Archive for the ‘Treasures’ Category

Golden phallus so popular museum to sell replicas

Monday, May 27th, 2013

The Roman gold pendant in the shape of a phallus that was discovered in 2011 in Hillington, Norfolk, has become such a popular exhibit at the Lynn Museum that replicas will be sold at the gift shop. The small but proud gold member was unearthed by metal detectorist Kevin Hillier on January 30th, 2011, in a field belonging to farmer Neil Riseborough. Hillier reported it to the Portable Antiquities Scheme and at an inquest in April of 2011, Norfolk coroner William Armstrong declared it official treasure trove.

Experts at the British Museum assessed fair market value of the phallus at £800 ($1200). That sum, which technically is a finder’s fee rather than a sale price, is split between the finder and the landowner. Local museums have first dibs and although Lynn Museum has a budget even tinier than a two-centimeter phallus, they were able to raise the money with donations from the Friends of the King’s Lynn Museum (they contributed £80), and grants from the Victoria and Albert Museum Purchase Grant Fund (£400) and the Headley Trust (£320). In January 2012, the phallus went on display.

The figure is formed out of a sheet of gold soldered together along the length with an aperture at the ends and two globes of gold soldered to each side of the base. Between the testicular globes is a transverse loop that was soldered separately. The loop suggests the phallus was worn as a pendant, possibly by a Roman soldier since the use of phalluses as amulets to ward off evil spells was not a local religious practice. It’s a rare object as most of the other ancient phalluses discovered in Britain are made out of base metals. The gold is bright and the piece is in excellent condition.

The little artifact has captured the imagination of museum visitors like nothing else in its collection, so when last year the museum began looking into the possibility of creating souvenirs inspired by local objects, replica Hillington phalluses leaped to mind. The museum has commissioned artist Sue Heaser to create the souvenirs.

Mrs Heaser, who is also an archaeological illustrator, said: “This is the most extraordinary thing I have ever done. I love working with ancient jewellery and the craftsmanship involved here is amazing.”

Normally Mrs Heaser would be able to make a mould directly from the piece but this has not been possible as the pendant is so delicate. Instead Mrs Heaser has had to painstakingly measure, draw and photograph the piece in order to make a mould. A silicon model of the piece has allowed Mrs Heaser to make a mould. She will later use metal clay to make a replica.

The replicas will not be made out of shiny real gold, though, and it will be a solid piece rather than a hollow sheet seamed up at the side. Silver and bronze replica phalluses will be available in the gift shop within the next few months.

Retail manager Maria Wong said the museum was also looking at some of its other exhibits to replicate as souvenirs.

Miss Wong said: “This is a very exciting project. This is the first time we have reproduced from our own collection. The Hillington Phallus is a very popular exhibit at Lynn Museum.”

I think it’s a great idea and I love how cool they are about this. It’s very Roman, really, since they were entirely sanguine about nudity in general and phalluses in particular. Phalluses were everywhere in ancient Rome, so widespread a symbol that when stuffy 19th century curators at institutions like National Archaeological Museum in Naples and the British Museum had to deal with the mountains of penises in art, graffiti and consumer goods found at Roman sites, they locked them all up in secret rooms that only “men of good character” were allowed to enter.

Two hundred years later, I doubt a local museum in the US would be able to even contemplate such an addition to the gift shop without somebody starting a boycott or a letter-writing campaign to stop it from corrupting their children with its penisness. I doubt they’d be persuaded by the historical fact that Romans gave their children phallus amulets to keep them safe. Roman kids were bristling with phalluses.

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Boy digs up British Civil War cannonball in his yard

Monday, May 20th, 2013

Ten-year-old Jack Sinclair discovered a Civil War cannonball when digging in his back yard in Southwell, Nottinghamshire, England. His father had dug up a tree root and Jack, an avowed digger of things, kept excavating the hole until it was two feet deep. When his spade hit something hard, he thought it was a rock at first but then realized that it was bigger and denser. He got down on the ground to pull it out and retrieved a very heavy, rusty, muddy lump. His mother was concerned that it might be an unexploded bomb from World War II, but when they cleaned off the dirt, they saw it was an iron cannonball.

His grandfather Graham Sinclair researched the nine-pound ball. Together they took to the Newark and Sherwood District Council’s Museum Resource Centre in Newark where experts examined the artifact and verified with 90% certainty that it is a 17th century cannonball used during the Civil War. They were able to compare it to many Civil War cannonballs in the Museum Resource Centre’s collection. Its weight and dimensions suggest it was shot from a saker cannon, a medium-caliber long range cannon that was widely used in the early 16th century and 17th century.

It’s the first Civil War cannonball unearthed in Southwell. Most of the ones in the Museum Resource Centre were found 8 miles away in Newark which was a Royalist city of major strategic importance repeatedly besieged by Parliamentary forces between 1643 and 1646 when King Charles I ordered the city garrison to surrender. Southwell has been overshadowed by its neighbor, but it too played a significant role during the Civil War. Charles I spent his last night of freedom at a pub in Southwell called the King’s Arms.

On May 5th, 1646, Charles arrived in Southwell disguised as a lackey. He had dinner at the King’s Arms with the Scottish Commissioners during which he deployed his awful negotiating skills to sway them to his side. The Commissioners insisted that he sign the Solemn League and Covenant granting them religious freedom which Parliament had agreed to but then ignored, establish Presbytery (a governing body of elders) in England, that he fire the Marquis of Montrose, a Covenanter who switched sides to fight for the king, and that he surrender to the Scottish army at Newark.

The next day he surrendered and was taken to Newcastle upon Tyne. Charles kept wheeling and dealing, refusing to fulfill various parts of the bargain, convinced that he could negotiate a better deal for himself even as he was captive of Scottish forces. He couldn’t. On the 30th of January, 1647, the Scots handed Charles over to Parliament in exchange for £100,000 up front (a fraction of the money Parliament had promised them before they joined the fray) with more to come.

Southwell was handled roughly by Cromwell’s troops in the wake of Charles’ surrender. They used the Archbishop’s Palace as a stable for their horses, looted graves, damaged the Minster and generally trashed the place. Legend has it that Cromwell himself made a point of staying in the King’s Arms in the very suite Charles had slept in the night before his surrender.

That pub is still standing, now called the Saracen’s Head Hotel, and visitors can stay in the King Charles Suite where he slept. Some beautiful Elizabeth era murals painted around 1590 in that room and one other were rediscovered during a renovation in 1986.

To celebrate the area’s rich history, the Newark and Sherwood District Council has secured a £5.4 million (ca. $8,240,000) grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund to create a National Civil War Centre in Newark. It’s scheduled to open in 2014. Jack Sinclair won’t be donating his prize cannonball to the new center, however. He’s keeping it. His school, Lowe’s Wong Junior School, is planning a special assembly dedicated to the cannonball.

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Napoleonic POW ship models for sale

Friday, May 17th, 2013

One of my favorite posts last year was about a model of a guillotine made out of animals bones by a Napoleonic prisoner of war in England. Britain had a surfeit of prisoners from France and other countries who fought on Napoleon’s side during the late 18th, early 19th century. An estimated 100,000 Napoleonic prisoners were in British hands between 1793 and 1815 because of French Revolutionary and Napoleonic policies against the ransom or exchange of prisoners. Prison hulks had nothing like that capacity, so a number of prisoner of war camps were built in England, the first permanent POW camps of their kind.

These camps weren’t the extreme hellholes that prison hulks were, but they were still overcrowded, wet and subject to epidemics like Typhus. British authorities allowed the prisoners to make crafts and sell them to supplement their miserable existence. Since many of the prisoners were conscripts rather than professional soldiers, they had work skills from their civilian lives and were able to create rather exceptional pieces. The working model of a guillotine carved from discarded bones is one of them. Beautifully appointed model ships were also popular.

Two of those ships are coming up for sale at Bonham’s Fine Maritime Paintings and Decorative Arts auction on June 5th in New York. One is a model of a 76-gun French ship-of-the-line made out of bone. The other is a boxwood model of a British 76-gun ship-of-the-line. Both were carved around 1800 and are amazingly elaborate. The boxwood model is valued at least $2,000 higher than the bone one because of how crazy fancy it is:

in a diorama format with the hull built up from the waterline, a painted green bottom, the topsides painted in alternating bands of black, pink and white, and black topsides fitted with a figure head of a Roman warrior, at the stern the quarter galleries and transom are modeled with windows, cut and pierced and decorated with a geometric pattern. The decks are of veneer with the planking lines drawn in and detailed with: anchor, cannons on carriages, pin and fife rails, capstan, railings, ladders, belfry, hatches, deck eyes. At anchor, one anchor rode is run out into the sea as if the ship were anchored. Rigged with three masts, bowsprit, standing and running rigging, turning blocks, cross spars, tops and trees, and dead-eyes and other rigging details. Displayed on a carved and painted sea, framed by an ornately decorated and drawn acanthus base, within a mahogany and glass case with carved front columns and a foliate frieze over the top.

The bone ship is slightly less fancy, but no less amazing:

possibly Le Maroc [name on transom barely legible], the hull built up from the solid and planked in bone, between the gun decks are raised bone strakes which were painted black, brass guns fitted to the topsides and decks, chain plates and dead-eyes, polychromed figurehead of a warrior, carved and pierced stern and quarter galleries with verdigris copper details, head rails, pin and fife rails, scored planking for the decks, open well deck, guns on carriages, taff rail, and other details. Rigged with masts, yards, standing and running rigging, spars, stun’sail booms, and other details [rigging in need of attention]. Set into a bone and wood base with a painted sea [distressed] giving the impression of a waterline model.

I’m partial to the bone one both because I’m just a fan of bone art in general and because you can really see that it was made out of bits of carved bone. On the other hand, it does not have a Roman legionary figurehead so the boxwood model clearly wins on that score.

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A metal bird Sam Spade would kill for

Friday, May 3rd, 2013

Forget the Maltese Falcon, it’s this Japanese hawk that’s the stuff that dreams are made of. It’s coming up for auction at Bonham’s on May 16th and it could be yours for an estimated £120,000 ($185,628). This masterpiece of wrought iron craftsmanship made in the late 19th century probably by artist and metalworker Itao Shinjiro, is fully articulated. Its limbs and claws move; the head turns 180 degrees; the beak opens and closes; the neck, tail and wing feathers can be stretched out or shortened to mimic the animal at rest or in flight.

There are only two other comparable hawks known to exist, one in the Tokyo National Museum and the other in a French private collection. This one is larger and more elaborate than the one in Tokyo. It’s being sold by the Kiyomizu Sannenzaka Museum in Kyoto, a small private museum with an exceptional collection of high quality pieces of lacquerware, cloisonné and metal work from the late Edo and Meiji periods. The Kyoto museum loaned their gorgeous hawk to the Tokyo National Museum for a 2008 exhibition on jizai okimono (jizai = articulated, okimono = ornamental figures), realistic, articulated animal figures made of various metals.

It’s an art form that’s as mysterious as it is beautiful. There is little evidence in the historical record regarding their origins and development. Although they began to be made in the Edo period, we only know this from the dating of extant pieces. There are no documents or contemporary sources describing the early days of the art. The earliest pieces date to the first quarter of the 18th century and were made by the Myochin family, illustrious metalworkers who started out as armorers to the samurai during the civil wars of the 16th century.

After Tokugawa Ieyasu won the Battle of Sekigahara in 1600 and consolidated his power as de facto ruler of Japan under the Tokugawa Shogunate, a long period of peace followed. Later known as the Edo period, it lasted 250 years. For the first century of peace business proceeded apace. Nobody knew how long the peace would last so warriors still commissioned plenty of armor even if it was only used for ceremonial purposes. Eventually, though, without constant war-making the market for armorers’ wares dried up and competition for the business that remained was fierce.

Compelled to look for new revenue streams, the Myochin studio and others turned to art. Decorative metal work was a natural evolution for experts with their very specific set of skills. Craftsmen adept at the forging and hammering of metal began making everyday consumer goods like tea kettles and boxes.

This kind of work was pedestrian, however, and not a proper showcase for their skills. Probably inspired by Chinese pieces, the armorers moved from quotidian items to the creation of complex, elaborate jizai okimono. It makes sense. A larger piece composed of a myriad small scales that can move in a naturalistic fashion could describe armor just as much as it describes this hawk or the amazing articulated dragon in the collection of the Art Institute of Chicago.

According to a description of the hawk in an 1894 issue of The Magazine of Japanese Art published after the piece took second place at the 1894 Spring Exhibition of the Japan Art Association, the concept of articulated metal animals originated in China, but it was Japanese craftsmanship that caught the imagination of the West at the end of the 19th century when the opening of Japanese markets (by force, of course) made Orientalism a major trend.

“We have certainly succeeded in making a nobler and more practical use of it than the Chinese ever seem to have thought of. Mr. Itawo [sic], our artist, is … a metalworker of no common ability, having a particular aptitude for the kind above mentioned in wrought or hammered iron … The beautiful execution and tone of color given to the material, alone, not to say anything about the ingenious arrangement, would entitle it to be classed among works of high art….

Their rise of popularity in the West was in step with the decline of interest in the Japanese market. The unique beauty of the jizai okimono was underappreciated in the wider population until a metalwork exhibition at the Tokyo National Museum in October of 1983 brought them back into the limelight. Now they are highly sought after pieces, with the work of Itao Shinjiro being particularly prized because very few of his figures have survived.

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Rare gold find in 4,400-year-old Beaker burial

Monday, April 22nd, 2013

Archaeological from Wessex Archaeology excavating a gravel quarry in Berkshire discovered a rare 4,400-year-old Beaker burial 18 months ago. The news was kept under embargo until Friday to give the team time to analyze the bones and grave goods, both of which make the grave even more rare: beads made of folded sheet gold and the likelihood that the person buried was female.

Beaker burials — Copper Age graves from around 2,500 B.C. characterized by the ritual inclusion of a fine pottery drinking vessel known as a beaker — are extremely rare in south-east England. Gold has only been found in a small fraction of the already small number of Beaker burials, and those graves held male skeletons. Only the most important people in Beaker society were buried with gold and they were not surprisingly male.

Although researchers were not able to confirm this with complete certainty due to damage to the bone caused by the acidic soil which makes radiocarbon dating and DNA testing impossible, osteological examination indicates the skeleton is that of a woman who was at least 35 years of age when she died. The gold from Beaker burials is some of the earliest gold ornamentation discovered in England, and this is the earliest known woman in England to have been found buried with gold.

She was buried in high style. Five tubular (80s flashback!) beads made from folded pieces of sheet gold were found, once part of a necklace. Black disc beads of a jet-like material called lignite were also part of the necklace. Archaeologists found thirty lignite beads and 29 fragments of amber beads, so this was an elaborate necklace indeed. Lignite beads were also discovered near her hand, perhaps from a matching bracelet.

Larger perforated amber rounds were found in a row down her body. They were probably extremely fancy, extremely expensive buttons going down the front a Copper Age version of a cardigan.

Lastly, a large pottery beaker with nicely even stripes probably applied using a comb-like stamp was placed on her hip, an unusual position for the beaker in the Beaker burials. They are usually found by the feet or shoulders.

All of this elegance and quality strongly suggests the woman was someone of impeccably high status.

Archaeologist Gareth Chaffey of Wessex Archaeology, who is directing the ongoing excavation, said that the woman unearthed at the site “was probably an important person in her society, perhaps holding some standing which gave her access to prestigious, rare and exotic items. She could have been a leader, a person with power and authority, or possibly part of an elite family – perhaps a princess or queen.”

Lead isotope analysis performed on the gold found that it was mined in south-east Ireland and southern Britain. The lignite beads are from Eastern England and the amber buttons probably from the Baltic, although it may have been local amber found on beaches. Scientists hope that further analysis will answer some questions about how the gold was procured and traded along existing trade routes.

This find is not the only significant discovery achaeologists have made since they began excavating Kingsmead Quarry in 2003. During the Copper Age and for thousands of years after that, the quarry was in a floodplain on the shore of the Thames. Its convenient access to water ensure it was inhabited by many subsequent generations. The excavations have found evidence of human occupation steadily from the Palaeolithic to the Middle Ages.

The quarry is owned by the CEMEX building materials company. They have funded the ongoing excavation to the tune of £4 million ($6,000,000), and it certainly had paid off in terms discoveries. More than 28 hectares of the quarry have been excavated now. There are ancient artifacts, Neolithic houses, entire landscapes that have been exposed to expert eye. The plan is to continue digging for another two years.

Wessex Archaeology and CEMEX will be displaying some of the discoveries, including the gold beads, at an event at Wraysbury Village Hall, Berkshire, on Saturday April 27th between 10.30 AM and 3.30 PM. Admission is free. Visitors not only get to see the artifacts in person, but they also get to meet the archaeologists working on the project and examine a skeleton.

They hope to have the Beaker artifacts on display in a museum by the end of the year.

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Metropolitan Museum of Art buys Le Brun Polyxena

Saturday, April 20th, 2013

The Sacrifice of Polyxena, the 1647 painting by Charles Le Brun that was discovered in the Coco Chanel Suite in Paris’ Ritz Hotel during renovations last year, was bought at auction by the Metropolitan Museum of Art for $1,885,194, three times the high estimate. It’s new world record for a Le Brun painting. There are very few museums that have the kind of acquisition budget that will keep them in the bidding when prices get to this level, so it’s extremely fortunate for the public that the Met was in it to win it.

The Sacrifice of Polyxena by Charles Le Brun is without doubt one of the most important paintings by the artist to appear on the art market in recent years. It is a major work by an artist who is not well represented overseas, and I am not surprised that it has been acquired by such a prestigious institution as The Metropolitan Museum of Art whose collection of French 17th century paintings will be greatly enhanced,” said Olivier Lefeuvre, Senior Specialist of Christie’s Old Master Paintings department.

The collection really will be great enhanced. Before Monday’s auction, the Met didn’t own a single painting by Charles Le Brun, which amazes me because I would have thought they’d have at least one of every named master by now. There are several pen and ink and chalk drawings by Le Brun in the Met collection, but none of them are on display. They have six by Nicolas Poussin , First Painter to King Louis XIII, including a spectacular The Abduction of the Sabine Women which is one of two paintings on the subject done by the master. (The other one is in The Louvre.)

Now they’ve filled that major lacuna with a very important early work by Le Brun fresh off his four-year trip to Rome with Poussin, the museum plans to waste no time putting the painting on display. The 17th century French paintings gallery is currently closed for construction, but the Le Brun will be hanging proudly next the Poussins when it reopens at the end of May.

The Ritz’s owner, Mohamed Al Fayed, will donate the proceeds from the sale to the Dodi Fayed International Charitable Foundation, the charity he established in memory of his son who was killed in the car accident that also claimed the life of Diana, Princess of Wales. The foundation is dedicated to supporting children with potentially fatal illnesses and those who live in extreme poverty.

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King Khufu’s port, papyri found on Red Sea

Wednesday, April 17th, 2013

The remains of a large commercial harbour complex dating back to the Fourth Dynasty 4,500 years ago have been discovered at Wadi el-Jarf, a town on the Red Sea shore 110 miles south of Suez city, Egypt. Inscriptions and radiocarbon dating of pottery date the site to the reign of the pharaoh Khufu (aka Cheops). The port was one of a network on both sides of the Gulf of Suez used to transport limestone blocks from the quarries and copper and turquoise from the mines in south Sinai back to the Nile Valley. It’s the earliest found to date, the oldest commercial port found in Egypt and according to Sorbonne Egyptologist and excavation director Pierre Tallet, the oldest commercial port ever found anywhere, predating any others by 1,000 years.


Archaeologists from the French Institute for Archaeological Studies (IFAO) found a long L-shaped quay that starts on the beach and runs east under water for 525 feet before turning southeast for 394 feet. It appears to have been a breakwater structure that protected moored ships from the strong winds and powerful north-south currents of the Red Sea coast. Inside the protected area researchers found 24 pharaonic anchors. Made out of limestone, the anchors are carved into triangular, rectangular and cylindrical shapes with a hole in the upper section. Many of them were found in pairs which suggests deliberate placement rather than haphazardly discarded ship accessories. That’s why researchers believe they were stationed permanently in the water so that ships in transit could be moored to them.

This is an exciting find because although Egyptian anchors have been discovered before, most of them date to the Middle Kingdom and had been put to new uses. These are the first ancient anchors found in situ where they did their original anchor duty. It’s the oldest and largest collection of early Bronze Age anchors ever discovered.

The harbour complex continues inland. Even more anchors (99 of them, to be specific) were found in the remains of a light camp installation about 650 feet from the shore. There were hieroglyphic inscriptions on some of the anchors which Tallet believes were the name of the boat to which they once belonged. There’s a mound of limestone blocks nearby which was probably used as a visual landmark.

A mile and a quarter inland from the mound are the remains of an isolated rectangular building about 200 feet long and 100 feet wide. The building is divided into 13 elongated cell-like rooms. Its function is unknown but we do know it’s the largest pharaonic building found on the Red Sea coast.

Just over two and a half miles from the shore at the at the foot of the mountains are groups of camps and what may be defensive surveillance installations. The largest of them has a complex of rectangular structures with cell-like rooms that were probably living spaces for the workers.

Three miles from the shore, just south of the camps is a system of 25 to 30 galleries carved into the bedrock. The galleries are not a new find; they were first discovered in 1823 by British Egyptologists Sir John Garner Wilkinson and James Burton who thought they were catacombs. There was no follow-up until 1954 when French researchers François Bissey and René Chabot-Morisseau began to explore the area only to be stopped before they really got going by the Suez crisis. Tallet’s team used Bissey and Chabot-Morisseau’s notes and Google Earth satellite images to find the site when their project began in 2008.

Excavations began in 2011 on four of the galleries. The team found that the galleries were not catacombs; they were storage facilities used to keep dismantled boats safe from the elements. Pieces of ropes, textiles, large pieces of wood, fragments of cedar beams, a piece of boat timber nine feet wide, the end of an oar were discovered in the galleries. The galleries range in length from 52 feet to 112 feet and are an average of 10 feet wide and seven feet high. They were not carved haphazardly at different times, but according to a pre-planned layout. Access to the galleries was protected by causeways of monumental stone blocks. The entrances were closed and opened by an elaborate portcullis system of large limestone blocks similar to the ones used during Fourth Dynasty funerary structures. The blocks were inscribed with the Khufu’s name written in red ink.

Inside the storage galleries archaeologists made another major find: hundreds of papyrus fragments, 10 of them in very good condition. These are the oldest papyri ever found. They’re a social history bonanza, describing the administration of the harbour complex during the 27th year of Khufu’s reign. There are monthly reports on the number of harbour workers, on how they were supplied with bread and beer. Perhaps most riveting of all the papyri is a diary that describes the work of gathering limestone for the construction of the Great Pyramid. From the Discovery News slideshow of the finds:

[I]t’s the diary of Merrer, an Old Kingdom official involved in the building of the Great Pyramid of Cheops.

From four different sheets and many fragments, the researchers were able to follow his daily activity for more that three months.

“He mainly reported about his many trips to the Turah limestone quarry to fetch block for the building of the pyramid,” Tallet said.

“Although we will not learn anything new about the construction of Cheops monument, this diary provides for the first time an insight on this matter,” Tallet said.

I love how it’s a fully graphed out table, a spreadsheet in hieroglyphics. The papyri are now in the Suez museum where they will be conserved, catalogued and studied.

The harbour complex was definitely Khufu’s baby, used during his reign and for a few decades later. Pottery evidence indicates that the installations were occupied primarily during the first half of the Fourth Dynasty. There are some traces that parts of the complex were still in use in the beginning of the Fifth Dynasty, 72 years after Khufu’s death, but after that it was abandoned.

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First book printed in US could make $30 million

Sunday, April 14th, 2013

The Bay Psalm Book, the first book printed in British North America 136 years before it became the United States, is one of the rarest books in the world. There are only 11 copies known to have survived, and they are all held in libraries: the John Carter Brown Library, the Yale University Library, the Bodleian Library, the Library of Congress, the New York Public Library, the Henry E. Huntington Library, Harvard University Library, the American Antiquarian Society, the Rosenbach Library & Museum and two copies in the Boston Public Library which belong to Boston’s Old South Church. One of those copies, known as the Beta Copy because it’s slightly less pristine compared to the Alpha Copy, will be going on the auction block at Sotheby’s in November.

It’s been two generations since the last time one of these psalters was offered for sale. In January of 1947 it sold at auction for what was then a record $151,000 to rare book dealer Dr. Abraham Simon Wolf Rosenbach. Rosenbach had set the previous record for a book in the English language sold at public auction when he bought a First Folio of Shakespeare for $72,000 in 1933. He also held record for the most expensive book period bought at a public sale, a Gutenberg Bible he had purchased in 1926 for $106,000. This little six-by-five-inch hymnal of psalms blew them all away. Rosenbach turned out to be acting as an agent for a group of Yale alumni who in September of that year donated the Bay Psalm Book to the university library.

Old South Church has decided to part with one of their copies because it might make as much as $30 million, a princely sum that will allow it to remain solvent while fulfilling its Vision for the 21st Century (pdf), a mission statement that covers everything from building renovations to art programs to support for the poor. The church will still retain ownership of the Alpha Copy and that one is governed by a number of restrictions on sale so it’s not going anywhere.

In 1640, 20 years after the Pilgrims landed in Plymouth, the good folk of the Massachusetts Bay Colony decided the books of Psalms they had brought with them from England just wouldn’t do anymore. They thought the translations were too distant from the original Hebrew, and since the colony now had a printing press imported from London and operated by an indenture locksmith named Stephen Daye, they set about making their own psalter. A group of 30 “pious and learned” ministers, all literate in Greek, Latin and Hebrew, each translated a section of the Book of Psalms into English verse. John Eliot, Thomas Weld and Richard Mather (grandfather of the Cotton Mather of Salem Witch Trials fame) edited the volume.

The psalms were meant to be sung during services as hymns, but the quality of poetry was clearly not the ministers’ priority. Look, if you dare, at the broken and battered corpse of the 23rd Psalm:

The Lord to mee a shepheard is,
Want therefore shall not I.
Hee in the folds of the tender-grasse,
Doth cause mee downe to lie:
To waters calme me gently leads
Restore my soule doth hee:
He doth in paths of righteousness:
For his names sake leade mee.
Yea though in the valley of deaths shade
I walk, none ill I’le feare:
Because thou are with mee, thy rod,
And staffe my comfort are.
For mee a table thou hast spread,
In preference of my foes:
Thou dost annoynt my head with oyle.
My cup it over-flowes.
Goodness & mercy surely shall
All my dayes follow mee:
And in the Lords house I shall dwell
So long as dayes shall bee.

Yeah. I feel bad for any deity who had to listen to that for hours on end, week after week, while presiding over those interminable Puritan meetings.

After the ministers were done butchering the classics, 1700 copies of the book were published, enough so every family in the colony could have one. It was the third work published by the Stephen Daye press, but the first book. (The first piece printed was a broadside of the Oath of a Freeman, now lost, and the second an almanac in pamphlet form.) Despite its atrocious turns of phrase, the Bay Psalm Book remained popular for decades after that first print run, with multiple revised editions published during the 17th century.

In 1703, bibliophile and historian Reverend Thomas Prince, who was then still at Harvard University, began to build a “New England library,” a collection of every written work, manuscript or printed, pamphlet, paper or book, ever made in New England. Fifteen years later the good reverend was appointed pastor of the Old South Church and remained such until his death in 1758. During his five decades plus of collecting, Prince purchased no fewer than five copies of the Bay Psalm Book, a remarkably prescient choice considering that the books were still fairly widespread at that time.

In his will he bequeathed the entirety of his library to the Old South Church, stipulating that it remain together in perpetuity. That didn’t happen. For 46 years, half of his books were kept at the Massachusetts Historical Society. The collection was reunited at the Boston Public Library in 1866. Or rather, most of his collection was reunited, because somewhere in the penumbra of those decades, three of the five copies of the psalm book had mysteriously moved on.

By the mid-19th century, the Bay Psalm Book was exceptionally rare and certain collectors lusted after it with an unscrupulousness that would have made King David blush. Three private collectors — Edward A. Crowninshield, George Livermore and Nathaniel B. Shurtleff, 20th mayor of Boston — all educated men of wealth and position, had wheedled copies out of Old South Church deacons by offering deceptively dismal trades or simply by flattery. Shurtleff scored the best of the five: Richard Mather’s own personal copy bearing his autograph. Crowninshield secured the copy that would be auctioned in 1947.

Old South Church authorities didn’t cotton on to these shenanigans until 1875. They sued Shurtleff’s estate to get the Mather copy back, but it was too late. The statute of limitations had run out. That copy is now in the John Carter Brown Library at Brown University. Had the deacons not been such saps, Old South Church would be rolling in $30 million books.

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Vast site preserves 400 years of Roman London

Wednesday, April 10th, 2013

A six-month excavation by Museum of London Archaeology at the construction site of Bloomberg’s future European headquarters in the center of London has revealed layer upon beautifully-preserved layer of Roman habitation from the earliest days in 40 A.D. to the collapse of Roman rule in the 5th century. Just a few yards from the Thames and waterlogged by the Walbrook River, one of London’s famous “lost rivers” that disappeared under the city when they were diverted into culverts to make way for development, the three acre site is replete with organic remains in incredible condition. Entire streets have survived, as have the remains of shoulder-high wooden walls, extensive wood foundations, complex waste drainage systems, a deep wooden well and a wooden door that is the second Roman wood door ever discovered in London. The extent of preservation has inspired archaeologists to dub this find “the Pompeii of the North.”

In addition to the structural remains, the site has proven a motherlode for artifacts as well. A team of 60 archaeologists has excavated about 3,500 tons of soil (that’s 21,000 wheelbarrows full) by hand to find more than 10,000 objects, the largest group of small finds ever recovered in a single excavation in London. The collection includes hundreds of leather shoes, a straw basket, more than 100 fragments of writing tablets, textiles, an amber amulet shaped like a gladiator helmet, a mysterious leather piece richly decorated with a scene of a gladiator battling mythical creatures, a cavalry harness with clappers that jingle when a horse moves, a group of high-quality pewter vessels that were thrown down a well probably for ritual purposes, and the greatest number of fist and phallus good luck charms ever found at one site.

Archaeologists were able to dig far deeper than usual due to the scale of the planned construction. The Bloomberg Place development at Great Queen Street will be a major high-rise that requires attendant deep foundations. Thus experts had the rare opportunity to dig 40 feet below street level to the first Roman settlement layer. The location is also of huge significance. This neighborhood was the bed of the Walbrook, the very center of Roman Londinium where, on the east bank of the tributary, the Romans built a port, the governor’s palace and a temple of Mithras. The Mithraeum was unearthed in 1954 by Welsh archaeologist William Francis Grimes, director of the Museum of London, after Victorian buildings damaged by bombs in World War II were demolished for the construction of an office building.

The discovery of the Mithraeum was the most important discovery of 20th century London. Crowds flocked to see the ruins and a public campaign to save them from threatened destruction led to their being relocated down the road to Temple Court where they still stand today. Researchers therefore had high expectations that the Bloomberg Place dig would result in archaeological finds of great significance. Obviously these were more than met. They even found a new section of the Temple of Mithras.

The artifacts are being cleaned and conserved at the Museum of London. The organic elements will be freeze-dried to preserve them. It’s not clear to me how the extensive city layers will be handled, but the construction project has all along planned to return the Mithraeum to its original site and integrate it into a public display. Now they just have a lot more to display than they planned.

The London Museum of Archaeology was kind enough to allow me access to their Dropbox account so of course I took everything and ran. Enjoy the media dump of awesomeness.

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Yorkshire Viking hoard has unique pommel, necklace

Thursday, March 28th, 2013


Experts have declared that a hoard of gold and silver treasure from the Viking era discovered by two metal detectorists in a field near Bedale, North Yorkshire, last May is a “significant and nationally important discovery.” Stuart Campbell and Steve Caswell found a part of the hoard, but instead of digging up the rest on the spot, they reported it to the finds liaison officer at the Yorkshire Museum in York. The museum sent two archaeologists to the a pasture (the exact location of the find is being kept secret to deter looters) so the treasure could be professionally excavated.

Once the whole thing was unearthed, the hoard was found to comprise 29 silver ingots, four silver collars, one of which is a large piece made of four plaited silver ropes joined at each end (in the middle of the picture), silver neck rings, half a silver penannular broach, a silver arm ring, an iron sword pommel inlaid with gold foil plaques (the big clumpy looking thing in the bottom right of the picture), four gold hoops from the sword hilt, six gold rivets probably from the same sword.

Andrew Morrison, head curator at the Yorkshire Museum, said: “The artefacts uncovered are typical of a Viking hoard, with the majority of it being silver ingots which were used for currency.

“However the gold sword pommel and a unique silver neck ring are incredibly beautiful and rare finds. We now hope to be able to raise the funds needed to keep them in Yorkshire.”

The pommel style and decoration dates the hoard to 850 – 950 A.D. Its triangular shape with a convex base is a late 9th century form of Viking sword. The plaques of gold foil are decoration with incised animal shapes characteristic of the late Anglo-Saxon Trewhiddle Style, also dating to the late 9th century although it continued to be used in the north of England into the 10th century. Two features mark the pommel as an exceptional piece: its size and its gold decoration. The pommel is 3.3 inches wide, 2 inches high, .5 inches thick; the guard is 3.8 inches long. The total weight of the piece is 10.7 ounces.

There is only one other pommel of comparable size, the Abingdon Sword now in the Ashmolean Museum, which is decorated in the same style but all in silver. The gold on the Bedale pommel makes it unique.

The hoard may have been raiding spoils or it could have been legitimately traded goods buried for later retrieval. The Vikings had a particular fascination with finely crafted metal work (see the National Museum of Scotland exhibit for more on that), more so than the general Saxon population, and although the hoard may have been pillaged, it’s more likely that it was buried by someone who was staying in the area. Many Vikings weren’t coming to Yorkshire just to raid and leave, but rather settled down and became farmers.

Right now the treasure is in the British Museum being cleaned and conserved. The next step is the standard treasure inquest which will certainly result in the coroner declaring the hoard treasure. Anything older than 300 years old or composed of precious metals qualifies as treasure, and the hoard hits the bullseye on both scores. It will then be evaluated for market value and the local museum will have the chance to pay the amount of the valuation to the finders. The York Museum Trust is already preparing to raise the necessary funds to keep the Bedale Viking Hoard in Yorkshire.

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