Archive for the ‘Medieval’ Category

Grave of fearsome 11th c. warrior found in Siberia

Saturday, August 30th, 2014

Archaeologists excavating a burial mound near Omsk in southwestern Siberia have discovered the intact burial of an impressively large warrior slain in battle around the 11th century A.D. He was powerfully built and 180 centimeters (5’11″) tall. A member of the Ust-Ishim culture, ancestors to the Khanty and Mansi tribes that still inhabit the area today, he was far taller than his comrades; the average height for a male was 160 centimeters (5’3″), so he would have towered over them.

He was around 40 years old when he died, and the cause of death is clear: his left arm was cut off and buried with him. His shoulder was also freshly broken. These were perimortem battle wounds. He was buried with copious grave goods and careful attention to ritual indicating he was a person of high status in his community. The most remarkable indication of the respect accorded to him was the large bear fang embedded in his nose, a fearsome symbol of strength and power. He also wore a death mask, now mostly decayed because it was made of fabric. Part of the mask were caskets of birch bark over his eye sockets and mouth. Inside the caskets were metal fish figurines whose heads were deliberately snapped off before burial.

Other grave goods include a round mirror of bronze decorated with abstract swirls that was placed on his chest inside a birch bark cover and a bronze cauldron with the remains of food still inside that was placed at his feet. These served a ritual purpose. Archaeologists believe the mirror was a worn as an amulet and served as a tool used to communicate with the gods, while the cauldron and food were meant to feed the warrior in the afterlife.

Close by were remains of leather and fur, perhaps part of his costume or from the quiver decorations on his arrows.

“We found 25 arrowheads – armour-piercing and diamond shaped, made from metal and bone,” said [archeologist Mikhail Korusenko], a candidate of historical sciences, from the Omsk branch of the Institute of Archeology and Ethnography of the Siberian Branch of the Russian Academy of Sciences.

“Some of them were clearly of military purpose. Behind his skull we found a ringed bridle” – a sign that the warrior was an accomplished horseman.

The arrows are still sharp today.

Mikhail Korusenko on the significance of the find:

“The first studies we made allow us to date the burial to approximately 11th-12th centuries AD. It is a truly unique find which would allow us to fill pages about not only the cultural, but the military history of this part of the region, as we know very little about this particular period of time.”

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First Black Death mass grave found in Spain

Tuesday, August 19th, 2014

A mass grave of victims of the Black Death, the pandemic that killed half the population of Europe when it struck in the mid-14th century, has been discovered under the sacristy of the Basilica of Saints Justo and Pastor Martyrs in Barcelona. Even though the plague hit the Mediterranean countries the hardest, this is the first Black Death mass grave ever found in Spain. The fact that it was found in a church may suggest an explanation: in Spain the dead were buried in pre-existing churches and cemeteries, unlike in England and France where they often broke new ground for plague burials.

The church of Saints Justo and Pastor Martyrs is in the historic center of Barcelona, within the walls of the ancient city of Barcino, founded as a castrum (a Roman army camp) in 15 B.C. during the reign of the Emperor Augustus. In 2011, the Institute of Culture of Barcelona and the Basilica signed an agreement to excavate the church as part of a city-wide plan to rediscover the remains of Roman Barcelona.

Excavation of the sacristy began in 2012. Archaeologists found a section of a baptismal font from the Visigothic era, the remains of two Roman walls following the ancient city grid, and the 14th century mass grave with the skeletal remains of men, women and children. At first count, there appeared to be 104 people buried in the pit, but upon further investigation the body count increased to around 120. The current Gothic church was built between 1342 and 1574. They got to the sacristy area in the mid-15th century and construction impinged on the mass grave. Most of the bodies were removed at that time and the remainder were hemmed in by the Gothic walls. Calculating from the density of the remains and the size of the original grave (13 feet long, 11 and a half feet wide, five feet deep), archaeologists believe 400 plague victims were buried in the space.

They were identified as plague victims almost immediately. The demographic variety, well-preserved bones with no signs of fatal injuries and the fact that they were all buried around the same time strongly suggested they were felled by a widespread contagion. Despite the pressures of the epidemic, they were buried with respect. The bodies were laid out face up with their arms by their sides or crossed. They were placed close together, but arranged carefully rather than dumped in haste or crammed in head-to-foot to maximize space.

The corpses were unclothed, and wrapped only in linen shrouds, lined up in rows, 11 bodies deep, and were then covered with quicklime dissolved in water to attempt to stop the disease spreading and mask the smell of the rotting bodies.

Laboratory analysis confirmed the contextual indications.

DNA tests on the teeth of several of those buried in the mass grave carried out by the University of Tübingen show the presence of Yersinia pestis, a bacterium associated with rats and other rodents that was transmitted by the parasites they carried, particularly fleas, which injected it into humans when they bit them.

The bodies are being kept at the church while research is ongoing. They will be reburied in the church when the study is complete.

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Ancient instrument found in 7th c. Kazakhstan burial

Monday, August 11th, 2014

Archaeologists have found an artifact they believe to be an ancient musical instrument in the burial of a Turkic warrior in the region of East Kazakhstan. The burial in the Altai mountains was found intact, with the remains of an adult male in his 40s at the time of death and those of a horse buried next to him. The grave goods identify the deceased as a warrior of some status, and their design allowed archaeologists to provisionally date the burial to the 7th century.

The scientists found weapons belonging to this epoch next to the warrior: a helmet, a quiver, an arrow, a sword, sabers, as well as a horse with a golden harness and a bridle. The most important discovery of the excavation was a musical instrument, similar to (Kazakh) kobyz….

The kobyz is an ancient Kazakh instrument that has two strings made of horsehair. It was believed to be a sacred instruments that could drive away evil spirits. It was often used by spiritual medics and shamans.

There has been a dedicated effort by the Kazakh government and institutions of higher learning to expand historical and archaeological explorations of the nation’s past. The Altai mountains have been the site some of the most important archaeological finds relating to the nomadic peoples who inhabited the region from the 1st millennium B.C. on.

This most recent find was made as part of a Turkic Academy project investigating the statehood system of Western Turkic Khaganate, a state ruled by a Khagan (or Khan) of the Ashina clan after the founder’s kingdom, the Göktürk Khaganate, was split into east and west by his sons in the early 7th century. At its peak, the Khaganate’s sphere of influence stretched from the Caspian Sea in the west to the Sea of Okhotsk in the east, from modern-day Kazakhstan all the way to the other side of Russia. Its founder, Bumin Khagan, was crowned in the Altai mountains, so this was an important center of power.

The Khaganate united a great many nomadic tribes under one (or after the splintering, two) rulers. In the second half of the 7th century, the ten tribes of the Western Turkic Khaganate began to fight amongst themselves which left the state vulnerable to Chinese invasion. In 659 A.D., it was absorbed into Tang Dynasty China. They didn’t get to keep it for long. The tribes revolted and in 682 A.D., the Second Turkic Khaganate was established. It was the first Central Asian state that used Old Turkic as its official language, as evidenced by its appearance on stele known as the Orkhon inscriptions that tell the history of the Khaganate and its liberation from Chinese rule.

The remains of the Altai warrior will be removed for further investigation by the Turkic Academy. The bones will be directly dated and the surviving organic elements like the wooden musical instrument conserved and studied.

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Chianti well preserves 15 centuries of history

Friday, August 8th, 2014

An Etruscan well in Cetamura del Chianti, an archaeological site on the property of the Badia a Coltibuono wine-making estate in Tuscany, has proven a cornucopia of historical artifacts from 300 B.C. through the end of the Middle Ages. The well — which technically is a cistern rather than a well since it isn’t spring-fed but rather a rain catchment shaft — was dug more than 105 feet deep into the sandstone bedrock of the Cetamura hilltop. Over the centuries, a vast number of artifacts made from bronze, silver, lead and iron, plus ceramics, glass, bricks, tiles, wood, 70 bronze and silver coins, jacks-like game pieces (astragali), animal bones, antlers and grape seeds were thrown into the well, probably as votive offerings in antiquity and as simple discards in later eras.

The Cetamura settlement has been excavated since 1973, unearthing Etruscan remains including an acropolis and extensive artisan quarters, a Roman villa and baths and a medieval fort. The well is in Zone 1, the acropolis area on the top of the hill, and a team of archaeologists and students led by Florida State University Etruscan expert Nancy de Grummond have been excavating it since 2011. So far the team has unearthed 14 Roman and Etruscan bronze vessels, an impressive number of very rare Etruscan wood pieces and almost 500 grape seeds.

The bronze vessels, of different shapes and sizes and with varying decorations, were used to extract water from the well, which has been excavated to a depth of more than 105 feet.

“One of the Etruscan vessels, actually a wine bucket, is finely tooled and decorated with figurines of the marine monster Skylla,” de Grummond said. “Another was adorned with a bronze finial of the head of a feline with the mane of a lion and the spots of a leopard and, for handle attachments, had African heads, probably sphinxes.”

The grape seeds, found in at least three different levels of the well — including the Etruscan and Roman levels — are of tremendous scientific interest, according to de Grummond.

The seeds date to the third and second centuries B.C. (Etruscan) and to the late first century B.C., early first century A.D. (Roman). The waterlogged environment preserved them exceptionally well which will give researchers the rare opportunity to do DNA testing as well as radiocarbon dating. This has the potential to illuminate the viticultural history of one of the famous wine growing regions of the world, a history that is very little known. Genetic and morphometric analyses of the seeds will categorize the different grape varieties and, if all goes well, will determine if any of these ancient Chianti grapes are related to the ones used to make Chianti wines today. The Roman seeds discovered in the 2012 and 2013 dig seasons have already been sorted into three different types.

Interestingly, the grape seeds weren’t just thrown in to the well in handfuls. The team found most of them inside the bronze vessels, evidence that they may have been ritual offerings rather than garbage. The wood from the early Etruscan level also appears to have played a ritual role.

“Many of the pieces of wood were worked, and already several objects have been identified, such as parts of buckets, a spatula or spoon, a spool and a rounded object that might be a knob or child’s top,” [de Grummond] said. “The sheer amount of Etruscan waterlogged wood — with some recognizable artifacts — could transform views about such perishable items.”

To follow the news from the Cetamura del Chianti well excavation, keep an eye on their Facebook page.

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Faces of medieval Scotland

Tuesday, August 5th, 2014

In 2009, preparatory work for the Edinburgh Trams project unearthed approximately 400 medieval and early modern burials under Constitution Street. The site had once been part of the South Leith Parish Church graveyard in the port town of Leith (incorporated into Edinburgh in 1920) but had fallen into disuse centuries earlier and was quickly forgotten. In 1790 the Church Council declared they knew of no bodies buried in that location when Constitution Street was built to provide better access to the harbor. The archaeological survey was done because the Constitution Street area was close to the city center of early medieval Leith and to the town’s defenses in the 16th and 17th centuries. The discovery of so many human remains outside the wall of the existing graveyard, therefore, was an unexpected and potentially important source of information about how people lived in died in medieval Leith.

A comprehensive study of the bones ensued, complete with forensic examinations, isotope analysis and facial reconstructions of all the bodies where there were sufficient remains to make it possible. In the final tally, there were 302 complete burials with partial remains of at least 100 more people discovered. Thirty-three of the bodies were dated. They all pre-date 1640 with the earliest dating to 1315. The South Leith Parish Church was founded as St Mary’s Chapel almost two centuries later in 1483, and 33% of the burials happened before that date, which means this church was built on the site of a pre-existing one.

The 1640 cut-off may be related to the Plague of 1645 which killed 2,700 people, half the population of Leith. The South Leith Parish Church played an important role in implementing sanitary measures and in the care of the sick during the plague, but its graveyard couldn’t handle the burial of half the city nor would the center of town be an ideal location for large plague pits. Then the Civil War happened. The church was occupied and used as a powder magazine by Parliamentary troops from 1650 until 1657. It was subsequently restored to ecclesiastical use, but the one-two punch of plague and war may explain why the burials stopped and were all but erased from memory.

Researchers determined that the people buried in this part of the churchyard were shorter than the UK average of 164cm for women and 171cm for men. The average height of the women was 155cm (5’1″) while the men averaged 169cm (5’5.5″). The overwhelming majority (90%) died before the age of 35 and 32% of the deceased were children, particularly older children aged 7-12. Isotope analysis on the remains of 18 bodies found that 80% were very much local having been raised in the Leith/Edinburgh area. The rest were only slightly less local, having been raised within a radius of 15-30 miles.

Most were buried in single graves, interred in wooden coffins or wrapped in shrouds. Three communal graves were found in which women were buried with children. One woman was found buried with a neonate across her pelvis, which means she probably died late in her pregnancy or in childbirth.

The facial reconstructions done by post-graduate students at the University of Dundee’s Forensic Art course personalize all these facts and figures.

By using forensic modelling to determine the shape and depth of facial muscles and soft tissues, isotopic analysis to ascertain individuals’ origins and state-of-the-art computer programming, researchers were able to build up lifelike facial representations for the 400 to 600-year-old remains.

Amongst the reconstructions was that of a boy, aged between 13 and 17, who was thought to have lived around Leith and Edinburgh and to have died in the late 14th or early 15th century, an adult male aged 25 to 35 who lived in the mid 16th to 17th century and a woman also aged between 25 and 35, who died in the late 14th and early 15th century.


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Intact Merovingian necropolis found in Normandy

Saturday, August 2nd, 2014

Archaeologists have unearthed 300 intact Merovingian-era graves at Saint-Aubin-des-Champs in the Calvados region of Lower Normandy. The presence of a necropolis on the site was first recognized during a preliminary survey last year in anticipation of construction of a housing development. Excavations began this March. They found the cemetery was complete — the enclosure delineating the full perimeter of the grounds was identified — and undisturbed with 300 burials of men, women and children from the 5th through the 7th centuries.

The burials were found at different depths up to five feet below the surface. The deceased were buried in wooden coffins (all of them now decayed into nothingness leaving only the shape behind) and almost all of the graves contain the remains of clothing and some artifacts. A third of the burials contain a particularly rich array of grave goods. These date to the 5th century, as identified by the artifacts.

One burial stands out for its fabulous accouterments. The skeleton of adult male was found buried with 20 objects, among them ceramic vessels, glassware, a bronze bowl, an intact wooden bucket with bronze strapping, an axe, a spear, a dagger at his waist, shoes on his feet and a silver coin in his mouth. The later the tombs the fewer the artifacts (a side effect of the growth of Christianity) and the 7th century tombs have no grave goods at all, solely bronze or iron belt buckles.

Initial osteological analysis confirmed that the burials include people of all ages and genders, with the exception of very young children. This could be the result of smaller, shallower graves having been disturbed over the centuries, or it could be a cultural practice. Infants and small children in antiquity and the early Middle Ages were sometimes buried within the boundaries of the home property rather than in the town cemetery.

Archaeologists believe the necropolis was the cemetery of a small village. Burials ceased at the end of the 7th century and the cemetery was abandoned, probably in favor of new Christian cemeteries. In the 7th century a monastery was built on the site of the current church of Saint-Pierre Évrecy. It is likely to have had an associated cemetery that may have supplanted the former community burial ground.

The necropolis is a very important find. There are no historical sources that refer to it and looters were blessedly unaware of its existence as well, leaving the grave goods in stellar condition and giving archaeologists the rare opportunity to study three centuries of undisturbed burials in context. This is a very thinly documented period of history, so the discovery is an invaluable resource.

Archaeologists plan a comprehensive study the cemetery in the hope that it will illuminate the life of the community as well as the burial practices of the region during the transitional period between traditional Roman religion and Christian dominance.

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British early Christian artifacts preserved in Viking graves

Wednesday, July 30th, 2014

An Irish archaeologist has identified British early Christian artifacts in the collection of the University Museum of the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU). One is a part of a gold crozier that dates to the late 8th or early 9th century; the other is tin-plated wooden reliquary shaped like a church with kite-shaped metal fittings that once held gems or other decorations that have since fallen out. The crozier fragment and reliquary were discovered in 1961 in the grave of high status Viking woman in the central Norwegian town of Romsdal.

For the past year, Griffin Murray from the University College Cork has been researching Irish archaeological artifacts in Scandinavian collections, looking particularly for early Christian croziers that may have been pillaged by Viking raiders and recycled into jewelry and other objects worthy of being buried as grave goods. He initially thought the Romsdal crozier was Irish, but upon closer examination he found the decoration is characteristic of the north of England rather than Ireland.

The backing of the crozier fragment is semi-cylindrical in shape, which means it adorned the middle of the staff. It was cut in half and converted into an adornment of some kind, perhaps a brooch, the fate of the Celtic disc from a Viking woman’s grave in Lilleberge, Norway, discovered in storage at the British Museum early this year. Its age makes the crozier piece highly significant.

“The most striking aspect of this object is the era it comes from. This is the oldest known English fragment, and the only one that dates from before 1000. If the Norwegian Vikings had not stolen it, it would most probably have been lost,” Murray said of the University Museum’s little piece of history. [...]

[NTNU curator Jon Anders] Risvaag believe that the Viking raids may have saved the museum’s piece of crozier, noting that most of the croziers that remained in the British Isles were melted down for other uses.

“In Norway and other Scandinavian countries, these artefacts were buried as grave goods, which is why the finest objects are usually found in gravesites,” he said. “This tradition appears to have saved one of the oldest croziers we know of today.”

The Viking Age dawned with the 793 raid on the priory of Lindisfarne in Northumbria, the earliest known Viking raid on the west. The crozier was made around that same period in the general area, so it could conceivably have been loot from one of the earliest Viking incursions on the British Isles.

Here’s a contemporary reaction to the Lindisfarne raid from a letter written by Alcuin of York (pdf), a church deacon and scholar at the court of Charlemagne, to Ethelred, King of Northumbria:

Lo, it is nearly 350 years that we and our fathers have inhabited this most lovely land, and never before has such terror appeared in Britain as we have now suffered from a pagan race, nor was it thought that such an inroad from the sea could be made. Behold, the church of St Cuthbert spattered with the blood of the priests of God, despoiled of all its ornaments; a place more venerable than all in Britain is given as a prey to pagan peoples. And where first, after the departure of St Paulinus from York, the Christian religion in our race took its rise, there misery and calamity have begun. Who does not fear this? Who does not lament this as if his country were captured? Foxes pillage the chosen vine, the heritage of the Lord has been given to a people not his own; and where there was the praise of God, are now the games of the Gentiles; the holy festivity has been turned to mourning.

I wonder what Alcuin would make of the fact that the very despoliation of those ornaments ensured their survival.

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13th c. frescoes in Rome monastery opened to public

Thursday, July 24th, 2014

The Augustinian monastery complex of Santi Quattro Coronati on the north slope of Rome’s Caelian Hill has a rich history dating to the earliest days of the Christian city. Construction of the first church was begun by Pope Miltiades in the 4th century on top of an aristocratic villa. It was one of the earliest Christian churches in Rome and its location made it one of the most important.

Miltiades was pope from 311 to 314 A.D., a short but incredibly pivotal time in Church history since it saw Constantine’s defeat of Maxentius under the sign of the cross at the Battle of the Milvian Bridge in October of 312. It was Pope Miltiades who first moved into the Lateran Palace after Constantine gave it to him around 313. The basilica of Santi Quattro Coronati is a five minute walk from the Lateran Palace, so by the time construction was complete in the 6th century, the church was closely associated with the papacy.

It was expanded and renovated by subsequent popes over the centuries, with more buildings added including a palace for the basilica’s titular cardinal. Much of the church was burned down in the 11th century during the Norman sack of Rome, but the original apse still stands and was incorporated into the new church built by Pope Paschal II. In the 13th century the cardinal’s residence was enlarged and reinforced by Cardinal Stefano Conti, Vicarius Urbis, so it could provide protection for the princes of the Church during the power struggle between the papacy and the Holy Roman Emperors of the Hohenstaufen dynasty.

It was during that 13th century renovation that some artistically and historically significant frescoes were painted. On the ground floor of the fortified side of the basilica, the Chapel of Saint Sylvester was adorned with legendary scenes from the life of Pope Sylvester I and one of the earliest surviving depictions of the Donation of Constantine. On the second floor is a large hall that became known as the Gothic Hall because of the arch vaulting of the roof. It was decorated with 800 square meters of primarily profane topics like the Zodiac and Constellations, the Four Seasons, the Twelve Months, the Ages of Man, a seascape, the Liberal Arts and a panel of saints with the Virtues on their shoulders and the Vices under their feet. King Solomon, the wise judge, in the center position suggests the hall may have been used as a court of law as well as for feasting and banqueting.

The basilica and the cardinal’s palace in particular were nearly abandoned when the papacy moved to Avignon in the 14th century. The buildings were restored by Cardinal Alfonso Carillo when the pope returned to Rome during the papacy of Martin V starting in 1417, but when the Papal Court moved from the Lateran Palace to the Apostolic Palace in the Vatican in the mid-15th century, Santi Quattro Coronati never recovered its former importance. In 1564, the complex was given to Augustinian nuns and became the monastery it still is to this day.

Damaged by earthquakes, neglect, refurbishment that knocked holes in the walls and painted layer upon layer of plaster and solid color over the frescoes, the great Gothic Hall lost its magnificent frescoes. In 1995, a chance discovery revealed that parts of the 13th century frescoes were still there underneath the overpaint. It took a full decade of restoration by Rome’s Superintendence for Cultural Heritage to repair the damage that could be repaired. In 2007, 300 square meters of the original 800 were restored as close to their former glory as possible. Very few frescoes from this period have survived in Rome, so their rediscovery and restoration is a big deal. (See this article for a wonderful description of the frescoes.)

They couldn’t be opened to the public, however, because it’s still an active cloistered monastery. In order to make the Gothic Hall accessible, parts of the cloister needed to be restored and all the public traffic areas closed off so the presence of tourists would not violate the sisters’ religious isolation. That took another seven years and 150,000 euros donated by Arcus.

Now for the first time in its existence, the Gothic Hall can be seen by members of the general public. The hall will be open two days a month, with one group of no more than 20 visitors allowed in every hour from 8:30 – 12:30 and 2:30 – 4:30.

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Medieval longstone in Norway felled by grass edger

Saturday, July 19th, 2014

Northern Norway’s tallest stone monolith was knocked down and broken into three pieces by a grass edger last month. The stone had stood in a field on the island of Engeløya in the municipality of Steigen for more than 1,000 years, towering 10 feet above the ground. Its exact date is unknown, but burials found at the site of other phallic stones date them to the Scandinavian Iron Age, 200-600 A.D., significantly before the Viking era.

Located 550 yards south of the picturesque 13th century Steigen Church, it marked the boundary line between two of the village’s biggest farms, Laskestad and Steig, although it long predates the existence of both farms. It may have been a grave marker originally, local legend says to an ancient king. It’s one of the area’s top tourist attractions and claims to fame.

Now its great height is halved and prostrate on the grass, while its stump alone is still vertical, buried in a hole, the glacier blue of the stone’s interior, once modestly covered by grey weathering and yellow lichen, lies exposed in the open wound. The subcontractor hired to cut the grass near the roadside where the monolith stood bumped into the stone and it broke at the base. He told the mayor that the stone was so delicate even the vibration of the edger was almost sufficient to topple it.

Obviously it was an accident, not a deliberate act of vandalism, but the longstone is a protected monument and damaging it is a violation of Norway’s Cultural Heritage Act. The stone was specifically described in the contract, however, so there’s a negligence element here. Mesta AS, the state-owned construction and civil engineering company who employed the subcontractor, is now in the legal cross-hairs. Egil Murud, culture protection chief of Nordland county, announced Wednesday that her office has written a report to be delivered Thursday, July 17th. Mesta AS will have to account for itself in court.

Meanwhile, archaeologists and conservators from the Tromsø University Museum have documented the broken pieces and wrapped them to contain any chipping. The question of what to do next is still open. Theoretically it is possible to join the sections by drilling holes in the stone and inserting stainless steel bolts into them. It’s a very invasive solution, however, and the stone is quite thin compared to its height and it’s very heavy, so the bolts may not even work. Other options are being considered, including creating a copy to stand in the original location while the pieces are moved to the Steigen village square where they would lie flat, or putting the pieces on display at the Tromsø Museum.

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Committee recommends British Library return 15th c. Sienese panel

Monday, July 7th, 2014

The Spoliation Advisory Panel, a committee of the British Department for Culture, Media & Sport, has issued a report (pdf) recommending that the British Library return a 15th century painted wood panel to the descendants of its 1936 owners. It’s not so much a matter of law — the original owners’ title would have expired by 1948 at the latest and the British Library didn’t take possession of the piece until 1968 — but rather the “moral strength of the Claimants’ case” that underpins the recommendation.

The panel is a tempera on wood painting attributed to Guidoccio Cozzarelli that originally was used to cover ledgers and other financial records in the Biccherna, the Sienese treasury that managed all the city-state’s revenues and expenses. It depicts the entrance and the exit of public officers from the Biccherna in 1488. Underneath the cityscape are the coats of arms of the officials; underneath the coats of arms the officials’ names are listed.

The practice of covering the records of the Biccherna with painted panels began in the mid-13th century. They started off as simple designs — the camerlengo (the chamberlain or head treasury official) at his desk, the coats of arms of Biccherna officials — and became increasingly complex as the city grew in wealth and political prominence. They began to include historical scenes, current events and religious allegories, eventually growing beyond the constraints of the ledger cover into wood panel paintings commissioned from the area’s best artists that were hung on the treasury wall.

Although much of the vigour of the form was lost after Cosimo de’ Medici conquered Siena in 1555, Biccherne continued to be made into the 17th century. They began to be dispersed in the 18th century when local families claimed them as testaments to their lines’ histories and heraldry. The city’s archive of panels was plundered by Napoleon and shipped to Paris. They were sent back after the Bourbon Restoration (one cartload fell into the Rhône on the way), but some of them were sold off when they arrived. The city’s collection was gradually pieced back together starting in the 19th century. Today there are 105 Biccherne on display at the Siena State Archives.

The Biccherna panel now in the British Library was in a Jewish-owned Munich art gallery whose contents were forcibly sold at auction in June of 1936. The owners had been presented with an extortionate tax bill in 1935, a common Nazi practice which, coupled with banking restrictions and other fees and tariffs, ensured Jews would be stripped of all their property before they could leave the country. When, as expected, they couldn’t pay the bill, they were forced to sell their assets at absurdly low prices. In 1930 the Biccherna panel was priced at 15,000 Reichsmarks (about $3,500 dollars in 1930 because inflation in Germany was crazy; at 1936 rates it was worth nearly double). At the 1936 auction it sold for 2,800 Reichsmarks, the equivalent of about $1,100 at the more stable currency conversion rate.

There is no record of who bought it at the forced sale. The panel next appears at a Sotheby’s auction in London in 1942. It was sold as part of the collection of Arthur Bendir and was purchased by Henry Davis, a collector of important book bindings. Davis donated it to the British Library in 1968 as part of a gift of 890 rare bindings. Its place in the Henry Davis Gift is one of the reasons the BL really wants to keep the panel. It wants to keep the collection intact and accessible to scholars.

The claimants submitted their case to the Spoliation Advisory Panel because the BL can only return an object of cultural heritage in its collection at the recommendation of the Panel and with the approval of Culture Minister. They want the Biccherna Panel back. The British Library hopes to negotiate payment in lieu of restitution. The Spoilation Panel is fine with that plan, but it’s the claimants that will make the final call. If they can’t agree to a compensation solution, then the BL will have to return the piece.

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