)ro
acul[eat]um ut habe[a]s memor[ia]m nostra(m)
rogo si fortuna dar[e]t quo possem
largius ut longa via ceu sacculus est (v)acuus’

‘I have come from the City. I bring you a welcome gift
with a sharp point that you may remember me.
I ask, if fortune allowed, that I might be able (to give)
as generously as the way is long (and) as my purse is empty.’

In other words: the stylus is a gift to remind the recipient of its sender; the sender acknowledges that it is a cheap gift and wishes that they could have given more.

The stylus dates to around 70 A.D., when Londinium was a thriving commercial and administrative center. The inscription is a glimpse into the links connecting people even at the outer edges of the empire with the Caput Mundi.

The conserved stylus is going on display for the first time at the Ashmolean Museum’s Last Supper in Pompeii exhibition.

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Six standing stones found in Switzerland

Friday, July 26th, 2019

Archaeologists have discovered six Neolithic aligned standing stones in downtown Sion, Switzerland. The site on the Avenue du Petit-Chasseur was being excavated in advance of construction of a new apartment building. With the 3rd millennium B.C. dolmen of Le Petit-Chasseur less than a quarter mile down the road, the future development gave archaeologists an opportunity to explore one of the most important prehistoric sites in Europe.

Several dolmen (dry stone collective tombs) and dozens of anthropomorphic stelae have been found in the area since the first dolmen was found in 1961. No dolmen were found this time, but the six standing stelae in a double row were.

Three of the recently found standing stones are engraved with markings. The biggest find is a stone weighing nearly two tonnes bearing a representation of a male figure wearing geometrically patterned clothing and with a sun-like motif around his face.

One of the stones also has a number of small circular depressions on its surface, something that has not been found before in Valais but has been found at a site in Aosta in Italy.

The stone decorated with cupules found at Saint-Martin-de-Corleans in Aosta dates from the same period, around 2500 B.C.

Archaeologists observed that some of the megaliths appear to have been deliberately broken and deposited. Others are incomplete. It’s possible that later builders re-used the standing stones in whole or in part. Indeed, the earliest dolmens discovered at Petit-Chasseur had walls made of engraved slabs.

This summer’s finds at Petit-Chasseur open new avenues of investigation to explore the megalithic structures of late Neolithic Sion and the complex societal rituals connected to them.

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Dickens museum buys lost portrait

Friday, July 19th, 2019

The Charles Dickens Museum has acquired a long-lost miniature of the author as a young man 175 years after it was last seen in public. The museum launched an appeal last November to raise £180,000 to secure the portrait for its collection at 48 Doughty Street, the historic home in which Dickens wrote Oliver Twist and Nicholas Nickleby.

The miniature first re-emerged in 2017 part of a box of assorted odds-and-ends including an old recorder, a brass dish and a metal lobster that was being sold at auction in Pietermaritzburg, South Africa. The buyer bought the box for £27. The portrait was covered in yellow mold that obscured its details, but after some Googling its new owner thought it might be a depiction of Dickens. In 2018, the buyer sent the portrait to the Philip Mould & Co Gallery in London where it was conserved and studied. Free of its bilious crust, the portrait was identified as the portrait whose whereabouts have been unknown for more than 170 years.

It was painted in late 1843 by Margaret Gillies, one of the foremost miniaturists of her time and a particular favorite among literary luminaries. Dickens sat for it six times during the period when he was writing A Christmas Carol. He was 31 years old. Gillies exhibited it at the Royal Academy of Arts in London in 1844, and that year a black-and-white print of it was used as the frontispiece of A New Spirit of the Age, a collection of essays about great Victorian writers, Dickens first among them.

That poor quality rendition of the portrait would become the sole extant version. Gillies wrote in 1886 that she had “lost sight of the portrait itself” and nobody else knew where it was either. Philip Mould’s researchers think it made its way to South Africa in the 1860s with one of the sons of George Eliot’s partner George Henry Lewes. Gillies’ daughter was married to another of Lewes’ sons and the families were close.

It will go on display starting October 24th and is expected to be a regular feature of the museum’s holiday celebrations. The watercolor is fragile so it won’t be on display all the time to ensure the long-term preservation of its paint.

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Dugout canoe found in Maine

Sunday, June 9th, 2019

A dugout canoe believed to be the oldest ever discovered in Maine has been unearthed in Cape Porpoise Harbor on the state’s southern coast. The canoe was found late last year by archaeologist Tim Spahr during a survey of the intertidal zone of the beach. The remains of the canoe had been exposed on the surface by shifting sands. The canoe, dug out of a birch tree trunk, has been radiocarbon dated to 1280-1380 A.D.

There’s an Algonquin fishing weir complex off Cape Porpoise’s Redin Island.  Spahr, who has written a paper about the weir complex, believes the dugout canoe is likely of Algonquin origin, used in the community’s fishing and trading activities.

The waterlogged sand had preserved the wood, but once it was exposed, the canoe was endangered. Spahr, principal archaeologist and investigator of the Cape Porpoise Archaeological Alliance, assembled a team of archaeologists and students from the University of New England in Biddeford and the University of New Brunswick to excavate the canoe.

“We started a few days before, building a custom crate to carry the canoe,” Spahr said. On Saturday morning, while they waited for the tide, the team conducted training and practiced how they would move the canoe.

“A few of us went in with wetsuits and snorkeling gear to move the sand before the tide subsided,” he said.

At around 2 p.m. the tide was low enough for crews to get handmade straps under the canoe, and they were able to lift it out and into the crate.

“It was incredibly volatile. It did suffer a few cracks in the wood, but we were able to get it into the crate in one piece,” Spahr said.

The canoe was transported to the Clement Clark Boathouse for the first phase of a long conservation process. It will be fully immersed in fresh water for a year to keep it from drying out and to gradually remove the salt content. It will have to be moved before winter to a location with climate control so the water bath won’t freeze.

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Video recreates earliest Pictish fort

Friday, June 7th, 2019

A Pictish fort that once occupied the Dunnicaer sea stack off the coast of Aberdeenshire, Scotland, has been reconstructed on video. Located near the site of Dunnottar Castle, which was built on top of a later Pictish fort, Dunnicaer is today disconnected from the mainland at high tide but is believed to have been a much larger and connected outcropping before erosion from the crashing surf whittled it into a sea stack.

Pictish symbol stones had been discovered there by adventurous young men in 1832, but because it’s so difficult to access, Dunnicaer has barely been examined by archaeologists. In 2015, a team from the University of Aberdeen enlisted the aid of mountain climbers to reach the summit of the sheer cliff face and excavate the surface. They discovered evidence of a hill fort with stone ramparts framed with wood timbers, floors and stone hearths. Some of the hearths were built on top of each other, indicating space was extremely limited and dwellings were constructed on top of old ones.

Radiocarbon dating of the timber placed its construction between the 2nd and 4th century A.D. That makes it the oldest Pictish fort ever discovered in Scotland.

“Dunnicaer appears to have been home to a significant fort, even at this early date,” Dr Noble added. “We can see there were ramparts, particularly on the south side, constructed of timber and stone. This is consistent with the style of later Pictish forts.

“The stone is not from the local area so it must have been quite a feat to get it, and the heavy oak timbers, up to such an inaccessible site.

“It is likely that the sea stack was greater in size than it is today as the fort appears to extend over a large area. Dunnicaer was likely to have been a high status site for a structure of this scale and complexity to have been present as early as the 3rd century.” […]

Aberdeenshire Council archaeologist Bruce Mann said “The dates for this site are truly amazing, and hugely important for Scottish archaeology. Towards the end of the 3rd century AD evidence of how and where people were living largely disappears, leading to all sorts of speculation over what happened during the next 200 years. This discovery now starts to not only fill in that missing story, but also helps us to understand the early origins of the Picts in the north east.”

It was hard to access even in back then, and the radiocarbon evidence indicates it was inhabited for a short time, likely abandoned in favor of Dunnottar when erosion made the sea stack dangerous. Unfortunately the heavy erosion has continued, taking significant portions of any archaeological materials crashing into the sea along with the cliffs.

Now a new virtual reconstruction of what the fort might have looked like in the 4th century has been created using information from the University of Aberdeen’s excavation. It’s fascinating to see how intimately the archaeology is linked to the geology of this unique environment.

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Rare pristine Nazi cypher machine sold at auction

Tuesday, May 28th, 2019

An extremely rare German cryptographic machine in excellent condition has sold at auction for €98,000 ($110,000). The Schlüsselgerät (meaning “cipher machine”) 41 was supposed to replace the famous Enigma enciphering machine after it was cracked by Alan Turing and the Bletchley Park codebreakers in 1941, but very few ended up being produced and only a handful of survived in working condition. They’re so rare that even corroded husks are still prized by museums. This one is not only functional, it looks practically new.

The SG-41 was invented by cryptologist Fritz Menzer. Menzer had enlisted in the Reichswehr as a mechanic when he was 18 years old and without any formal training, developed an interest in cryptography into inventing new cracking methods and devices. In 1940, he was appointed Regierungs-Oberinspektor of the OKW/Chi, the cryptology division of the German Army High Command.

The new device had six wheels (Enigma had three, four in later models) that could rotate in both directions and used two reels of paper, one for the original text, the other for coded message, rather than bulbs illuminating letters. The keyboard operation made it much faster to use and the encryption algorithms were more complex and sophisticated. The hand crack on the side inspired the machine’s nickname: Hitlermühle, or Hitler Mill.

Even though it was distinctly superior to the Enigma machines in cryptographic functionality, the SG-41 wasn’t used until 1944. The problem was the hardware. They were supposed to lightweight and durable for use on the front lines, but shortages of aluminum and magnesium forced the use of heavier materials. The end-result was a machine that weighed 25-33 pounds which made them much too heavy for field use.

Three years after their invention, a few SG-41s made it into production. About 500 were made by Wanderer-Werke in Chemnitz, eastern Germany (makers of the iconic Continental typewriters), and dispatched to the Abwehr in late 1944 to replace the limping and inadequate Enigma-G machines still in use. Another thousand (the SG-41Z variant), were sent to the Luftwaffe weather service. The Wehrmacht planned to manufacture 1,000 of them by October 1945 and ramp up production to 10,000 a month by January of 1946. The war ended first.

The recently-sold example is one of the Abwehr machines, so one of only 500 ever made. The auctioneers enlisted cypher machine expert Klaus Kopacz to examine their Hitler Mill. They disassembled it, adjusted the wheels, inserted paper reels and tested it. Everything worked. All it needs is some WD-40 and fresh ink as the printouts were barely legible. There are only five small parts missing (a button, a spacer, a spring, a bolt and a metal disc), all easily replaceable.

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Getty acquires gems of ancient intaglio collection

Monday, May 13th, 2019

Intaglios are gems, miniature designs intricately carved on gemstones, but the 17 acquired by the Getty Museum at auction two weeks ago are gems among gems. That’s why those 17 pieces, many of them not even an inch long, cost the Getty just shy of $8 million, $7,939,250, to be precise.

The entire sale of 40 Roman, Greek, Etruscan and Greco-Persian intaglio and cameo gemstones at Christie’s on April 29th raked in $10,640,500. Obviously the Getty with its bottomless pit of cash picked the choicest ones, but they weren’t the only players in this game because the hammer prices went far beyond pre-sale estimates. A Greek Mottled Yellow Jasper Scaraboid with a Grasshopper from the Classical Period (ca. late 5th century B.C.), for example, was estimated to sell for $30,000-50,000. It sold for $519,000. A Roman Amethyst Ringstone with a Portrait of Demosthenes signed by Dioskourides, gem engraver to the Emperor Augustus, was estimated to sell for $200,000-300,000. The Getty dropped $1,575,000 on it.

The tradition of ancient carved gems was born from the seals and cylinders of Mesopotamia 5,000 years ago. They were sigils, used to make imprints into wet clay to sign official documents. From there they spread throughout Greece, Egypt and Persia and the Levant. Over the centuries they came to hold religious significance as well, carved with images of deities and mythological heroes, worn as amulets and consecrated to temples as votive offerings.

In the Greek Classical Period, the engraving became finer wrought and more detailed. The quality and variety of available stones took a great leap forward during the 3rd century B.C. thanks to Alexander the Great’s conquests. (You’d think, therefore, that there would be more than one gemstone carved with a bust of Alexander, but only one is known to survive.) While still used to create impressions, carved gemstones became primarily fashionable adornments at this time, jewels of high craftsmanship and expensive materials.

Intaglios, in which the designs are cut into the surface of a stone, are the direct descendants of the signet tradition. The other form of ancient gem engraving, cameo, is its positive, a relief created by carving away the stone around it, the stone version of the clay bullae stamped from seals. Most of them were mounted onto rings in settings of precious metals. Larger pieces were used as pendants or perhaps brooches.

Romans continued the Hellenistic tradition of carved gemstones, introducing a new material: glass, from which cameos could be cut with advanced knowledge of what layers of color would emerge, unlike the beautiful crapshoot of carving agates and chalcedonies.

The craft declined and fell along with the empire, but the beauty of the stones ensured they were prized whenever they were discovered. In the Middle Ages they were mounted on religious objects, an inadvertent return to one of their more ancient functions. The revival of Classical art in the Renaissance drove a new interest in ancient intaglios and cameos. The wealthy collected them, sometimes remounting them into new pieces of jewelry. Come the Grand Tour in the 17th century, portable, glamorous engraved gemstones became de rigeur features of the most elegant and aristocratic cabinets of curiosities.

As an art dealer to European royalty and English Grand Tourist aristocrats, Count Antonio Maria Zanetti, amassed a great collection of carved gemstones, ancient and modern, and published a thorough catalogue of his pieces. His most beloved stone was a portrait of Antinous. Mirroring Hadrian’s fiery affection for his favorite, Zanetti pursued this one black chalcedony intaglio with unmatched passion. For 23 years he tried to get his hands on it. He said he would have sold his house to buy it. By 1740, he had succeeded (and kept his house). He sold it shortly before his death in 1767 to George Spencer, 4th Duke of Marlborough, who assembled a great collection of 780 engraved gemstones during his lifetime.

In this century, Roman art dealer Giorgio Sangiorgi acquired some of the finest ancient carved gemstones known, including the Marlborough Antinous. He carefully curated his collection, selecting exceptional examples from earlier dispersed collections like George Spencer’s. Most of them he bought before World War II, and while the collection has been in Switzerland since the 1950s, has never been on public view and wasn’t published until last year, the ownership history of every gem is beyond impeccable, stretching back centuries.

Little wonder the Getty jumped on these tiny masterpieces to the tune of eight million dollars.

“The acquisition of these gems brings into the Getty’s collection some of the greatest and most famous of all classical gems, most notably the portraits of Antinous and Demosthenes,” explains Timothy Potts, director of the J. Paul Getty Museum. “But the group also includes many lesser-known works of exceptional skill and beauty that together raise the status of our collection to a new level. Two such are the image of three swans on a Bronze Age seal from Crete, which has an elegance and charm transcending its early date (c. 1600 B.C.); and the image of the semi-divine Perseus, a marvel of minute naturalism that cannot fail to enthrall. This acquisition represents the most important enhancement to the Getty Villa’s collection in over a decade.”

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Breton village offers reward to decipher mysterious stone inscription

Sunday, May 12th, 2019

The village of Plougastel-Daoulas in Brittany is sending out an appeal to linguists, cryptographers, students, scholars and puzzlers of all stripes to decipher a mysterious inscription carved onto a boulder centuries ago, and they’re willing to put money on it.

The inscription begins “grocar drear diozeevbio” and more text follows — “roc ar b,” “dre ar grio se eveloh ar viriones baoavel,” “r i obbiie:brisbvilar” — none of it in any recognized language.

“This inscription is a mystery and it is for this that we are launching the appeal,” said Veronique Martin, who is spearheading the search for a code-cracker.

The rock, which is around the size of a person, is accessed via a path from the hamlet of Illien ar Gwenn just to the north of Corbeau point.

The inscription fills the entirety of one of its sides and is mainly in capital letters but there are also pictures including a sailing boat. There are two dates, 1786 and 1787.

“These dates correspond more or less to the years that various artillery batteries that protected Brest and notably Corbeau Fort which is right next to it,” she said.

The rock is bathed by the sea. The image of the sailboat is so close to the foot of the rock that the waters touch it at high tide.

The only known part of the inscription is a relatively recent addition: the date 1920, engraved by a Russian soldier garrisoned there during World War I. Just in case there might be a link between this and the rest of the inscription, linguists in Russia were contacted but to no avail. It’s not a Cyrillic language/dialect and Russian does not appear to have anything to do with it.

The Champollion Mystery of Plougastel-Daoulas, named after the French Egyptologist Jean-Francois Champollion who translated the hieroglyphic inscription on the Rosetta Stone, runs through the end of November 2019. All submissions, analyses and research reports, will be analyzed by a jury of academics and a representative from Brittany’s archaeology department. The most plausible entry will receive a €2,000 award.

The municipality has already received more than a thousand emails. If you’d like to try your hand at solving this riddle, email veronique.martin@mairie-plougastel.fr .

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