Gold bust of Marcus Aurelius at Getty

The golden bust of Emperor Marcus Aurelius from Avenches, western Switzerland, is going on display at the Getty. It is the largest known bust of an emperor made of a precious metal and one of only a handful of gold busts to escape being melted down. This Marcus Aurelius bust is so rare and so valuable that it is usually kept in a bank vault. The Roman Museum of Avenches keeps a copy on display instead. It has only been exhibited a dozen times, and never before in the United States.

The bust was discovered in 1939 in an excavation of a temple at Avenches’ ancient predecessor, Aventicum. Aventicum was the capital of the Helvetii and was incorporated into the Roman Empire under Augustus in 15 B.C. It was granted colony status by Vespasian in 71/2 A.D. which spurred a major urban redevelopment of the city. A large temple complex inspired by Vespasian’s Templum Pacis in Rome and dedicated to the local gods of the Helvetii and the cult of the emperor was built during this time.

Found in a sewer crossing underneath the main courtyard of the temple complex, the golden bust is 13 inches high and weighs 3.5 lbs, the equivalent of 220 gold aurei from Marcus Aurelius’ time (r. 161-180 AD). It is made from a single sheet of gold that was cold-worked in a repoussé technique. The goldsmith hammered the back of the sheet to create the features of the emperor in three dimensions — a thick head of hair, neat beard, intense eyes. Fine details were incised on to the exterior surface after the repoussé was complete. He wears a lorica plumata, a cuirass decorated with rows of feathers, around a central gorgoneion.

Only about 15 imperial portraits in precious metals and only six of those in gold made it through the gauntlet of being destroyed in antiquity for the value of their weight. Hollow, portable and requiring a support to stand, this type of portrait was created to be an imago, an effigy of the emperor meant to embody his sacred authority in processions and in temples dedicated to the imperial cult. Marcus Aurelius wrote in a letter in 162/3 A.D. to the curator of the temple at Ephesos that portraits of past emperors should never be altered to look like other emperors (a common practice with marble portraits) or melted down.

“There must be no re-working of the material into likenesses of us. For as we are not in other respects solicitous of honours for ourselves, much less should we permit those of others to be transferred to us. As many of the statues as are in good preservation should be kept under their original names, but with respect to those that are too battered to be identified, perhaps their titles can be recovered from inscriptions on their bases or from records that may exist in the possession of the Council, so that our progenitors may rather receive a renewal of their honour than its extinction through the melting down of their images.”

The bust will be on display at the Getty Villa in Los Angeles from May 31st of this year through January 29th, 2024.

Giant gilded Hercules regains his shine

The largest surviving bronze statue from antiquity is undergoing a comprehensive restoration program in public view at the Vatican Museums in Rome. The Hercules Mastai Righetti is more than 13 feet tall and is gilded head to toe, an incredibly rare survival of a colossal bronze and even more incredibly rare survival of the full gold layer on a gilded ancient statue. Its otherworldly shine has dulled over the years, however, darkened by coatings of wax applied in the initial restoration after its discovery in the 19th century.

The statue first came to light in 1864 during work on the foundations of the Palazzo Pio Righetti, a 15th century palace on the Campo de’ Fiori that had recently been acquired by wealthy banker Pietro Righetti. Under the palace courtyard, workmen encountered an ancient wall and a bronze finger. The finger was so big that the statue it was attached to had to have been monumental in scale.

A subsequent excavation dug down 15 feet to find a wall of peperino (a grey volcanic tuff) flanked by columns believed to have been part of the foundation of the temple of Venus Victrix built by Pompey as a religious pretext to construct the first permanent theater in Rome attached to it.

(Today the remains of Pompey’s Theater underneath the Palazzo Pio Righetti have been incorporated into a restaurant that serves traditional Roman food in what is basically an underground archaeological park. I recommend the oxtail.)

Inside a ditch surrounded by travertine slabs was the colossal gilded bronze statue lying on its side. His feet were broken and the back of his head was missing, as were his genitals. It likely dates to between the end of the 1st century and the beginning of the 3rd, and is believed to be a copy of a Greek original from the late 4th century B.C.

Under the statue the diggers founds fragment of the skin of the Nemean lion, the broken right foot, fragments of the club Hercules used to slay the lion and a triangular slab of travertine inscribed “F C S.” The initials stand for “fulgor conditum summanium,” meaning “here lies a lightning bolt from Summanus.” These three little letters are a key clue to the statue’s fate: it had been struck by a thunderbolt at night (Summanus was the god of nocturnal thunder), which, according to an ancient Roman belief descended from the Etruscans, rendered the strike site a sacred area where any electrocuted objects had to be buried immediately.

Three months after its discovery, the bronze was bought by Pope Pius IX for the Vatican Museums collection. In 1866, the Hercules Mastai Righetti was installed in the Round Hall of the Pio Clementino Museum and has been there ever since. Visitors to the museum now have the opportunity to see Hercules’ shine restored before their eyes.

“The original gilding is exceptionally well-preserved, especially for the consistency and homogeneity,” Vatican Museum restorer Alice Baltera said. […]

The burial protected the gilding, but also caused dirt to build up on the statue, which Baltera said is very delicate and painstaking to remove. “The only way is to work precisely with special magnifying glasses, removing all the small encrustations one by one,” she said.

The work to remove the wax and other materials that were applied during the 19th-century restoration is complete. Going forward, restorers plan to make fresh casts out of resin to replace the plaster patches that covered missing pieces, including on part of the nape of the neck and the pubis.

The most astonishing finding to emerge during the preliminary phase of the restoration was the skill with which the smelters fused mercury to gold, making the gilded surface more enduring.

“The history of this work is told by its gilding. … It is one of the most compact and solid gildings found to date,’’ said Ulderico Santamaria, a University of Tuscia professor who is head of the Vatican Museums’ scientific research laboratory.

Pompeii ceremonial chariot reconstructed

The exceptional ceremonial carriage discovered in the Pompeiian suburb of Civita Giuliana in 2021 has been restored and placed on public display for the first time.

While other carriages and carts have been found in Pompeii, this one is unique in Italian archaeology because it was a pilentum, a vehicle used by the elites for ceremonial occasions. Livy wrote that the senate granted Roman matrons the right to drive to sacred festivals and games in the pilentum in recognition of their donation of gold and jewelry to the treasury after Marcus Furius Camillus’ defeat of Veii in 396 B.C.

The chariot is adorned with bronze and silver medallions decorated with reliefs of explicit erotic scenes, cupids and female figures. Archaeologists believe it was used to transport a new bride, and perhaps her mother or mother-in-law, to her marital home after the wedding. It has therefore been dubbed the Bride’s Chariot.

Its condition and preservation make it one-of-a-kind too. Its iron wheel rims, bronze cladding, tin and silver decorations, the iron framework of the back seat, even the wood wheel hubs that were mineralized by the volcanic ash, survived. The carriage was painstakingly excavated by the experts from the Archaeological Park of Pompeii, specialists in the preservation or wood as well as metals. At every stage, whenever they encountered a void they filled it with plaster and made a cast of the space decomposed organic material had once occupied. Therefore, the parts of the chariot that did not survive — the axle, the platform, the ropes, the vegetal decorations — were able to be recreated from the casts.

The carriage has now been reconstructed with modern materials like plexiglass and wood standing in for the lost parts. The surviving original elements have been integrated into the reconstruction.

The reconstructed pilentum is part of a new exhibition at the Baths of Diocletian that explores the our relationship with classical antiquity as seen through millennia of cultural, intellectual and artistic transmission. The plaster casts of two victims of Vesuvius found in the same luxury villa as the carriage are also part of the exhibition, as is the Hercules figure recently found at the Appia Antica Archaeological Park. The Instant and Eternity: Between Us and the Ancients exhibition runs from May 4th through July 30th.

North Sea oil rig technology saves Viking ships

The Gokstad ship, the Oseberg ship and the Tune warship are the three best-preserved Viking ships in the world. They have been housed in Oslo’s Viking Ship Museum for nearly a century, along with hundreds of associated objects recovered from their burial mounds, many of them fragile organic remains (textiles, tapestries, plant material) and intact wooden conveyances like the three elaborately carved sleighs and a four-wheeled cart found in the Oseberg grave.

When the Viking Ship Museum opened in 1926, it was designed to accommodate approximately 40,000 annual visitors. By the time of its closure in 2021, it had become Norway’s most visited museum by far, averaging more than half a million annual visitors. Vibrations from all of those footfalls, temperature and moisture shifts from humans breathing and speaking and coughing and generally being the gross organisms we are put the ships at great peril. The bracing supports keeping the ships standing were also insufficient to keep the planks stable over time.

Clearly a new museum was going to have to be built to house the ships, but after an international commission of experts determined the ships were too fragile to survive the move to a new location, in 2013 the Norwegian government announced a plan to build an extension to the current Viking Ship Museum. The new facility would feature state-of-the-art climate control, supports and three times the space to house and manage the ships and their collection of associated objects. The ships would also only have to be moved a few hundred feet.

An architectural competition ensued, followed by drafts, feasibility studies, analysis on the feasibility studies, quality assurance studies and, of course, arguments about how much money this was all going to cost. Six years passed.

When two large cracks appeared on the Gokstad ship in 2019, conservators realized they were out of time. They had already added additional supports the year before, so when the planks cracked, experts knew there was no band-aid that could be applied to keep the ships from collapse in their current facility. That September, Norway granted the first funds to begin the new museum project.

After delays from budget overruns and the pandemic, construction on the new museum finally began in February of this year and is scheduled to reopen as The Museum of the Viking Age in 2026. There was still a thorny problem in how to keep the ships from falling apart in the interim, however. In fact, noise, movement and vibration from the construction of the annex posed an even greater threat to their stability than the cumulative footsteps of millions of people.

The ships have never been moved since their arrival at the museum. They have to stay put, as do the Oseberg sleighs, for their own safety. There are no other institutions with comparable experience to guide conservators in how to protect the vessels while earthmovers and jackhammers are rumbling about a few hundred feet away. So museum researchers looked a little further afield for relevant expertise, specifically to the North Sea offshore oil industry.

The team in the SGO [safeguarding of objects] project has found the solutions in collaboration with Imenco Smart Solutions, a company that normally produces equipment for the offshore industry in the North Sea.

To reduce vibrations and other impacts from the construction process, the ships are protected in huge, custom-made steel rigs weighing up to 50 tons each. The rigs, which will later serve as moving rigs, now rest on four strong steel beams that are founded in the basement of the former Viking Ship Museum.

“The energy from the building project is captured in these beams and reduced by vibration isolators. That way, the Viking ships are exposed to minimal vibrations and shaking,” explains [SGO conservator David] Hauer.

During the construction work, the Viking ships and sleighs left at the Viking Ship Museum will be closely monitored. Everyone who works on the construction site has an alarm that goes off if the vibrations exceed the permitted value.

You can see the ships in their badass protective steel rigs in this video:

Medieval gold jewelry, silver coin hoard on display

The Rijksmuseum van Oudheden (the National Museum of Antiquities) just announced the discovery of a unique hoard of medieval gold jewelry and silver coins. The hoard consists of four gold earrings, two strips of gold leaf and 39 silver coins. The coins date to between 1200 and 1248, which indicates the hoard was buried around the middle of the 13th century. The jewelry, however, was already 200 years old when it was buried with the coins, a much prized heirloom collection.

The hoard was discovered in 2021 in Hoogwoud, North Holland, by Dutch historian and metal detectorist Lorenzo Ruijter. He reported the find to regional heritage authorities. He had to keep his discovery a secret for two years while experts at the National Museum of Antiquities cleaned, conserved and investigated the hoard before announcing the sensational find.

Gold jewelry from the High Middle Ages are extremely rare finds in the Netherlands, so the four 11th century earrings are the most significant pieces in the hoard. They are large, about two inches wide, and crescent shaped. Two of the four pendants have intricate filigree decoration. The other two are engraved with decorative scenes. One of them was damaged (probably by agricultural activity) and is incised with a floral motif. The other pendant is engraved with the image of a man’s head surrounded by radiating lines. This represents a portrait of Christ as Sol Invictus. Only three gold earrings similar to this have been found before in the Netherlands.

Only one side of the earrings is decorated and the suspension loops are so delicate compared to the weight of the jewelry that archaeologists believe they were not worn through pierced ear lobes, but rather worn on a head scarf, hood or head band. This type of adornment is seen in German illustrations from the period.

The two strips of gold leaf fit together, so they were likely part of the same decoration. Small textile fibers still attached to the leaf suggest the strips bordered a garment, likely a seam or a waistband.

The 39 silver coins are small pennies from Holland, Guelders and Cleves, the Diocese of Utrecht and from the German Empire. Traces of textiles found with the coins indicate they were originally buried in a bag or wrapped in cloth. The most recent of the coins were struck in 1247-8 by William II of Holland when he was elected King of Germany after Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II was excommunicated by Pope Innocent IV. William died in 1256 in Hoogwoud where the hoard was found. He was in the area engaged in one of several of his wars against the West Frisians when he and his horse fell through weak ice into a frozen lake. His West Frisian enemies killed him before the cold lake could finish what it had started, and buried him under the floorboards of a local house. That gives the hoard enormous archaeological significance in the history of Holland as a region and of the Netherlands.

The hoard is on display at the museum until mid-June of this year. It will go back on display in October as part of The Year 1000 exhibition. These are temporary loans, however. The hoard itself is still property of the finder.