Archive for the ‘Modern(ish)’ Category

Ethiopia’s oldest wall paintings to be conserved

Monday, May 2nd, 2016

The church of Yemrehanna Kristos in northern Ethiopia was commissioned by and named after a priest-king of the Zagwe dynasty who ruled from about 1087 to 1127. The church was built in the early 12th century in the late Azumite style inside a cave facing northeast on the side of Mount Abuna Yosef in the Lasta Mountains, the church is as beautifully situated as it is remote. The town of Lalibela, later capital of the Zagwe kings of Ethiopia and famous for its rock-hewn churches, is just 12 miles away, but until 15 years ago, Yemrehanna Kristos took a day’s hard ride on a mule to reach. Recently a dirt road was built from Lalibela making the church accessible to 4WD vehicles. Even with a proper Jeep it still takes an hour and a half to get there.

Yemrehanna Kristos was a major site of pilgrimage, especially for people on the verge of death. Inside the cave behind the church are the bones of an estimated 10,000 people who journeyed from everywhere around Ethiopia and as far as Egypt and Syria to die at the holy site. Monks and priests live in the cave, some in a second building beyond the church, others sleeping on woven cots in the open cave.

The building itself is one of the best-preserved late Axumite churches in the country. The walls are made of timber beams alternating with white plastered stone which give them a striped look. The windows are covered with intricately carved wooden lattices. The design of the church’s interior is a simple central nave with an aisle on each side, divided by masonry pillars and arches. Every piece of wood on the inside of the church is painted. The ceilings are decorated with polychrome painted geometric designs. Scenes from the Bible are painted on the walls.

These murals are the oldest surviving wall paintings in Ethiopia, but they weren’t even published internationally until 2001 because between the layers of dirt on the surface and the darkness of the interior of the cave, they’re hard to see.

The figurative images are mainly New Testament scenes, many of which are now barely legible because of an accumulation of dirt. They include a depiction of the arrival in Egypt of the Holy Family, who are welcomed by an angel. Mary rides a donkey, with Joseph walking behind, carrying the Christ Child on his shoulders. The wooden ceiling is decorated with 17 painted medallions of animal motifs: wild beasts, birds, an elephant, a winged creature, a scorpion and a dragon. Other wall paintings have geometric designs.

The murals and church are in dire need of the tender attentions of conservators. Earthquake tremors have weakened the structure, putting cracks in the walls and damaging the priceless decoration. Previous inexpert and undocumented attempts at restoration have coated the murals with a layer of varnish, now darkened, and a rough cleaning attempt left brush marks on the surface.

Last fall, the World Monuments Fund (WMF) received a $150,000 grant from the U.S. State Department Ambassadors Fund for Cultural Preservation (AFCP) to fund an 18 month-long structural analysis of the church, interior and exterior. Laser scanning and motion monitors will hopefully pinpoint the source of the movement in the building and identify areas of top concern. The WMF will work with the Ethiopian Heritage Fund (EHF) on the project.

The initial investigation will include in-situ microscopy, along with ultra-violet and infra-red examinations. Paint samples will be tested, partly to determine the original pigments and media used and to identify added materials. There will be small-scale cleaning trials, to test which materials should be used. Monitoring sensors will be installed to record temperature and humidity changes. A separate team from the University of Cape Town will undertake a laser scan survey to create a three-dimensional data model of the church and cave, to map structural movement.

Once they have the data, they will conserve the paintings for the first time under contemporary professional conditions. If all goes well, conservation will begin by October of this year and continue through early next year. The objectives will be to stop the paint from flaking and to clean the murals thoroughly.

More about WWI graffiti in Naours caves

Wednesday, April 27th, 2016

In July of 2014, archaeologists investigating the man-made caves tunneled into the limestone plateau under Naours, in Picardy, northern France, discovered thousands of graffiti left by soldiers during World War I. The original brief of the exploration was to date the caves more accurately and identify the periods they were in use. Those questions were answered. The epicenter of the network was Roman quarries with tunnels dug starting in the 10th century radiating out from it. Over time, the network of caves covered more than 2,000 meters (1.24 miles), large enough to shelter people and livestock during times of strife, most notably the 16th century Wars of Religion and the Thirty Years’ War in the early 17th century. Local families claimed chambers as their own, engraving their names on the walls.

The entrance to the tunnels was blocked by a cave-in in the early 19th century and the underground city was largely forgotten until December 15th, 1887, when Abbot Ernest Danicourt rediscovered it. He spent years clearing the tunnels to make them accessible and created displays of artifacts he had found there to attract tourism to the area. Abbot Danicourt’s efforts were not vain, and by the early 20th century, the Naours Caves were an internationally known tourist attraction.

When they were reopened in the 1930s, guides claimed the caves had been used by Allied forces in World War I as a military hospital. That story was apocryphal. Other tunnel networks in the region were used as hospitals and living quarters for the troops, but not Naours. And yet, World War I troops certainly left their marks on the walls and then some. The discovery was so momentous that Gilles Prilaux, an archaeologist with the National Institute for Preventive Archaeological Research (INRAP), shifted the focus of his investigations away from the more remote past of the caves to the Great War graffiti.

Two years later, we now know the final tally: there are more than 2,800 individual soldiers’ names. Most of them are accompanied by the person’s nationality and military unit and the date. The troops came from France, Britain, America, Canada, India, New Zealand and Australia. About half of the names belong to Australian soldiers. They were written on the wall with lead pencils which has stood the test of time; most of the graffiti are as dark and legible as they day they were made.

Students from the local college led by an INRAP archaeologists have worked assiduously to document the graffiti and find out all they can about the men who left their names on the wall. They were able to compile biographies of dozens of the soldiers, several of them very well known.

One of the men identified proved to be a rich source of information. “A. Allsop” wrote the date, January 2nd, 1917, and his hometown of Mosman, a Sydney suburb, on one of the most crowded walls. He was William Joseph Allan Allsop, an Australian clerk who kept detailed diaries of his daily life during World War I. Allsop’s diaries are now in the State Library of New South Wales and have been digitized. When the team looked up the diary entry for January 2nd, they found this:

In the afternoon a party of 10 of us went for a trip to the famous caves near Naours where the refugees used to hide in time of invasion. These caves contain about 300 rooms – one cave being ½ mile long. A whole division of troops with horses, artillery and all transport could be put into these caves. The names of John Norton & Eva Pannett are to be seen autographed on the stone erected just inside the entrance.

While we tend to think of World War I soldiers as constantly mired in waterlogged trenches or active slaughter, according to Prilaux in fact most soldiers spent about 20% of their time on the front lines. The other 80% was spent training, getting some R&R or enjoying the local attractions/distractions. A trip to the caves of Naours like the one Allan Allsop and nine of his comrades took the day after New Year’s would have been encouraged by the military command to keep troops’ minds off the war.

The day before Allsop and his pals visited the caves, Lieutenant Leslie Russel Blake left his name, unit and the date on the wall. Blake had made a name for himself as a cartographer, geologist and Antarctic explorer in the years before the war. He mapped Macquarie Island from 1911 to 1913 as part of Sir Douglas Mawson’s expedition to map a large unexplored section of the Antarctic coastline. Blake enlisted in 1915, was quickly promoted and arrived on the Western Front in March of 1916 as a second lieutenant. He was awarded the Military Cross for using his mapping skills under heavy fire to survey the Allied front line during the Battle of the Somme. His accuracy and bravery saved many lives.

He almost made it out of the war alive, but on October 2nd, 1918, Blake was hit by a shell in Hargicourt. The blow took his left leg and killed his horse out from under him. He was treated at a field hospital, his leg amputated above the knee, but it could not save his life. The shell had fractured his skull and peppered his face and body with grievous wounds. He died on October 3rd at 6:10 AM and was buried in the New British Cemetery at Tincourt.

The stories behind the graffiti discovered by the students will be shared with their counterparts at an Australian college in the hopes that descendants and relatives of the men who took a break from mud, blood and horror to visit the caves of Naours might be located.

Viking longship sets sail for North America

Tuesday, April 26th, 2016

The Draken Harald Hårfagre (Dragon Harald Fairhair, named after the first King of Norway), an ocean-worthy Viking longship, set sail early this morning from Norway on a daring voyage that will retrace the steps of great explorers like Erik the Red and his son Leif Erikson, the first European to cross the Atlantic and set foot on the American continent.

Sponsored by Norwegian businessman Sigurd Aase, construction on the vessel began in 2010 in Haugesund, Norway. It isn’t an exact replica of an extant Viking ship. While replicas of excavated ships have been made, they don’t work very well on the ocean because the originals were burial ships. They could be rowed, but they weren’t meant for the ocean voyages that took the Vikings across half the world. So instead of relying exclusively on archaeological remains, the builders of the Draken Harald Hårfagre combined traditional Norwegian boatbuilding knowledge, a living craft with deep roots going back to the Viking era, with archaeology — the 9th century Gokstad ship was one particular inspiration — and descriptions in the Norse sagas. It is an open clinker-built ship with an oak hull, Douglas fir mast, hemp rigging and a silk sail. At 115 feet long, 27 feet wide with 50 oars and a 3,200-square-foot sail, the Draken Harald Hårfagre is largest Viking ship built in modern times.

The aim from the beginning has been to create an operating Viking ship. That means roughing it in a serious way. There’s no under deck where the crew can rest and take shelter from the elements, just a large tent where 16 people at a time sleep in four hours shifts. The only space underneath the deck is a shallow space just large enough to carry ballast and food. The food is cooked is an open air kitchen on the deck, the ancestor of the galley discovered on the 15th century Dutch cog that was raised earlier this year.

The ship was completed in 2012. The first sea trials were held in the fjords of Norway and after some adjustments were made, it set sail on its maiden overseas voyage in July of 2014 to Wallasey, in Merseyside, northwest England, which has a strong Viking history. The mast broke and the crew had to replace it in Wallasey, but they made it work. After three weeks of repairs, the ship sailed back to Norway via the Isle of Man, the Western Isles, Orkney and Shetland without a hitch.

All of this was essential practice for the big show: the transatlantic voyage to North America. On April 23rd, the epic voyage was inaugurated with a Dragon’s Head Ceremony in which the dragon head so associated with Viking ships was mounted for the first time.

The dragon’s head is traditionally not mounted until departure for longer journeys and its purpose is to protect the ship and the crew from sea monsters, bad weather, evil creatures and unforeseen raids. The ships mythological head is uncovered in the ceremony, and the great adventure of sailing the historical route from Norway to Iceland, Greenland, Canada and the USA will be wished fair winds and following seas.

The ceremony was streamed live on YouTube to the delight of history nerds everywhere.

The America Expedition is mind-bogglingly ambitious. Captain Björn Ahlander and a crew of 32 damn hardy men and women selected from 4,000 applicants have embarked on a voyage of 6,000 miles that will taken them to Iceland, Greenland, through the iceberg fields of the North Atlantic to Newfoundland, then to Quebec City, Toronto and into the US via the Great Lakes. The first US port of call will be Fairport, Ohio, and then on to Tall Ship festivals in Bay City, Michigan, Chicago, Illinois, Green Bay, Wisconsin and Duluth, Minnesota. Then it will head back east again through the Great Lakes, the canals of New York State to the Hudson River. Yes, a Viking longship will be going through canal locks. The sail is coming down for that part, obviously. After a stop in New York City in September, the Draken Harald Hårfagre will winter at the wonderful Mystic Seaport Museum in Mystic, Connecticut.

You can follow the voyage in real time on the expedition’s website and get updates from its Facebook page. If you’re interested in the construction and operation of the ship, check out its fascinating YouTube channel.

Dig at Malcolm X’s house finds 18th c. artifacts

Friday, April 22nd, 2016

An archaeological excavation at the house Malcolm X lived in during his teens and early 20s has surprisingly unearthed artifacts from the 18th century. Built in 1874, the house at 72 Dale Street in Boston’s Roxbury neighborhood belonged to Ella Little-Collins, Malcolm’s half-sister who was his guardian after his mother was committed to a psychiatric facility in Michigan. (Ella and Malcolm’s father was killed when Malcolm was just six years old.) He lived with her off and on from the age of 14 until he was 21. The house is the last boyhood home of Malcolm X known to survive.

Ella could no longer bear to live in the house after Malcolm’s assassination in 1965, but she owned it until her death in 1996 when it passed to her son Rodnell Collins who is the current owner. Relatives stayed there instead, and when the last of them moved out in the 1970s, the house was left vacant for thirty years. Its condition deteriorated, and even its designation as a historic landmark in 1998 didn’t stop the downward slide. Rodnell moved back in and invested $80,000 in repairs to the house to make it livable.

In June of 2012, the Malcolm X-Ella Little Collins House was named by the National Trust for Historic Preservation one of the country’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places. This brought national attention to the home and its dire circumstances. As a result, Historic Boston, Inc., received several grants which allowed them to do a comprehensive assessment of the structure and stabilize it to prevent further damage.

Now the Collins family plans to fully restore the house with the aim of opening it for tours. Rodnell Collins, 71, will be the guide, which is going to be amazing because he was actually there when Malcolm was. He has so many memories to share. The first step in the restoration is shoring up the foundations. Since the yard is going to be dug up anyway, archaeologists have the opportunity to excavate it first.

The dig began on March 29th. Experts from UMass Boston’s Fiske Center for Archaeological Research surveyed the yard with Ground Penetrating Radar (GPR) to identify anomalous areas of potential interest. Archaeologists, aided by volunteers from the community and Malcolm X’s family, excavated the spots with most potential for revealing artifacts and historical information. They found fragments of porcelain from Ella Little Collins’ dishes, a peach pit from her peach tree, a toy truck Rodnell remembers playing with, even an intact LP record whose label was gone but the serial number indicated was a folk song compilation album from 1959. (You can listen to side one here.)

The Little-era artifacts were expected, as were the pieces of 19th century pottery. The fragments of 18th century ceramic, on the other hand, were decidedly unexpected. According to the municipal archives, the house, indeed the entire street, was built on agricultural land, farmed since the 1600s. The artifacts suggest there may have been an unrecorded building on the site.

Because the Malcolm Little history is so recent and Rodnell Collins is so closely involved in the project, archaeologists have a unique chance to explore history both oral and documentary as well as the material culture of the site. City of Boston archaeologist Joseph Bagley explained the rare confluence in an interview with Radio Boston:

“Normally, on the sites that we’ve been doing, they’ve been a lot older, there’s no way around that…. [We] very rarely have the opportunity as archaeologists to work with people who were alive during the time that we are interested in studying. So it’s almost like we get kind of a behind-the-scenes tour of our own historic sites when we have the family members there. We’re able to take the combination of the oral history from Rodnell and his family, the written records that we have through the census and the deed records and the stuff that we have about Malcolm that’s very widely written, and we can also add the artifacts to that. So we can kind of do a three-part historical view of this house.”

To add to the historical richness, Jack Hallion, son of a man who grew up in the house and whose family sold it to Ella and Kenneth Collins in 1941 unexpectedly visited the dig on March 30th. Nobody contacted him or anything. The excavation was open to the public every day and received a great deal of local press, so he just stopped by to add two more generations of background to the story.

The dig was originally scheduled to run through April 8th, but five inches of snow forced a work stoppage. Excavations will resume on May 16th.

Owner of Texel shipwreck gown identified

Thursday, April 21st, 2016

Historians Helmer Helmers from the University of Amsterdam and Nadine Akkerman from Leiden University have identified the owner of the silk gown found in the Wadden Sea off the island of Texel in North Holland. It belonged to Jean Kerr, Countess of Roxburghe, lady-in-waiting to Queen Henrietta Maria. There’s a portrait of her on Adel Foundation’s website that they were able to get from the collection of Floors Castle, seat of the current Duke of Roxburghe and Scotland’s largest inhabited castle. The photo leaves much to be desired, I’m afraid, but she’s wearing a dress that is somewhat reminiscent, albeit more elaborate, of the one wrecked at sea.

There were two key clues to the identity of the gown’s owner: the ship sank in the first half of the 17th century, and the leather book cover stamped with the coat of arms of King Charles I, the second Stuart king of England, Scotland, and Ireland. As soon as Nadine Akkerman was apprised of the find, she remembered a letter she had transcribed in 2006 written by Elizabeth Stuart, sister of Charles I and exiled Queen of Bohemia, to her old friend the diplomat and Member of Parliament Sir Thomas Roe. The letter, dated March 17th, 1642, tells how her sister-in-law Queen Henrietta Maria lost a baggage ship on the voyage from England to Holland. Her two ladies-in-waiting and their maids lost their clothes and accessories; the queen lost some silver vessels from her private chapel. The style and size of the gown strongly indicate it belonged to Jean Kerr.

The Countess of Roxburghe was born around 1585. She was descended through her maternal line from Robert II, the first Stuart King of Scotland, which made her a very high-ranking lady. She was Mistress of the Robes to the court of James I and Queen Anne, both of whom attended her marriage to Robert Kerr, 1st Lord Roxburghe, in 1614. Three years later she was dismissed from Court when her husband tried to finagle a political appointment without the knowledge of the Queen, but in 1631, with a new King, Charles I, and Queen, Henrietta Maria, on the throne, she made her way back to Court and was appointed governess to the infant Princess Mary. She was later made governess to Princess Elizabeth (born 1635) and Prince Henry (born 1640).

This voyage to Holland was an infamous one. The ostensible purpose of the trip was to deliver Charles and Henrietta Maria’s daughter Mary, then ten years old, to her 15-year-old husband William, son and heir of Frederick Henry, Prince of Orange. Their wedding had taken place on May 2nd, 1641, in London. Reuniting the couple was a convenient pretext for Henrietta Maria to leave England and head for the continent where she could drum up support for the Royalist cause.

Her baggage was actually far more significant than her daughter. On February 23rd, 1642, Queen Henrietta Maria set sail from Falmouth with her daughter, her ladies-in-waiting, and the Crown Jewels. She also carried large quantities of silver and jewels that belonged to her and Charles personally, including those vessels from her chapel that were lost in the Texel wreck. The real reason for the trip to Holland was to sell or pawn these treasures, the most valuable of which were the patrimony of Britain, to fund a war against the British. Holland was the biggest market for the trade in high-end jewels and precious metals, so her daughter’s marriage to the heir of Orange was the perfect screen for her real intent.

Henrietta Maria arrived at The Hague on March 11th, 1642, where she was met by Elizabeth Stuart who had moved to The Hague after her exile. The loss of the baggage ship, while inconvenient as losing your luggage still is even now that it’s in airports instead of the bottom of the ocean, didn’t slow her down a bit. Mere days after her arrival, she was already trying to cut deals for the sale/hocking of the valuables that she’d kept with her.

This wasn’t exactly a stealth operation. In 1641 Parliament had officially protested that a plan of hers to take the waters at Spa, in what is now Belgium, for her health was in fact a blatant attempt to “convey great Sums of Money, and other Treasure, beyond the Seas; which will not only impoverish the State, but may be employed to the Fomenting some mischievous Attempts, to the Trouble of the publick Peace.” They were right, of course. Henrietta Maria was an active partner in Charles’ military and political ventures, often an instigator. She was a French Catholic — double trouble to English Protestants — and had an enormous influence on her husband. Her attempt to sell England’s Crown Jewels to fund a war against their (also British) enemies was the kind of machination that confirmed the worst suspicions about her and Charles.

The mission didn’t go well. Potential buyers and lenders were justifiably wary about the Crown Jewels. There was no clear title and the letter signed by Charles I saying he owned them that Henrietta deployed when people raised questions was hardly persuasive. With Parliament very publicly watching her every move, prepared to reclaim any pawned objects, buyers stayed away in droves. She wrote her husband in May that: “The money is not ready, for on your jewels, they will lend nothing. I am forced to pledge all my little ones, for the great ones, nothing can be had here….”

As for Jean Kerr, after she accompanied her young charge Princess Mary to The Hague, she turned around almost immediately, returning to her even younger charges, Elizabeth and Henry. She died just a year later, on October 7th, 1643.

Watch a ghostly animated Titanic sink in real time

Wednesday, April 20th, 2016

Fair warning: this video is two hours and forty minutes long and there are significant stretches where very little happens. I expected to give up on it 10 minutes in, but much to my amazement, it was weirdly riveting. It starts just before Titanic strikes the iceberg and ends when the last of the ship plunges under the frigid waters. There are some very discreet sound effects — a few spoken orders, water, iron groaning, engines — and captions pop up explaining key moments. I found the notes on the lowering of the lifeboats and collapsibles particularly fascinating. Seeing it happen in real time strikingly conveys what an organization disaster this was, how much time was wasted, how so many more people could have been saved.

What makes the video genuinely eerie is the complete absence of people. It gives it a Mary Celeste ghost ship vibe. There are some voices — you hear some screams at the very end — but without moving figures it’s like Titanic is cursed to relive its slow, inexorable destruction over and over again.

That’s not what the finished product will be like. This animation is one element of an ambitious game called Titanic Honor & Glory and it’s still a work in progress. The ultimate aim is to have a fully explorable ship, accurate down to the smallest detail, with real historical people players can interact with at will. They’ll even have a period 1912 Southampton to wander through before boarding. There will be a story — a mystery to solve — but also a simple browse option if you just want to immerse yourself in the environment.

Judging from the glimpses of the grand staircase slowly filling with water in the sinking video and a video from last year that takes you on a brief tour of the First Class Reception Room, Dining Room, elevators, Turkish baths and the Third Class Dining Room, walking around will be plenty entertaining for those of us of a nerdly persuasion.

Here’s the full sinking video. Set aside three hours and just let it run. It’s not like you have to focus on it exclusively. You can do other things while it’s on in the background, but if you’re anything like me, you might find yourself having a hard time looking away.

15th c. art stolen from prince by Nazis found

Tuesday, April 19th, 2016

Three 15th century paintings stolen from the Tuscan villa of the Prince of Luxembourg by the Nazis have been found after 72 years. The artworks were first targeted in 1940, under the extension of what had originally been anti-Semitic Italian Racial Laws instituted by Mussolini to kiss Hitler’s ass in 1938. The laws stripped Italian Jews of assets, including art works. In 1940, that law was widened to cover “enemy nationals.” Neutral Luxembourg was occupied by Nazi Germany that same year, and Prince Felix of Bourbon-Parma, husband of Charlotte, Grand Duchess of Luxembourg, and grandfather of the current Grand Duke, was suspected of colluding with the Allies. Under that pretext, the Bourbon-Parma art collection in the Prince’s Villa Borbone delle Pianore in Camaiore, near Lucca in northwest Italy, was confiscated by the Fascist government.

The Prince had other fish to fry at the time. He and his children fled Luxembourg when Germany invaded, traveling through France and Portugal before sailing to the United States. They spent a few months as the guests of General Foods heiress and then-richest women in the United States, Marjorie Merriweather Post, who had become friends with the ruling family when her husband was appointed US Ambassador to Belgium and Envoy to Luxeumbourg in 1938.

The collection remained in the villa until the spring of 1944 when it was stolen by the 16th SS Panzer Grenadier Division which a few months later would earn even more infamy with massacres of civilians. The SS ultimately planned to transport the loot to Berlin, but first the Bourbon-Parma art and many other works pillaged by the 16th Division were delivered to Dornsberg Castle in the Tyrol, then the residence of Karl Wolff, General of the Waffen-SS and Military Governor of northern Italy. Art looted from all over northern Italy was collected at Dornsberg, and organized and documented with standard Nazi efficiency.

It never got to Germany. In 1945, the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives unit of the U.S. 5th Army, better known today as the Monuments Men, under the leadership of Captain Deane Keller recovered the stolen artworks from Dornsberg Castle. Prince Felix read about the liberation of the looted Bourbon-Parma collection in a news article and claimed ownership of the pieces stolen from him. Many of them were still there and the Prince got them back in 1949.

Around 40 of the works stolen from Villa della Pianore were not in Dornberg, among them marble busts of Bourbon rulers of France and paintings by Canaletto, Dosso Dossi, Paris Bordone and Perugino. Prince Felix filed a damages claim and the Italian government reimbursed him for their value, assessed at the then-astronomical sum of $4 million lire, in 1945. The missing works were never forgotten. Seventy years later, the Carabinieri Art Squad of Monza started digging through archives trying to track down these long-lost pieces. After two years of scouring the documentary and photographic archives of the Cini Foundation in Venice, the Zeri in Bologna, the Siviero and Capitoline Archives in Rome, museum center of Florence and the art library of the Castello Sforzesco in Milan, the Carabinieri discovered one of the lost pieces, a Madonna and Child by Gianni Battista Cima (1460-1518), hanging on the wall of a home in Monza in December of 2014. The family said they had inherited it from a relative who was an art dealer and had no idea of its dirty past. Another of the missing paintings, Holy Trinity by Alessio Baldovinetti (1425-1499), was found in the same home. The third work, Circumcision/Jesus Presented at the Temple by Girolamo dai Libri (1474-1555), was discovered in the home of another family who had inherited it from a collector who died in 1945.

The two families have been charged with receiving stolen goods, but the charges aren’t likely to stick. Meanwhile, the three paintings are at the Pinacoteca di Brera where conservators will give them some much needed love. The works are not in great condition, faded and damaged from their altogether too exciting adventures. The government has yet to decide where the paintings will reside permanently.

“Unparalleled” Roman villa found in Wiltshire

Monday, April 18th, 2016

In February of 2015, rug designer Luke Irwin was converting a small barn on his southwest Wiltshire property into a ping-pong room for his very lucky children. Not wanting to mar the beautiful landscape with an overhead cable strung from the farmhouse to the bar, Irwin insisted electricians lay the cables for the future game room underground. When they dug the trench, they came across a flat, hard layer 18 inches under the surface. It was a red, white and blue mosaic in a geometric woven pattern known as guilloche.

Irwin took a picture of the mosaic and sent it to the Wiltshire Council. Within 24 hours, council archaeologists were on the spot. They identified the mosaic as a top quality Roman work of the kind you’d see only in the most expensive, important villas in Roman Britain. Geophysical survey of the site found that the mosaic was in the destroyed or collapsed wing of a large Roman villa. The gateway where the mosaic was found leads to the modern farmhouse and outbuildings which obviously cannot be excavated, but archaeologists believe they were built in the center of where the ancient villa once stood. The farmhouse stands on a slab of Purbeck marble that is likely of Roman origin.

In April of 2015, the Wiltshire Archaeology Service, Salisbury Museum and Historic England worked together to dig a few test pits in key areas of the property. They were able to confirm that the villa was built between 175 an 220 A.D. and was regularly renovated through the mid-4th century. It was three storeys high with a footprint of at least 165 feet x 165 feet, and possibly as large as 230 by 230 feet. There’s evidence that it was pillaged in 360 A.D. only to be reoccupied in the 5th century.

Other artifacts discovered underscore how rich and important the owners of the villa were. There are hundreds of discarded oyster and whelk shells which would have been cultivated on the coast and been transported alive to Wiltshire from the coast in barrels of salt water. Archaeologists also found a Roman well in excellent condition, a bath house and, unassuming in the garden where it was used as a geranium planter, the stone coffin of a Roman child. There’s high status pottery, coins, brooches and copious animal bones both domestic and wild which bear the signs of butchering.

Only a few test pits have been dug, but Roberts said it was clear the walls of the villa were probably still more than a metre high, although they are buried under alluvial sediment from a nearby river. In addition, the mosaic has been revealed to be of particularly high quality. “Everything about this villa suggests it was made of the highest-quality materials,” added Roberts. “We have identified bits of stone that have come from at least 13 different British quarries. This was the country house of a powerful, rich Roman. Doubtless he also had a city house in London or Cirencester.”

Intriguingly, the house was not destroyed after the collapse of the Roman empire, said [Historic England archaeologist Dr. David] Roberts. Archaeologists have discovered timber structures erected in the fifth century. Roberts said the remains from this period, between the end of Roman occupation and the completion of Saxon domination of England, could open a window into one of the least understood periods in British history. It could also reveal how people responded to the collapse of the Roman empire, the superpower of the age.

Other than the construction of the labourers’ cottages that would be converted into the current farmhouse, the property has been left alone and undeveloped, used primarily as grazing land, since the villa was last inhabited in the 5th century. This gives archaeologists a unique opportunity to explore one of the largest Roman houses in Britain with little to no interference from later agriculture or construction. Dr. Roberts called the villa “unparalleled in recent years,” a “hugely valuable site in terms of research, with incredible potential,” and one of the best sites he has ever worked on.

And yet, the test pits have all been refilled and there are no current plans to further excavate this momentous find.

[Roberts] added: “Unfortunately, it would cost hundreds of thousands of pounds to fully excavate and the preserve the site, which cannot be done with the current pressures.

“We would very much like to go back and carry out more digs to further our understanding of the site. But it’s a question of raising the money and taking our time, because as with all archaeological work there is the risk of destroying the very thing you seek to uncover.”

The discovery of the villa has inspired Irwin to design a line of rugs with mosaic patterns. They even made rug tesserae, little cubes of hand-woven silk set between wool lines. I like how they’ve distressed the rugs so that have faded and “missing” areas like real ancient mosaics.

Runestone lost for 250 years found in garden patio

Sunday, April 17th, 2016

A thousand-year-old runestone missing for 250 years has been found in the garden of a home in the village of Boddum in Thy, northern Jutland, Denmark. It all started in November of 2015 when farmer Ole Kappel called the Museum Thy to report he had a stone with some carved lines on it lying in his garden. He asked for an expert to examine it and tell him what it was. In March, Museum Thy archaeologist Charlotte Boje Andersen and National Museum of Denmark runologist Lisbeth Imer were amazed to find that the stone lying around in Kappel’s garden was the Ydby Runestone, carved between 970 and 1020 A.D. and last seen in 1767.

“It was one of the biggest moments in my time as an archaeologists and a completely one-of-a-kind discovery that highlights how important Thy and the western part of the Limfjord were in the Viking era,” [Andersen] said.

The Ydby Runestone was first documented in 1741 by bishop and antiquarian Erik Pontoppidan in the second volume of his collection of notable Danish inscriptions, Marmora Danica. Pontoppidan reported that the stone was moved from a place known as “Hellesager,” where it had stood upright over a triangular underground tomb surrounded by stones, to the village of Flarup. In 1767, Danish naturalist and illustrator Søren Abildgaard tracked down the runestone near Flarup. He made an accurate drawing of stone and the runes on three of its four sides and recorded its location in his travel diary.

After that, the stone disappeared. We don’t know when it was displaced, but landscape painter RH Kruse looked for it assiduously in 1841 and it was no longer there. None of the residents had any information about the runestone. A local farmer told Kruse that as far as he knew, the stone hadn’t been there for 50 years. A teacher named Nissen who was an avid documenter of runestones wrote to the National Museum in 1898 that he’d learned the stone had been used to build a railway bridge and was probably underwater.

Kruse had the wrong idea, thankfully. Ole Kappel acquired the stone 25 years ago when he bought a farm property and demolished the house. Thankfully he had the presence of mind to salvage what he could, including a pile of old stones from the foundation of the farmhouse. He took some of the stones home and used them in his landscaping. In fact, he told the thrilled experts, there more of the old farmhouse stones in his front yard patio. Andersen and Imer took a look at the pavers and saw two pieces that matched the shape of the runestone. Kappel’s sons Anders and Kristian pried up the two stones and more runes were revealed.

Imer was able to identify the stone because the extant runes matched the one recorded in Abildgaard’s drawings. Translated into English, it reads: “Thorgísl and Leifi’s sons placed/ at this place/ the stone in memory of Leifi.” Based on the parts that are missing, Imer thinks the stone, which was about six feet high and three feet wide when intact, was broken into about eight sections. All together, the rediscovered pieces form about half of the original runestone.

Andersen has checked the records and she thinks the stone was swiped in the 1820s when the farm Kappel bought was built. The farm was just a few hundred meters from the runestone’s last known location. The owner appears to have helped himself to the runestone and used it as raw material to build the foundations of his farmhouse. The Kappels plan to keep looking for the other missing pieces.

The recovered stones went on display at Heltborg Museum for a month so residents of Thy could see their long-lost cultural patrimony. The stone is now in the National Museum of Denmark where experts will assess whether it should be declared treasure trove. (It should be and will be.)

Tombstone of early priest found in front of Mexico City cathedral

Saturday, April 16th, 2016

Engineers with the Trust of the Historic Center of Mexico City were installing one of eight new lampposts to illuminate the facade of the Metropolitan Cathedral when, digging deeper than expected, they came across the tombstone of one of the first Catholic priests in Mexico. They notified the Program of Urban Archaeology (PAU) of the Templo Mayor Museum and their archaeologists excavated the find.

The horizontal slab was found in front of the central door of the cathedral about four feet beneath the current floor. It’s a greenish volcanic stone called chiluca and is engraved around the borders with an epitaph in ancient Castilian recording the name of the priest: Miguel de Palomares. It’s followed by an inscription in Greek which has yet to be translated but could be de Palomares’ birth and death dates. Carved on the middle of the stone is a shield with three fleurs de lys, possibly a reference to the Dominican order whose emblems include fleurs de lys, although they’re usually added to the end of crosses or squeezed together to form a cross.

It’s not known whether Miguel de Palomares was a member of the Dominican order. He was a prominent figure in Mexico City in the first half of the 16th century, a member of the first church council convened in the cathedral. He died in 1542 and was buried near an altar inside the first church which was later demolished to make room for the current cathedral. Archaeologists have not yet lifted the slab and so don’t know whether his remains are still buried beneath it.

Today it’s the largest cathedral in the Americas, but the first church on the site was a more modest affair. It was built in 1524, three years after the Spanish conquest of Tenochtitlan. Hernán Cortés himself laid the first stone at the crossroads of the four cardinal points at the southern boundary of the Sacred Precinct. The stones used to build the church were taken from the destroyed Templo Mayor.

The first bishop of Mexico, Franciscan Juan de Zumárraga, was appointed in 1530. The Archdiocese of Mexico was established in 1546 with Zumárraga as archbishop. The church was now designated a cathedral, but it was deemed too small for the seat of an increasingly important archbishopric. The funding for a new cathedral was sorted out in 1552. Work on the foundations began in 1562 and construction would continue for centuries. The original church was demolished in 1628 when enough of the new cathedral was built to make it usable. It was finally completed in 1813.

The discovery of the slab sheds light on how Cortés didn’t just destroy the Aztec sacred architecture and reuse the materials, but rather integrated structures into the church.

The nearly 2-metre-long slab was sunk into the same level of the stucco floor of what appears to be an Aztec temple. The cathedral was simply built over the temple and apparently used the same floor. The Spaniards apparently gave the floor only a thin coat of lime whitewash before using it for their church.

“The Spaniards, Hernán Cortes and his followers, made use of the pre-Hispanic structures, the temples, the foundations, the floors,” said Raúl Barrera, an archaeologist for the government’s National Institute of Anthropology and History. “They even used the walls, the floors. They couldn’t destroy everything all at once.” [...]

Archaeologists have long known the Spaniards often appeared to prefer to build their churches atop Aztec temples, but it was thought that was for symbolic purposes, to signal the displacement of old Aztec gods by the Christian church. But it may also have been a practical decision, as the pre-Hispanic temples had good foundations, walls and floors that the Spaniards could use, saving them the trouble of building new ones.

Construction of the new cathedral damaged the tombstone. It is perforated with a large hole that likely had a post or cross embedded into it. Chiluca is a delicate stone, and since this one has already been damaged, archaeologists are being very cautious before attempting to raise the slab and transport it to the Templo Mayor Museum.

Other architectural elements from the first church have been unearthed alongside the slab. There are stones next to the slab that archaeologists believe were part of the long-defunct altar. They’ve also found the remains of a perimeter wall from the original church.

It’s very rare for archaeologists to have a chance to study known historical figures, and as Miguel de Palomares was associated with an important transitional period after the conquest, PAU experts hope they’ll find his remains which would give us new information about Catholic burial practices in the first half of the 16th century and the diet of Spanish colonists.

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