Archive for the ‘Treasures’ Category

1,800-year-old stone head found in ancient dump

Thursday, July 4th, 2013

Durham University archaeologists excavating an ancient garbage dump on the site of a Roman bathhouse outside Binchester Roman Fort near the town of Bishop Auckland, County Durham, northeast England, have discovered a carved stone head dating to the 2nd or 3rd century A.D. Extremely lucky 19-year-old archaeology student Alex Kirton found the small sandstone sculpture — it’s about eight inches high and four inches wide — in a layer of stone rubble.

The bathhouse had fallen out of use by the 4th century and the locals used its rooms as dumpsters. These rooms are filled with trash six feet deep, mostly in alternating layers of stone materials and butchery discards. Two years ago a small Roman altar was found nearby along with a partial inscription that appears to commemorate a shrine dedicated by the commander of the fort cavalry. Archaeologists believe the head and altar were part of this modest shrine built inside the bathhouse.

It’s not possible at this juncture to identify precisely who the head is meant to represent. The going hypothesis is that he was a local Romano-British deity. Binchester was a fort on the northern frontier and there were a number of gods unique to the area. One likely candidate is the god Antenociticus because the sandstone head shares some features in common with a confirmed head of Antenociticus discovered in 1862 in the Roman settlement outside Benwell, another northern border fort near Newcastle upon Tyne. The Benwell head was found in its original context, a temple dedicated to Antenociticus built around 180 A.D. Inscriptions indicate the temple was built by a Roman cavalry prefect to give thanks for a promotion, so Antenociticus appears to have had some kind of military purview.

There are marked differences between the two heads, though. The Binchester head has a flat base; it’s likely that the head was the entirety of the sculpture. Neck fragments from the Benwell Antenociticus indicate it was part of a larger, life-sized sculpture. Pieces of a forearm and leg were also found at the site. The Benwell head is also more delicately carved, as you might expect from an artifact decorating a full-on temple rather than a small household shrine.

The Binchester head also has facial features — mainly the modeling of the nose and lips — that may suggest an African influence.

The Binchester head is African in appearance, but Dr Petts, who is also Associate Director of Durham University’s Institute of Medieval and Early Modern Studies, said experts were unsure whether these features were deliberate or coincidental.

He explained: “This is something we need to consider deeply. If it is an image of an African, it could be extremely important, although this identification is not certain.”

Dr Mason added: “The African style comparison may be misleading as the form is typical of that produced by local craftsmen in the frontier region.”

The features are also damaged and archaeologists can’t be certain exactly how they looked when new.

Binchester Roman Fort, called Vinovia by the Romans, was the largest fort in the county, housing a garrison of one thousand men, most if not all of them cavalry. It guarded the crossing point of the River Wear, a strategically important location about 60 miles north of the legion’s headquarters at York and about 30 miles south of Hadrian’s Wall. If you have the opportunity, head on up there the weekend of July 13th and 14th to see an exhibit of the newly discovered head as well as other artifacts discovered on site. There will be tours led by Dr. David Mason, Principal Archaeologist with the Durham County Council, and reenactments by Roma Antiqua and Legio IX including a working full-size model of a ballista, the torsion-powered catapult Romans used to fire artillery bolts at the enemy.

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Sutton Hoo exhibit on Google Cultural Institute

Tuesday, July 2nd, 2013

Expanding its online databases of cultural treasures, Google has added online museum archive exhibits to a portfolio that already includes the hugely successful Google Art Project and Google Street View’s tours of UNESCO World Heritage sites. The Archive Exhibitions are designed by museum curators and experts who collect images and video from their institutions’ archives, caption them and create an online display.

British Museum curators have put together a beautiful tour of the Anglo-Saxon ship burial of Sutton Hoo. It’s structured as a timeline, starting with the discovery in 1939. There are period pictures of the ship as it was revealed, digital reconstructions of the artifacts, maps, black and white video of the excavation and video of the artifacts today. The British Museum website has an excellent set of pictures of the Sutton Hoo treasures, but the Google Cultural Institute exhibit lays out the history of the dig and the artifacts in a crisp, easy-to-follow structure that includes multimedia elements and, best of all, highly zoomable images.

[youtube=http://youtu.be/HMKkMi_Wggg&w=430]

[youtube=http://youtu.be/TX3dgT1l0Rg&w=430]

Once you’ve enjoyed your journey through the funerary riches of Anglo-Saxon aristocracy, check out the rest of the museum collections. This one from the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum features photographs of Holocaust victims found in the property sorting area after liberation. They give a deeply moving glimpse into the family life of Polish Jews before the war. The Imperial War Museums has two World War II exhibits, one telling the stories of the Kindertransport, the evacuation of 10,000 Jewish children from Nazi-occupied territories, and the other about D-Day.

On a more lighthearted topic, the Instituto Luce Cinecitta’ has a wonderful collection of photographs of Italy in the heady Dolce Vita days of 1954-1965. It’s not just about Fellini and the dawn of the paparazzi; it’s also about the booming post-war economy and Italy’s dive into consumerism, Fiat 500s. There’s a great period newsreel of the first supermarket opened in the Roman suburb of EUR (where I grew up!).

Also not to be missed are the exhibitions from the Museo Galileo in Florence. One focuses on the Medici collections of scientific instruments. As always with the Medici, the objects are as beautiful and luxurious as they are important in the history of science. The other covers the Lorraine collection which was built on the Medici core after the House of Lorraine inherited the Grand Duchy of Tuscany in 1737. The Museo Galileo is a garden of earthly delight for combo science and history nerds. It’s wonderful to have an opportunity to explore its collections in this kind of detail. Also, I want Grand Duke Peter Leopold’s chemistry cabinet. Badly.

New museums and exhibits are added all the time, so be sure to keep an eye on the Google Cultural Institute.

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Update: three treasures go home

Saturday, June 29th, 2013

I have happy endings to report for two stories: the Chinese bronze rat and rabbit heads and the William the Conqueror silver penny have all returned to their homes.

The Chinese bronzes had the most eventful journey there and back again. They were part of a fountain clock built in 1759 on the grounds of the Old Summer Palace near Beijing. All 12 heads, representing the animals of the Chinese horoscope, were looted by Anglo-French troops when they sacked the palace in 1860 during the Second Opium War. The bronze heads became symbols of China’s humiliation at the hands of Western powers and the government has been keen to retrieve them. Five heads haven’t been seen since, while the others turned up over the years at various European auctions where all but two of them were secured either by the state-owned Poly Group or by wealthy collector Stanley Ho who donated them to Chinese museums.

The rat and the rabbit wound up in the insanely cluttered home of Yves Saint Laurent and his long-time companion Pierre Bergé. The latter attempted to sell them at a Christie’s auction in 2009 but controversy ensued and he wound up having to keep them. Somewhere between then and April of this year, François-Henri Pinault, billionaire CEO of Kering, the holding company that owns many luxury brands including Christie’s, bought the rat and rabbit. During a diplomatic visit to China attended by captains of French industry, Pinault announced that he would to return the bronze sculptures to China as a gesture of respect and friendship. He took pains to emphasize that this was a private gift from his family, not a repatriation from Christie’s, and said the official transfer would occur in the second half of this year.

He didn’t waste any time. Less than two weeks after the half-year mark, on Friday, June 28th, 2013, François-Henri Pinault and his father François returned the statues to China in a ceremony at the National Museum of China in Tiananmen Square, Beijing. Chinese Vice Premier Liu Yandong and François Pinault lifted red velvet covers from the bronzes with a flourish and both sides exchanged flattery. Francois-Henri Pinault said:

“This act represents the affection and respect of the Pinault family for the people of China. For my family it is above all a contribution to the promotion of art, and the preservation of an important cultural heritage. We always have the desire to accompany our enterprises with gestures and actions not necessarily economic or financial, but environmental or in the artistic domain. By returning these two marvels to China, my family is loyal to its commitment to preserving national heritage and artistic creation. They now return to their old home, Beijing.”

Chinese Minister of Culture Li Xiaojie said: “This gesture is an expression of deep friendship with the Chinese people.” He thanked the Pinault family for this “act of respect for and protection of China’s cultural heritage” and expressed hope that it would encourage other wealthy businessmen desperate to curry favor with the Chinese government so as to get greater access to the country’s immense buying power to donate other objects of Chinese cultural heritage. Okay, that phrasing is mine rather than his, but there’s no question of what dog the Pinault family has in this rat and rabbit hunt. They sell luxury Western brands and the return of China’s dispersed patrimony is a point of pride for the nation and its rapidly embiggening moneyed class. The PR they’ve received for this gesture is of immense value in dollars and cents as well as in reputation.

(Not everyone is impressed, mind you. This article from People’s Daily quotes several people who dismiss the bronzes as relatively low-value targets. The National Museum of China deputy curator Chen Lyusheng describes them as “water faucets made by foreigners” which while dismissive is pretty much accurate since they were fountain water spouts and they were made by Italian Jesuit missionary Giuseppe Castiglione, aka Lang Shining.)

The bronze rat and rabbit will be on permanent display at the National Museum.

The City Museum and Art Gallery of Gloucester, England, will have a local treasure of its own on permanent display starting July 11th. The city council has purchased the William I silver penny discovered in November of 2011 by metal detector hobbyist Maureen Jones in a field just north of Gloucester. They paid a very reasonable £2,000 ($3,040) for a coin that is one of a kind and a testament to the importance of Gloucester in the Middle Ages.

The silver penny was minted by William the Conqueror’s moneyer Silacwine of Gloucester between 1077 and 1080. It’s the only coin ever discovered that was minted in Gloucester between those dates. The discovery fills in a blank in Gloucester history and underscores the importance of the city in William the Conqueror’s day.

Council leader Paul James said: “We are a city with 2,000 years of history. This is a significant find of major historical importance and plugs an historical gap in local knowledge.

“It proves that coins were being minted locally throughout the reign of William something that we haven’t been able to do until now.”

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Police recover huge trove of looted Etruscan artifacts

Friday, June 28th, 2013

The Italian Carabinieri Tutela Patrimonio Culturale unit (a national police squad dedicated to investigating stolen art and antiquities) revealed on Thursday that they have recovered a massive trove of looted Etruscan artifacts. The stand-out pieces are 23 travertine funerary urns from the 3rd to 2nd century B.C., identified from their inscriptions as having all been stolen from a single Etruscan tomb in Perugia, in the central Italian region of Umbria, belonging to the patrician Cacni family. Most of the urns are decorated in high relief with battle scenes, tauromachia (bullfighting), friezes and representations of the myth of Iphigenia who was sacrificed by her father Agamemnon so that his fleet could sail for Troy.

An astonishing 3,000 more artifacts were recovered in this sting, dubbed Operation Iphigenia. Other Etruscan pieces from the Cacni tomb include a sarcophagus lid from the 4th century B.C., a bronze helmet, greave, shield, strigil and an extremely rare bronze kottabos, a Greek drinking vessel used to play a game popular at feasts and symposia involving the throwing of the wine lees at a target. Not all the artifacts are Etruscan; police also recovered thousands of other antiquities and ceramic fragments from the Middle Ages.

Officials call it without exaggeration the greatest Etruscan find since the last hypogeum — the Cai-Cutu tomb also in Perugia — was discovered in 1982, and it came very close to disappearing forever into the black market before anyone knew the artifacts existed. In fact, seven of the 23 urns were already in private hands when the police tracked them down, sold by the looters through middlemen to collectors practiced in the asking of no questions.

Operation Iphigenia started two years ago in Rome with the confiscation of a small travertine head and a picture. A person known by the police to traffic in black market antiquities was attempting to sell an Etruscan urn. He was shopping around a picture of the urn and the little head, removed from the urn in a creepy kidnapper way to prove to potential buyers that he was in possession of the artifact. The head was examined by an expert at the University of Rome Tor Vergata who identified its likely origin as an Etruscan tomb in the Perugia area.

Perugia was one of the 12 major Etruscan cities and is rich in funerary remains, most famously the Palazzone necropolis, a vast network of subterranean tombs dating from the 6th-5th century B.C. onwards. The Hypogeum of the Volumnis is an elaborate family tomb containing a number of cinerary urns similar in style to the one in the photograph. With the collaboration of the Superintendence for Archaeological Goods of Umbria, police focused their efforts on finding the source of the pictured urn in Perugia.

Investigations kicked into high gear last February when Perugian court prosecutor Paolo Abbritti coordinated increased surveillance of several people in the construction industry thought to be connected to the traffic in antiquities. The construction guys turned out to be more than just involved in the sales; they made the initial finds during work on a villa 10 years ago.

Instead of reporting the discovery to the authorities so the site could be properly excavated and the artifacts claimed by the Perugia archaeological museum, at least one crew member and the boss conspired to keep the pieces for sale on the black market. (It’s a little looter karma that it took them 10 years to sell just seven of the 23 urns and got caught in the attempt to sell the eighth. Yet again, thieves find it’s a lot harder to make a killing from the illegal sale of antiquities than they imagined when they first looked at an ancient artifact and saw dollar signs.)

The 16 urns not in private hands and the other Etruscan artifacts were found by authorities still hidden in the tomb. The find site is now in the process of being excavated by archaeologists from the Superintendence of Perugia. They expect to find more subterranean tombs connected to the Cacni chamber so this one discovery, already so hugely significant, is likely to lead to even more.

Five men have been arrested and charged for the looting and trafficking. One is the construction firm owner, another a construction worker and three middlemen who arranged the sales. It sure would be nice if those seven jerks who bought the urns felt the sharp kiss of the legal lash, but that doesn’t seem to be on the agenda right now.

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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.

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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.

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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.




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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.

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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.”

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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.

[youtube=http://youtu.be/TiyO4YBhngI&w=430]

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