Small Viking hoard with huge brooch declared treasure

A hoard of jewelry from the Viking era found on the Isle of Man has been declared official Treasure. The objects are small in number but large in significance and one of them is large in the literal sense too.

The hoard was discovered last December by Kath Giles, a retired police officer, while metal detecting on private land. The first thing she found when he brushed away the soil was a spherical terminal of a brooch. The rest of it — a long pin and a hoop — emerged next, followed by a braided gold arm ring and pieces of a broken silver armband.

She notified Manx National Heritage and archaeologists identified the objects as Viking jewelry dating to around 950 A.D. Viking gold and silver jewelry have been found on the Isle of Man before, but this is the first time this type of gold arm-ring and brooch have been unearthed on the island.

The gold arm ring is made of three thick rods of gold plaited together. The terminals are joined by flat band decorated with a stamped dot pattern. It was extremely valuable in the Viking era when gold artifacts are rare, worth the equivalent of 900 silver coins.

The pin is a thistle brooch of ball type, named after the ball-shaped terminals and pin head with brambling decoration reminiscent of the bushy little flower. The brambling — tiny cones that just out from the cast silver ball — were created by making diagonal criss-cross cuts and then punching out some of them. The example in the hoard has incised designs along with the brambling on the head and terminals.

It is a giant of a jewel, with the pin approximately 20 inches long and the hoop about eight inches in diameter. Originally a Celtic form of normal size, these types of penannular brooches were prized by the Vikings who settled in Ireland and put their own stamp on the Celtic design, greatly increasing their size and decreasing their decorative intricacy. They were signifiers of wealth and status, so the bigger the better, as far as the Vikings were concerned, even though it made them notably impractical as fasteners. Because of their massive size and weight, they could only have been worn on very thick outerwear like furs or skins. The pin was worn at the shoulder with the sharp point facing upwards.

Allison [Fox, Curator for Archaeology for Manx National Heritage] said:

“Vikings arrived on the Isle of Man in the 800s, firstly trading and eventually settling.  Kath’s hoard can be dated on stylistic and comparative grounds to around AD 950, a time when the Isle of Man was  right in the middle of an important trading and economic zone.  But elsewhere to the east and west, Viking rule was coming to an end and perhaps this encouraged further Viking settlement on the Island.  The Viking and Norse influence remained strong on the Island for a further three hundred years, long after much of the rest of the British Isles.

The arm-ring, brooch and cut armband are all high-status personal ornaments and represent a large amount of accumulated wealth.  Finding just one of these items would be of significance.  The fact that all were found together, associated with one single deposition event, suggests that whoever buried them was extremely wealthy and probably felt immediately and acutely threatened.”

The hoard went on temporary display in the Viking and Medieval Gallery at the Manx Museum. It will be assessed by a committee of experts to determine its value and conserved before permanent display is arranged.

Renovation of Seville tapas bar reveals 12th c. bathhouse

Renovations of a Seville tapas bar have uncovered the remains a 12th century Islamic bathhouse with uniquely rich decorations. The Cervecería Giralda in the historic center of Seville has been one of the city’s most popular bars since it opened in 1923. The building has soaring vaulted ceilings supported by four columns, typical of the medieval bathhouses or hammams, and there are records going back to 1281 referencing a bathhouse that had existed in the area, but there was no archaeological evidence to confirm this was it, and the building was widely thought to be more Neo-Mudéjar (ie, Moorish Revival) than the genuine article.

The descendants of Roman baths, hammams served the same hygiene and socialization functions as their predecessors as well as performing a religious role as facilities for the full-body ablutions mandated in the Quran for ritual purification. There were hundreds of them in the Muslim-ruled cities. In Spain, Christian rulers who conquered those cities frequently destroyed the bathhouses, built over them or converted them to other uses.

Seville became the capital of Al-Andalus under the Almohad Caliphate which ousted the Almoravid dynasty in a series of battles between 1146 and 1173. They conquered Seville early, transferring the capital from Cordoba to Seville in 1150, but their rule would be short-lived. Seville was conquered by Ferdinand III of Castile in 1248.

Much of Seville’s extant Moorish style architecture was actually built by Christian rulers who appropriated the aesthetic even as they demolished or radically altered the original structures. Today there is only a smattering of original architecture from the Almohad period, including the Giralda bell tower of Seville Cathedral, formerly a minaret of the Great Mosque of Seville, the Patio del Yeso (Courtyard of Plaster) in the Alcázar royal palace, the Patio de los Naranjos, once part of the mosque and now annexed to the Seville Cathedral.

As the name suggests, the Cervecería Giralda is only feet away from the former mosque. The earliest documentary evidence of a bathhouse at the site dates to 1281 and refers to the “baths of García Jofre” adjacent to the cathedral being donated to the Church by King Alfonso X. By the 17th century, the great vaulted building’s history as a hammam was already forgotten. A major reconstruction divided the high ceilings of the warm room into two stories, replaced the original columns and closed the skylights. Historians contended it was the remains of an ancient amphitheater rather than a bath, or a newer construction from the 15th-16th century done in Moorish style.

Fran Díaz, the architect in charge of the modernization project, was labouring under that same misapprehension when he began renovations last year. He was disabused of the notion when probes behind the false ceiling revealed the presence of skylights known as luceras, decorative cutouts in the ceiling characteristic of hammam architecture. In the wake of the discovery, renovators stepped back so archaeologists could take over to fully explore the remains of the bathhouse.

Skylights in the vaulted ceiling. Photo courtesy Fernando Amores.They found 88 skylights in several different shapes — eight-pointed stars, six-pointed stars, octagons, quadrifoils — that are far more elaborate than those found in other Muslim baths of the period. An entirely unprecedented discovery were geometric murals. Nothing like them has been found before in the Iberian peninsula. Painted in red ochre against a white background, the latticed pattern likely represented water. Large sections of it have survived on the walls and ceilings. Archaeologists believe that the entire bathhouse from ceiling to floor was originally painted with these decorations. This is the only known hammam with surviving original wall and ceiling painted decoration. The only other examples of integral decoration in bathhouses stopped at the baseboards.

Entrance to main room of Cervecería Giralda with 12th century vault and geometric murals. Photo by Paco Puentes, El Pais.The main space of the bar was the hammam’s warm room. One wall opens into a smaller rectangular space with a barrel-vaulted ceiling that was originally the bathhouse’s cold room. That’s where the skylights are. What is now the kitchen area was the hot room, but most of the original structure was destroyed so all that remains is a partial arch. That the skylights and priceless murals survived at all is thanks to Vicente Traver, the architect who renovated the building in the early 20th century. He could have torn down what was left of the bathhouse, or redone it so invasively that little of the original elements remained. Instead he created the false ceiling and protected the fragile remains.

The discovery of the baths spurred a new concept for the renovation of the bar. To preserve the 12th century marvel while still making the space a functioning bar, architectures installed a metal cornice above Traver’s wall tiles. Renovations are scheduled to be completed next month, after which the Cervecería Giralda will reopen with a newly fabulous interior that maintains the striking features of the early 20th century renovation that have become integral to the establishment’s character with the magnificence of the original Almohad hammam.

Augsburg Cathedral murals are 1,000 years old

Murals on the south transept of Augsburg Cathedral have been newly dated to around 1000 A.D., making them the oldest known paintings in a cathedral north of the Alps.

The murals depicting scenes from the life of John the Baptist were painted on the south transept at the time of the construction of the Romanesque church (completed 1065). They were whitewashed during the iconoclastic fervor of the Protestant Reformation centuries ago and their existence was forgotten until they were rediscovered when the whitewash was removed during renovations in the 1930s. Further elements were revealed during renovations in the 1980s. The murals had suffered extensive paint loss and nobody realized at the time of the rediscoveries their age and significance.

The first inkling of their great age came after structural repairs to the roof in 2009 exposed wall paintings that could only date to the original construction of the cathedral. Similarities in style between the construction period paint and the south transept murals suggested the faded murals may be far older than anyone realized.

In fact, they are older than the anyone realized the church was.

Dendrochronological tests revealed that wood in the masonry dated from AD1000, contradicting the previously held dating of the cathedral to around AD1065. The new dating “fits with what we know about a massive destruction in 994,” says Birgit Neuhäuser, a spokeswoman for the Bavarian State Office for Heritage Protection.

“The oldest frescoes are the first layer above the masonry, and are therefore part of the original decor of the church,” Neuhäuser says. “We can assume that in the case of an important Episcopal church, the frescoes would have been painted soon after the construction, so soon after AD1000.”

A team of restorers and researchers from the Bavarian State Office for the Preservation of Historical Buildings has spent months studying, cleaning and conserving the murals for the first time. They have been able to identify two scenes and the remains of a third despite the extensive paint loss. The scene on the east wall depicts the beheading of John the Baptist. Herod sits on the throne in the upper part of the panel while two disciples mourn the execution of the Baptist. The west wall mural depicts the entombment. The third scene was on the south wall but was destroyed in the 14th century when a Gothic window was constructed. Researchers believe it was probably the birth and naming of John the Baptist.

Given the height of the frescoes in the church, there is no need for special conservation measures in the long term, according to Neuhäuser. “They are not under any particular stress” from the humidity or heat generated by visitors’ traffic, she says. “After cleaning and conservation, they are in a stable and sustainable condition.”

The team plans to examine the roof area and the northern transept of the church for further fresco remnants.

Exceptionally rare Chinese bowl found in Dresden museum

A small porcelain bowl in the collection of the Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden (SKD) has been newly identified as an extremely rare piece produced by the Ru kilns of the Northern Song Dynasty  (960–1127). Ru ware is the rarest of all Chinese ceramic types; this is only the 88th example of Ru pottery known in the world.

Ru was the official ware of the Northern Song dynasty. These were some of the first ceramics produced exclusively for the imperial court. It operated uniquely small kilns (no more than 6.5 feet in diameter) and production was limited because all pieces were fired individually rather than stacked and were perched on stilts. They were also fired twice, greatly increasing the odds that of failure. The Ru kilns were only in production for 20 years. The rapid decline of the late Northern Song made the Ru works a flash in the pan, but their rarity and quality exerted a massive cultural influence that has only strengthened over the centuries. Today Ru ware is revered as the pinnacle of Chinese imperial ceramic.

Five inches in diameter, the shallow bowl has rounded sides and stands on a narrow curving foot. It is a brush washer, the most popular surviving form of Ru porcelain with 34 of them known, including this one. Its translucent green-blue glaze is crazed with a pattern known as ice crackle. Ru ware was the first Chinese ceramic to embrace the faceted reflectivity of crazing as an asset. The effect is caused by the body and glaze contracting at different rates and it cannot be controlled.

The brush washer was acquired by German doctor and avid collector of Chinese porcelain Oscar Rücker-Embden when he was in China in 1913-4. He sold it to Ernst Albert Zimmermann, director of the Porzellansammlung, in 1927. While Zimmermann was a top expert on East Asian porcelain at the time, the bowl was believed to be a Korean work from the 10th-13th centuries which have very similar features and are far less rare than Ru ceramics.

The bowl’s true identity was discovered during an exhaustive inventory of East Asian porcelains at the Porzellansammlung, the SKD’s porcelain collection. An international team of experts was enlisted to study the collection, and in 2018, staff from the Palace Museum in Beijing alerted the SKD that their “Korean” bowl might actually be a Ru piece. That has now been confirmed by Regina Krahl, one of the world’s foremost experts in Ru ware. That makes this one little bowl worth something north of $40 million. An almost identical Ru brush washer sold at Sotheby’s for $37.7 million in 2017.

Julia Weber, director of the Porzellansammlung: “Of course, we knew that there are precious treasures to be found in Dresden’s Porzellansammlung, some of them little-known. But the fact that they include one of these legendary Ru ceramics is a real sensation. The bowl is one of the very first ceramics to be made exclusively for the Chinese imperial court more than 900 years ago. As the Song dynasty was driven into the south of China by invaders shortly afterwards, Ru ceramics already became a mythologised memento of an idealised lost past immediately after their creation. To this day they are considered icons of Chinese culture, though their extreme rarity means that few have the chance to admire an original, let alone own one. This history-steeped little bowl is very much at home in Dresden, where Augustus the Strong assembled the largest collection of Chinese porcelain outside Asia.”

Entire Bayeux Tapestry FINALLY in high res

Good high resolution photographs of the iconic Bayeux Tapestry have been largely impossible to find online. The internet is lousy with meme versions of the tapestry (including custom ones created with a dedicated generator), but if you wanted to browse the real thing you were out of luck.

Well, the long, dark night is over. The Bayeux Museum has digitized the entire tapestry and made it freely available on its website. The embroidered linen illustrated retelling of the Norman conquest of Britain in 1066 is 68.38 meters (224 feet) long and 70 centimeters (2’4″) long. High resolution photographs were digitally stitched together to create a panorama that you can scroll through from beginning to end, zooming in close enough to see every stitch of the embroidery and the weave of the linen. You can also jump from scene to scene. Click the Text button on the right side menu for transcriptions and translations in English and French of the Latin inscriptions.

The photographs were taken in 2017 as part of an unprecedented three-year study of the Bayeux Tapestry to determine its conservation needs. The condition report found there are 24,202 spots, 16,445 folds, 9,646 gaps in the canvas or the embroidery and 30 unstabilized tears. The first few feet are significantly weaker than the rest of the tapestry. It is not in immediate danger, but the determination of the committee in charge of monitoring the condition of the work is that it does need a comprehensive restoration focused on repair and stabilizing areas of damage that are not integral to its long history. Some issues that bear witness to its past — nail holes from previous hangings, wax stains from candles — will be left as is unless deemed to be a danger to the tapestry.

The project will be a complex one. Just to begin with, the current backing, installed in 1982, will have to be dismantled. The 18th century liner and a band applied to the lower part of the tapestry in the 19th century have to be removed to free the medieval linen from excess tension. Since the museum will be undergoing a vast refurbishment in 2024 and will shut its doors for new construction, the conservation is tentatively scheduled to take place during the museum’s closure.