Archive for the ‘Treasures’ Category

12th c. silver and gold hoard found at Cluny Abbey

Wednesday, November 15th, 2017

A hoard of hidden medieval treasure, a fortune in gold and silver coins, was an unexpectedly discovered during an excavation at the site of the famed medieval Abbey of Cluny in Saône-et-Loire, eastern France. The team, which includes nine students doing field work as part of the University Lumière Lyon 2’s archaeology masters program, unearthed the hoard in mid-September while looking for the remains of an infirmary believed to have been located there in the Middle Ages.

The medieval loot included 2,200 deniers (or pieces of silver) mostly issued by Cluny Abbey itself as well as 21 gold dinar coins, originally from the Middle East which were stored in a canvas bag.

The bounty also included a gold signet ring marked with the word “Avete” — a “word of greeting in a religious context” — as well as a folded 24-gram gold leaf and gold coin.

“The overall value of this treasure for the time is estimated between three and eight horses, the equivalent of cars nowadays, but in terms of the running of the abbey it’s not that much, amounting to about six days of supply of bread and wine,” said specialist Vincent Borrel.

In terms of archaeological and historical value, this treasure is off the charts. It is the first 12th century Cluniac treasure discovered in its original context during an archaeological excavation. It’s also the largest number of silver deniers discovered in one place and the only single hoard ever found to include Arabic coins, silver deniers and a signet ring. The intaglio stone is ancient Roman and engraved with the profile of a deity. (Religious context or no religious context, ancient engravings were prestige items and often used as signet rings by the medieval elite.)

Also of note is the survival of fragments of the original bag the hoard was stashed in. Fragments of it are still attached to some of the coins. There is also a surviving piece of tanned animal hide which was tied around the bundle of 21 gold dinars minted between 1121 and 1131 in Spain and Morocco during the reign of Almoravid sultan Ali Ben Youssef (1106-1143).

Practically from the time of its founding by by Duke William I of Aquitaine in 910 A.D., the Benedictine monastery of Cluny was one of the great monastic centers of Western Europe. They followed a strict interpretation of the Rule of Saint Benedict that within decades had catapulted Cluny to the top of the ranks, making the abbey the undoubted leader in European monasticism. The city of Cluny grew into a city thanks largely to the Abbey and the trade, employment and pilgrim moneys it brought to town. By the second half of the 10th century, the Abbey of Cluny was already well-established as the top monastery in the country and it retained its prominence into the 12th century.

Its influence began to wane when newer, more austere orders stole Benedictine thunder and the idea of remote rule by a single abbot, distant from the satellite houses and largely unaccountable, lost its appeal. In the 16th century the Abbey of Cluny was sacked by Hugenots and never really recovered. Come the French Revolution, the monastic order was dissolved and under Napoleon the abbey itself was demolished and used as a quarry. Today only one of its eight grand towers still stands, which is why archaeologists continue to excavate it today, 90 years after the first archaeological explorations of the site began.

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Pylos warrior tomb’s tiniest treasure is its greatest

Tuesday, November 7th, 2017

When the intact grave of a Bronze Age man was discovered in Pylos, southwestern Greece, two years ago, it was so dense with luxurious grave goods that it set a new record for the wealthiest single grave ever found in Greece. Its location, next to the so-called Palace of Nestor of Trojan War fame, and the richness of the contents even generated breathless speculation that this might be the tomb of a Homeric hero. Entirely groundless speculation — the shaft tomb is around 300 years older than the palace which was destroyed in 1,180 B.C. — but it’s an inescapable side-effect when archaeologists discover ivory-handled, gold-covered weapons, four gold signet rings, more than 1,000 semi-precious stone beads, silver and bronze cups, a massive gold chain, 50 seal stones decorated with Minoan motifs, carved ivory and ever so much more, enough to reignite a million childhood fantasies of pirate booty treasure maps where X always marks the spot.

Little encrusted piece before conservation. Photo courtesy the University of Cincinnati.After the dust from the dig had settled, the team, led by University of Cincinnati archaeologists Jack Davis and Sharon Stocker, had unearthed more than 3,000 burial objects, all of which were sent to the Archaeological Museum of Chora for triage, study and conservation. One of the objects was a small sort of kite-shaped piece caked in thick lime accretions entirely obscuring its surface. It was put in the To Do pile while conservators focused on the larger ticket items, like the heaps of gold, weapons and jewels.

They were finally able to beging cleaning the wee thing — it’s less than an inch and a half long — a year later and discovered that under all lime scale was one of the greatest pieces of art in Greek history. It’s a sealstone, not made of precious metals like the signet rings found in the tomb, but of agate. This one’s value is in the astonishing detail and precision in the miniature carving.

The “Pylos Combat Agate,” as the seal has come to be known for the fierce hand-to-hand battle it portrays, promises not only to rewrite the history of ancient Greek art, but to help shed light on myth and legend in an era of Western civilization still steeped in mystery. […]

Davis and Stocker say the Pylos Combat Agate’s craftsmanship and exquisite detail make it the finest discovered work of glyptic art produced in the Aegean Bronze Age.

“What is fascinating is that the representation of the human body is at a level of detail and musculature that one doesn’t find again until the classical period of Greek art 1,000 years later,” explained Davis. “It’s a spectacular find.”

Even more extraordinary, the husband-and-wife team point out, is that the meticulously carved combat scene was painstakingly etched on a piece of hard stone measuring just 3.6 centimeters, or just over 1.4 inches, in length. Indeed, many of the seal’s details, such as the intricate weaponry ornamentation and jewelry decoration, become clear only when viewed with a powerful camera lens and photomicroscopy.

“Some of the details on this are only a half-millimeter big,” said Davis. “They’re incomprehensibly small.”

The miniature masterpiece portrays a victorious warrior who, having already vanquished one unfortunate opponent sprawled at his feet, now turns his attention to another much more formidable foe, plunging his sword into the shielded man’s exposed neck in what is sure to be a final and fatal blow.

This thing is unbelievable. I think I’ve stared at the fallen fighter on the left for a solid hour.

Here is an enlarged drawing of the artwork so you can see the astonishing detail the carver was able to achieve with whatever meagre magnification options were available in 1,500 B.C. (or maybe none at all):

Beyond all the superlatives that can and should be showered upon this marvel of artistry, researchers believe the sealstone reveals new information of major significance about Minoan culture and their interactions with the Mycenaeans who so thirstily drank of Minoan culture and spread it throughout the Greek mainland.

In a series of presentations and a paper published last year, Davis and Stocker revealed that the discovery of four gold signet rings bearing highly detailed Minoan iconography, along with other Minoan-made riches found within the tomb, indicates a far greater and complex cultural interchange took place between the Mycenaeans and Minoans.

But the skill and sophistication of the Pylos Combat Agate is unparalleled by anything uncovered before from the Minoan-Mycenaean world, say the researchers. And that raises a bigger question: How does this change our understanding of Greek art in the Bronze Age?

“It seems that the Minoans were producing art of the sort that no one ever imagined they were capable of producing,” explained Davis. “It shows that their ability and interest in representational art, particularly movement and human anatomy, is beyond what it was imagined to be. Combined with the stylized features, that itself is just extraordinary.”

The revelation, he and Stocker say, prompts a reconsideration of the evolution and development of Greek art.

“This seal should be included in all forthcoming art history texts, and will change the way that prehistoric art is viewed,” said Stocker.

For more about the Griffin Warrior tomb, check out this thoroughly documented, content-rich website created by Davis and Stocker and the Pylos team. Pictures are a bit small, alas, but they need to pinch bandwidth pennies because conserving an enormous quantity of priceless archaeological artifacts is an expensive proposition, especially trying to keep the fragmentary bronze armour from falling apart. You can contribute to the project here. All donations go directly to conservation.

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Update: National Museum secures Galloway Hoard

Thursday, October 26th, 2017

National Museums Scotland has successfully raised the £1.98 million ($2,550,000) necessary to acquire the Galloway Hoard. Half of the money will be given to metal detectorist Derek McLennan, who discovered the hoard in a field in Dumfries and Galloway, Scotland, in 2014, as an ex gratia payment in accordance with the terms of the Treasure Act which awards finders of artifacts adjudicated to be treasure a cash sum equivalent to their market value as an incentive to disclosing these kinds of discoveries instead of looting them for secret resale or to keep for themselves. The other half will go to the landowners, the Church of Scotland, which will dedicate its share to the local parish in which the treasure was found.

The Galloway Hoard was assessed by the valuation committee at such a large sum because it is the richest Viking hoard ever discovered in Britain. It includes silver jewelry, silver and gold ingots, a unique gold bird-shaped pin, a lidded silver-gilt pot, arm rings, brooches, a solid silver cross pendant decorated in enamel with the images of the Four Evangelists, bejeweled aestels (manuscript pointers), glass and crystal beads, a rock crystal jar and much more. Besides the sheer quantity and quality of the precious objects in the hoard, they are without parallel in the different places and cultures they came from. The rock crystal jar is believed to have been made in the Middle East; the lidded pot is Carolingian; the glass beads are Scandinavian; the stamp-decorated bracelets are Irish; one of the silver pieces is engraved with runes at first thought to be Scandinavian but have been found upon closer examination to be Anglian. The ages of the objects vary significantly as well. The hoard was buried in the early 10th century, but the Carolingian pot was at least a century old by then, so it was likely kept as an heirloom for several generations before being used to hold the treasures it still contained a thousand years later.

Some of the greatest of the treasures found inside the vessel are of little pecuniary but inestimable archaeological value. They are the remains of textiles that survived wrapped around several of the pieces stored inside the vessel and around the pot itself, plus leather and wood fragments. These exceedingly rare surviving organic materials, never found before in a hoard of this age, contain a wealth of information about the Viking Age, its travel and trade routes. They’re also a major conservation challenge, which is one of the reasons the Galloway Hoard was not allocated to a Galloway museum. NMS has the resources, expertise and carefully controlled conservation environment to ensure the continued survival organic remains.

The hoard has been on temporary display at the National Museums Scotland in Edinburgh since the summer. The exhibition just closed on October 1st, but fear not, the treasures will be back in public view after a period of conservation and study. Here is Martin Goldberg, curator of the museum’s Early Medieval and Viking collections, guiding viewers through the exhibition and some of the objects from the Galloway Hoard.

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Yeovil Hoard on display at Museum of Somerset

Tuesday, October 3rd, 2017

A hoard of 3,339 Roman coins unearthed in March of 2013 has gone on display at the Museum of Somerset in Taunton, just a hop, skip and a jump from where they were found in Yeovil.

The hoard was discovered neither by archaeologists nor by metal detector enthusiasts. This one was found by bulldozer driver Mark Copsey who was moving masses of earth during installation of a fake turf hockey pitch at the Yeovil Recreational Centre. We have his exceptionally keen eye to thank that the hoard wasn’t scattered to the four corners of the earth and the vessel destroyed. After he leveled the old hockey field, he looked back upon his works, ye mighty, and saw a green stain on the newly exposed surface of the soil. Upon further investigation, he saw coins and the remains of the pot (the top of it had been sheered off by the bulldozer). He contacted South West Heritage Trust who sent experts to explore the find site. The coins he had already picked up and put in a sealed bag were sent along to the British Museum for examination. The in situ coins and greyware vessel fragments were raised en bloc and excavated in controlled conditions in the BM lab.

Conservators found that all of the coins date to the 2nd-3rd centuries A.D., most to the 3rd. The most recent coins in the hoard date to around 270 A.D., which is probably around the time they were buried, a period of turmoil in Britain when usurpers created a splinter “Gallic Empire” and ruled as rivals to the official Roman emperor. The overwhelming majority of the coins, 3335, to be precise, are base silver coins. Out of that number, only 165 are silver denarii. The rest are less valuable radiates which became the most circulated denomination in the 3rd century. The remaining four of the 3,339 coins are large brass sestertii. In the 3rd century, four sestertii were worth a single silver denarius.

Coin stack with textile fragments still attached by corrosion. Photo courtesy the Somerset County Council.At least some of them had been stacked in little piles and wrapped with textiles before being buried in the pot. In one of those great archaeological flukes that descend upon us all too rarely, the corrosion from the metal created a sort of caked-on crust that ensured the survival of fragments of organic textiles even though the ground wasn’t waterlogged or a peat bog or extremely dry or extremely cold.

The hoard contains a large array of different coins struck under different emperors (40 emperors and empresses, to be precise) some of them of significant historical note. There’s a series of coins struck in 248 A.D. during the reign of Emperor Philip I which commemorate the 1,000th anniversary of the founding of the city of Rome. Their reverse sides depict exotic animals — hippos, elephants, lions — thousands of whom were slaughtered in the games celebrating the millennium birthday.

Two months after its discovery, the Yeovil Hoard was declared Treasure and valued by the Treasure Valuation Committee at £53,500 ($71,000). The usual practice is for a local museum to be offered the treasure contingent on their paying the assessed value as a reward to the finder and landowner. At first it looked like they might be in for a bumpy ride. One of Mark Copsey’s co-workers claimed it was a “group find” and that they all should get a cut, but the coroner’s inquest determined there was no basis for the claim. Copsey was declared the finder free and clear.

The Museum of Somerset declared its desire to acquire the hoard in no uncertain terms and launched a fundraiser. The South Somerset District Council, owners of the hockey pitch and rec center where the hoard was discovered, were very much in support of the goal of keeping the hoard close to where it was found. They decided to waive their rights to half the reward, leaving the museum with £26,750 to raise. They got donations from individuals, the Friends of the Museum of Somerset and grants from several art/cultural patrimony funds. It took more than a year, but the fee was raised in full and now the Yeovil Hoard will be exhibited in a local museum, albeit one that was recently renovated for millions of pounds and is now a state-of-the-art facility.

Coin of Philip I, lion reverse. Photo courtesy the Somerset County Council.Somerset has been on a long roll hoard-wise. The spectacular Frome Hoard, 52,503 Roman coins buried in a single pot, was found less than 30 miles northeast of Yeovil and is now on display at the Museum of Somerset, as is the Shapwick Hoard, discovered in 1998 and still the largest group of silver denarii found in Britain. The museum is also the permanent home of the Priddy Hoard, gold jewelry buried 1300-1100 BC. during the Bronze Age, and from the same date range, a twisted gold torc that is widely acknowledged as the finest piece of gold work ever discovered in Somerset.

Stephen Minnitt, head of museums at South West Heritage Trust, said: “Somerset has gained a reputation for the exceptional number of Roman coin hoards discovered in the county – these include the well-known Shapwick and Frome hoards.

“We are delighted that, thanks to the support of our funders and the district council, we have also been able to secure the Yeovil Hoard for the county.”

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“Licking Dog” found in hoard of Roman bronze

Thursday, September 28th, 2017

Metal detectorists Pete Cresswell and Andrew Boughton discovered a hoard of Roman bronze in Gloucestershire (the exact location is not being disclosed) that includes a figurine of a type never before found in Britain. It’s a free-standing bronze statuette of a dog with his tongue hanging out. Known as a “licking dog” figure, it is believed to have been a symbol of healing and may have some connection to the temple to Nodens, a deity of hunting, dogs and healing, at nearby Lydney Park.

Licking Dog from all views. Photo by Eve Andreski.The dog stands at attention, his expression alert and focused upward, like he knows his master has a ball and is waiting for him to throw it. Holes drilled in his paws suggest he was once mounted to a base and there are two more holes on the upper left flank that may have once held pins that were part of the mounting system. There’s also a square hole on its underbelly. Each shoulder is decorated with a sideways teardrop-shaped panel incised with what could be stylized leaf or feather designs.

Cresswell, from Gloucestershire, said: “It’s not every day you come across a hoard of Roman bronze.

“We have been metal detecting for a combined 40 years, but this is a once in a lifetime discovery. As soon as I realised the items were of historical significance I contacted the local archaeology team, who were equally excited by the find.

“It’s a great privilege to be able to contribute to local and British history.”

Archaeologist Kurt Adams, Gloucestershire and Avon Finds Liaison Officer, examined the hoard. He provisionally dated it to the 4th century (318 – 450 A.D.) and the exceptional dog is the only intact piece in the group excepting a coin or two. The other artifacts are all fragments, mostly made of copper alloy. They include pieces of a broken statue of a person wearing an elaborately draped garment, vase and furniture fittings, escutcheons shaped like animal and human heads, handle terminals, bangles, folded up banding from chests or boxes, a little spoon, a hinge and a great many bits and bobs of undeterminate origin. There’s even an inscribed copper alloy plaque broken into four pieces that when puzzled back together reads (V?)MCONIA. It is curved at the back, suggesting that it too was once mounted on something. These fragments appear to have been deliberately cut up or broken, perhaps by a metal worker collecting scraps to melt down for reuse.

Intact or fragment, these objects are of great archaeological significance and require specialized treatment for their conservation and security. They are being kept at Bristol museum for the time being to give experts the opportunity to fully document, photograph and catalogue them. Once that task is complete, the British Museum’s Treasure Valuation Committee will assess the hoard’s full market value and recommend a reward to be paid in that amount, half going to the finder, half the to the landowner.

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Unusual Bronze Age hoard found in Cumbria

Saturday, September 23rd, 2017

Metal detectorists in Cumbria have discovered a small Bronze Age hoard that is the first of its kind found in the county. The hoard was cached in a hole in the bedrock covered by stones. The group, small in size but large in historical significance, consists of one gold bracelet, three gold penannular lock-rings and one copper alloy cauldron fragment, all dating to the late Bronze Age. Three of the four jewelry pieces (the bracelet and two lock rings) have stains that may be corrosion or the residue of an organic material buried with them. The stains could also have been caused by something in the soil itself at the time of deposition, although if that were the case it seems like the other objects would have the same kind of staining.

The lock rings are made from sheets of gold curved into circular shapes. They are bound to an outer circle with gold wire and have been delicately incised with concentric rings vaguely reminiscent of the tracks on old wax or vinyl records. Two of the lock rings are almost identical in size — only 1 cm difference in width and .1 gram in weight — and while the third is smaller than the other two, the craftsmanship is so similar experts believe they were created if not by the same hand, then by the same workshop.

The lock rings, meanwhile, are very similar to an example from Portfield Camp, near Whalley, Lancashire.

The purpose of this latter kind of artefact is much debated, through – as they are normally found in pairs, it has been suggested that they may have been a form of high-status personal ornament peculiar to the late Bronze Age (c.1000-800 BC), possibly earrings or some kind of hair decoration.

These newly discovered examples, decorated with concentric rings and bound with gold wire, are unusual for being a group of three.

The gold penannular bracelet, with its undecorated design, flat, circular terminals and uneven curvature has features in common with an example now in the British Museum which was unearthed at Beachy Head, East Sussex, in the 19th century and is now in the British Museum. The bracelet and three lock rings are all a strong yellow color, an indication that the gold has copper added to the alloy.

The find spot — isolated, out-of-reach, high places located near notable features like hillforts and stone circles — is very much in keeping with past Bronze Age lock ring finds. The cauldron fragment is unusual for a lock ring cache. It may have been a previous deposition, but experts don’t think so because it was so found so close to the other pieces that it seems they were all buried together.

The findspot lies in an isolated high place on a prominent ridge that seems to have been an area visited throughout later prehistory. It is situated just below a possible Iron Age hillfort and close to a number of other prehistoric settlement sites, as well as a concentric stone circle. The presence of roughed-out stone axes found nearby hints at the site lying on one of the major transmission routes south for the Langdale axe factories during the Neolithic period, while socketed bronze axes that were also found nearby, probably from a smith’s hoard, point to the area’s importance during the Bronze Age.

‘The enclosed platform, sometimes described as a hillfort, has no evidence of buildings or habitation,’ said Stuart [Noon, Finds Liaison Officer for Lancashire and Cumbria]. ‘It appears that the site may have been of ritual importance, a place where offerings could be placed or buried in the ground or even inserted into the limestone outcrops, and which, it could be speculated, may have hosted gatherings and celebrations.’

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Friendship-killing Boldre Hoard goes on display

Monday, July 31st, 2017

A hoard of 1,608 coins Roman coins discovered by metal detectorists in a field it Boldre, in the New Forest near Lymington, Hampshire, in 2014, has gone on public display for the first time at the St Barbe Museum and Art Gallery in Lymington. The hoard dates to the 3rd century A.D. and contains bronze radiates from the second half of the 3rd century. The earliest coin in the group was minted under the reign of Trebonianus Gallus (249-51 A.D.). The most recent is barely 25 years older, struck in 276 in the waning days of the emperor Tacitus (275-6 A.D.). The bulk of the coins were found in the remains of a round vessel, 15 sherds from the bottom of the earthenware pot.

After slumbering underground for more than 1,700 years since its owner buried his savings, disturbed only by the farm equipment that likely broke the pot, the hoard has seen quite a bit of drama starting with the moment of its discovery. There were several metal detectorists scanning that field in Boldre on May 4th, 2014, among them two old friends Andy Aartsen and James Petts. Aartsen made the first discovery: 25-30 coins on their own. Then Petts hit the motherlode, finding the remains of the pot and its coin hoard of more than 1,500 pieces.

Aartsen had scanned that area earlier and gotten a signal but had moved on. According to the rules of the metal detecting club, if you walk away from a signal it counts as abandonment and the next guy gets to pick up where you left off, but Aartsen apparently thought his earlier signal granted him perpetual rights because he told Petts “Eff off, it’s mine.” That’s a quote from James Petts’ testimony at the coroner’s inquest that determined whether the coin hoard was official treasure by the standards of the Treasure Act of 1996, which is downright spicy compared to the usual testimony from British Museum and Portable Antiquities Scheme experts one encounters at treasure inquests.

The conflict caused a permanent rift between the former friends, and it really wasn’t about the money because bronze radiates aren’t big ticket items. The amount of the valuation that would be paid by the museum that acquired the hoard was around £8,000 to be split 50/50 by the finder and landowner. This fight was all about credit, who gets to be the official finder of the Boldre Hoard. Andy Aartsen wanted to be declared the sole finder; Petts wanted it declared a joint find of both men, which seems more than fair given that he found the vast majority of the hoard and the container. At the time of the inquest, the dispute was still ongoing and Central Hampshire Coroner Grahame Short suggested the two ex-friends might have to duke it out in court if they couldn’t come to an agreement. I couldn’t discover what the disposition their dispute was, but the articles about the new exhibition refer only to James Petts as the finder.

The British Museum seemed interested in acquiring the rarest of the coins — three coins struck under the rule of Marius who reigned for exactly 12 weeks in 269 A.D. — but that would have broken up the hoard. The St Barbe Museum and Art Gallery wanted to keep every coin and the pot together and put them on display a few miles away from where they were discovered and that was going to require some fast fundraising.

Rosalyn Goulding, of the museum, said the coins were an “exciting” find for the town.

“We haven’t had too much evidence of Roman activity here but this find helps us to build up a picture of settlement and agriculture,” she said.

“One of the coins is really interesting because it has an unrecorded reverse.

“The emperors would strike a series of coins and they each had a pattern to them – they would have similar things on the front and on the reverse – but this one had an altar on the back which has never before been seen on a Divus Victorious coin, or any coins issued by Victorious.”

Historian and television presenter Dan Snow who lives in the area launched the fundraising campaign last fall with a target of £30,000 ($40,000). Donations large and small came from private individuals, local businesses, organizations and grants from charitable trusts. When the January 31st deadline arrived, the campaign was just short of its target at £27,842.20. One of the donors, American Anglophile Richard Beleson, bumped up his already generous donation of £7,500 in matching funds to cover the shortfall.

Most of that money was not needed for the acquisition of the hoard itself, which was modestly valued. It was to be spent on conservation of the hoard, necessary restoration of the space and to build a secure display case which will preserve the coins and pot in controlled conditions. The hoard’s needs fit seemlessly with the museum’s. A month before the fundraiser was launched, the St Barbe Museum and Art Gallery began an extensive refurbishment paid for by a £1.78 million grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund. The galleries were enlarged, the entrance improved and a new cafe was built. All together, this was a major upgrade for the small local museum, making it a fitting home for the Boldre Hoard and the extra eyeballs it is sure to draw. (Everybody loves a hoard, especially when it’s a local kid made good.)

The refurbished museum had its grand reopening on Saturday with the Boldre Hoard as its centerpiece and signature treasure. Lord Montagu of Beaulieu did the honors, officially opening the inauguration day festivities.

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Aztec golden wolf burial found in Mexico City

Saturday, July 8th, 2017

Excavations in Mexico City run into momentous finds every other week, it seems. It’s like Rome. As soon as anyone puts a shovel a couple of feet into the ground, they bump into a treasure trove of the city’s ancient history. The latest announcement is of a discovery made by archaeologists in April of this year: the remains of a sacrificial wolf literally draped in gold. The final tally is 22 intact pieces of jewelry made from thin sheets of gold elaborately decorated with symbols. Most were pendants, the tie that held them together long since decayed; there’s also a nose ring and a chest plate.

Detail of 22 gold pieces formed into symbols in wolf burial. Photo by REUTERS/Henry Romero.The wolf was about eight months old when it was ritually killed. Its body was adorned with gold ornaments and a belt of shells from the Atlantic. It was then placed on a bed of flint blades inside a stone box and buried near the staircase of the Templo Mayor (behind the colonial-era Metropolitan Cathedral), the primary center of worship in the sacred precinct of Aztec Tenochtitlan. It was buried facing west and was meant to represent Huitzilopochtli, the Aztec god of war and of the sun. Archaeologists found layers of offerings in the burial pit, items representing air, earth and sea and laden with religious meaning.

In forty years of excavations around the Templo Mayor area in Mexico City’s Zocalo, or central square, the gold covering this little wolf is far and away the finest in both metal quality and in its crafting. More than 200 ritual sacrifices and offerings have been found over the four decades. Only 16 of them contained gold, and little wonder since the Cortes and his successors took every last atom of Aztec gold they could find and melted it down for the Spanish treasure ships. Looters, both deliberate (treasure hunters) and incidental (workmen stumbling on something and pocketing it for sale on the black market), despoiled what was left underground. The Aztec, famous for their prized gold work, have been archaeologically denuded of it in Mexico City, the modern city built over their great capital of Tenochtitlan.

This small wolf burial, therefore, is of oversized historical importance as well as great pecuniary and artistic value. It came very close to disappearing from the archaeological record before it was ever documented. A city sewage line built in 1900 interfered with the burial, damaging the box. Thankfully the contents were not exposed, because one little glint of gold and the crew would have helped themselves to all of it, leaving nothing but scattered bones.

INAH archaeologist Alejandra Molina works on the skull of the young wolf. Photo by REUTERS/Henry Romero.The golden wolf was buried during the 1486-1502 reign of King Ahuitzotl, the most feared and powerful ruler of the Mexica, who extended the empire as far south as present-day Guatemala. The reign of Ahuitzotl was particularly brutal, which may also explain the fate of the young wolf.

[Lead archaeologist Leonardo] Lopez said tests on its ribs will be needed to confirm his theory that the animal’s heart was torn out as part of the sacrifice, just as captured warriors were ritually killed on blood-soaked platforms of Aztec temples.

But this was no ordinary violence, noted [Harvard historian and Aztec expert David] Carrasco.

“These people didn’t just kill these things. They didn’t just kill people and throw them away,” he said. “They took elaborate, symbolic care for them because they knew that the presence that they represented, the presence of god, had to be nurtured.”

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Gold coins found in Netherlands from last days of Roman Empire

Saturday, June 3rd, 2017

Last summer, De Vrije University asked that people who had made archaeological discoveries under the Portable Antiquities of the Netherlands (PAN) scheme report their finds to university researchers as part of a new study of such finds. One of the reports came from metal detectorist Mark Volleberg who in 2016 unearthed 23 Roman gold coins in an orchard in the village of Lienden on the outskirts of Buren in the central Dutch province of Gelderland. Metal detectorists Dik van Ommeren and Cees-Jan van de Pol reported that they had discovered eight gold coins in the same place in 2012 when the field was cleared to make way for the planting of the orchard.

Researchers sought out more information about this exceptionally productive property. Archival research revealed that the field has been parturient (and you thought “ensorceled” was a good one) with Roman gold since the 19th century. At least twice in the 1840s gold coins had been found on the field in Lienden which then belonged to Baron van Brakell, and more were found in 1905 and 1916. While the whereabouts of the coins from the 19th century are no longer known, extant records mention three gold solidi of Valentinianus, three of Constantine, two of Honorius and one of Majorianus.

Not counting the long-lost ones that can’t be tracked down anymore, the study found a total of 42 pieces unearthed from the orchard site over the years. They are all solidi, a pure gold coin issued in the late Roman Empire, first by Constantine and then by subsequent emperors. The coins found in Leinden were minted over the course of more than 80 years. Most of them, 29 of the solidi, date to the late 4th, early 5th century: five of Valentinian II; 10 of Honorius; 13 of Constantine III and one of Jovinus. A group from the mid-5th century consists of eight solidi of Valentinian III, one of the usurper Johannes and the most recent of them all, a solidus of Majorianus.

The variety of time periods and emperors is not unusual for late Roman solidus hoards. These coins were so valuable, they weren’t in common circulation. They were worth years of pay for most people, and were collected and hoarded for years, even generations. It’s almost certain that they were buried in a single hoard in the very last years of the Western Roman Empire.

These coins, scattered as they are in multiple finds over centuries, are of great historical significance. For one thing, taken all together, they constitute the largest solidus hoard ever found in the Netherlands. They also include the last known Roman coin tax from the Netherlands and environs: the one solidus minted by Emperor Majorianus (r. 457-461). Archaeologists believe the hoard was buried around 460 A.D., a mere 16 years before Odoacer deposed the last Roman Emperor Romulus Augustulus marking the conventional end date of the Western Empire and the beginning of the Middle Ages.

With the discovery of the 23 gold coins in 2016, Dik van Ommeren and Cees-Jan van de Pol, who up until then had kept their 2012 discovery of gold coins secret, alerted researchers to their 2012 finds. When the archives confirmed the field’s long history of producing Roman solidi,
archaeologists Stijn Heeren and Nico Roymans of the Free University and the National Service for Cultural Heritage determined that the site must be professionally excavated. It was a small excavation, just three trenches, and no new coins were unearthed. The team had also hoped to find remnants of a container — a pouch or box or jar or any other vessel used to hold the hoard when it was still intact — but there was no joy there either. The last item on the agenda was determining the larger context of the hoard. Was it buried in a house or settlement? Maybe a temple or in a grave? Mark Volleberg said he’d seen what looked like human bone fragments where he found the gold coins in 2016. He didn’t touch or disturb them, so archaeologists were hopeful they might be able to find those bones.

They did indeed discover human skeletal remains. Testing determined they belonged to four individuals, three inhumation burials and one cremation grave in an urn. Radiocarbon dating results dashed any hopes that they might be connected to the solidus hoard. The inhumation burials date to around 1800 B.C., the Middle Bronze Age, so way earlier than the coins. The cremains probably date to the Iron Age, but can’t be pinned down with any more precision.

While the burials don’t appear to have a direct link to the hoard, archaeologists suspect the Middle Bronze Age tomb, perhaps on what was then a hill, was used in the 5th century as a handy place marker for the hoard. It would have been a recognizable spot on the landscape, the kind of place you’d pick to bury a treasure you had every intention to come back for when the coast was clear. The hill was likely flattened in the 1840s so it could be used as farmland. That’s when the coins started turning up.

A notable number of late Roman gold coin hoards have been found in the Netherlands and Low Countries, 27 of them, to be precise, most of which date to the beginning of the 5th century. This timing is not a coincidence. Usurper Constantine III’s was fighting against Emperor Honorius while Germanic incursions crossed the Rhine into Gaul, inflicting a blow against the empire’s border defenses from which it never recovered. Desperate for aid from the Franks, who were powerful, centered in Germany and already had an established history of serving as mercenaries in the Roman army, Constantine and Honorius tried to buy them some Frankish troops. Because solidi were pure gold and not subject to the vagaries of debasement, when assorted Roman emperors, rebels and usurpers had cash transactions to make, they used solidi. This was an official payment from government to government. Roman officials would give the Frank leaders piles of gold coins and they would then distribute them as they saw fit.

The Lienden hoard doesn’t quite fit this pattern, however, because it was buried more than 50 years later than most of the other gold coin hoards. Until now, the hoard evidence suggested Rome’s last spate of interest in the Low Countries was the early 5th century, but the new discoveries suggest there was one last injection of Roman gold in the area during the reign of Emperor Majorianus. Archaeologists think the gold payoffs were likely sent by General Aegidius, Majorianus’ man in Gaul, who in the late 450s was desperate to get the Frankish kings to send him soldiers to help him fend off the increasingly successful Germanic invasions of Gaul.

It worked (for a while). With Frankish support, Majorianus and Aegidius reconquered much of Gaul, booting out the Visigoths and Burgundians. When his trusted general Ricimer betrayed and killed Majorianus in 461, Aegidius established his own independent kingdomlet in northern Gaul. Again the Franks were integral to his military success. Frankish leader Childeric and his men fought by Aegidius’ side against the Visigoths at the Battle of Orléans in 463, ensuring his victory. It was short-lived, as was Aegidius. He was poisoned in 464, leaving Childeric ideally positioned to found the Merovingian dynasty that would rule France for three centuries. It’s purely speculative, of course, but given the dates, it’s entirely within the realm of possibility that the Lienden solidi were payment dispensed by Childeric to one of his Frankish followers.

The modern finders of the gold coins and the landowner have given the solidi on permanent loan to the Museum Valkhof in Nijmegen, which contains the largest collection of Roman finds in the Netherlands, where they are now on display, together again for the first time in decades, maybe even centuries.

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National Museums Scotland gets Galloway Hoard for £1.98 million

Sunday, May 14th, 2017

Selections from the Galloway Hoard. Photo courtesy National Museums Scotland.The Queen’s and Lord Treasurer’s Remembrancer (QLTR) has allocated the Galloway Viking Hoard to the National Museums Scotland (NMS) on the condition that they make an ex gratia payment of £1.98 million ($2,550,000) to the finder Derek McLennan who discovered the hoard in 2014. NMS has until November of this year to raise the sum. They’ve set up a donation site (which is showing me a DNS error at the moment, probably because it’s brand new).

Unique gold bird pin from the Galloway Hoard. Photo courtesy National Museums Scotland.The bulk of the find is a rich Viking-age hoard of silver jewellery and ingots. However, it also contains an outstanding range of exceptional precious metal and jewelled items including a rare gold ingot, a gold bird-shaped pin and a decorated silver-gilt cup of Continental or Byzantine origin. The cup is carefully wrapped in textiles and is the only complete lidded vessel of its type ever discovered in Britain or Ireland. This vessel contains further unusual objects: Glass beads from Scandinavia. Photo courtesy National Museums Scotland.beads; amulets of glass and rock crystal; pilgrimage relics; a silver penannular brooch; another rare gold ingot; five Anglo-Saxon disc brooches of a kind not found in Scotland before; and jewelled aestels, pointers used to read and mark places within medieval manuscripts.

Other finds from around Britain or Ireland have been exceptional for a single type of object—for example, silver brooches or armlets. However, the Galloway Hoard is unique in bringing Stamp-decorated bracelets from Ireland. Photo courtesy National Museums Scotland.together a remarkable variety of objects in one discovery, hinting at hitherto unknown connections between people across Europe and beyond. It also contains objects which have never before been discovered in a hoard of this age. Incredibly, fragile textiles, leather and wooden fragments have also survived, providing an extremely rare opportunity to research and reveal many lost aspects of the Viking Age.

The Dumfries and Galloway Council, which launched a campaign earlier this year to keep the hoard in the county where it was discovered, is less than pleased with the QLTR’s decision.

Cathy Agnew, Campaign chair, said: “This treasure was buried in Galloway for safekeeping 1,000 years ago – it is deeply disappointing that the QLTR believes it should be allocated to the National Museum in Edinburgh where it will potentially be lost amongst so many other wonderful artefacts.

Silver ingots. Photo courtesy National Museums Scotland.“This is a most unfortunate decision for the region and for Scotland. It is doubly disappointing that a more enlightened approach has not been taken, especially as 2017 is Scotland’s Year of History, Heritage and Archaeology.

“The support from the public, from academics, politicians of all parties, and so many others – across Scotland and the world – to keep the hoard in Galloway, where it would be cherished, has been magnificent. It is a real shame their voices and their passion have gone unheeded.”

Brooch from Galloway Hoard. Photo courtesy National Museums Scotland.It’s hard for a county council to win against the resources of a national museum, especially when the local museum that would house the hoard has not actually been built yet. They made a valiant effort, drastically increasing the budget for the new Kirkcudbright Art Gallery and raising a great deal of money and support for the cause of keeping the hoard in Dumfries and Galloway. They knew it was a long shot, however, and all the while hoped to be able to come to an agreement with NMS for joint ownership.

Detail of brooch decoration. Photo courtesy National Museums Scotland.National Museums Scotland showed no interest in shared custody. It thinks it is the proper home for a treasure of international significance, because they have the wherewithal and expertise to give it all the care and security such complex, delicate archaeological materials need. The preservation of the extremely rare surviving organic remains in particular requires specialists and facilities that the National Museums can provide. Its location in Edinburgh will also “ensure that the Hoard is seen by the maximum number of people, from Dumfries and Galloway, Scotland, the UK and internationally.”

Brooch from Galloway Hoard. Photo courtesy National Museums Scotland.In its press release on the allocation of the hoard, NMS had this to say on Dumfries and Galloway’s involvement:

National Museums believes that it is important there is a display of the Hoard in Dumfries and Galloway, and intends to continue to seek a dialogue with Dumfries and Galloway Council to ensure that a representative portion of the Hoard goes on long-term display in Kirkcudbright Art Gallery.

Runes inscribed on silver ingot. Photo courtesy National Museums Scotland.It’s not joint ownership, but it’s something. Had they made a tandem bid that was accepted, the bigger museum would almost certainly have had the greater say in the division and exhibition of assets anyway, so in the end the Kirkcudbright Art Gallery might well end up with much the same sort of display it would have had if they had partnered with NMS.

 

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