Archive for the ‘Treasures’ Category

Anglo-Saxon ring engraved with Christian and pagan symbols

Wednesday, April 2nd, 2014


The Saffron Walden Museum in Essex has acquired a rare Anglo-Saxon gold ring engraved with a combination of Christian and pagan symbols. The ring was discovered in 2011 by metal detectorist Tony Carter in Uttlesford, Essex, and was declared treasure. In order to buy the ring and four other gold and silver artifacts discovered in the area, the museum had to raised £60,000 and £7,500 in donations. Since the grants were matching funds, the donations were necessary for the whole plan to come together. The campaign was successful and now all five pieces are going on display in a new showcase starting April 5th.

The ring, dubbed the North-Essex Ring, is the centerpiece of the new display. It’s a gold signet ring with a rectangular bezel and a heavy hoop 26.6mm in diameter at the widest point. It weighs a total of 20.1 grams and its composition is 92-94% gold, 5-6% silver and the rest a copper alloy. The square bezel and broad hoop are a Frankish form — for comparison see this Frankish ring from approximately the same period unearthed in the Mulsanne, France, and now in the British Museum — but the decoration on the North-Essex Ring is distinctly Anglo-Saxon.

On the bezel is engraved a belted male figure, possibly naked despite the presence of the belt. There is no visible clothing like the male and female figures on the Mulsanne ring wear. The man is holding a bird in one hand and a staff topped with a cross in the other. Above his head is another bird, bigger and more detailed. Both of the birds have curved beaks, indicating they’re birds of prey and the detail in the larger one identifies it as a Style II design, a zoomorphic style in which whole animals are depicted in an elongated, stylized fashion. Some of the pieces from the famous Sutton Hoo ship burial are decorated in Style II.

The decoration and ring style date the piece to around 580-650 A.D., a period when the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms of Kent, Essex and East Anglia were first introduced to Christianity. Pope Gregory I sent Augustine, a Benedictine monk who would become the first Archbishop of Canterbury, on a mission to convert King Æthelberht of Kent in 597 A.D. The combination of pre-Christian North European motifs and the Christian crossed staff makes the ring an extremely rare example of religious syncretism from this transitional period.

Another of the five objects secured by the Saffron Walden Museum is also a rare example from a transitional period in British history, albeit a much later one. It’s a gold ring from the 16th or early 17th century. The band is decorated with circular medallions in which are engraved scenes from the passion of the Christ. This imagery is Catholic, but from a time when people had to hide their adherence to Roman Catholicism to save their necks.

They don’t have a religious significance, but there are two historically significant gold coins in the new collection. They’re Gallo-Belgic class four gold staters struck in the Somme area in northwest France in the mid-2nd century B.C. Both of them are quite worn, one of them bent along the edge, indicating they were in circulation for some time before winding up in the ground. Very few class four gold staters have been found in Britain, and these are the earliest ever discovered in the district.

The last two artifacts are a silver hooked tag from the 9th century A.D. decorated with stylized animals that once held niello accents although the black enamel is long gone. (it’s known as Trewhiddle-style decoration) and an identified silver object with engraved niello animal figures from the 8th or 9th century.

All of the artifacts will be on display together starting April 5th. The museum has made a replica of the North-Essex Ring available so visitors can handle it and appreciate its size and decoration in person, which I think is a nifty idea that more museums should incorporate in their exhibitions.

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What is this hinged imperial white jade piece?

Saturday, March 29th, 2014

An imperial white jade object from the 18th century that is as mysterious as it is beautiful will be going up for auction at Bonhams next month. Made for the Qianlong Emperor (reigned 1735-1796), sixth emperor of the Qing Dynasty, the piece is made out of two hollowed rectangles that are connected to a central triangle via two hinges. They hinges work, allowing the rectangles to move from laid out straight to fully vertical.

The hinge-fitting embodies much of the artistic and historical pre-occupations of the Qianlong period. Carved from exceptionally fine and lustrous white stone, with even the minor flaws most cleverly incorporated into the scrollwork, the thinly hollowed supremely challenging yet technically flawless piece is representative of the highest skill of the 18th century craftsman. Furthermore it falls into a group of jade pieces carved with the Qianlong fanggu mark, specifically carved with archaistic designs inspired by archaic bronzes to reflect the concerns of the Qianlong Emperor with drawing moral strength and righteousness from the examples of the ancients.

The ancient bronze that inspired this piece was described in the 1751 catalog of the imperial bronzes as a “Han Dynasty ornament,” which means they had little idea what it was for either.

The Qianlong Emperor was a passionate collector of art. His agents would buy up entire private collections from people who had fallen in hard times or whose descendants didn’t want to be associated with them because they had taken the wrong side during the wars of the Qing Conquest. There are thousands of jade pieces in the imperial collection and almost all of them were acquired or commissioned by the Qianlong Emperor.

Although he was an artistic polyglot who welcomed the fusion of Chinese and Western styles (the famous bronze animal heads of the Chinese zodiac were made during his reign), the Qianlong Emperor saw himself first and foremost as the keeper of China’s artistic heritage. His collection of ancient bronzes was unparalleled, as was his collection of antique paintings. An incredibly prolific poet in his own right, he adopted a practice of the Song dynasty emperors and inscribed his poems on paintings in the collection.

That desire to integrate the glorious past of China’s cultural heritage and its glorious present as incarnated by him may be key to identifying the purpose of the hinged jade object. There is another hinged white jade piece similar to this one which is engraved with an imperial poem.

The poem appears to refer to the jade piece as a ‘ruler’ to be used to ‘compare lengths’ with ‘precisely fitting workmanship’. This pre-occupation with the idea of measuring is also connected to the idea of the benevolent ruler who is guided well.

That’s not to say this was its original purpose. The Han bronze may have had a whole other significance to which the Qianlong Emperor ascribed his own meaning.

The piece is estimated to sell for £200,000 to £300,000 ($333,000 – $500,000), but the market for Chinese antiquities is insane right now so those numbers could go increase geometrically. The auction catalog is not available yet. They’re usually released four weeks before the auction, so if you’d like to leaf through it, check this page the last week in April.

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Scrap metal dealer finds lost Fabergé Imperial Egg

Thursday, March 20th, 2014

So maybe the $7 flea market Renoir didn’t turn out to be the Antiques Roadshow-style fairy tale it seemed to be at first blush, but that story pales in comparison to the tale of an anonymous scrap metal dealer from an undisclosed Midwestern state who bought a gold egg clock at a flea market antiques stall for $14,000 and found out it was one of the eight lost Imperial Eggs made for the Tsar of All the Russias by jeweler Carl Fabergé.

Portrait of the Empress Maria Feodorovna by Ivan Nikolaevich Kramskoy, 1882From 1885 to 1917, Fabergé made at least 50 Imperial Eggs for the Romanov emperors Alexander III and Nicholas II. Alexander started the tradition when he gave his beloved wife Empress Maria Feodorovna the Hen Egg for Easter in 1885. As a girl at the court of Denmark, Maria (formerly Princess Dagmar of Denmark) had been enchanted by an 18th century ivory egg owned by her aunt Princess Vilhelmine Marie of Denmark. Still in the Royal Danish Collection today, the egg screwed open to reveal a half yolk with a gold chicken inside, a diamond and gold crown inside the chicken and a diamond ring inside the crown. It’s not known whether Alexander III got the idea from that piece or if Fabergé did, but correspondence has survived indicating the Tsar was very much involved in the design of the first Imperial Egg. The Empress was thrilled by the charming white enameled egg that opened to reveal a whole gold yolk, a surprise gold chicken inside of the yolk, and a tiny replica of the Russian imperial crown inside of the chicken. Inside the crown hung a wee ruby pendant which could be attached to a gold chain and worn.

Imperial Hen Egg, 188518th century ivory egg in the Royal Danish Collection that inspired the Hen EggIt was such a success that the gifting of an elaborate Fabergé Easter egg became an imperial tradition and its maker earned the title of official jewelry Supplier to the Imperial Court. They were recognized in their time as fabled wonders. Other aristocrats, wealthy industrialists and bankers commissioned eggs of their own from the jeweler, but the ones Fabergé made for the Tsars, uniquely intricate masterpieces crafted from the most precious materials, have become iconic symbols of the lavish Romanov court in the last years before its brutal demise.

After the 1917 October Revolution, the Romanov palaces were ransacked. Some of the Imperial Eggs were lost during the looting, but most of them were inventoried, crated and stashed in the Kremlin Armory in Moscow. Lenin considered the Romanov treasures Russia’s cultural patrimony and ordered their preservation. Stalin, on the other hand, had no such scruples. He saw them as sources of hard currency, pure and simple, and between 1930 and 1933 14 Imperial eggs were sold in the West by Stalin’s commissars. He couldn’t sell all of them, though, because the Kremlin Armory curators risked their lives to hide the most important pieces.

The Order of St. George EggOnly one egg made it out of Russia still in Romanov hands. The Order of St. George Egg, which was made in 1916 as a gift from Tsar Nicholas II to his mother the Dowager Empress, was saved because she had moved to Kiev in 1916 as the situation at court grew more precarious. After her son’s abdication in March of 1917, she moved to Crimea where she managed to remain unmolested even as her son, daughter-in-law and grandchildren were shot to death. She refused to believe they were dead and she refused to leave Russia. Finally in 1919 her sister, Dowager Queen Alexandra of Britain, persuaded her to leave. King George V, who deeply regretted his decision not to rescue his cousin Nicky and his family in light of their horrible fate, sent the Iron Duke-class warship HMS Marlborough to pick her up at Yalta, and Maria fled carrying the egg and other treasures with her.

Out of the 50 eggs, 42 were known to have survived in private collections and museums around the world. Eight were lost, and four of those were known only from their descriptions because there were no extant pictures. There has been some confusion in the scholarly community over the missing eggs, particularly when they were made and what they looked like. For many years experts thought the Blue Serpent Clock Egg, currently owned by Prince Albert II of Monaco, filled the 1887 spot on the timeline, but in fact it was made in 1885 and it’s one of those picture-less eggs, the Third Egg, that was gifted to Maria Feodorovna in 1887.

Third Egg (in the white square) at 1902 Von Dervis exhibitionThe Third Egg was photographed at the 1902 exhibition of Tsarina Alexandra’s and Dowager Empress Maria’s Fabergé treasures at the Von Dervis mansion in St. Petersburg, but it wasn’t until 2011 that it was identified in the Imperial Egg display vitrine thanks to the discovery of a more recent picture from 1964. It turns out that sometime after it was inventoried by Soviet curators in 1922, the Third Egg traveled west. In March of 1964 it was lot 259 in a Parke Bernet auction in New York, but it was not identified as an Imperial Egg. It wasn’t even identified as a Fabergé. From the catalog:

Gold Watch in Egg-Form Case on Wrought Three-Tone Gold Stand, Set with Jewels

Third Egg in the Parke Bernet auction catalogue, March 1964Fourteen-karat gold watch in reeded egg-shaped case with seventy-five point old-mine diamond clasp by Vacheron & Constantin; on eighteen-karat three-tone gold stand exquisitely wrought with an annulus, bordered with wave scrollings and pairs of corbel-like legs ciselé with a capping of roses, pendants of tiny leaves depending to animalistic feet with ring stretcher; the annulus bears three medallions of cabochon sapphires surmounted by tiny bowknotted ribbons set with minute diamonds, which support very finely ciselé three-tone gold swags of roses and leaves which continue downward and over the pairs of legs. Height 3 1/4 inches.

Third Imperial Easter Egg by Carl Fabergé, 1887The disinherited Imperial Egg was purchased at that auction by a Southern lady for $2450. After her death in the early 2000s, her estate was sold and the egg, still unrecognized, made its way to a midwestern antiques stall where it was spotted by a scrap metal dealer. He planned to quickly resell it to be melted down for its gold value, but all of the prospective buyers who tested it thought he had overpaid. Blessedly stubborn, he refused to sell it at a loss and so for years he just kept the egg at home.

Top view of open Third EggIn 2012, he Googled “egg” and the only name he could find on the piece “Vacheron Constantin,” the makers of the lady’s watch that was the surprise inside. The results pointed him to a fateful article in the Telegraph that had been written in 2011 when the auction photograph of the Third Egg was discovered. “Is this £20 million nest-egg on your mantelpiece?” was the incredibly fortuitous headline, and the scrap metal fellow kind of thought his answer to the question might be yes.

He contacted the expert cited in the article, Kieran McCarthy of London jewelers and Fabergé specialists Wartski, and the rest is history that reads like a fairy tale.

Mr McCarthy said: “He saw the article and recognised his egg in the picture. He flew straight over to London – the first time he had ever been to Europe – and came to see us. He hadn’t slept for days.

Third Imperial Easter Egg by Carl Fabergé, open“He brought pictures of the egg and I knew instantaneously that was it. I was flabbergasted – it was like being Indiana Jones and finding the Lost Ark.”

Mr McCarthy flew to the US to verify the discovery.

“It was a very modest home in the Mid West, next to a highway and a Dunkin’ Donuts. There was the egg, next to some cupcakes on the kitchen counter.

“I examined it and said, ‘You have an Imperial Fabergé Easter Egg.’ And he practically fainted. He literally fell to the floor in astonishment.” The dealer etched Mr McCarthy’s name and the date into the wooden bar stool on which Mr McCarthy sat to examine the egg, marking the day that his life changed forever.

Wartski immediately arranged a private sale of the egg for an undisclosed sum that is certainly in the tens of millions. Russian oligarch Victor Vekselberg spent $100 million buying nine Imperial eggs from the estate of Malcolm Forbes in 2004, and in 2007 a non-Imperial egg sold at auction for $18.5 million. There are scratches on the surface of the egg from where would-be buyers sampled the material to test its gold content, but they didn’t decrease its market value. They might have even increased it, since they’re a record of this stranger-than-fiction backstory.

The scrap metal dealer, petrified that people will find out he hit the decorative arts Powerball, has limited himself to purchasing a new car and a new house just down the road from his old house. The new owner has allowed Wartski to exhibit the Third Egg at their Mayfair store from April 14th to 17th, 112 years after it was last seen in public under its true identity.

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Rare Roman intaglio bracelet to go on display

Tuesday, March 11th, 2014


On July 26th, 2012, a metal detectorist found a Roman bracelet near Dalton, Cumbria, northwestern England. It was broken in two pieces: a twisted tube made out of spiralled silver wire and a hinged round bezel with a red gemstone intaglio of Jupiter. Dating to the 2nd or 3rd century A.D., this bracelet is a very rare artifact, especially so for the Furness area because no Roman structures have ever been found there. Plenty of Roman coins have been, but not high-end jewelry like this piece. The artifact thus testifies to the wide range of Roman trade reaching the ends of the empire, or it may point to a settlement that hasn’t been unearthed yet.

The finder reported it to the Portable Antiquities Scheme liaison and the subsequent coroner’s inquest declare it official treasure trove. Since then, the bracelet has been at the British Museum where experts were studying it and assessing its market value so a local museum, in this case the Dock Museum in Furness, could acquire it. The price was modest compared to some of the major treasure finds — just £1,800 ($3,000) — but small local museums don’t have acquisition budgets so they had to raise the funds.

Thanks to a donation from the Furness Maritime Trust, the Dock Museum is now the proud owner of this beautiful and rare piece of jewelry. It will go on display on March 14th in the museum’s new archaeology gallery. There will be associated workshops at the end of the month that schools have been invited to, and on Saturday, April 12th, a free Roman-themed family fun day.

It’s only fair that such a handsome piece of jewelry would inspire all kinds of new exhibitions and events at the museum. I think the striking spiral wire design with filigree terminals is reminiscent of a torc while the intaglio is a Greco-Roman classic. That’s not to say this was a hybrid of British and Roman workmanship. The thick spiral-twisted wire band with elaborate terminals and an engraved gemstone set in hinged bezel center is a design that has been found far, far away from Britannia. A similar silver hinged bracelet was found in Slovenia. Gold examples have been found in Syria and Egypt. This was an import, and an expensive one at that.

From the curator’s report for the treasure inquest:

The distorted elliptical hoop comprises a fine and evenly-twisted, tightly-spiralled tube made from circular-sectioned silver wire. Quite heavy wear is visible on both sides of the hoop. What appears to be the central core, around which the wire was spiralled, is visible under magnification in those places where distortion has slightly ‘opened’ the twisted strands, but its composition is uncertain. Each terminal is enclosed in a tubular collar which is decorated with an applied central meander filigree wire flanked by a double-ring edge-moulding. [...]

The large circular bezel, a hollow box construction of silver sheet, has a plain back and sides. Its ornate upper face comprises an outer basal zone of herringbone pattern, formed from three concentric circles of twisted wire, and a central raised open dome with ribbed side and stepped, apparently rubbed-over, setting. The oval gem, seemingly of translucent orange-red colour, has dropped out of position to the base of the box-setting, presumably as a result of the deterioration and loss of an original organic packing. Engraved into its lightly convex surface is the image of a seated Jupiter, with wreath and full-length drapery, holding a sceptre in his left hand. In his extended right hand he holds a patera above a stylised flaming altar.

Whoever owned this bracelet had to be very wealthy. Dock Museum curator Sabine Skae speculates that it belonged to a wealthy Furness woman, native rather than Roman, who could afford the best and wanted to show it off.

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Conserving the Staffordshire Hoard

Saturday, March 1st, 2014

The 4,000 Anglo-Saxon pieces of gold, silver and garnet weapons fittings discovered in Staffordshire field in 2009 and in a 2012 follow-up excavation impressed with the exceptional quality of workmanship even when they were still encrusted with soil. The cleaning process has revealed metalwork and gemwork of such sophistication experts aren’t even sure how it was accomplished. Because the pieces were damaged when they were stripped from their original weapons, conservators have had a unique chance to examine construction features that are invisible in complete pieces like those discovered at Sutton Hoo or other burial sites.

Conserving intricately decorated gold artifacts requires the use of special tools. The scalpels and microdrills in the standard conservator toolbox are too dangerous to use with soft, malleable gold. They could scratch or gouge the surface. Instead, the Staffordshire Hoard conservators are using thorns, natural thorns like off a bush. They have sharp points for getting between tiny beads and edges, but they bend under pressure and don’t scratch the surface of the gold, glass or gem insets.

This video from the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, co-owner of the hoard along with the Potteries Museum & Art Gallery, shows a conservator cleaning the top of a sword pyramid and a fragment of silver foil stamped with two male faces. You can see the thorn held in a pin vice scrape away the dirt. Then the surface is wiped with a cotton swab dampened with industrial methylated spirit. Soft brushes and air puffers gently remove the loosened soil.

The video at the bottom of this page shows the thorn deployed in cleaning the gold filigree of a damaged hilt plate, but that’s one of the simplest filigree designs. Conservation of the hoard has found a great many incredibly tiny, incredibly detailed filigree patterns. This blog entry from a jeweler covers just a few of the techniques the Anglo-Saxon craftsmen used to produce wirework so fine that we need microphotography to fully explore today. This blog entry describes some of the patterns — linear, spiral, zoomorphic, etc. — in the Staffordshire filigree pieces.

One of the most breathtaking examples of filigree is the stylized seahorse mount. Those spirals are so minute, three of them are almost as long as a grain of rice.

The garnet cloisonné has proven to hold hidden depths revealed by conservation as well. Like all cloisonné, it was made by creating a cell (called a cloison) out of gold wires. The cells were backed with gold foil and filled primarily with garnets. Today cloisonné is filled with vitreous enamel which is powdered before it’s fired, but the Anglo-Saxon jewelers had a much more difficult task because they had to cut the garnets into small, thin shapes that precisely fit the cloisons. Garnets are hard gemstones and probably had to be ground to shape, using what tools we do not know. We do know that missing garnets were replaced by red glass. Blue glass insets have also been found as have opaque glass checkerboard or millefiori designs that experts believe are recycled Roman pieces.

The foil behind the garnets give the gems an added shine boost, and it may give historians a boost into a new understanding of Anglo-Saxon schools of metalwork. So far conservators have identified four distinct gold foil designs. If they can be compared to artifacts discovered in other locations, it may be possible to group them by workshop or regional style.

This blog entry describes the conservation of two cloisonné objects. You can see in the microphotographs miniscule marks left during the stripping of the fittings and during the initial workmanship. Tiny troughs incised in the gold outline where the cloison walls once were, troughs just a quarter of a millimeter thick which is thinner than a lot of cloisonné produced today.

Bookmark the Staffordshire Hoard Conservation & Research blog now, and say goodbye to the rest of your weekend because every entry is fascinating. Enhance your reading with the swooningly gorgeous images on the Hoard Flickr page.

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Couple walking dog find biggest gold hoard in US

Tuesday, February 25th, 2014

A couple walking the dog on their property in Northern California last spring discovered the biggest and most valuable gold coin hoard ever unearthed in the United States. They were treading the same well-worn path they’ve trod hundreds of times for the dog’s daily constitutional when they spotted the rusted top of a metal can sticking up out of the eroded ground. They dug the can out with a stick and took it home.

It was so heavy lugging it back proved to be quite an effort. They figured there was lead paint inside. When the lid cracked off the husband saw the seductive rib of a single gold coin. Clearing out the rest of the contents, they found a lot of dirt and a stack of $20 liberty head gold coins from the 1890s. The pair promptly returned to the find spot, an area they dubbed Saddle Ridge, and dug some more. They immediately found another can about a foot to the left of where they had found the first can. Then they found five more smaller cans, and one last can they used a metal detector to locate.

The eight cans contained a total of 1,427 gold coins. Most of them, 1,373, to be precise, were $20 coins, 50 were $10 coins and four were $5 coins. Most were minted in San Francisco; one of the $5 coins was minted in Georgia. They date to between 1847 and 1894 and were stacked in approximate chronological order; all the 1840s and 50s coins in the first can and the rest by date in subsequent cans. The arrangement of coins and the varying condition of the cans suggest they were buried by someone over the course of years rather than the result of a single caper like a bank robbery. The total face value of the coins is $27,980.

In a panic over what to do with the immense gold treasure they had just found walking the dog, the owners took a page out of the original hoarder’s book. They put the coins in plastic bags and the bags inside an old cooler. They then dug a hole under the wood pile buried the cooler there. Two months later, they invited coin dealer Don Kagin and numismatic expert David McCarthy of Kagin’s, Inc. to examine the hoard. They found an incredible wealth of rare coins in beautiful condition. Fully thirteen of them are either the finest examples known to exist or tied for the finest. One of them, an 1866-S No Motto Double Eagle, is estimated to be worth $1 million on its own.

It’s fitting that such a rich find would be made in Gold Country, the region of the Sierra Nevadas east of Sacramento to the Nevada state line where an 1848 gold strike at Sutter’s Mill set off the madness of the California Gold Rush. Someone in the area was bucking the trend and putting gold back into the ground, oftentimes before it had even circulated. Many of the Saddle Ridge Hoard coins are in near-perfect condition, even the older ones. Paper money wasn’t legal in California until the 1870s, which means most of the coins from before then saw a great deal of circulation and wear. People didn’t start keeping California gold coins in uncirculated condition until the 1880s.

The exceptional condition and rarity of the coins makes their estimated market value around $10 million, far exceeding the estimated $1 million value of the other contender for biggest gold hoard found buried in the United States. The Tennessee Hoard was found in Jackson by workers building a city parking lot in 1985. The exact quantities found are not known because the workers pocketed much of the coins before the site was protected. Judging from the assessment of gold dealers who bought most of the Tennessee coins, there were hundreds totaling about $4,500 in face value and while the condition of some pieces was excellent, many of them were damaged by heavy machinery during the discovery while others were cleaned so roughly the coin surface was cracked.

The couple has chosen to remain anonymous and keep their exact location secret to avoid turning their peaceful rural home into Sutter’s Mill 2: Now We Have Metal Detectors. They plan to sell 90% of the coins in a landmark deal with Amazon’s new Collectibles & Fine Art store. This is the first coin treasure to be sold via Amazon. Most of the rest will be sold privately directly to collectors. The couple plans to keep a small selection of the hoard. As “John” says in this great interview with the finders “Mary” and “John” on the Kagin’s website, “We would like to hold onto a cross section of it – something to leave to relatives when we pass on.”

I love their response to the question about whether they had noticed anything unusual about the find spot before:

John: Years ago, on our first hike, we noticed an old tree growing into the hill. It had an empty rusty can hanging from it that the tree had grown around – that was right at the site where we found the coins… At the time we thought the can might be a place for someone to put flowers in for a gravesite – something which would have been typical at the time.

There was also an unusual angular rock up the hill from where the coins were buried – we’d wondered what in the heck it was.

Mary: It wasn’t until we made the find that we realized it might have been a marker: starting at the rock, if you walk 10 paces towards the North Star, you wind up smack in the middle of the coins!

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A lady’s bag at the court of Mosul in 1300

Friday, February 21st, 2014

The ancient city of Mosul on the west bank of the Tigris in what is today Iraq, once home to the palace of King Sennacherib and Library of Ashurbanipal, has had many different rulers seek to profit from its location as a hub in trade routes connecting Persia, India and the Mediterranean. In 1262, it was conquered by the Mongol forces of Hulagu Khan, grandson of Genghis Khan who expanded the southwestern Mongol empire from Uzbekistan to Syria.

Hulagu was not known for his light hand. Any cities where he encountered resistance were destroyed and their inhabitants slaughtered. When the Mongols conquered Baghdad in 1258, they virtually leveled the city. It’s said that the waters of the Tigris turned black with the ink from the thousands of books from the Grand Library of Baghdad that the Mongols threw into the river. Mosul was spared, however, because governor Badr al-Din Lu’lu’ agreed to support Hulagu’s invasion of Syria. The Mongol Ilkhanid and Jalayrid dynasties ruled Mosul through the 15th century until it was conquered by the Turkic Aq Qoyunlu Confederation.

Even before the arrival of the Mongols, Mosul was famed for its exceptional metalworking tradition. The technique originated in Persia, but Mosul’s location at the cross-roads of trade influenced the craft, introducing new forms of vessels and designs from the Byzantine Empire. Brass containers were inlaid with silver and copper creating intricate geometric decoration and scenes of courtiers hunting, traveling, adorning themselves, drinking, eating and listening to live music. The Blacas Ewer, now in the British Museum, is an exceptional example of Mosul metalwork. Made by Shuja’ ibn Mana al-Mawsili in 1232 (he signed and dated the piece, for which we were eternally grateful), the ewer may have been commissioned by Badr al-Din Lu’lu’ or one of his courtiers. He is known to have commissioned a number of pieces that bear his name.

As noted by Spanish Muslim author Ibn Said al-Maghribi in his 1250 book Geography, Mosul metalwork vessels were so highly prized they were used as diplomatic gifts, a high honor considering they were made out of brass instead of the gold and silver that were the expected standard of gift-giving between rulers.

The Courtauld Gallery in London is the proud owner of another example of Mosul metalwork, a piece made in the first century of Mongol reign around 1300-1330. This form is one of a kind, so exceptional that it is rarely included in studies of the craft. The artifact has been part of the Courtauld’s permanent collection since 1966 when it was bequeathed to the institution by the grandson of collector and museum patron Thomas Gambier Parry. Experts have debated its function for decades. It’s shaped like a clutch purse, but they weren’t making brass ladies’ handbags in 1300s Mosul. Some proposed functions include wallet, saddlebag and document carrier.

The Courtauld is putting on a new exhibition centered around this beautiful piece. Court and Craft: A Masterpiece from Northern Iraq proposed a new function for the Courtauld wallet: a lady’s shoulder bag. Exhibition curator Rachel Ward found an important clue in the decoration of the bag itself.

The key to unlocking its secret is an unusual panel on the top showing a nobleman and women and their attendants. One of those, a smiling page boy, has the bag around his shoulder.

Wider research by Ward has turned up considerable visual evidence of bag-carrying page boys next to noblewomen but never alongside men.

“Other people in the past have called it everything from a work basket to a document wallet and inevitably male academics always assume it was for a man.

“What I’m saying is it’s a lady’s bag. It is the forerunner of a designer bag. The only difference between a modern and expensive designer bag and this one is that you get a bag carrier to go with it.”

The bag will be on display along with 40 other relevant works from collections around the world, including the Blacas Ewer. The exhibition will look at how Mosul society was depicted before and after the Mongol conquest in its art. The museum will also recreate the scene from the top of the bag, building a life-sized display of the courtly festivities from artifacts similar to the ones depicted.

The exhibition opened on Thursday and will run through May 18th.

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Looter caught with Roman gold, silver hoard

Wednesday, February 19th, 2014

An unnamed and unauthorized metal detectorist found a late Roman gold and silver hoard in the forest near Ruelzheim in Germany’s southwestern Rhineland-Palatinate state and dug it up so he could sell it on the black market. The authorities are not releasing specifics on how this scofflaw was discovered hoarding an ancient hoard except to note that “the looter rendered up [the pieces] himself – but only under pressure from investigators.” That means they caught him first and persuaded him to surrender the loot. The police have reason to believe he may have already succeeded in selling some of the pieces overseas. They will continue to investigate the case, looking for missing artifacts. No announcement was made regarding whether the looter would be charged with any crimes.

By German law, all excavations for archaeological material must be authorized in advance by the government heritage authority. Different states have differing laws on the particulars. Some allow finders to keep half the value of a find, if not the find itself. The Rhineland-Palatinate is not one of them. Searching for ancient artifacts with a metal detector is a misdemeanor office. Removing any artifacts discovered without reporting them rises to the level of fraud, and selling them can result in a charge of receiving stolen property.

Certainly if monetary value plays a part in determining the severity of a property crime in Germany as it does in the US, this looter is going to be in big trouble. The hoard includes three dozen beautifully detailed solid gold brooches shaped like leaves even more gold square pyramids that archaeologists believe all once ornamented a ceremonial tunic of an important Roman official. There’s also a silver dish with the remains of gilding still visible that was cut into pieces, possibly to be used as hacksilver, a solid silver bowl with gold accents inset with semi-precious stones, a crumpled and folded highly decorated silver plate that may have been a chest cover. A set of silver and gold statuettes and pieces of fittings are the remarkable survivors of what was once a curule seat, a commander’s portable folding chair.

The hoard dates to the early part of the fifth century A.D., a time when Germanic tribes banged away at each other and at the weakening Roman Empire. The Battle of Mainz took place in 406 A.D. not far from where this treasure was buried and it was a watershed event in the collapse of Roman control of Europe. Pressured by Huns in the east, migrating allied tribes including Alans, Suevi and Vandals assembled on the east bank of the Rhine. The Franks sent a raiding party across the river and succeeded in killing the Vandal king Godigisel, but the Alans turned the tide and defeated the Franks. The tribes then crossed the Rhine into Gaul on December 31st, 406, breaching what had been for centuries one of Rome’s strongest boundaries and pillaging Mainz, Rheims, Amiens and Strasbourg among many other Roman cities. It marked the end of Roman political and military control in northern Gaul and ushered in the Migration Period.

It’s no wonder why someone might have sought to bury his most precious treasures under these circumstances. The jewels from ceremonial clothing, the elaborate silver and gold folding chair and the exquisite silver tableware all point to them having been the belongings of an important magistrate or even royalty. These were the highly recognizable attributes of Roman political authority. They were buried near a former Roman road, whether by its original owner of by marauders who wanted to keep it safe from competing marauders, in a relatively shallow hole. It’s a testament to how dangerous the roads were that nobody made it back to reclaim so vast a treasure.

The age and nature of this hoard makes it a unique find in Germany, worth at least a million euro on the market and worth far more than that in historical value. It would be worth inestimably more if it had been excavated with respect for its context. Instead, the looter pulled whatever he could out of the ground, having no care whatsoever for archaeological integrity. According to state archaeologist Axel von Berg, the curule chair, for example, was “brutally torn out of the earth and destroyed.” The site itself was deliberately damaged. Boy would I love to see this thief prosecuted just for doing that.

Meanwhile, some people are getting excited over the prospect that this could be part of the legendary Nibelung hoard, the Rhine gold that features in Norse and German sagas and Richard Wagner’s opera cycle based upon them. The evidence for this is nonexistent, of course. The fifth century dating and the location somewhere in the vague area where the Rhine may have once flowed but doesn’t any longer is all it took for the legend buzz to start.

The treasure will soon go on display in Mainz and Speyer.

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Rare Edward VI shilling found in Canada

Monday, January 27th, 2014

Retired security system specialist Bruce Campbell (no relation to Ash from Evil Dead) was looking for Victorian-era coins and artifacts along the Gorge Waterway in Victoria, British Columbia, on December 13th, 2013, when he found a coin buried three or four inches deep in the mud flats at low tide. It was so caked in the area’s characteristic blue clay that he couldn’t identify it. He posted pictures of his finds — an 1891 Canadian nickel, a 1960s a silver dime, an early Canadian penny and the mystery coin — on the Official Canadian Metal Detecting forum where he is a moderator. It was the clay-caked coin that aroused the most interest of the forum denizens, some of whom recognized it as a rare silver shilling from the brief reign of King Edward VI, son of Henry VIII and half-brother of Elizabeth I.

The coin is one millimeter thick and 33 millimeters in diameter and was minted at the Tower of London between 1551 and 1553. On the obverse is a bust of the young king crowned facing left. It is inscribed EDWARD VI D G AGL FRA Z HIB REX (Edward VI by the Grace of God King of England, France and Ireland). On the reverse is a shield bearing the royal coat of arms over a long cross fourchee, a heraldic term for a cross where the end of each arm is forked. The inscription reads POSUI DEU ADIUTORE MEUM (I have made God my helper).

This is a significant coin for many reasons. It was one of the earliest shillings — the 12 pence coin was called the Testoon when it was first minted — and it’s the first one that was made of sterling silver instead of base. Edward VI restored the silver standard in 1551, increasing the silver content from a paltry 0.250 (meaning 25% silver by mass) to 0.925. The sterling silver shilling was popular and widely circulated, but that popularity means surviving coins tend to be heavily worn, trimmed or damaged.

The one Bruce Campbell found is in quite good condition. The dense blue clay of the Gorge is a low oxygen environment which makes it an excellent preserver of 500-year-old coins. Campbell attempted to remove the mud crust by cleaning the coin first in olive oil. When that didn’t work, he soaked it in lemon juice for two days and then wrapped it in aluminium foil for a half hour. The crust came off, revealing the details of the design. Obligatory disclaimer: although the results in this case appear to be okay, don’t clean things! Let the experts handle it. You could so easily damage the artifact, ruin its market value and historic patina. Also, you never know what’s in the stuff that looks like dirt.

The coin’s condition and discovery spot has led some to speculate that it might have made its way to Victoria via Sir Francis Drake who may or may not have visited Victoria on a secret mission in 1579. The main evidence of this mission appears to be two other English coins from the 16th century found elsewhere in British Columbia, which is not exactly solid ground considering that coins can travel at any time after they’re minted.

It doesn’t need a Drake association to be awesome. It’s the oldest coin found on the west coast of Canada and it’s an important coin in English history. Now it has drawn the attention of the Royal B.C. Museum. Curator Grant Keddie has made contact with Mr. Campbell and plans to examine the shilling. He’s interested in the Drake theory and will test the material to attempt to discover how long the coin has been in Victoria. Keddie would like other metal detector enthusiasts and mudlarks “to take another look at things they may have found here that are not identified — such as ceramics or glassware — that might date to the same time period as the coin.”

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Anglo-Saxon game piece found at royal complex

Sunday, January 12th, 2014

Archaeologists with the University of Reading excavating an Anglo-Saxon royal complex at Lyminge, Kent, have unearthed an extremely rare board game piece dating to the 7th century. It’s the first discovery of this particular form of gaming piece in 130 years, and it’s the only time one has ever been found outside of a burial context. This one was unearthed in a room adjacent to the feasting hall, a place where it would actually have been used in active play rather than as a ceremonial grave good.

Alongside this astonishing discovery, Dr Gabor Thomas and his team have also uncovered items of jewellery, numerous fragments of luxury vessel glass and pits with animal bones, confirming that feasting and social display were integral to Lyminge’s role as a place of royal ceremonial events and gatherings during the late 6th and 7th centuries.

Dr Gabor Thomas from the University’s Department of Archaeology is leading the Arts and Humanities Research Council funded dig. He said: “Our excavation is providing an unprecedented picture of life in an Anglo-Saxon royal complex. Gaming, along with feasting, drinking, and music, formed one of the key entertainments of the Anglo-Saxon mead-hall as evoked in the poem Beowulf.

“The discovery of Anglo-Saxon gaming-pieces and gaming-boards has previously been restricted to male burials, particularly those of the Anglo-Saxon elite. To find such a well preserved example in the hall, where such board games were actually played, is a wonderfully evocative discovery.”

The piece is a made of a hollow tube of bone capped at both ends with bone discs held together through the middle by a copper alloy rivet. Anglo-Saxons were fond of a board game and a number of pieces, even sets, have been found, but this kind of craftsmanship is top of the line. The only comparable pieces of this type ever discovered in Britain were found in the Taplow burial, a 7th-century Anglo-Saxon princely burial mound in Taplow Court, Buckinghamshire, that was excavated in 1883. The grave goods interred at Taplow include a pair of drinking vessels made out of aurochs’ horns with elaborate gilded silver fittings, a gorgeous set of four glass claw beakers, a lyre, multiple weapons, gold braids, a gold and garnet belt buckle and a set of game pieces laid out at the prince’s feet. The Taplow burial is contemporary in age with the Sutton Hoo burial and the artifacts are of a same high level of quality.

The game pieces were almost certainly an import from Germanic Europe, most likely of Langobardic manufacture. The most apt parallels have been found in the Lombard kingdom of Italy. Saxons were part of the Lombard invasion force of Italy in the late 6th century, and it’s probable these luxury goods made their way up north through trade routes that ranged as far as the Byzantine Empire.

The Lyminge game piece was discovered by a volunteer. He’s a metal detectorist who works side by side with the archaeologists exploring the site as they dig. He wasn’t actually using his metal detector the time. He was digging in a trench in the spot where several buildings in the complex intersect when he found this small but immensely important artifact. The structural evidence reveals a complex with large timber halls, floors made out of Roman-style mortar with opus signinum, a crushed tile finish, and huge entrance portals larger than any other from this period unearthed in England.

As far as what games the royal hall denizens might have been playing with these pieces, we don’t know. There are no written descriptions of the fine sport to be had in the feasting halls of Anglo-Saxon royalty. What we have to go on is archaeological evidence from the Germanic burials pre-dating the Anglo-Saxon takeover of England. One burial in Leuna, Saxony, dating to around 300 A.D., contained a set of black and white pieces on a double-sided wooden board. This was used to play two games: tabula, an early form of backgammon, and latrunculi (soldiers), a checkers-like game wherein matched sides attempt to capture each other’s pieces. These games were brought to England in the fifth century during the Anglo-Saxon migrations.

For more photographs of this season’s and the previous four years of excavation at Lyminge, see this photo gallery.

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