Archive for the ‘Ex Cathedra’ Category

Secrets of Vermeer’s Milkmaid revealed

Saturday, September 24th, 2022

A new study of Johannes Vermeer’s masterpiece The Milkmaid has revealed painted-over details of his original composition that shed new light on his artistic process.

Next year, the Rijksmuseum is bringing together 27 of the 35 known paintings by Vermeer in a landmark exhibition dedicated to the 17th century Delft master. There will be works on loan from the Frick Collection in New York, the Mauritshuis in The Hague, the Städel Museum in Frankfurt am Main, the National Gallery of Ireland in Dublin and the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC.

In the run-up to the new exhibition that opens in February of 2023, the Rijksmuseum has been working with the Mauritshuis and the University of Antwerp to study all of the works by Vermeer that are currently in the Netherlands using state-of-the-art analytical technology. The four Vermeers in the Rijksmuseum’s permanent collection — The Milkmaid, The Little Street, The Love Letter and Woman Reading a Letter — have been photographed in ultra-high resolution, scanned with Optical Coherence Tomography, Macro-XRF and Short Wavelength Infrared Reflectance (SWIR), an imaging technology used for industrial inspections and military applications.

It was the SWIR imaging that brought to light two objects Vermeer had painted over before completing them on The Milkmaid: a jug holder with jugs hanging from the handles behind the milkmaid’s head, and a fire basket at her feet. The presence of something in those areas had been noted in previous X-rays, but the older technology could not make out what they were. Experts thought it might be a fireplace behind her hand. The detail is so much greater that conservators were able to identify the jug holder and the fire basket from the incomplete underpainting. Vermeer’s estate inventory records that he had a jug holder in his pantry and a fire basket (used to hold glowing coals to warm a baby’s bedding, clothing and the baby itself).

This discovery sheds entirely new light on Vermeer’s methods. The general assumption was that the artist produced his small oeuvre very slowly, and always worked with extreme precision. This view is now being revised. A hastily applied thick line of black paint can be seen beneath the milkmaid’s left arm. This sketch shows clearly that Vermeer first quickly painted the scene in light and dark tones before developing the detail.

A similar preliminary sketch in black paint can be seen on the wall behind the young woman’s head. By comparing the results produced using the latest research techniques, it has now become clear that Vermeer used black paint to sketch a jug holder and several jugs, but didn’t develop them any further. The jug holder, a plank of wood with nobs attached, was used in 17th-century kitchens for hanging up multiple ceramic jugs by the handle. A pantry in Vermeer’s own home contained a similar item, and a miniature version of just such a jug holder can be found elsewhere in the Rijksmuseum, in Petronella Oortman’s dolls’ house (c. 1690).

The new discoveries are explained with great visuals in this video which is the third in a series the Rijksmuseum has produced about its research into Vermeer’s masterworks. See the second video in the series, which follows conservators as they image the four works in the museum’s permanent collection, here. The first video in the series focuses on The Milkmaid and The Little Street.


Cremation grave found under uniquely robust burial mound

Thursday, September 15th, 2022

Polish archaeologists have discovered the remains of an ancient cremation grave under a uniquely-constructed burial mound in the Sarbia forest area of northwest Poland.

The mound is the easternmost in a line of kurgans that are part of a necropolis of the Iron Age Wielbark culture (1st-5th century A.D.) near the village of Mirosław. The excavation revealed the mound was built over an interior stone pavement encircled by two trenches and a ring of wooden posts reinforced with clay walls.

Underneath the pavers is a levelling layer with an impressive range like a stone shim, starting on the east side with a height of six inches and ending on the west side at almost 20 inches high. This strong structure ensured that the tons of stone piled on it to build the kurgan mound would not collapse.  Archaeologists believe there were additional elements — wood or clay structures — reinforcing the mound from the other side.

The cremation burial was found inside the leveling layer. It was dug into the center of the square pavement and contains only human remains and one iron spur. Wielbark burials, cremation and inhumation, do not contain weapons or armor. Spurs are the only attributes of warrior burials ever found in Wielbark graves, and even they are rare.

The remains of a person buried here are currently the subject of anthropological research conducted by prof. M. Krenz-Niedbała at the Faculty of Biology, AMU. The temperature of the cremation stack must have been unusually high. This is evidenced by the state of burning human bones, but also small teardrops of metal from grave gifts. The only object that has been preserved in its entirety is a bronze spur, so we can assume that again in the area of ​​the examined cemetery we are dealing with a rider’s grave (or maybe, as was the case in the 2020 season – amazons). Among the damaged pieces of equipment, a fragment of the clasp bow and perhaps a fragment of a S-shaped clasp have survived. After the conservation of the monuments, we will certainly learn more about their function — adds [Andrzej Michałowski, Dean of the Faculty].

Near the grave, from the east, as was the case under the embankment of the 7th burial mound examined in 2016, a trace of the bottom of the iron firing furnace was recorded. Nearby, during the works carried out in the area of ​​the embankment, there were iron slags, probably coming from the basin that had been dismantled before the construction of the burial mound.


1.8 million-year-old human tooth found in Georgia

Friday, September 9th, 2022

Archaeologists have discovered a 1.8 million-year-old tooth from an early species of human near the village of Orozmani, in Georgia. It is the fourth premolar of the mandible of what appears to be an adult most likely of the Homo erectus species.

The find site, about 60 miles southwest of Tbilisi, is only 12 miles south of Dmanisi where a series of 1.8 million-year-old hominin skulls were discovered in excavations between 1991 and 2005. The tooth now joins the Dmanisi skulls as the oldest hominin remains found outside Africa.

Excavations at Orozmani last year found bones of extinct animals, stone tools and lithic flakes dating to between 1.77 and 1.84 million years ago, but the tooth is the first human remains discovered at the site. The discovery confirms that this area of the South Caucasus was widely settled by Homo erectus groups as they migrated out of Africa to the Eurasia.

The latest discovery at a site about 12 miles away provides yet more evidence that the mountainous south Caucasus area was probably one of the first places early humans settled after migrating out of Africa, experts said.

“Orozmani, together with Dmanisi, represents the centre of the oldest distribution of old humans – or early Homo – in the world outside Africa,” the National Research Centre of Archaeology and Prehistory of Georgia said.

Giorgi Bidzinashvili, the scientific leader of the dig team, said he thought the tooth belonged to a “cousin” of Zezva and Mzia, the names given to the people whose near-complete 1.8m-year-old fossilised skulls were found at Dmanisi.

The family tree of the Dmanisi fossils is still subject of active debate. Originally believed to be a separate Homo species, they have now been classified as Homo erectus, but there are enough distinctions between them that paleontologists think they were part of an evolving lineage of the species.


Utility rooms excavated in the House of the Enchanted Garden

Saturday, August 6th, 2022

The latest discoveries in the excavation of Pompeii’s Regio V neighborhood are fully furnished utility spaces, of great archaeological significance for the details they preserve of a common domestic context in the 1st century Roman town.

The room was found in the House of the Enchanted Garden, a beautifully frescoed home with a lararium (a shrine to the household gods) that is one of the largest ever discovered in Pompeii. In 2021, archaeologists undertook an excavation and restoration of rooms on the ground floor in front of the lararium and the stories above it. They uncovered four rooms, two on the ground floor and two above, that were furnished. One was unfinished, with unplastered walls and an earthen floor, a jarring contrast in a house so decorated with such fine frescoes. The unfinished room was used for storage.

Archaeologists were able to make casts of the furnishings in the room which left a cavity in the hardened ash that could be filled with plaster. One room contained a bed frame and a pillow. The texture of the fabric was imprinted in the ash and is visible on the plaster cast. It is a very simple cot with ropes strung across the sides. There isn’t even a mattress, let along any decoration. Next to the bed was a wooden trunk divided into two compartments. The lid was open, but broken when the beams and floorboards of the story above collapsed in the eruption. Inside the trunk, archaeologists found a terra sigillata saucer and a double-spouted oil lamp depicting Zeus in the act of transforming into an eagle. Next to the trunk was a circular three-legged table with a shallow ceramic bowl containing two small glass bottles, a blue glass saucer and a terra sigillata bowl.

In the storage room, archaeologists were able to make two casts: a shelf and a group of wooden planks in different sizes, cuts and finishes, tied together. This was probably a collection of raw materials for assorted home maintenance projects from furniture patching to roof repair. Outside the room in a small hallway another utilitarian treasure was found: a tall wooden cabinet with at least four doors and five internal shelves. The top of the wardrobe and the front doors were damaged when the floor above the room collapsed. The remains of jugs, amphorae, bowls and plates were found on the damaged top shelf.

The excavation of the upper rooms revealed materials that were in the process of collapsing onto the rooms below. Of enormous archaeological value is a unique group of wax writing tablets. The group consists of seven triptychs tied both vertically and horizontally by a cord. A large cupboard, collapsed in the eruption, was also excavated. It contained different types of common use ceramics for kitchen and dining, as well as fine terra sigillata ceramics and glass. There was also a set of small bronze vessels, including a basin with palm leaf-shaped handles and a small jug decorated with a sphinx and lion’s head. Another special treasure is an incense burner shaped like a cradle with a male figure at one end. The polychrome paint coloring the figure and decorating the cradle with geometric designs is perfectly preserved.

The excavation overlapped onto a residential property behind the House of the Enchanted Garden, and there the plaster cast technique revealed the imprint of cane lathing in the mortar of a collapsed false ceiling. The cast shows the guts of Pompeiian construction: bundles of caning tied together by a thin cord and covered by a gauze-like fabric to separate the lathing from the wet mortar. Casts were also obtained of what appears to be wood paneling on the north, east and south walls of the room. Some are carved with coffered decoration; others are inlaid with delicate bone elements.


4,000-year old shell tools found in Taiwan

Friday, July 29th, 2022

Archaeologists have discovered a 4,000-year-old burial ground and shell tool processing site in Kenting National Park on the southernmost tip of Taiwan. This is the first prehistoric shell tool processing site discovered in Taiwan, and the oldest and largest found in any Pacific island.

The site was discovered in 2017 during a renewal project to convert the crumbling shopfronts in Eluanbi Park into new green buildings. Contractors stumbled onto human remains, some in slate coffins, and shell tools just under the surface of the soil. Construction work was stopped while archaeologists from National Tsing Hua University’s (NTHU) Institute of Anthropology surveyed the site.

Between 2019 and 2021, the team unearthed a large number of relics and artifacts, including 51 skeletons, 10 of which were buried in slate coffins with coral funeral objects, [Chiu Hung-lin, NTHU Institute of Anthropology associate professor] said.

Among the findings were several finished and unfinished shell tools, as well as relics that indicated it was a site for making those tools, which provided proof that the early inhabitants of Eluanbi used “unique” shell-crafting techniques, Chiu said.

The site also offered insights into the funeral customs of the people in those times, he said, adding that anthropologists could also make new discoveries by studying the human remains found at the site.

The processed shell finds range widely in design and function. There are practical tools like a shell adze used for cutting, as well as ornaments like shell and shark tooth pendants. The presence of intermediate stages — semi-finished objects, blanks — and processing waste is evidence of an extensive manufacturing operation.


Celtic city gate virtually reconstructed

Saturday, April 30th, 2022

A new 3D virtual reconstruction of the Celtic gate on Staffelberg in Bavaria has been created based on the latest information discovered during excavations in 2018 and 2019. This is the first time it has been possible to document a Celtic city gate in such rich detail.

Staffelberg’s high, rocky plateau made it an ideal location for defense. The first traces of human occupation go all the way back to the 5th millennium B.C., but it reached its peak of population and importance in the late Iron Age when the Celtic oppidium of Menosgada was built on top of the plateau. It was occupied from 150 B.C. until 40 B.C. when it was burned and abandoned. The monumental gate was built around 130 B.C.

The excavation revealed high city walls and a tower three times higher than the walls at the gate. The remains of the walls are up to four feet high. No walls that high have been discovered at any other Celtic oppidia. Archaeologists also discovered a section of paved road that the oldest known in Bavaria. A footprint from the Celtic era, probably left by a construction worker, was found on the road.

Fragments of more than 30 human skulls were recovered. Archaeologists believe the skulls were placed in niches and on wooden posts in the gate. Ancient sources describe Celts adorning their gates with skulls.

“Everything indicates that the nobility who lived on the summit plateau of the Staffelberg wanted to show what they could afford with this gate. It is a demonstration of its richness and the high level of technology,” explains Dr. Markus Schußmann, who led the research excavation at the west gate of the oppidum…. According to current knowledge, the residents probably set the oppidum on fire themselves when they abandoned it around 40 B.C. Using the traces left by the foundations, the charred wood of the gate and the iron nails and fittings in the ground, the archaeologists meticulously did detective work to reconstruct the presumed structure of the complex.

Bavarian State Office for the Preservation of Monuments, emphasizes: “The Celtic Gate opens our eyes to the pre-Christian past. It reveals a lot about the life of the Celts: for example, that traffic on the oldest known street in Bavaria was on the right at the time.”


Muskets from Revolutionary War shipwreck restored

Friday, March 25th, 2022

Three muskets recovered from a Revolutionary War-era shipwreck off the coast of St. Augustine, Florida, have been liberated from thick layers of concretion to reveal intact stock, lock, and brass furniture. The hardened outer layer of corrosion, sediment and marine life took years of painstaking conservation to remove.

The muskets were recovered from a site known as the Storm Wreck which was discovered in 2009 and excavated by marine archaeologists, students and volunteers with the Lighthouse Archaeological Maritime Program between 2009 and 2014. The wreck was one of a fleet of more than 130 British ships, Royal Navy and private, that were enlisted to evacuate Loyalists from Charleston, South Carolina, to the safety of British East Florida in December 1782. They succeeded in fleeing the threat posed by the Continental Army, but for the Storm Ship, the topography of British East Florida itself would be fatally dangerous. The ship ran aground on the treacherous sandbar of St. Augustine on New Year’s Eve, 1782.

Hundreds of artifacts have been recovered from the site, including two British cannons stamped with the date 1780, buttons from regimental uniforms of the Royal Provincial, the 63rd Regiment of Foot and 71st Regiment of Foot, a gentleman’s pocket pistol and the ship’s bell, which is unfortunately devoid of markings so we still don’t know the name of the ship. There are no Royal Navy motifs, so it may have been privately owned.

Many of the recovered objects were obscured inside “rocks” of massed concretions. Conservators took x-rays of the concretions to map out the artifacts within and develop a plan to remove the layers while replacing the salts that will eat away at the object as soon as it is exposed to air. An x-ray of one of the Brown Besses revealed a lead shot that looked like it was in the barrel but was actually to the right of it embedded in the concretion material.

Conservators removed the outer layer of corrosion to reveal the muskets, complete with intact stock, lock, and brass furniture. The stocks were preserved in polyethylene glycol, to bulk and support the waterlogged wood cells as they dried.

The brass furniture included the ramrod pipes, side plate, wrist plate, trigger guard, and trigger plate, all conserved using electrolysis and later affixed to the dried stock. The locks were partially corroded away and partially preserved; leaving an intricate shape that required step-by-step casting and removal of the corrosion. The locks were the last feature added back to the stocks, which completed the treatment and readied the muskets for eventual display at the St. Augustine Lighthouse & Maritime Museum.


Objects from Piceni princely grave go on display

Sunday, January 9th, 2022

Objects recovered from a high-status grave of the Piceni people discovered in Corinaldo, in the central Italian region of Le Marche, have gone on display for the first time. Unearthed in 2018, the princely chariot grave was unusual for the richness of its funerary furnishings and for its location in the north of Le Marche. Other monumental graves of the period found in Le Marche were in the south of the region.

The tomb’s presence was first discovered from the air, during an aerial survey performed as part of a preventive archeology campaign at a site scheduled for construction of a new sports complex. The flyover revealed ring ditches in the vegetation that are typical of large graves of high-ranking individuals in Piceni necropoli. They were likely tumuli (the mounds are now gone) and were ringed by moats.

The excavation unearthed a funerary complex with at least four circular tombs datable to between the 6th and 8th centuries B.C. The large tombs belonged to the elite and were richly furnished with grave goods, as a rule. Inside the central ring was a grave crammed with a mass of objects, including more than 100 ceramic vessels and an iron-wheeled chariot. It dates to the first half of the 7th century B.C.

A selection of 12 objects from the first batch of finds has now gone on temporary display in Corinaldo’s public art gallery. The artifacts were chosen as representations from two significant aspects of the lifestyle of the Piceni rich and famous: banqueting and war. Items on display include drinking vessels, skewers and andirons used to spit and cook meat, a bronze helmet, bronze greaves and one of two iron wheels from the chariot.

These are twelve pieces that best express the most representative ideological components of the trousseau and its multiplicity of meanings: a helmet and a greaves celebrate the dimension of political and military power, the chariot symbolizes land ownership, the funeral banquet ceremony is represented. from containers to accommodate and pour food and drinks, and the meat sacrifice with the practices of cutting and cooking dedicated animal meats is evoked by the ax, skewers and andirons.

The exhibition therefore aims to tell the public about this important archaeological discovery , making known even to non-specialists all the methodologies adopted and the long and laborious work that hides behind an excavation, paying homage to the local community which has always shown a profound interest and cultural involvement, in the hope that the project will merge into a permanent museum.


Happy New Year!

Friday, December 31st, 2021

Here’s to a 2022 replete with long-delayed archaeological digs, museum exhibitions attended by record-breaking crowds and lots of history nerd-themed travel. And if circumstances continue to make such resolutions too hard to keep, then we’ll just have keep the nerdfires burning virtually right here. 😎


I hope your day was merry and bright

Saturday, December 25th, 2021

I could do without the white, though, truth be told. I shall return to my regularly scheduled programming tomorrow.  🙂





October 2022


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