Archive for the ‘Treasures’ Category

First unlooted Wari royal tomb found in Peru

Thursday, June 27th, 2013

A team of Polish and Peruvian archaeologists have discovered a 1,200-year-old royal mausoleum from Peru’s Wari civilization which has never been looted. Wari tombs with precious grave goods have been found before, but this is the first untouched Wari tomb that bears the marks of royalty. The site surrounding the royal burial chamber in El Castillo de Huarmey, four hours north of Lima, was not so fortunate — it had been looted repeatedly over years — but the royal mausoleum was buried under 30 tons of stone fill which kept it safe from intruders.

Maintaining that unbroken record was the first priority of the archaeological team. University of Warsaw archaeologist Milosz Giersz suspected there was a tomb on the spot when he saw the outline of it from in aerial photographs in June of 2010. Last September, the team found a room with a stone throne; underneath it was the thick stone fill. After doing what no looters had ever bothered to do, ie, dig deep into the fill, archaeologists found a large carved wooden mace and recognized it immediately as a tomb marker. They kept digging through the fill until they unearthed the mausoleum.

The team found row after row of bodies wrapped in decaying traditional textiles made from llama wool and posed in a seated position. In three small adjacent chambers they discovered the human remains of three Wari queens buried with their valuables. When Giersz from the University of Warsaw saw the glint of gold in the tomb, he realized they would have to keep the discovery secret for the duration of the excavation or the place would be picked clean by human vultures.

Somehow they managed to keep the news from leaking for months as they unearthed more than a thousand artifacts. They found silver and gold jewelry, semi-precious stone beads, bronze ritual axes, silver bowls, knives, richly decorated ceramics, an alabaster drinking cup which is the only one of its kind ever found at an ancient Andean site, carved wooden artifacts that survived in exceptional condition and my personal favorite, gold weaving tools kept in a cane box. Royal women couldn’t be expected to weave cloth with just regular tools, now could they? No, they wove with gold tools. I love that combination of practicality and luxury.

A total of 63 bodies, most of them female, were buried in the mausoleum. The three with their own chambers were royalty, 54 of the others were probably high-ranking nobility. The six remaining were not buried seated or wrapped in textiles with expensive grave goods. They were deliberately placed on top of the other burials in curious poses. Archaeologists believe they were human sacrifices.

But for archaeologists, the greatest treasure will be the tomb’s wealth of new information on the Wari Empire. The construction of an imperial mausoleum at El Castillo shows that Wari lords conquered and politically controlled this part of the northern coast, and likely played a key role in the downfall of the northern Moche kingdom. Intriguingly, one vessel from the mausoleum depicts coastal warriors battling axe-wielding Wari invaders.

The Wari also waged a battle for the hearts and minds of their new vassals. In addition to military might, they fostered a cult of royal ancestor worship. The bodies of the entombed queens bore traces of insect pupae, revealing that attendants had taken them out of the funerary chamber and exposed them to the air. This strongly suggests that the Wari displayed the mummies of their queens on the throne of the ceremonial room, allowing the living to venerate the royal dead.

Analysis of this discovery has barely begun. Giersz expects his team to be studying the find for at least a decade.

The Wari civilization flourished in much of today’s Peru between 600 and 1100 A.D. Their territory covered almost the entire length of modern Peru and reached more than halfway inland. Their capital city Huari had a population of 40,000 at a time when Paris had a population of 25,000. Since few Wari remains have been found with their original context intact, we don’t know a great deal about the Wari. This tomb is therefore of immense importance to archaeologists as it will reveal much new information about Wari society.

For more pictures of the find, see this National Geographic photo gallery.


Unique 6th century gold lady found in Denmark

Sunday, June 23rd, 2013

Three metal detector hobbyists scanning a field on the Danish island of Bornholm in early May discovered a stylized gold figurine of a nude woman. She’s a tiny thing, less than 1.7 inches high and weighing only three grams, but her maker managed to cram a great deal of detail in that small space.

Her slim body is elongated and gently curved and may have been carved from a solid thin bar of gold. Her face is Modigliani long with a prominent jaw and strong features. Her hair is represented by striations carved into the back of her head and forehead. Her arms stretch down to her waist but just under the shoulders there are indents on both sides that may indicate her arms have been tied to her body. Her fingers point downwards, touching a belt carved in a zig-zag pattern, while her thumbs are outstretched horizontally towards each other, meeting underneath her sagging breasts. Her genitalia are unmistakable between slender, short but remarkably shapely legs with alternating curves of buttocks, knees, calves and elegantly pointed feet. When you look at her from the side, her legs make her seem like she’s jumping or on her tippie-toes.

The detail on her back is of particular interest because it’s never been seen before. The concave sway of her back is decorated with what archaeologists are calling “teeth.” They look more like steps to me. Since this is the first example of this design discovered, its significance is unclear.

Other gold figurines have been found in this field before. The first was found in 2009. She’s the fifth and the only female.

The five figurines were probably buried in the same place, individually or collectively, at some point during the 6th century AD, i.e. the Migration Period.

Three of them were found within five metres of each other, while the other two were found 10-15 metres further away. Presumably it was the plough that separated them.

This location may have been chosen due to the presence of one or more springs.

Other artifacts, including figures made from cut and engraved gold sheets, have been found on the field. Believe it or not, the area has not yet been systematically excavated by archaeologists despite the very shiny incentive and the prospect of discovering more about a period that has very little in the way of documentary sources. Plans are in the works to rectify this.

Meanwhile, the four gold men and one gold woman are on display along with other treasures from Smørenge field at the Bornholm Museum.


Full Cheapside Hoard goes on display for first time

Tuesday, June 4th, 2013

The Cheapside Hoard is an unprecedented collection of jewelry from the late 16th and early 17th century discovered in 1912 by workers demolishing the Wakefield House in Cheapside, London, near St. Paul’s Cathedral. They drove a pickaxe into the cellar floor and hit a decayed wooden box that had been hidden there centuries earlier before the Great London Fire of 1666. Inside the box were trays of jewelry, nearly 500 pieces made of gold, enamel and gemstones from all over the world. The workmen helped themselves to the jewels, wrapping them in handkerchiefs and stuffing them into their pockets, boots and caps so they could sell the treasures to a man known in the neighborhood as Stoney Jack.

Stoney Jack was a familiar figure to construction workers in the area; he liked to hang out at demolition sites to snap up anything of interest that might be found. Fortunately for future generations, Stoney Jack wasn’t just some back alley fence. His real name was G.F. Lawrence. He owned an antiques store in Wandsworth and most importantly, he was head of acquisitions for the brand new London Museum which fortuitously opened the same year the Cheapside Hoard was discovered. Lord Harcourt, a founder of the London Museum, told Lawrence to seek out all the workers who had recovered hoard and buy whatever they were selling.

And that is how the upstart baby Museum of London acquired the most important collection of Elizabethan and Jacobean jewelry ever found, while the venerable British Museum had to make do with a gift of a few pieces and the prestigious Victoria & Albert was stuck with just a single gold and enamel chain. Now for the first time, the entire Cheapside Hoard will go on display at the Museum of London. The Cheapside Hoard: London’s Lost Jewels will run from October 11th, 2013, through April 27th, 2014, giving visitors a chance to see something that hasn’t been seen since 1912.

It’s an exceptional sight to behold. The collection is heavy on the gemstones courtesy of the global range of mercantilism. There are emeralds from Colombia and Brazil, Brazilian amazonite, spinel, iolites and chrysoberyl from Sri Lanka, Indian rubies and diamonds, Persian turquoise, lapis lazuli from Afghanistan, Red Sea peridot, opals, garnets and amethysts from Bohemia and Hungary and pearls from Bahrain. There are spectacular individual pieces like a pocket watch set into a single Colombian emerald which before it was carved was the size of an apple, a 1,300-year-old Byzantine cameo carved out of amethyst, a gold, diamond and emerald hat pin in the shape of a salamander, a three-layer sardonyx cameo of Queen Elizabeth, an emerald parrot, incredibly delicate emerald and amethyst grape bunches hanging from gold and enamel branches.

Many of the gemstones are cabochons, but there are also some more elaborate faceted cuts like rose-cut and star-cut which were first seen in Europe adorning France’s Cardinal Mazarin in the 1640s. Either those gems were cut just before they were buried, or rose and star cuts were being made or at least sold in England before they made their debut in France. Recent research done by Museum of London curator Hazel Forsyth has helped narrow down the burial date. One of the objects in the hoard is a small, chipped red seal stone intaglio. Carved on its face is the coat of arms of William Howard, the first and only Viscount Stafford. He was created Viscount Stafford in November of 1640, therefore the hoard had to have been buried after November 1640 but before September 1666.

Scholars believe the hoard was the stock of a jeweler or a group of jewelers who hid it for later retrieval. In the 17th century, Cheapside was known for its jewelry shops.

“This collection has been misunderstood and misinterpreted, dismissed as jewellery for the merchant classes,” Forsyth said. “But at this date the merchants were among the wealthiest people in the land; they had far more disposable wealth than the aristocracy.”

In trying to find out who buried the treasure, when and why, she has solved some mysteries and may have uncovered a murder. Among the huge rubies, pearls the size of acorns, emeralds and sapphires, there were some faked stones made of quartz crystal carved and dyed to resemble precious gems. Forsyth believes these may have been the work of a jeweller called Thomas Simpson, known as a skilled but sharp operator. She also believes he may have been implicated in the murder of another jeweller, who was poisoned and thrown overboard on a voyage back from the orient, and that some of the gems the unfortunate victim was bringing back to London may have ended up in the hoard.

Nothing like a touch of murder to lubricate the international gem trade.

You can see more pictures of the Cheapside Hoard in this photo gallery, but none of them really do it justice. These beauties really need in-person viewing.


Carrick-on-Suir gold coin hoard goes on display

Sunday, June 2nd, 2013

The hoard of 81 gold coins found by builders working on the foundations of an old pub in the South Tipperary town of Carrick-on-Suir have gone on display at the National Museum of Ireland in Dublin. They’re part of a new exhibition, Airgead, a Thousand Years of Irish Coins & Currency, which covers the history of money, coin and note, from 10th century hammered coins to the crisp pressed coins of the 17th century to credit cards and Internet banking.

There are 77 guineas and 4 half guineas in the Carrick-on-Suir hoard, the earliest dating to 1664, the reign of King Charles II, and the most recent dating to the reign of William III in 1701. This was a nearly unprecedented find in Ireland. The only other comparable discovery was made in Portarlington, Co. Laois, in 1947, when more than 100 gold coins and some silver coins were found by three wood workers — Joe Clarke, Joe Maher and Mike Daly — who spotted a rabbit carrying a coin in its mouth and dropping it outside of its burrow. The rabbit was apparently cleaning its warren of pesky human treasure. The men started digging and found dozens of coins in a pile next to fragments from a wood box which once contained it. These coins were buried in the 17th century in an area where under Cromwell’s iron rule, Catholics were not allowed to be. National Museum experts believe the hoard may have been buried by an Irish Army treasurer when Cromwell invaded.

Research is ongoing on the newly-discovered Carrick hoard, but according to Eamonn Kelly, keeper of Irish antiquities at the National Museum, the 81 coins may have been collected by a Catholic merchant during the Penal Laws which were enacted starting in 1695 and continuing through the 18th century. These laws prohibited Catholics from, among many things, holding public office, marrying Protestants, serving in the military, voting, buying land, inheriting land from a Protestant and owning a horse worth more than £5. Under this kind of pressure, it might behoove a moneyed Catholic to start digging to keep his money safe from depredation governmental and otherwise.

The coins were not assembled haphazardly. Whoever collected them selected the best quality coins. Less pure coins from mainland Europe were in common circulation in Ireland during the 17th century. The guineas in the hoard are 91% gold, so dependably pure that they would have been accepted as currency anywhere in Europe and the Americas, an important asset if you’re part of a politically oppressed minority who might have to flee at a moment’s notice some day.

The guinea was not just minted starting with the restored Stuart monarchy; the Stuarts were directly involved in securing the gold. King Charles II, his brother James, Duke of York, and a group of London merchants set up the Royal African Company with the goal of monopolizing the trade in gold and slaves from West Africa, most notable the Guinea coast. Starting in 1663, the Royal Mint used West African gold from the Royal African Company in its coins. The Royal African Company even got to leave its mark on the coins made with its gold. Three of the Carrick-on-Suir coins — one Charles II guinea, one James II guinea and one William III half-guinea — bear the Elephant and Castle logo of the Royal African Company.

The value of the hoard has yet to be fully assessed. Some big numbers like 500,000 euro ($650,000) have been thrown around, but that’s unlikely. One coin, the 1691 William and Mary Guinea, is in “extremely fine” condition and is worth 9,300 euro ($12,000). If all 81 coins were worth that the hoard would be worth close to a million dollars, but we know that’s not the case. Once the value is determined, the finders — David Kiersey, Shane Comerford, Tom Kennedy, Shane Murray and Patrick McGrath — will receive an undisclosed percentage of it as a reward.

Both the Carrick hoard and the Portarlington hoard are on display in the Airgead exhibition. The Carrick hoard coins will be loaned to the South Tipperary Riding Museum in Clonmel, the local museum nearest where there hoard was found, for a display in the fall.


Egyptian bead made out of meteorite iron

Saturday, June 1st, 2013

There are Egyptian artifacts made out of iron that predate evidence of iron smelting in Egypt by thousands of years. The oldest of these are a group of nine tube-shaped beads found in a cemetery in the town of Gerzeh, about 44 miles south of Cairo, and now part of the permanent collection of University of Manchester’s Manchester Museum. They date to between 3350 and 3600 B.C. Since their discovery in 1911, the Gerzeh beads have been subject of studies to determine the source of the iron. In 1928, researchers determined that the beads had the high nickel content characteristic of meteorite iron. Scholars in the 1980s hypothesized that the artifacts may have been the products of accidental smelting. More recent studies found low nickel content on the oxidized bead surface which suggested a terrestrial origin.

A new study by researchers at the at the Open University and the University of Manchester answers the question conclusively: the Gerzeh bead was made from a meteorite. They were not allowed to cut the bead open to test its innards, of course. Instead they used an electron microscope and an X-Ray CT scanner to collect data on the surface and interior of the bead. They found small pockets where the oxidized surface of the bead had crumbled giving them a glimpse into the metal inside. These “little windows,” as Diane Johnson, a meteorite scientist at the Open University in Milton Keynes, UK, calls them, revealed that the original, non-weathered metal was high in nickel content. As much as 30% of the metal inside the bead was composed of nickel, which strongly suggests a celestial origin.

Researchers also found that the iron had a crystalline structure called a Widmanstätten pattern, a hallmark only found in meteorite iron that has cooled very slowly inside asteroids before breaking off into meteoroids. The team used computed tomography to create a 3D model of the bead with the high-nickel areas in electric blue and the oxidized surface in rust red. They plugged in the data collected from the scans and found that evidence that the bead had been made by hammering a fragment of iron into a thin plate and then curling it around into a cylindrical tube. No smelting, accidental or otherwise, needed.

These early iron artifacts were accorded high value by the ancient Egyptians probably of their heavenly origin. They are only found in tombs of high-status people, including the tomb of pharaoh Tutankhamun. Metal that falls from the sky was seen as a gift from the gods, the kind of material which, when included among grave goods, could ensure the deceased makes a swift voyage to the afterlife. It’s possible they may have thought pieces of meteorite iron were pieces of the gods themselves. By the time of the pharaohs, religious texts note that gods have bones made out of iron.

Co-author Dr Joyce Tyldesley, a Senior Lecturer in Egyptology at The University of Manchester, said: “Today, we see iron first and foremost as a practical, rather dull metal. To the ancient Egyptians, however, it was a rare and beautiful material which, as it fell from the sky, surely had some magical/religious properties. They therefore used this remarkable metal to create small objects of beauty and religious significance which were so important to them that they chose to include them in their graves.”


Help save earthquake-threatened Bernini masterpiece

Friday, May 31st, 2013

Gian Lorenzo Bernini’s marble bust of Francesco I d’Este, Duke of Modena, needs your help. This Baroque masterpiece is part of the permanent collection of the Galleria Estense in Modena which houses the internationally important art collection of the Dukes of Este who ruled Modena for more than 500 years (1288–1796). Modena was devastated by the earthquakes that hit the north central Italian region of Emilia Romagna last May and the damage to the Galleria Estense was extensive. The museum has been closed ever since, the bust of Francesco I kept for its protection in a large wooden box where not even the workers can see it.

It’s a miracle that Bernini’s sculpture survived this time. Before the museum can reopen, its masterpieces need to be secured as much as possible against future seismic events. The kind of specialized equipment required to retrofit museums for earthquake safety is very expensive and Italy is flat broke. That means initiatives of government agencies like the Ministry of Cultural Heritage and Activities need private funding.

In the case of the bust of Francesco I d’Este, the non-profit heritage protection organization Fondo Ambiente Italiano (in English known as the Italian National Trust) is helping the ministry raise money to develop a bespoke anti-seismic pedestal which will keep the sculpture from crashing to the floor when the next earthquake hits.

In cooperation with a team of qualified experts of the IUAV University of Venice, we are working on an innovative seismic isolating device system based on the theory of the double pendulum. Essentially, the anti-seismic pedestal diminishes the strength coming from the ground to the piece of art, therefore securing it from destruction.

In the US, they’ve started an Indiegogo campaign to raise $60,000 of the $80,000 they need to build and install the pedestal. There are 30 days left in the campaign and so far they’ve only raised $1,372 from 20 contributors. I think we can do better than that.

Historical preservation and heritage protection suffers enormously from slashed budgets and so often there’s no way for people who care but who happen to live far away from the problem to pitch in. I’ve often wanted to help donate when I’ve come across these kinds of stories and been frustrated by how localized these fundraising campaigns are. Requiring people to send a personal check across oceans by mail in this day and age just locks out the world. Crowdfunding, on the other hand, draws the world in, but it only works if people hear about it, so please spread the word. If you’re on Facebook, here’s the related FB page you can link to to promote the campaign.

There are some exceptional perks for contributors to this one: two free tickets to the museum for a $10 contribution, two free tickets and a book about the Este art collection for $20. For $50 they carve your name — or the name of the person in whose name you donate — on the new pedestal. It keeps getting better from there. A hundred dollars gets you all of the above plus of a bottle of Del Duca PDO Traditional Balsamic Vinegar of Modena, a top of the line balsamic aged 12 years. You could easily spend that much on a vinegar of this quality imported from the magical land where all true balsamic vinegar is made. Or if opera is more to your taste, 100 bucks will get and a friend an evening at the Luciano Pavarotti Opera House. Like cars? Modena has got you covered with two tickets to the new Museo Casa Enzo Ferrari . For the big donations, you get Modena handed to you on a plate, with all the goodies at the lower rates plus a personalized tour of the city for $1000 and a weekend with hotel included plus all the above for $5000.

See the video below for more details about the campaign, the Galleria Estense and a very sad shot of the box Francesco d’Este is in right now, and please spread the word. Even if Baroque sculpture of luminaries from Italian ducal families is not your bag, the next campaign that is inspired by the success of this one might save your favorite thing ever.



Oldest complete Torah found at Bologna University

Thursday, May 30th, 2013

The oldest complete Torah in the world has been discovered in the library of the University of Bologna. Known simply as “Scroll 2,” the sheepskin scroll is 118 feet long and 25 inches wide and had been erroneously dated to the 17th century by librarian Leonello Modona in 1889. Modona was the first to catalog the university’s collection of Hebrew manuscripts. He was himself Jewish and highly educated but he wasn’t a Hebrew scholar so his dating was a guess. It was even accompanied by a question mark.

The key to cracking the true age and rarity of this Torah was the script. Modona had described it as “an Italian script, rather clumsy-looking, in which certain letters, as well as the usual crowns and strokes show uncommon and strange appendices,” but when Professor Mauro Perani came across the scroll last year while working on a new catalog of the university’s Hebrew manuscript collection, he immediately recognized that the script wasn’t some weird anomalous Italian style, but rather a superb example of a Babylonian script that was in use way earlier than the 17th century. It was in fact a hand more like the 12th or 13th centuries. Perani sent pictures of the scroll to other Hebrew scholars who all concurred with his assessment that the script dated to the 12th or 13th century.

Another important clue to the great age of this scroll is the presence of line justifications, compressed letters and “crowns” over certain letters prohibited in the rules on Torah copying established by the great 12th century rabbi Maimonides. Maimonides’ rabbinical regulation on how scribes should copy the Torah have been followed religiously, if you’ll pardon the term, for almost 900 years. The scribe who copied Scroll 2 either predated Maimonides (d. 1204) or hadn’t yet heard about the new standard.

The textual and graphic evidence of age was confirmed by two radiocarbon tests, one performed at the University of Salento and the other by the Radiocarbon Dating Laboratory at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. The results date the scroll to between 1155 and 1225. This makes it the oldest complete Pentateuch (the first five books of the Bible: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy) known to have survived. The previous record-holder dates to the 14th century.

Torahs this old are such rarities because even if they managed to survive destruction during centuries of pogroms, expulsions and the horrors of World War II, Torahs that are worn or damaged can no longer be used for services because they are deemed to have lost their holiness. When a Torah’s lifetime has run out, it is ritually buried.

Scroll 2 appears to be in beautiful condition. We don’t know how long it has been curled up in the University of Bologna library, but Perani thinks it’s been centuries. The University began teaching Hebrew classes in the 15th century, but it’s not likely they’ve had it in their possession quite that long. There’s some speculation that it may have been part of a Dominican monastery scriptorium — in the early Middle Ages, Dominican friars were known to sometimes work with Jewish scholars on ancient texts — when it fell victim to Napoleon’s invasion of Italy in 1796. Bologna became part of a French Revolutionary client statelet called the Cispadane Republic, later expanded into the Cisalpine Republic. They adopted the same constitution of Directory France which came with suppression of monastic orders. Scroll 2 could have been sent to Paris as booty and then brought back to Bologna with other spoils after Napoleon’s final defeat in 1815 and given to the university library.

There will be further studies to see if the history of this remarkable Torah can be traced. Meanwhile, the majestic scroll is set to go on display at the university next month. Plans are also in motion to photograph it in high resolution and upload it onto the library website.


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.


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.


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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